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Professor Nicols graduated from UC Berkeley and did his Ph.D. at UCLA and at the Universität Freiburg. He has held regular appointments at Freiburg, at Stanford University, and at the University of Oregon. He has been a visiting professor at the Universities of Munich, Heidelberg, Cologne, Münster, and Tübingen. He has also received a number of grants from the DAAD, the Fulbright Commission, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation.  In 2009 he received the University's Williams Award and Fellowship for his teaching and in 2010 the University's Westling Award for service, and in the same year also a research fellowship from the von Humboldt Foundation that took him to the Universities of Münster and Munich, and to the German Archaeological Institute. 

Nicols became Professor Emeritus in June of 2012 and remains active in research (a recent book on Civic Patronage in the Roman Empire), teaching and service.  He accepted an invitation to become a von Humboldt Fellow and Visiting Professor at the Universität Tübingen in the spring and summer of 2012 and returned there in 2013 to teach a high-level seminar on the Römische Gesellschaftsordnung [="Roman Society"].

Professor Nicols has devoted much of his scholarly career to understanding how asymmetrical social relations serve to unify society and is especially interested in the practice of patronage and clientele in the Roman Empire. Recent publications include, "The Practice of Hospitium on the Roman Frontier", "The Emperor Vespasian",  "Patronage / Patront", and "Civic Ritual and Civic Patronage", "Ours and Theirs on the Roman Frontier".  He is now working on a book on the practice of hospitium in the Roman Empire and a series of articles on the historian, Tacitus.

Concurrently, he and his colleague James C. Mohr, have served as the editors of the Mapping History Project, a set of interactive historical maps the publication of which has been facilitated by Pearson Education and the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation.

Professor Nicols was a member of the department of Classics and director of the Society of College Scholars and of the Humanities Program.