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Financial crises are nothing new in Greece — they go back at least to the Peloponnesian War

In The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece Josiah Ober finds that, for all their sophistication, the Ancient Greeks were useless economists

11 July 2015

9:00 AM

11 July 2015

9:00 AM

The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece Josiah Ober

Princeton, pp.416, £24.95

Financial crises are nothing new in Greece. Back in 354 BC, at a time when Frankfurt was still a swamp, the Athenian general Xenophon wrote a briefing paper designed to help his city negotiate the aftermath of a disastrous war. His proposals mixed supply-side reform with Keynesian stimulus. The regulatory powers of Athenian officials, so Xenophon suggested, should be streamlined and enhanced; simultaneously, the city should invest in increasing its commercial and housing stock. The economy, boosted by these measures, would also benefit from encouraging foreign investment. ‘Imports and exports, sales, rents and customs’: all would then surely flourish.

Traditionally, the reputation of classical Greece among economists has tended to be almost as low as that of the modern Greek finance ministry. ‘So far as we can tell,’ wrote Joseph Schumpeter, ‘rudimentary economic analysis is a minor element — a very minor one —in the inheritance that has been left to us by our cultural ancestors, the Ancient Greeks.’

Nevertheless, it is not only the relative sophistication of Xenophon’s analysis that might give a historian pause. There is also, as Josiah Ober makes manifest in his ground-breaking new book, The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece, the sheer plenitude of Greek wealth. Even in the grip of financial crisis, most citizens of classical Athens shared an astonishing presumption: that their city would continue to get ever richer. Economic growth, which we in the West have also long taken for granted, is very far from normal. Most societies, in most periods of history, have been dependent on subsistence agriculture. Greece, between its ancient heyday and the present, was no exception. ‘Hellas, in the era of the classical efflorescence, was wealthy when compared to any point in Greek history before the 20th century.’


The confidence with which Ober is able to write this derives in large part from an increasingly sophisticated understanding of the demographics of the ancient Greek world. The claims on which his argument depends are certainly striking: that a Greek population which in 1000 BC had been a mere 330,000 had reached, by the time Xenophon came to write his discourse on the Athenian economy, 8.25 million, and that per capita consumption over the same period had doubled. This, which as a growth rate is comparable with that of the Dutch Republic and England during the 17th century, directly contradicts the traditional conception of the classical Greek economy as static and famine-haunted. The Greeks, unlike the peoples of larger and seemingly more formidable ancient empires, seem to have succeeded in escaping the Malthusian trap. Had they not, Ober declares flatly, then all the achievements of their civilisation — the tragedies of Sophocles, the sculptures of Phidias, the philosophy of Plato — might never have come to pass. His explanation for the glory that was Greece is, in that sense, a thoroughly Marxist one.

Equally, though, it is one to warm any capitalist’s heart. Ancient Greece has never before been made to sound quite so like Silicon Valley. ‘Citizen-centred rules and norms promoted relatively open markets, enabling the constant exchange of information among many diverse people, and thereby drove continuous innovation and learning.’ Ober’s book is as near to a McKinsey report on classical Greece as has ever been written, and the effect is simultaneously eye-opening and disorienting.

The decentralised nature of the Greek world, with its multitude of city-states all ferociously competing with one another, and its capacity to develop functional models of participatory citizenship, are enshrined by Ober as the keys to its sustained economic growth. ‘Citizen-centred communities,’ he declares, perhaps with a glance over his shoulder at China, ‘are more likely to enable individuals to use reason and communication in the pursuit of public goods than are highly hierarchical societies.’ It has been a fair while since a classicist was willing to offer ancient Greece in quite so unapologetic a way as a model.

Yet for all the paradigm-shifting quality of Ober’s number-crunching, there is a risk attached to it that he never quite succeeds in averting: that of anachronism. Revelatory though it undoubtedly is to analyse ancient Greece in the manner of a management consultant, it leaves out too much that was alien and unsettling about Greek civilisation to be entirely convincing. Ober’s book is literally bloodless. Wars in his narrative take on the character of corporate takeovers, slavery is almost absent as a theme, and the environmental costs of economic growth, which led Plato to fret about deforestation, receive not so much as a mention.

The Decline and Fall of Classical Greece is a book that anyone interested in classical antiquity should read; but it is the surest measure of its significance, perhaps, that it serves to beg as many questions as it answers.

Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £21.95 Tel: 08430 600033. Tom Holland has written extensively on the ancient world in Rubicon, Persian Fire and In the Shadow of the Sword.


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