Breaking the Conflict Trap in Ancient Greece: Stasis and Economic Growth in the Polis

Scott Arcenas (Stanford University)

Abstract: The city-states of ancient Greece experienced high rates of both economic growth and what the Greeks called stasis—commonly translated as civil war. These two empirical findings confront ancient historians with an intriguing question: how are we to reconcile extraordinary rates of both political violence and economic growth? In this paper, I argue, against existing scholarship, that the historically distinctive dynamics of stasis—in particular, its high frequency and low intensity—made it a crucial contributor to, rather than an inhibitor of, economic growth. Relative to analogous forms of conflict in other pre-modern societies, stasis was more frequent but less intense. In many cases, the losing faction would flee into exile without suffering even a single casualty. The high frequency and low intensity of stasis forced ancient Greek elites to grapple with the likelihood that they would be forced into exile at some point in their lifetimes, and this expectation drove them to engage in risk mitigation strategies—e.g., investing in shipping, loans, and other asset classes that could not be easily expropriated by political opponents—that were growth-promoting, relative to the pre-modern norm of investing primarily in agriculture.