Classical Greece


…the Athens of Aristotle was likely richer on a per capita basis than the France of Molière or the England of Shakespeare. While Athens was an extraordinarily rich polis, the rest of classical Greece shared in the prosperity. Ober constructs an index of per capita consumption based on wheat wages for “core Greece” from 1300 BC to AD 1900. He finds that per capita consumption peaked between 400 and 300 BC, fell slightly with the Macedonian conquest, and only fell back to pre-modern norms after a century of Roman rule. By AD 1900, in a world of railroads, the telephone, and transatlantic steamers, per capita consumption in core Greece was still at least 30 percent below the prosperity attained when Plato taught at the Academy.

What accounts for this remarkable prosperity? Athens’ institutional innovations have already been mentioned. Another important element of Ober’s account is the political decentralization of the Greek world. For the Greeks, the polis was the fundamental political unit. There were over 1,000 independent poleis during the classical period. Some smaller poleis lost their political independence from time to time, but there was a natural tendency for the polis to reconstitute itself when political conditions were favorable. …

Wealth often allowed more inclusive poleis to dominate tyrannies and extractive orders. Over time, the Greek world became more democratic.

In the end, however, the poleis could not withstand Macedon and Rome, both of which enthusiastically adopted Greek technologies, made their own improvements, and focused on military discipline and conquest. The Greek polis culture was inherently counter-imperial…

This comes from Jason Sorens’s review of Josiah Ober’s The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece. I shared something in September about Greece’s “sound economic policy.” I think a great strength of America is the tug-of-war between its imperialists and its counter-imperialists. The Constitution is a tremendous counter-imperial document, and I’m happy to be in the counter-imperial camp, but to some degree I wonder whether we benefit from the competition between these two visions for the country.