Imperial Tragedy: From Constantine's Empire to the Destruction of Roman Italy AD 363-568

by Professor Michael Kulikowski

Hardcover, 2019



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Profile Books (2019), Edition: Main, 416 pages


Michael Kulikowski traces two hundred years of Roman history during which the Empire became ungovernable and succumbed to turbulence and change. A sweeping political narrative, The Tragedy of Empire tells the story of the Western Roman Empire's downfall, even as the Eastern Empire remained politically strong and culturally vibrant.

Media reviews

Outstanding History About the Failures of Roman Totalitarianism Michael Kulikowski. The Tragedy of Empire: From Constantine to the Destruction of Roman Italy. $35. 424pp, 25 color photos, 14 maps, hardback. ISBN: 978-0674660137. Cambridge: Harvard University Press: Belknap Press, November 19, 2019.
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***** This book is full of brilliant color illustrations representative of the wide range of nations and cultures this sweeping history covers. These are definitely needed for readers to identify these places visually with the divergent things they represent. For example, there are pictures of “Monastic Saints from Coptic Egypt” that are carrying books with Hebrew lettering and crosses at their sides. Another image presents the castle-styled “Anthemian Wall of Constantinople”, in Russia. Another image is of a recognizable Christ painting closer to those we might see in a Roman church today, but it comes from a Sinai monastery. An artistic mosaic map of Madaba includes Cyrillic lettering. And a couple of ancient-looking coins from “Alkhan ‘Hun’” represent this distinct tyrannical order. The “Sao Cucufate” structure from Portugal shows the colorful style of this region’s rulers. Just the captions needed to explain these curious images take up a dozen pages. The book is neatly organized into chapters that cover distinct regions and rulers, so that all these cultures are not mixed together haphazardly, but rather explained via their unique patterns of behavior. I am sure I will return to read this book more closely because I frequently stumble in my studies into trying to understand rebellion and subversion and “Empire” is the flipside of these extremes; if Empires were not tragic, there would be no need for people to rebel against them. While the breadth of this subject in a single book might have confused some writers, Michael Kulikowski has done a splendid job of relying on heavy research and heavy editing to discover facts and present them in an orderly fashion. While some of the illustrations appear more modern while others seem ancient, they all come from only “two centuries that led to the demise of the Roman Empire”. The story is a coherent whole because despite touching Portugal and Egypt, it returns to the empirical links between them. It “begins in the late fourth century with the reign of Julian, the last non-Christian Roman emperor, and takes readers to the final years of the Western Roman Empire at the end of the sixth century.” The images shift rapidly between “pagan” or Roman styles and Christian ones because the empirical rulers who controlled this enormous Empire propagated cultural and theological changes in extreme and rapid fashion; the Nazi cultural symbolisms come to mind: if the Nazis won WWII and enforced their swastika symbols on their Empire within a generation, the art from pre and post this conquest would have been similarly drastically changed. “One hundred years before Julian’s rule, Emperor Diocletian had resolved that an empire stretching from the Atlantic to the Euphrates, and from the Rhine and Tyne to the Sahara, could not effectively be governed by one man. He had devised a system of governance, called the tetrarchy by modern scholars, to respond to the vastness of the empire, its new rivals, and the changing face of its citizenry. Powerful enemies like the barbarian coalitions of the Franks and the Alamanni threatened the imperial frontiers. The new Sasanian dynasty had come into power in Persia.” This explains the retained regional stylistic divergences: the relatively tiny Roman army ruled through fear rather than military might, and by giving regional power to despots allowed to enforce the style of government their people were familiar with. Perhaps, the Nazis failed much sooner in part because they did not listen to this lesson from history, and attempted to dress the world in their own ideology and clothing. The tragedy is not only in this Empire’s over-extension, but in part the relative failure of the West ahead of the East: “the Western Empire ceased to exist while the Eastern Empire remained politically strong and culturally vibrant. The changing structure of imperial rule, the rise of new elites, foreign invasions, the erosion of Roman and Greek religions, and the establishment of Christianity as the state religion mark these last two centuries of the Empire.” Perhaps, Christianity’s teachings (inherited from the rebellious, anti-Pharaoh Judaic tradition) allowed for rule via a Pope in Rome, but not for a Christian Emperor in charge of most of the “civilized” world. I recommend this as a textbook for political science and history classes, as students will come away with a deeper comprehension of a concept that is too often cited in common conversations, but is infrequently understood in its implications and realities.
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User reviews

LibraryThing member CharlesFerdinand
Very interesting take on the demise of the Western Roman empire. This is mainly a political-military history. Cultural aspects are mentioned, but not really elaborated upon. The author also has the courage to delve into the christological debates as they shaped a lot of the politics of the era. He
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also sticks to a consistently minimalist approach, limiting himself to what the sources can tell us and leaving the grand narrative to others.
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Physical description

416 p.; 6.38 inches


1781256322 / 9781781256329

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