Folly and Malice book

The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece

The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece
Josiah Ober
Princeton University Press  464pp  £24.95

The Greeks had their gods and the modern world has the Greeks. Something about them ensured that their political, artistic and philosophical ideas would be spoken about down the centuries in a way that other ancient peoples were not.

They achieved immortality while their Greece spiralled out of recognition. No one who visited in the early 20th century could have tallied what they saw there with the world evoked in the accounts of Homer, Thucydides and Herodotus. Greece had gained independence from the Ottoman Empire, but living conditions were so terrible that the average life expectancy was under 36 years. A period of rapid population growth followed, which only contributed to its woes. Unemployment became its defining feature. In the run-up to the Second World War, Greece had become the poorest nation in Europe. What went wrong?

The gulf between ancient and modern Greece is the impetus for Josiah Ober's new book. Its title may lead one to expect a grand, sweeping narrative, but it is in fact a sharp and insightful economic history founded upon a quest to discover what made the ancient Greeks' fall so precipitous.

Unsurprisingly, wealth had a lot to do with it. Ober's book is not a light read, but benefits from various graphs and charts, which help those without a background in economics to visualise the shape of Greece's changing economy. Greece's efflorescence, with which this book is concerned, was dependent upon a fairly even distribution of wealth across a dense population. Whereas in the Mycenaean period (c.1400-1100 BC) the population of Greece was relatively small, with wealth concentrated among the elite, in the most illustrious years of the classical period (500-336 BC) Greece had a dense population with a thriving middle class, whose spending helped to drive the economy forward.

Perhaps Theocritus and other poets of pastoral verse are to blame, but the modern assumption that the Greeks inhabited a predominantly rural environment is quite wrong. Greece was made up of numerous city-states, which became more urbanised throughout the period from 1000 to 300 BC, until about a third of the total population lived in urban dwellings. From these urban homes they chose to import their food rather than grow it themselves. For this to work, certain environmental conditions had to be met. Meteorologically, the collapse of the Early Iron Age coincided with a protracted arid period in Greece (lasting roughly 1450-850 BC), the end of which might have proved fertile ground for the improved living conditions and flourishing intellectual network of classical Greece. But Greece's success was determined by more than good weather, a dense population and even wealth distribution. Its city-states might easily have become an empire on the model of the later Roman Empire – so why not?, Ober asks. Given that the city-states were often at war with one another, the system seems, to modern eyes, inherently fragile. But that is to forget how much the Hellenes thrived on competition. The various poleis tended to assimilate or imitate each other's best ideas, which made them stronger. Over time they became so fortified, as Ober says, that the first Hellenistic kings had little choice but to allow them a degree of autonomy.

The turning point in Greece's fortunes coincided with its flowering and it was this, Ober argues, that helped to render it 'immortal' in the eyes of people like Byron. By the mid-fourth century BC Macedon was the most powerful state in the Greek world. Ober does not suggest that the power of the Macedonian dynasts was an exaggerated façade, but he does point out that Greece's city-states continued to enjoy independence from them. This argument would have proved more controversial among the ancient writers than it will among scholars today, but as part of Ober's definition of the decline of Greece it works well. The conquests of Alexander the Great ensured that the Greek world continued to grow, but it did so 'while converging on a common polis culture'. The art and literature of Hellenistic Greece became too embedded in the Roman world to suffer the same fall as Greece itself, as it was consolidated into Rome's empire. It was, essentially, the fact that Greece ended on a high that ensured that it was insuperable.

Daisy Dunn is a writer and Classicist. Her first book will be published by Harper Collins.

The History Today Newsletter

Sign up for our free weekly email