The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece by Josiah Ober - review by Richard Seaford

Richard Seaford

The First Efflorescence

The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece


Princeton University Press 416pp £24.95 order from our bookshop

This book tries to answer an admirably ambitious question: what caused the efflorescence of the ancient Greek city-states? By ‘efflorescence’ is meant a specific and comparatively rare phenomenon, characterised not only by ‘more people (demographic growth) living at higher levels of welfare (per capita growth)’ but also by cultural production at a higher level. One example of efflorescence is the Dutch Republic. Another is modernity, the experience of the developed world since the early 19th century.

Is our current period of efflorescence temporary, as were all the earlier ones? This question lends special interest to Josiah Ober’s search for the preconditions of the first known efflorescence, in ancient Greece. Indeed, he regards his project as a contribution to understanding ‘the origins and sustainability of our modern condition’.

Most premodern states were dominated by a small wealthy elite, with the vast majority not rising above subsistence. But in the Greek city-state (polis), and especially in democratic Athens (the polis we know best), we find both decentralised productive cooperation and large numbers of citizens living above subsistence. How could

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