Research Debunks Beliefs about Economic Growth in Ancient Greece

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Stanford Classics Professor Josiah Ober has long suspected that some of the long-held ideas scholars had about the ancient Greek world could be wrong. Thanks to his innovative digital research project, he now has the data to show it.

Ober says there was previously a developing and crystallizing consensus among classical scholars that there was little to no economic growth in ancient Greece – as was the case in most societies of that time.

However, instead of a static, poor Greek economy, Ober’s new findings have shown that from about 1000 to 300 B.C., classical Greece had impressive rates of economic growth that were unparalleled by its contemporaries in antiquity.

Together with a team of other Stanford scholars and students, the professor of classics and of political science digitized huge amounts of archaeological, documentary and literary data. Using these new tools, the team created analyses and visualizations that map out aspects of Greek life, such as how money circulated and how many people lived in cities versus small farms.

At a certain point, Ober explained, the team compiled “a critical amount of evidence and recognized that the old story couldn’t be right.”

So why was ancient Greece so prosperous compared to its contemporaries? In his new book, The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece, Ober links this unexpected prosperity to a relatively democratic, decentralized state system that allowed for innovation and cultural development.

“Basically the answer to that is politics,” Ober argues. “The Greek world is distinctive in having this dispersed structure so that there are many, many independent states rather than a single empire – or rather than a few big and powerful states.”

Ober said that the “strikingly democratic” Greek system allowed for key aspects of economic prosperity, including fertile ground for innovation and incentive for people to invest in themselves.

Ober explained that if people think a powerful individual or government is going to reach in and take all the benefits of their effort and education, it’s not a recipe for high growth. “No particular reason for specialization, no particular reason for innovation – keep your head down, do what granddad did, and get on with it.

The full research article can be found here.