Skip to content Skip to navigation

The Chronicle of Higher Ed on Prof. Ober's not-so-unusual (at Stanford) use of data

Prof. Ober
Feb 23 2015

Posted In:


Excerpted from full article:

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.)