Book Review: The Tragedy of Empire: From Constantine to the Destruction of Roman Italy


by Michael Kulikowski

Cambridge Ma.: The Belknap Press, Harvard University Press, 2019. Pp. xxx, 382+. Illus., maps, appends., biblio., index. $35.00. ISBN: 0674660137

The Last Age of the Empire in the West

Prof. Kulikowski follows up his impressive The Triumph of Empire, on the two centuries from Hadrian to Constantine the Great, with this equally valuable look at the two centuries that followed, during which the empire died in the west, while surviving and reviving in the east.

Well before Constantine (r. AD 306-337), the Empire had become too huge for one man to rule, leading to Diocletian’s “Tetrarchy”, where two emperors and two deputy emperors shared power. This came apart in the early fourth century, leading to a series of civil wars from which Constantine had emerged supreme by AD 324. On his death, he left the empire to his sons, and despite the fiction of their sharing power over the whole, the eastern and western portions slowly drew apart, cooperating less and less over the decades.

Kulikowski’s tale is complex, and frequently bloody, with dynastic intrigue, Persian wars, assassinations, usurpations, religious disputes, barbarian incursions, and repeated civil wars, these last particularly pernicious, since they cost the empire blood and treasure that it could not spare, and raised further barriers to cooperation between east and west. As he goes through events reign by reign, he offers critical evaluations of emperors, perhaps overrating Julian, and stresses that unlike earlier periods, emperors were often less important than others, such as army commanders – Stilicho, Aetius, Ricimer, etc. Even kinswomen – Galla Placidia, Pulcheria, etc. – often came to wield more power than their sovereign, a problem particularly important in the collapse of the empire in the west. Kulikowski is also very good when dealing with the Persians and the “Barbarians”, rather than just seeing them from the Roman perspective.

We also get a look at how the political and military trends affected the inner life of the empire, and Kulikowski points out that many areas in the empire, both east and west, were surprisingly stable and even prosperous, despite the often seemingly momentous events taking place.

The Tragedy of Empire From Constantine to the Destruction of Roman Italy, a volume in the Belknap series “History of the Ancient World”, is a very valuable overview and analysis of the knotty question of why the empire “fell” in the west, while it survived in the east. It's well done, albeit with two flaws; most importantly no notes, and secondly insufficient maps.


Note: The Tragedy of Empire From Constantine to the Destruction of Roman Italy is also available in several e-editions.

StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium


Reviewer: A. A. Nofi   

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