A Look at the Rise and Fall of Classical Greece

Stanford University Professor Josiah Ober Delivers Wassong Memorial Lecture

Hartford, CT, May 6, 2015 – Over a 300-year “classical” period from the 5th through 3rd century BCE, Greece ― poor for most of its long history ― became prosperous. Residents of its city-states lived in large houses, worked for high wages in specialized occupations, and collectively created a “cultural efflorescence” that would influence much of the rest of the world for the next two millennia.

At the 18th annual Shirley G. Wassong Memorial Lecture in European and American Art, Culture, and History on April 27, Stanford University professor and best-selling author Josiah Ober shared his interpretation of newly available data that sheds light on the rise and subsequent decline of the classical Greeks.

Professor Josiah Ober delivers the 18th annual Shirley G. Wassong Memorial Lecture in European and American Art, Culture, and History.
 Ober, a historian and classical political theorist, opened his lecture by quoting Lord Byron on the topic of a fallen country: “Fair Greece! Sad relic of departed worth! Immortal, though no more; though fallen, great!”

Why immortal? Why great? Why fallen? Ober explained that classical Greece is immortal because of the survival of its intellectual heritage for thousands of years. “We know a huge amount about this world,” he said. Its greatness stems from “an extended era of unusually high economic and cultural performance,” a societal blossoming that inspired countless other countries to draw on its political structures, philosophy, literature, and artistic and scientific thought. Its fall came about after its northern neighbor, Macedon, adopted Greece’s innovations to defeat it.

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ber noted that the recent digitization by Stanford University of a 2004 work called An Inventory of Archaic and Classical Poleis, an investigation conducted by the Copenhagen Polis Center for the Danish National Research Foundation over the previous decade, had enabled a “reenvisioning” of the reasons behind the precipitous rise of Greek economy and culture during this period. Data on more than 1,000 city-states from 800 to 323 BCE, he said, provides compelling evidence that classical Greece rose and fell as the result of distinctive political choices and innovative economic development trends.

While most of the country’s city-states were small, two-thirds of Greeks lived in midsized or larger centers. The population of these city-states swelled from thousands in the Bronze Age to millions in the classical era, with residents living in larger and better houses, enjoying more goods, and holding larger amounts of money in hidden “coin hoards” as a result of higher wages. Greeks were also living much longer lives, and their spending fueled economic growth. Prosperous cities, now able to invest in civic infrastructure, built large fortified walls around their perimeters, something that would later protect them from attack. “The Greek world was startlingly urbanized … more than Rome at its height,” Ober said.

The “relatively fairer rules” of the economy ― resulting in a smaller financial gap between the upper echelon and the average worker ― fueled increasingly fierce competition between people and states in Greek’s market-like ecology.

“That gave people an incentive to make capital investments – human, social, and financial – and rewarded innovation by individuals and states while lowering transaction costs,” Ober explained.

This led to a specialized exchange of information, goods, and services, with a more mobile population learning from ― and emulating ― one another. It became clear that democracy, as opposed to monarchy or oligarchy, was driving economic expansion.

But the fall was yet to come. In 338 BCE, Philip II of Macedon and his son, Alexander the Great, defeated Greece in the Battle of Chaeronea through a combination of luck, organizational genius, and the luring of highly skilled Greek military specialists who were available for hire. In essence, Macedon used Greece’s own military and financial innovations against it.

Surprisingly, there was no abrupt economic fall to match the political fall of Greece, said Ober. After the death of Philip and Alexander, Macedonian warlords eager to plunder Greece and charge high rents were “constrained to negotiate high levels of independence and low taxes because the Greek city-states were very costly to attack.” The city-states’ investment in fortified walls had paid off.

“If they [warlords] had been able to plunder and set rents or taxes at will, the whole classical economic efflorescence would have crashed, taking classical culture down with it.” Instead, the efflorescence lasted long enough for Greek culture to be collected and recorded in the libraries of Alexandria and the Romans. Ober’s lecture took place in McCook Auditorium, with a reception following in Hallden Ha

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Ober is the Tsakopoulos-Kounalakis Professor in Honor of Constantine Mitsotakis and professor of political science and classics at Stanford University. He often speaks on the political thought and practice of the ancient Greek world and its contemporary relevance. He earned his Ph.D. in history from the University of Michigan and his B.A. in history from the University of Minnesota.

Ober is the author of many books, including Democracy and Knowledge: Innovation and Learning in Classical Athens; Athenian Legacies: Essays on the Politics of Going on Together; Political Dissent in Democratic Athens: Intellectual Critics of Popular Rule; and Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens: Rhetoric, Ideology, and the Power of the People. His latest book, The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece, was released in May.

Support for the Shirley G. Wassong Memorial Lecture in European and American Art, Culture, and History comes from a fund established in 1996 by Joseph F. Wassong, Jr. ’59, in memory of his wife, Shirley, and augmented with gifts from family and friends. The annual lecture features members of Trinity’s faculty and guest scholars in alternating years. The lecturers are from various academic disciplines, and their topics range from antiquity to the present day. This year’s event marks the 18th annual Wassong Memorial Lecture.

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hoto by John Atashian. Click here for more photos.