Research Expertise and Interest
classics, papyrology, Greek, Egyptian, social and economic history, late antiquity
Todd Hickey is an historian whose research is focused on those segments of ancient society that are poorly represented in the elite literature that is the foundation of the discipline of Classical Studies. He is able to pursue this interest because of his training in papyrology, a subspecialty that is devoted to the decipherment and interpretation of papyrus manuscripts, the “everyday” writing of the inhabitants of Egypt (and other regions, though Egypt’s preservative sands have yielded the lion’s share of our texts). Only a handful of scholars have this training (perhaps 200 worldwide), and few of them have positions in the Western Hemisphere.
His research to date has centered on two issues. The first is the question of economic decision making. He has been interested in elucidating the choices that ancient people of various statuses made and the factors (for example, risk tolerance, the environment, access to information, custom) that contributed to an individual’s calculus. His first book addressed this topic in some detail for a large agricultural estate, arguing strongly against recent readings of the evidence in which such entities were claimed to have been rationally managed with the aim of maximizing profit. (The works in question give insufficient emphasis to the sociocultural context of economic transactions.) More lately, his attention has been devoted to the impact of “régime change” on Egyptian society; that is, he has been wondering how the coming of the Romans affected certain groups, in particular the Egyptian priesthood. Again, his research bucks the communis opinio: Rather than suggesting resistance (in the traditional sense of that word), that the priests were the principal opponents of external power and served as guardians of indigenous tradition, he demonstrates that their engagement with the dominant culture was quite significant, and call for a nuanced interpretation informed by theoretical literature on the modern colonial experience.