Publication Date

June 8, 2021

Perspectives Section

Member Spotlight, Perspectives Daily


  • Europe


Labor, Legal, Political, Women, Gender, & Sexuality

Thomas Figueira is a distinguished professor of classics and of ancient history at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. He lives in Lawrenceville, New Jersey, and has been a member since 1975.

Website: Faculty website

Thomas Figueira

Alma maters: BA (liberal arts), Bensalem College, Fordham University, 1970; PhD (ancient history), University of Pennsylvania, 1977

Fields of Interest: Against a transcultural backdrop, I explore the fundamental social and political institutions, processes, and structures of ancient Mediterranean life as regards laws, values, political procedures, mores, status, labor, commerce, money, exploitation and imperialism, ethnic identity, gender, and sexuality.

Describe your career path. What led you to where you are today?

My curiosity, language skills, and passion for intellectual play were fostered by the self-sacrifice and unstinting support of my parents (my two younger siblings are also Humanities professors), who had been deprived opportunities for higher education. We were living in a furnished room when I was born in Washington Heights (NYC) to an immigrant of Brazilian extraction. My father was a Creole colonial subject in British Guiana; his father’s aspiration for him had been an education at a Canadian university (to be a family first). My grandfather’s untimely death, coupled with some old-fashioned imperialist machinations, sent my impoverished, 10-year old dad on a boat to New York. There he was able to finish the 7th grade. Yet few men read or thought more. I can indeed recall my first brush with ancient history. On one of the 1950s quiz shows, to a question about Athens, my father leapt in with the answer “the Peloponnesian War.” What a phrase so mysterious, deliciously tantalizing, to one little boy. And the irony is that the self-taught mill-supply salesman knew an answer over which a centrally cast “savant” may well have had to be coached, and then went back to rearing a real expert on the Peloponnesian War.

What do you like the most about where you live and work?

As a New Yorker by birth and rearing, New Jersey is a nearby berth, fortunately one blessed with colleagues, academic activity, and scholarly resources at surrounding institutions. New Jersey and Rutgers are challenging, understandably for anyone knowing our state’s deserved reputation. Rutgers is perhaps the most diverse American research university in race, ethnicity, class, creed, origin, acculturation, and exposure to quality education. My students have been a treasure, for whom my self-commitment has been richly awarded in the celebration of dramatic consequences, and where institutional scale and Jersey idiosyncrasy yield a permanent elite-college load of brilliant students. Past joy was grounded in my start and early service at Douglass College, once America’s largest women’s college and a mighty engine of social mobility, now wantonly destroyed in bureaucratic pique.

What projects are you currently working on?

“Political Economy of Sparta” focuses on Spartan slavery (i.e., Helotage), continuing to evolve through participation in the International Sparta Seminar. “Athenian Hegemony in the Balance” will discuss positive and negative aspects of Attic leadership among classical poleis from security, economic, demographic, and ideological perspectives. It reflects the ongoing collaborations with students and colleagues in my “Working Group on Athenian Hegemony.” I am co-editing (with R. Munson) Misinformation, Disinformation, and Propaganda in Greek Historiography. Another co-edited collection (after two earlier efforts) continues my outreach bringing Lusophone and Anglophone scholars into dialogue; this volume concerns non-combatants in wartime. Many parerga provide challenging, but enjoyable distractions.

Have your interests evolved since graduation? If so, how?

I anticipated a career in a history department in a liberal arts college, with a focus on teaching and mentoring. Adverse circumstances forced a stronger emphasis on language teaching, postgraduate instruction, and (alas) extreme publishing.

What’s the most fascinating thing you’ve ever found at the archives or while doing research?

I determined that a fundamental document for fifth-century economic and diplomatic history, the “Athenian Coinage Decree,” was not a singular act of imperialist over-reach, but one step in a policy of economic integration.

Is there an article, book, movie, blog etc. that you could recommend to fellow AHA members?

Rather please accept this challenge. Watch any recent movie or television program on the Graeco-Roman world. Choices abound, for, had the Greeks and Romans not indeed existed, it would appear on the basis of our popular culture that they would have had to have been invented as material for soft-core pornography. Next tally up the instances of gratuitous/excessive violence, hyper-sexualization, anachronistic material circumstances, essentialism, and ideologization. Then remember that these are staged within the cultural spaces etched by our foundational antecessors. Finally gaze resolutely into this distorted mirror of our deep past for hints about the status of 21st-century humanism.

What do you value most about the history discipline?

History is a rigorous, stylized pathway toward empathy, without whose lens our appreciation of any modern life worth living is impossible.

AHA members are involved in all fields of history, with wide-ranging specializations, interests, and areas of employment. To recognize our talented and eclectic membership, Perspectives Daily features a regular AHA Member Spotlight series.

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Matthew Keough
Matthew Keough

American Historical Association