John Wilkes was born in 1936 at Reigate in England. After studies in Ancient History and Archaeology at University College London and the University of Durham, he taught these subjects in the Universities of Manchester, Birmingham and London. At retirement in 2001 he held the position of Yates Professor of Greek and Roman Archaeology at University College London. He is a Fellow of the British Academy, and of the Societies of Antiquaries of London and Scotland, and is Honorary Vice-President of the Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies.
He has undertaken historical and archaeological research in several regions of the Roman Empire but his main focus has been the territory of the former Yugoslavia, and his principal publications relate to that area, including Dalmatia (1969), Diocletian's Palace (1986) and The Illyrians (1992).