Classicists Crunch Data to Test Hypotheses About Greece

Historians in the News
tags: Greece

Poor but virtuous. That’s how the ancient Greeks thought of themselves, according to some of their influential texts. And for decades modern scholars saw the Greeks as poor, too. When Josiah Ober was studying to become an ancient historian in the 1970s, a consensus held that there had been virtually no economic growth in the world of ancient Greek city-states. The big question to be answered was why.

In a forthcoming book, The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece (Princeton University Press), Mr. Ober marshals a wealth of new data to make the case for a much different view of Greek history. The historian, a professor of political science and classics at Stanford University, argues that Greeks in the age of Plato weren’t poor. In reality, their economy grew at a brisk pace from 800 to 300 BC. That wealth, he says, was driven by political institutions that allowed an extensive and socially diverse body of residents to make decisions.

Mr. Ober’s book exemplifies a broader push among some classics scholars to import the tools of contemporary social science to answer big questions about the ancient world. Their basic approach involves trying to explain social change by testing hypotheses against quantifiable evidence.

That technique is unusual in classics, a discipline that emphasizes deep training in languages and texts. But it’s the norm at Stanford, a hothouse of social-science work in ancient history. One of Mr. Ober’s colleagues in the classics department, Ian Morris, combed through 15,000 years of data to write a book explaining how the West came to dominate the world. Another, Walter Scheidel, is studying the evolution of inequality since the Stone Age, hoping to find the factors that have been capable of reducing it. (The ones he has identified so far don’t make for much of a campaign platform: war, revolution, and pestilence.)

Much of the new social-scientific ancient-history research will be discussed in November at a conference Mr. Ober is organizing at the University of Edinburgh. The methods used by these scholars vary. Some draw on game theory to explain the moves made by would-be oligarchs and would-be democrats. Some use network theory to study how social connections affect behavior. Some investigate the ties between human development and geography. ...

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