The Exceptionalism, Greatness and Immortality of Ancient Greece

By the time of the Greek Revolution of 1821, Greece had gone through some four centuries of brutal Turkish military occupation. The effects of tyranny on Greece were catastrophic. The country was depopulated and in ruins.

Yet, even is that desolation, the Greeks continued their periodic revolts and resistance, keeping the idea of freedom alive.

Lord Byron visited Turkish Greece on the dawn of the nineteenth century. Byron had a classical education the core of which was about "the glory that was Greece." Remembering the achievements of the Greeks in philosophy, science, democracy, poetry, architecture and other arts of civilization, and seeing the reality of subjugated Greece in his day, inspired Byron to sacrifice his life for Greek freedom. In 1812, he wrote "Childe Harold's Pilgrimage," a poem in which he posed ancient Greek greatness and modern Greek tragedy in stark terms. Canto II, stanza 73 captured the message of the poem:

"Fair Greece! sad relic of departed worth!
Immortal, though no more! though fallen, great!"

The best minds of the Western world have been following the path and dream of Byron. Some of them, like Byron, fought and died for Greek freedom. Others have been studying the classics, especially the Greek past.

The passion of these scholars has been more than the life of Greece. They look at their modern countries and civilization with anxiety or satisfaction. Those of the twentieth century witnessed the bloodiest and most savage wars in human history and the explosion of the nuclear bomb. They worry industrialization may destroy the planet. They worry about tyranny and the future of democracy, a gift of the Greeks.

Some American scholars also embrace Greece as a model of what to expect in a citizen-run democracy. Others see their country in ancient Greece, congratulating themselves for their economic success and democracy. They find satisfaction to study the historical record of some of more than a thousand Greek poleis, city-states, that did so well for several centuries. Greek political history is like a handbook of how to organize a democratic and civilized society distinguished by lasting achievements and a healthy middle class.

Josiah Ober, professor of political science and classics at Stanford University, is one of those Greek scholars. He feels pretty good about himself. "I live in exceptional times," he says in the opening of his new book about Greece: "The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece" (Princeton University Press, 2015).

Ober appreciates living in the United States, one of several democratic, independent, and prosperous states. Wealth and democracy define the exceptionalism of modern times, Ober says.

Ober is right that, in general, most societies before the eighteenth century lived in poverty and oppression. Political and economic exceptionalism (democracy and wealth) touched the Dutch republics of the sixteenth century, the Italian city-states of the Renaissance (fourteenth and fifteenth centuries) and ancient Greece during the fifth and fourth centuries BCE.

But how did ancient Greece create efflorescence, which, according to Ober, is equivalent to greatness because it brings increased economic growth and a sharp upsurge in cultural achievements: "Why and how the ancient Greeks create a culture that became central to the modern world?"

Ober wrote this book to answer this question, including shedding light on the mystery Lord Byron raised with Greece in greatness, in ruin, and immortality.

Ober admits he fell in love with Greek history in an introductory college class. He then did his graduate studies under the distinguished classical scholar Chester Starr who was also my teacher. But Ober went beyond history into political science. So his well-written book is insightful political and economic history sprinkled with political theory. He used the findings of the twenty-first century scholarship for painting an attractive, informative, and timely picture of Greece from Homer to Aristotle (1000 to 300 BCE).

Ober says decentralization, high degree of cooperation, high levels of specialization, innovation, mobility of people, goods and ideas, and fair rules and competitive emulation helped the Greeks build hundreds of prosperous and democratic states all over the Mediterranean. The Greek world, Hellas, spread east into Western Asia, west to Italy, Spain and France, north to the Black Sea and south to north Africa. Greeks spoke the same language, read Homer, worshipped the gods, and competed in the Olympics and other Pan-Hellenic games.

The exceptional Greek efflorescence peaked around 300 BCE, lasting for several hundred years. It was in the twentieth century, Ober says, that Greece had a population and material wellbeing comparable to the population and wealth of Greece of 2,300 years before.

Ober explains the "fall" of classical Greece as a result of Macedonian Greek might. He recognizes the ambiguity of the "fall" and calls it "creative destruction." Athens and a few other prominent poleis saw their power restricted, however.

Alexander the Great came after the "fall." He sparked an even greater efflorescence well beyond Greece. Greek culture became world culture. The third and second centuries BCE constitute the golden age of Greek science. The Antikythera Mechanism, the world's first computer, came out of this age of science. And Greek poleis lasted well into the Roman Empire.

The "fall" of classical Greece came with the Romans in the second century BCE. But the Romans "consumed" so much Greek culture that assured its survival.

Byron, Ober and us have been the beneficiaries of copyists duplicating Greek philosophical, scientific and literary texts for several centuries. Those texts incorporated Greek achievements. Those texts made the Renaissance and the Renaissance made us. The Renaissance made Greece immortal.

Like Herodotus, Thucydides and Aristotle, Ober sees Greek history as a "living resource for all who aspire to end domination and to advance toward citizenship."

Read "The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece." It's an absorbing story full of excitement, drama and hope. It's particularly appropriate at a time when Greece, once again, is a relic of former glory - always great and immortal.