The Tragedy of Empire Cover

The Tragedy of Empire

From Constantine to the Destruction of Roman Italy

Michael Kulikowski

Belknap Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2019, 424 pages

Book Review published on: March 20, 2020

The Roman Empire was one of the largest empires in world history. At its height, the Roman Empire 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 Tragedy of Empire: From Constantine to the Destruction of Roman Italy, historian and author Michael Kulikowski examines the Roman world from Constantine to the destruction of the Roman Empire. He goes beyond traditional works that focus on narratives of emperors and the imperial family to include the generals, bureaucrats, politicians, financiers, and orators to provide a fascinating window into the workings and events of the Roman Empire’s final century.

The Tragedy of Empire begins in 324 as the western Augustus Constantine decisively defeats the eastern Augustus Licinius to become sole ruler of the Roman Empire. Constantine and Licinius had survived a series of bloody civil wars earlier in the century when the governmental system known as the tetrarchy had fallen apart. Kulikowski describes the world of the Roman Empire as one of great volatility, home to vicious power struggles and political intrigue. Emperors relied on an oligarchy of the very rich and well born to remain in power. Emperors and the military spent much of their time campaigning throughout the empire. Turbulence beyond the Empire’s borders was as much a product of the Empire as it was the barbarians. Military expeditions could wipe out whole sections of a population, lay waste to its crops and storage, and make large areas inhabitable. The work of maintaining and expanding the western and eastern empires were constant and perilous.

Kulikowski challenges the common modern narrative that the Roman Empire simply fell to a floodtide of invading Huns in the course of a year or two. Kulikowski argues that ancient sources provide little support to that view but that the Huns had conquered and defeated Sarmatian polities north of the Caucasus and the Black Sea. The author steps back in chapter four to describe the various nomadic groups who inhabited the steppes of Eurasia and the tendency of outside observers to refer to all of these groups as Huns. There is little evidence that these groups acted as a unified entity or mass migrated during the destruction of the Roman Empire. Kulikowski makes the argument throughout his work that the reasons for the fall of the Roman Empire were far more complex and occurred over time.

The Tragedy of Empire provides an exceptional examination of Christianity and its role in the Roman Empire. The fourth century was pivotal for Christianity as the Roman Empire went from persecuting Christianity to adopting it, and eventually evangelizing throughout the empire and beyond. Kulikowski examines the expansion of Christianity during the fourth century, its conflict with paganism, major church councils, and the influence of Christianity on various emperors. The reader is introduced to earlier church leaders including Ambrose, a transitional Christian leader who eventually became one of the most influential ecclesiastical leaders of the fourth century.

The author’s research is extensive; reflected in the bibliography are findings from recently discovered tablets and manuscripts. Strengths of The Tragedy of Empire include the high quality of prose and the illustrations and maps that provide context for the reader. Kulikowski also includes a list of Roman Emperors and Persian kings for the period along with a section for further reading. The Tragedy of Empire makes a great addition to Kulikowski’s previous works on the Roman Empire. It is highly recommended to both scholars and students interested in the Roman world.

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