The Economic Rise and Political Fall of Classical Greece

Presented by Josiah Ober, Stanford University, at the Center for Historical Research, Department of History at The Ohio State University on February 28, 2014.

Small-state ecologies are fairly plentiful in human history, and city-state ecologies make up substantial subset of them. The city-state (polis) culture of ancient Greece, which flourished from ca. 800 BCE into the Roman era, was the largest (ca. 1100 states, total population of over 8 million persons) and longest-lived city-state ecology in documented human history. Like other small-state ecologies, the Greek city-state ecology had no centralized locus of authority; moreover, the authority structure of a typical Greek polis was relatively decentralized, predicated on some form of collective self-governance by citizens. In Hobbesian (or Weberian) terms this seems a recipe for disaster, but the Greek city-state ecology was not only extensive and long-lived, but also saw remarkably high and sustained levels of economic growth (by premodern standards). The wealthy, densely populated Greek city-states successfully in fended off the predatory imperial states of Persia and Carthage. Yet relatively few Greek city-states were able to maintain their full independence after the rise of imperial Macedon in the mid fourth century BCE. Both the rise (growth of total population and per capita wealth) and the fall (loss of independence) of the Greek city-state ecology can be explained by reference to information exchange, human capital investment, and lowered transaction costs in the context of peer-polity competition and to the rapid spread of "rule egalitarian" institutions across an ecology of states sharing language and other key aspects of culture.

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