A Democratic History of Ancient Greece

Review: Josiah Ober, ‘The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece’

Temple of Olympian Zeus
1913 illustration of the Temple of Olympian Zeus in Athens / NYPL

Alexis de Tocqueville observed that historians writing in aristocratic ages tend to emphasize the role of great individuals and of chance, while historians who write in democratic eras "attribute almost no influence to the individual over the destiny of the species … But, in reverse, they give great general causes to all the little particular facts." Alexis de Tocqueville, it is fair to say, had Josiah Ober and his colleagues figured.

Ober, among the deans of American classical historians, has published a career-capper of a book devoted to using the tools of social science to better explain the great period of flourishing enjoyed by the classical Greek city-states during the first millennium B.C. This is an ambitious, thought-provoking, and often maddening book, which Ober boldly proposes can form part of a broader project that uses the "tools of twenty-first century scholarship" to elucidate the reasons open societies have typically flourished: beginning with Greece, but then on to the civic republics of the Italian Renaissance, to the Dutch republic, to Britain, and on to the present day.

The far end of this project is already, in a sense, well underway: books like Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson’s Why Nations Fail are a part of it, and Ober associates his own late work with this school, which also includes the work of scholars like Barry Weingast and Douglass North. As was the case with the widely read Why Nations Fail, Ober’s approach can seem oddly apologetic, re-litigating issues — the superiority of democratic institutions, the positive results of maintaining free markets — that would have been commonplaces for Western elites not many decades ago.

A few pages before his discussion of historians, Tocqueville notes that democracy "gives men a sort of instinctive distaste for what is old." This is true even of historians, who are principally concerned with what is old. Ober makes much use of pre- or early-modern theoreticians, and has much recourse to the wisdom of the Greeks themselves, but has what appears to be a defensive reflex that requires him to condescend to them: the Greeks "never produced a work of economic analysis to rival [The Wealth of Nations] … [y]et it is now very clear that specialization and exchange flourished"; "as Byron believed and modern scholarship confirms…"; "although Plato himself knew very little about the lives of ants … his seemingly far-fetched simile was in some ways startlingly apt"; "Despite flaws in certain of [Aristotle’s] premises…"; "Aristotle’s attempt … was put to blatantly ethnocentric purposes…"; "Aristotle’s natural and moral account of politics lacks an adequate ‘micro-foundation’…"; "ancient Greeks had a solid ‘folk’ understanding of how individuals make choices…"

We get it. An amusing aspect here is that, as the book goes on, this tic gets less frequent, as though Ober’s guard is dropping. Moreover, much of his account depends (as Ober himself concedes) on analytic insights garnered from Greeks like Aristotle. The overall impression is not unlike that given by a man who is heavily dependent on the good counsel of his wife, but who frequently feels the need to put her down in public.

Like other installments in this evolving school of scholarship, there is much here that is interesting. Ober posits, plausibly, that ancient Greece flourished on account of technical specialization, innovation, and the mobility of people, goods, and ideas, all of which was made possible by (relatively speaking) open political institutions like the imposition of fair rules, as well as a general atmosphere of competitive emulation. All of this stood in stark contrast to more typically extractive "natural states" like Persia or Egypt that were commanded by godlike kings, and it led to an exceptional, multi-century period of economic growth, cultural flourishing, and the first appearance of something like a broad-based middle class — all caveats understood. After establishing a theoretical groundwork in the initial chapters, he proceeds through a complete narrative history of the rise and fall of classical Greece, as his title implies, synthesizing a heroic amount of recent research in the attempt.

If there is a specific shortcoming here, it is that Ober never answers the question of "Why Greece?" and "Why then?" with anything more than detailed guesswork, no doubt because the record of the formative centuries in question is so sparse when compared to the record left by the period of peak flourishing. Other shortcomings tend to be as much characteristic of the school as of Ober in particular. As ever with the work of social scientists, there is the question of just how new or lasting any of Ober’s often quantitatively derived theoretical insights are, inasmuch as they often seem merely to confirm matters that were well-known — and, often, reasonably well understood — before their advent. Unsurprisingly, the characteristic jargon of such a sciency approach is unavoidable here: We hear much of "path dependency" and "escalation dominance," not to say of "nonexcludable public goods" and "iterative play" and "first mover advantage." Herodotus may not have had access to Ober’s analytic tools, but at least he didn’t frequently write like the bastard child of Steve Jobs and John Nash.

There is also the constant danger in such an approach of overemphasizing human similarities over time, and so missing Greek motivations that might be truly alien to a modern Californian — a point that P.J. Rhodes more or less made in his own review of Ober’s book, writing, "I am not sure that the ancient Greeks employed cost-benefit analysis to the extent that he assumes." And Ober perpetrates an alarmingly shallow, even cartoonish reading of Hobbes, using a man who is, after all, one of the founders of liberalism — of states that adhere to social contracts and doctrines of rights, that favor bourgeois morality and eschew religious violence — as simply a stand-in for the doctrine of absolute monarchy. If this were simply a passing observation, it might not be so serious, but Ober has cartoon-Hobbes do frequent battle with a (slightly less cartoonish) Aristotle in a running debate about the value of open political institutions versus extractive states, raising a serious question about how well he understands the foundations of the democracy in which he actually lives.

Rather grandly citing the cases of Herodotus, Thucydides, and Aristotle, Ober concludes by writing that he has "sought to keep faith" with those who made Greek history "a living resource for all those who aspire to end domination and to advance toward citizenship." A related ambition could be ascribed to the entire school to which he is contributing this effort, and it is laudable. But it is not beyond question whether this book is less a lasting contribution to the human understanding of the first millennium B.C., and more something that will soon be only a somewhat interesting artifact of this decade.