The Triumph of Empire

The Triumph of Empire

The Roman World from Hadrian to Constantine

Michael Kulikowski

Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2016, 400 pages

Book Review published on: June 2, 2017

The Roman Empire was one of the largest empires in world history. At its height, it covered almost two million square miles, was composed of forty-eight nations, and had authority over an estimated seventy to ninety million people. In The Triumph of Empire, historian and author Michael Kulikowski examines the Roman world from Hadrian to Constantine. He goes beyond the traditional narrative of emperors and the imperial family to include the generals, bureaucrats, politicians, financiers, and orators in providing a fascinating window into the workings of the empire.

The Triumph of Empire begins with an overview of Roman history from the founding of Rome to events leading up to Hadrian’s accession as emperor. Kulikowski describes the world of imperial Rome as one of great volatility, home to vicious power struggles and political intrigue. Roman emperors relied on an oligarchy of the very rich and well born—the senators, and those who were merely very rich—the equestrians. Emperors and the Roman military spent much of their time campaigning throughout the empire. Barbarians and competing empires surrounded much of the Roman world. Turbulence beyond Rome’s borders was as much a product of Rome as it was of the barbarians. Roman expeditions could wipe out whole sections of a population, lay waste to its crops and storage, and make large areas uninhabitable. The work of maintaining and expanding a vast empire was constant and perilous.

The crisis of the third century (235–284 CE) is one of the more interesting periods in Roman history, when the Roman Empire nearly collapsed under the combined pressures of invasion, revolts, plague, and economic depression. During this period, ten emperors rose to power for short duration only to be assassinated by their soldiers, killed or captured in battle, or murdered by others. Succession by Diocletian in 284 finally brought stability to the empire. Diocletian enacted a number of economic and political reforms, including appointing Maximian, Galerius, and Constantius as co-emperors. Under this “tetrarchy,” each emperor would rule over a fourth of the empire. Diocletian’s reforms fundamentally changed the structure of the Roman government and brought stability to the empire for another century.

Kulikowski challenges the narrative of many modern historians that the great Christian persecution beginning in 303 was the political maneuvering of Galerius in an attempt to undermine Constantius. He offers that Galerius really did hate Christians, while Diocletian, more than many emperors, had a heavy ideological investment in the traditional religion of state. Kulikowski states that Galerius, as well as many Roman elite, attributed the turbulence experienced by the Roman Empire during the third century as the falling away from traditional Roman religious practices that included sacrifices to Roman gods. Christian persecution policies varied in intensity throughout the Roman Empire. Constantius did the bare minimum to enforce persecution policies against Christians in the western part of the Empire. Christianity became the religion of the Roman Empire when Constantius’s son, Constantine, became emperor in 324.

The author’s research is extensive and reflects findings from recently discovered tablets and manuscripts. The strength of The Triumph of Empire is its quality of prose and the forty-nine illustrations and maps throughout the book that provide context for the reader. Kulikowski also includes a list of Roman emperors along with a section for further reading. The Triumph of Empire makes a great addition to Kulikowski’s previous works on the Roman Empire. It is highly recommend to both scholars and students interested in the Roman world.

Book Review written by: Jesse McIntyre III, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas