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The study of the history of the ancient 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. Building on a series of technical studies of mortality patterns, I have long been planning 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 seek 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 was 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 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 former Stanford colleague Alessandro Barchiesi. In addition, I launched an international research initiative promoting comparative 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 was complemented by a year-long research seminar and a workshop on what I have proposed to call the ‘First Great Divergence’ between eastern and western Eurasia in the second half of the first millennium CE.
Since then, my interests have been expanding to encompass a wider range of early empires. This has led to another project, a comprehensive world history of empires co-edited with Peter Bang and the late Chris Bayly. In addition, I co-edited conference volumes on fiscal regimes in premodern states (with Andrew Monson) and the global history of slavery (with John Bodel). In a more recent foray into world history, I explored the determinants of income and wealth inequality from prehistory to the present. I then moved on to the problem of the ‘Great Divergence’ between the modern West and the rest of the world, asking whether and in which ways this momentous process was rooted in ancient and medieval history. I expect to return to this topic in future publications. Meanwhile, I am exploring ways of globalizing the study of ancient history and of emancipating it from the constraints imposed by the outmoded tradition of ‘Classics.’
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. I have examined the interdependence of demography and disease in parts of the ancient Mediterranean. In the future, I may expand on my earlier studies of historical evidence for institutionalized nuclear-family incest. Interpretations of incest and incest avoidance lie at the heart of competing theories of human nature, and must be evaluated from biological as well as cultural angles. In this area, preliminary forays into genetics and behavioral studies have allowed me to open a dialogue with the scientific community. What we need is a more comprehensive study of brother-sister and parent-child marriage in pre-modern societies that seeks to improve our understanding of the limits of human behavioral plasticity.
I have been involved in collaborative interdisciplinary projects that employ information technology to expand our understanding of the Roman world, most notably geospatial modeling for the purpose of reconceptualizing the physical properties and logistical constraints of the Roman empire. I am also interested in the contribution of genetics to our understanding of ancient population movements and more generally in the ways in which science expands our knowledge of ancient living conditions by means of the analysis of ancient and modern DNA, osteological study, and paleoclimatology. These interest have resulted in a collaborate volume that highlights the contribution of science to our understanding of Roman history. Last but not least, my research also extends into the field of Buffy Studies.
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 archived, hosts 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.