A fresh take on ancient Greece?

Ancient History Magazine, like our other magazines, will have a section devoted to (book) reviews. Since AHM is brand new, we haven’t received a lot of reviews yet. This means, just like with Ancient Warfare in its early days, that some of the reviews are going to have to be written by the editors. (By the way, if you have a review lying around that you think would be ideal for Ancient History Magazine or, indeed, Ancient Warfare, don’t hesitate to email it to me.)

I’ll be doing a lot of reading this summer, but one book that I’m particularly looking forward to is Josiah Ober’s The Rise & Fall of Classical Greece (Princeton University Press, 2015). I have only had time to browse the contents, but it seems like a fascinating study of ancient Greece. One thing he did (or had done, rather) for this book was to turn all of the data from Hansen & Nielsen’s massive Inventory of Archaic and Classical Poleis into a searchable database with more than a thousand poleis.

Better still, the database has been made available online. I’ve never really quite understood why the Copenhagen Polis Centre never did this themselves (especially since they must have had access to some kind of raw data), but thankfully Ober and his students have done it now. Whatever the value of the book, this at least was useful. (Even though I sort of disagree as regards the usefulness of classifying Greek settlements into poleis or not-poleis. But that’s a topic for another blog post.)

The book also succeeded in piquing my interest by seemingly referring back to the past and also, perhaps unintentionally, evoking the present. The former is clear from the title, which strikes me as a play on Edward Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, first published in the late eighteenth century. Ober wants not just to examine the downfall of Greece, but also try to explain why Greek culture rose to such prominence in the first place. No doubt he hopes – as every author should – that his book will be as widely remembered in two hundred years as Gibbon’s work is today.

Of course, this begs the question whether Greek culture really was as significant as most scholars studying the ancient Greek world normally assume. The flap on the dusk jacket refers to how the Greek city-states managed to defeat the Persian Empire, but it’s not at all clear how historically significant the Persian Wars were (on a global scale), as I’ve argued elsewhere. The fact that Greece is signifcant to us is largely due to the Romans (via the Renaissance). But Ober’s argument doesn’t seem to hinge on the global impact of ancient Greek culture, but instead seeks to explain how the inhabitants of a supposedly poor country managed to build an impressive civilization. Ober suggests that sustained economic growth was the key, and the thing that enabled ancient Greece to flourish.

And this leads us to how the book seems also to evoke the present, with its emphasis on how ancient Greece, during the Archaic and Classical periods at least (and through the Hellenistic period, if I glanced correctly!), was able to sustain continuous economic growth. Perhaps there is something to be learned here for modern countries? Perhaps Greece, small yet strong, should not be brushed aside so easily by those who demand the modern country pays its debts? I’m not entirely serious, of course, but I think it can lead to interesting political discussions – just not on this blog and certainly not involving me.

Above all else, the book comes across as introducing the general reader to more modern approaches. I’ve already remarked that Ober based the book partially on a database of Greek city-states. Appendix II offers another modern approach to the ancient world: it gives the reader a set of rules to play the ‘King, City, and Elite Game’, which ‘models the choices of a Hellenistic King, the democratic government of a well-fortified Hellenistic Greek city, and an Elite resident of that City’ (p. 321). ‘Gamification’ – turning something into a game with clearly defined rules – is a relatively new way of making people solve problems or introduce them to particular topics.

All in all, I look forward to studying ding the book in more detail. I’ve read earlier works by Josiah Ober, so I’m pretty sure I won’t agree with everything that he’ll have written, but the book does give the initial impression of being a fresh take on ancient Greece. That alone makes it worth reading, I think. Who knows? Maybe you’ll read it, too, and we can compare notes when my review is out.

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