Stanford scholar debunks long-held beliefs about economic growth in ancient Greece

Using a pioneering digitization project that maps out details of life in the ancient world, classics Professor Josiah Ober links the democratic politics and surprisingly robust economy of classical Greek society.

ancient Greek coins

Greek coins hoarded centuries ago yield information on the ancient economy, according to digitized research by Stanford classics Professor Josiah Ober and his students. (Image credit: Courtesy American Numismatic Society)

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.

But instead of portraying 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.”

Visualizing ancient data

Ober, whose research focuses on ancient Greek institutions and political systems, had been puzzled for years by the contradictions of a flat Greek economy. “Why is it that a society that was thought to be relatively poor and not growing was able to do so remarkably much with culture?”

In his office, the professor has an imposingly thick volume that thuds heavily when he sets it down. Ober realized that the massive Inventory of Archaic and Classical Greek City-States (2005) could be used to get answers for some of his questions. However, it was in the form of an encyclopedia, with no searchable data, graphs or tables.

Over several years, Ober enlisted the help of a group of graduate and undergraduate students to digitize the inventory of data, such as population numbers and urbanization levels, into a machine-readable form. The students also tagged the findings with specific geographical locations.

Ober also wanted to make the newly digitized and mapped-out data public. That’s where undergraduate philosophy and computer science major Maya Krishnan came in. Krishnan is currently a Hume Humanities Honor fellow at the Stanford Humanities Center.

“I provided the data and she did the computer work to create the visualizations,” Ober said. The result is a prototype website called POLIS “that allows you to do manipulations of the data yourself.”

These visualizations of data on ancient Greek places and people now allow researchers, and the public, to see what the Greek world looked like at the end of the classical era. The data includes visualizations such as the distribution, population and size of over a thousand city-states and where many famous ancient people lived in various cities at various times.

“It’s extremely difficult to measure economic growth even today,” Ober pointed out. When it comes to the ancient world, “Of course we don’t have anything like the data that, say, Amazon would have of your buying habits.”

To estimate the patterns of growth in ancient times, Ober had to use stand-ins for economic development. These proxies include archeological data such as the population distribution between cities and farms and the floor plans of Greek houses – a set of data recently developed by Ober’s colleague, classics Professor Ian Morris.

Another type of proxy data Ober used is a practice people still fall back on in risky times: hoarding money.

“The tendency of Greeks in times of crisis was to bury the loot,” he explained. “They don’t have the same kinds of investment opportunities we have, but they tend to put their coin under the floor of the house or wherever it might be. People frequently, if the crisis was bad, never came back and got the loot.”

Ober and his team digitized the existing, but not machine-readable, information from Greek coin hoards discovered by amateur metal hunters and archaeologists. Using data like the dates on the coins, Ober is now able to show “that in the later period much more coined money floated in the Greek world than there was early on.”

The combined results of the proxy data point to a rising economy that “increased in terms of total number of people somewhere in excess of 10 times to 15 times over about a 500-year period.” In that same period, he added, “the rate of per capita consumption would have about doubled.”

Ober explained that these rates are very low compared to modern standards. “But compared to other pre-modern economies, this is really spectacular growth.”

Innovation fuels growth

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.

“On the other hand, if you believe that the rules are fair, that the rules will protect you from bullies in your society and that the government is in a sense on your side,” Ober added, then people feel it’s worthwhile to invest in things like education and specialization.

Another side of the coin is innovation. When hundreds of small states are full of people investing in themselves, the result is high levels of “competition to do things better, to develop more efficient institutions, to develop more efficient technologies and better techniques.”

Ober acknowledges that there have been cases in which highly centralized systems had periods of significant economic growth. He said other scholars “have argued that the only way to create the kind of long-term stability that allows a lot of growth” is to start with “strong forms of centralization that might eventually become more democratic – but first you’ve got to break some heads to get everybody on the same side.”

What Ober argues in his new research is that “the Greek world suggests that’s not the case. That a world in which there is no centralized political organization, no empire running things, is perfectly capable of self-organizing into a condition of high growth.”

Ober said these findings about ancient Greece can help today’s citizens “think about what they can do actively to sustain a social order … that they feel that they do reasonably well in or that they have reasonable hope to do well in.” Or conversely, they might want to “change a political order that they think is restricting their chance to invest in themselves.”

Eventually, the Greek world fell prey to outside forces from Macedon and then Rome. “You’ve got growth, you’ve got increased consumption – what could go wrong?” Ober asked. “Well, some things can go wrong. They can suddenly go wrong. And that’s the story about the fall.”

Ober said the story of ancient Greece is also a cautionary tale, leading readers to “recognize that the world we have is not the world that necessarily we will always have. “

Media Contacts

Corrie Goldman, director of humanities communication: (650) 724-8156, corrieg@stanford.edu