- The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece by Josiah Ober
For much of history, politics has centred on autocrats and monarchs. In his new book, Josiah Ober seeks to explain both how the ancient Greeks created democracy and how their civilization failed. The ‘‘Greek efflorescence’’ is Ober’s term for the Greek phenomenon of growing populations, high standards of living, as well as sophisticated art, architecture, and literature which has come down to us, despite the collapse of ancient Greek wealth and autonomy. Ober proposes theories to answer the questions of both ‘‘rise’’ and ‘‘fall,’’ while also offering a new nuanced narrative for ancient Greek history.
Ober approaches his task using the methodology and language of social science, relying heavily on political science, anthropology, and sociology, together with a dash of literature. His use of quantitative data is detailed in graphs and charts dealing with demographics, ‘‘fame scores,’’ and economic growth. He even appends a probability game that is designed to help students understand options open to kings and city governments during the Hellenistic Age. When it comes to political theory, Ober draws on Aristotle’s study of animals, with man, of course, as the most political. Ober suggests that encouragement of constant exchange of information between individualistic citizens allowed the Greeks to operate in a decentralized cooperative culture, avoiding the need for monarchs. He regularly contrasts this theory with that of Thomas Hobbes in the seventeenth century, who argued for the advantages of centralized monarchy.
As Ober explains in his first few chapters, the key to the ‘‘Greek efflorescence’’ was the exceptional politics of democracy and oligarchy, which gave rise to a sustained economic growth. During their period of expansion and colonization beginning in the eighth century, the Greeks gained certain advantages. They settled around the Mediterranean like ‘‘ants around a pond’’ (a phrase adopted from Plato), within a dry, but not too dry, climatic niche suitable for growing wheat and barley, grapes, and olives (a ‘‘Mediterranean triad,’’ 27). Further, their poleis shared language, religion, art, and architecture. From these foundations of ‘‘polis ecology,’’ the Greeks engaged in certain practices that by the sixth century had fueled their success. Ober’s work tests two hypotheses. First, the Greeks encouraged ‘‘fair rules, capital investment, [and] low transaction costs,’’ which connected the poleis in a network primed for commercial growth. Second, ‘‘competition, innovation, and rational cooperation’’ allowed both creative destruction of political institutions that no longer fit their needs and the establishment of more effective governments (120).
Ober tests these proposals in the rest of his chapters by weaving together his hypotheses, propositions, experimental models, counterfactuals, and theories with a narrative of the histories of the classical Greek world, focusing [End Page 352] especially on Athens, Sparta, and Syracuse. He explains the elite’s loss of dominance in the eia (early Iron Age) with the rise of the phalanx method of warfare, a fairly commonplace causation. Sparta’s unique combination of citizen-soldiers and helot-farmers succeeded during the age when phalanx armies dominated the fighting. Ober understands Athens as having adopted a ‘‘proportionality principle,’’ which encouraged Athenian elites to distribute rents to a ‘‘middling class’’ of citizens. In doing so, they also increased the rights of the citizenry, both by writing laws and by encouraging political participation to enforce fairness of those laws. The Athenians then adopted federalism, meaning representation from variously artificially combined regions. This innovation increased voluntary associations which, in turn, allowed citizens to learn from a wider range of experts about the problems facing their polis. Ober notes that Syracuse’s situation was a bit different, as that polis had to deal with more mercenary ‘‘specialists in organized violence’’ (181), yet they also created democratic institutions.
Indeed it was violence that both built Greek empires and brought about their downfall in the Peloponnesian War and the conflicts that followed. Yet, Ober argues, the Hellenistic period was the highpoint of the efflorescence, even if democracy in city-states had fallen either to new tyrants and warlords or to the reasserted Persian Empire...