Book Review: The Triumph of Empire: The Roman World from Hadrian to Constantine


by Michael Kulikowski

Cambridge, Ma.: Harvard University Press, 2016. Pp. xxvi, 360. Illus., maps, diag., append., notes, biblio., index. $35.00. ISBN: 0674659619

The Roman Empire's “Mid-Life Crisis”

In this well-written and insightful work, Prof. Kulikowski (Penn State), a specialist in late Roman times, takes us from the height of empire under the Antonines through the troubled late second and early third centuries, into the prolonged crisis of the mid-third century, the slow restoration of order completed by Diocletian, and on to the age of Constantine. He deftly interweaves political, military, economic, and social trends, and the rise of new religions, from which Christianity, ultimately emerged as dominant, instituting a relatively stable regime that endured for nearly a century.

Kulikowski opens with a look around the empire in the reign of the Antonines, when it was at its greatest extent, towards the end of which the initial signs of future difficulties could be discerned, with new troubles looming on the frontier and the reign of the inept and probably insane Commodus, which ended in a long civil war (193-197) and the dominance of Septimius Severus, who briefly restored unity and security, but which soon faded under his successors, a series of weak emperors, initiating the “Crisis of the Third Century”.

Kulikowski is particularly good in dealing with this prolonged crisis (335-384). He manages to sort through the two dozen or so emperors who came and went in quick succession, not to mention the many usurpers and many barbarian incursions, Persian invasions, and local insurrections which grew from and helped prolong the crisis. These were all ultimately due to the lack of an accepted “constitutional” process for determining the transmission of the imperium, which created internal chaos, and encouraged incursions by the Persians and the “Barbarians.” Kulikowski also makes some interesting comparisons with similar seismic events in other cultures during the same period, notably the disintegration of Han China, the collapse of Parthian domination of the Middle East and rise of Persia, and even in the migrations of various “barbarian” peoples of northern Europe.

Despite seemingly having fallen into a hopeless spiral of disorder and disintegration, the Empire proved surprisingly resilient. Order began to be restored with the rise of a series of able, if short reigned, emperors – Claudius Gothicus, Aurelian, Probus -- culminating in Diocletian (384-305). Kulikowski manages a clear explanation of the new Emperor’s many reforms, some of which were actually already in process, including the “Tetrarchy,” a way of settling the succession which looked good on paper, but failed in practice. The result was nearly 20 years of civil war and social change, despite which wholesale disorder did not reemerge, culminating in the dominance of Constantine.

In the course of discussing the many emperors in the period, Kulikowski also offers us some insights into their “management styles”, while continuing the process of rescuing Gallienus from a hostile ancient tradition of ineptitude and dissipation, and noting that some of the greatest of them deftly managed to please the leaders of the old aristocracy, while promoting new men likely to be more loyal, and certainly abler than members of the old senatorial class.

Kulikowski manages to sort through and help clarify many obscure events by his excellent treatment of the Empire’s middle period, making The Triumph of Empire, a volume in the Harvard series “History of the Ancient World”, a worthwhile read for anyone interested in Roman history.

Note: The Triumph of Empire is also available in several e-editions.


Reviewer: A. A. Nofi   

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