Take 5: Historian and classics scholar Joseph Manning

Professor Joseph Manning atop Mt. Yale in Colorado

Take 5 offers a brief introduction to Yale faculty members in a Q&A format. The featured faculty member selects five out of ten questions to answer. 

A specialist in Hellenistic history, Joseph G. Manning is the William K. and Marilyn M. Simpson Professor of Classics and History at Yale. He focused much of his early work on understanding the interactions between Greek and Egyptian economic and legal institutions in Ptolemaic Egypt. His scholarship now takes him in new and exciting directions, including the modeling of Egyptian history using cultural evolutionary theoryamong other approaches—in the Seshat Project, the examination of comparative bureaucratic developments in the Mediterranean and China, and the study of the history of property in the context of ancient law.

Manning’s adventures have included scaling Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania and climbs throughout North America, most recently a peak in a remote Alaskan range.

What scholarly/research project are you working on now?

I’m working on several things; some are longer-term projects and ideas. At the moment, there are two main projects.

First, the completion of a monograph, “The Economy of the Ancient Mediterranean World,” for Princeton University Press and due for submission in about a month! This is a summary and analytical work on research on various aspects of ancient economic systems around the Mediterranean. It’s actually amazing how much work has been done and is ongoing on the topic, especially from the point of view of new archaeological information.

I am also working on the quantification of Egyptian history from the Neolithic to the Roman period, or about 15,000 years of human experience. This is a fascinating project that I have been part of for some time. It is designed by Peter Turchin at the University of Connecticut and Oxford anthropologist Harvey Whitehouse. We are coding all human civilizations across 160 variables, from political structure to territorial size to legal institutions to religion. I’ve been responsible for editing the Egyptian data. We have now completed a preliminary data set, and it is absolutely fascinating to see 15,000 years of human history in such fine-grained detail. It’s never been done before in this way. I am having a small meeting in Oxford this September to have a few scholars critique the results so far. There is likely to be some disagreement (which will be most welcomed), but I also think that we will astonish a few people, and it is likely that this work will revolutionize how ancient history is done. Very exciting stuff.

What important lessons have you learned from your students?

There are many, but the main one, perhaps, is that I am always, always reminded that when I present material in class, I bring assumptions (including that the stuff is inherently interesting!) that are not always shared by my students, and this forces me to go back to the drawing board to re-examine my own priorities and figure out how to present issues and problems that excite me in a clear way. It’s a very valuable lesson, and it directly feeds back into my own research.

What do you do for fun?

Cycling to stay fit, but mountain climbing is the main fun activity these days, and I have some big goals in the Himalayas that I am shooting for in the next couple of years. I try to get into some mountain range whenever I can. Listening to jazz is a daily thing for me.

What would people find surprising about you?

Probably my diverse range of interests, from stamp collecting to bike racing and climbing large mountains. It must be the Gemini in me.

What person, living or dead, would you like to spend a day with?

For sure it would be Mark Twain, perhaps on a riverboat on the Mississippi. How could you top that?

(September 16, 2014)

September 16, 2014