By offering out-of-sample observations, pre-modern case studies can provide unique insights into the process of economic development. We focus on the case of ancient Athens in the 5th and 4th centuries BCE. During that time, Athens moved beyond the logic of rent-seeking and rent-creation that grips natural states, displaying many features of development present in the modern world. Athenian development rested on a set of institutions different from those prevalent in the modern world: in particular, Athens lacked liberal democratic institutions and strong central governments with high state capacity. The findings yield a twofold conclusion: first, modern theories centered on the recent experience of contemporary nation-states impose too narrow a frame on the phenomenon of development. Second, by analyzing in depth one case study, we reconstruct a different path toward development.