Wilcken studied ancient history and Oriental studies in Leipzig, Tübingen and Berlin. He was a disciple of historian Theodor Mommsen (1817-1903), who encouraged Wilcken to take a position as cataloguer of papyri following graduation. Mommsen was also instrumental in Wilcken succeeding Eduard Meyer (1855-1930) as associate professor of ancient history at the University of Breslau in 1889. Afterwards, he was a professor at the universities of Würzburg (from 1900), Halle (from 1903, where he was again a successor to Eduard Meyer), Leipzig (from 1906) and Bonn (from 1912), where he succeeded Heinrich Nissen (1839-1912). Later on, he served as a professor at Munich (from 1915) and Berlin (from 1917), where he was successor to Otto Hirschfeld (1843-1922).
Among his written works was a 1931 book on Alexander the Great (Alexander der Grosse), being translated into English in 1932 with the title "Alexander the Great" (translated by G.C. Richards). Other publications by Wilcken include:
- Observationes ad historiam Aegypti provinciae Romanae depromptae e papyris Graecis Berolinensibus ineditis. Haack, Berlin 1885.
- Griechische Ostraka aus Aegypten und Nubien, Ein Beitrag zur antiken Wirtschaftsgeschichte. (Greek ostracon of Egypt and Nubia, Contribution of historical antiques) . two volumes. Giesecke & Devrient, Leipzig 1899. reprinted Hakkert, Amsterdam 1970.
- Grundzüge und Chrestomathie der Papyruskunde. volume 1: Historical part (in two halves). Leipzig 1912. (volume 2: Legal part by Ludwig Mitteis 1859-1921).
- Griechische Geschichte im Rahmen der Altertumsgeschichte. (Greek history in the context of ancient history), Oldenbourg, München 1924; Ninth edition 1962 (revised by Günther Klaffenbach 1890-1972).
- Urkunden der Ptolemäerzeit (ältere Funde). (Proceedings of Ptolemaic era excavations, older findings); two volumes. De Gruyter, Berlin 1927, reprinted 1977, ISBN 3-11-005711-5. Abbreviated as UPZ in LSJ and other lexicons.
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