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The study of the history of the Greco-Roman world is part of the study of history in general. History, in turn, is just one branch of the study of human behavior, which is embedded in the study of all forms of life on earth. In my work, I have been trying to take account of these multiple contexts. As a result, my interests largely center on three thematic and methodological issues.
First, a strong emphasis on the fundamentals of life in the past, embodied by critical determinants of well-being such as longevity, health, nutritional status, economic opportunity, and reproductive success. I have studied some of these factors in my earlier work on the organization of labor in Roman farming, and more recently in my research on demographic conditions in the ancient Mediterranean. Following a series of technical studies of mortality patterns, I am currently preparing a general handbook on ancient population history for Cambridge University Press.
Second, a cross-cultural
comparative perspective that puts Greco-Roman history in a
broader context. Only comparisons with other civilizations make it possible to
distinguish common features from culturally specific or unique characteristics
and developments, help us to identify variables that were critical to
particular historical outcomes, and allow us to assess the nature of ancient
Mediterranean societies within the wider context of pre-modern world history.
For these reasons, I am trying to study key institutions cross-culturally,
focusing on the interrelated themes of economic
development, empire, and slavery. Together with my Stanford colleagues Ian Morris and Richard Saller, I
co-edited the Cambridge Economic History of the Greco-Roman World. This project has been complemented by a companion volume on the Roman
economy edited by myself. Ian Morris and I were the editors of a volume on the dynamics of ancient empires that had grown out of a series of conferences sponsored by Stanford’s
Social Science History Institute. Together with Peter Bang of the University of
Copenhagen, I have completed a handbook of state formation in the ancient Near East and Mediterranean, and I edited a general handbook of Roman studies jointly with my colleague Alessandro
Barchiesi. In addition, I have launched an international research initiative
study of imperial states in the ancient Mediterranean and ancient China that has resulted in a pair of collaborative volumes bringing together experts from different areas. This project has been
complemented by a year-long research seminar and a workshop on what I have
proposed to call the ‘First Great Divergence’ between eastern
Finally, transdisciplinarity, again exemplified by my interest in historical demography, a field of
research which depends as much on the findings and models of the life sciences
as on more conventional historical data. In recent work, I examined the interdependence of demography and disease in parts of the ancient
In late 2005, Josh Ober and I created the ‘Princeton/Stanford Working Papers in Classics’, the first-ever electronic repository of working papers in this field anywhere in the world. This site currently contains over 100 papers by faculty and graduate students and has attracted attention well beyond the Classics community. In May 2012, Elijah Meeks and I launched the interactive website ‘ORBIS: The Stanford Geospatial Network Model of the Roman World’, which attracted over 350,000 visitors within the first two months.