The Roman Empire Wasn’t “Civilization.” It Was Violence.
When English historian Edward Gibbon wrote his history of “the decline and fall of the Roman Empire” in the late eighteenth century, he was using the story of the decline of Christian Rome as a way to critique the Christian civilization of his own day. Gibbon’s prose lives on, but his timing was off. Despite setbacks in North America, the British Empire in Gibbon’s day, far from declining and falling, was just entering onto a steady climb to world supremacy.
Reading Roman history through the pages of the daily news is a time-honored tradition in the West. At the peak of American power, during the George W. Bush years, Americans also took up the “Are we Rome?” worry rock and rubbed it hard, fretting about the inevitable decline of imperial fortunes. “Every other empire in history has fallen,” many Americans fretted once America had established itself as the lone superpower. “Will ours, too?”
Now that the American colossus is also going the way of all worldly glory—now, in other words, that the last of the Western global empires is fading away after a more-than-five-century run—perhaps we can finally see Rome for what it really was. Not as coded message for the present, but as history, a product of its own time.
What was it, then, Rome and her imperial sway? Statism on steroids. The monuments and ruins one sees today while strolling around the Eternal City, and the statues, walls, baths, bridges, aqueducts, roads, and institutions one finds scattered across the western third of Eurasia from the time of Rome’s rule, are by-products of a massive centralized government wedded to a political theology of divine rulership and heavenly favor. Rome was the state, and the state ruled its empire with an iron fist. The theology of divine right to rule cloaked dark sins on the ground. Political murders, palace intrigues, endless slaughter, the plundering of cities, the enslavement of entire populations, and everyday cruelty to man and beast which would count for criminal depravity in our own time—this was Rome, down and dirty. Illiterate mobs whipped into killing frenzies by demagogues, generals literally stabbing emperors in the back, emperors chasing other emperors across oceans and landmasses seeking vengeance, all keyed to the tune of the state, the imaginary power which flows from and to the political center.
Strip away political theology from all empires and you find violence. Rome, perhaps more than most empires, was political violence at heart.
Where to turn for a true portrait of the Roman past? One of the best recent portraitists of Roman power is Michael Kulikowski, head of the Department of History at Penn State University and a specialist in the history of late imperial Rome. In two well-received books, Imperial Triumph and Imperial Tragedy (both of which were later released as paperbacks as a testament to their popularity), Kulikowski tells the familiar story of Rome rising, ruling, and then falling apart. But like other clear-eyed students of ancient Roman realities, such as English historian Mary Beard, Japanese historian and essayist Shiono Nanami, and Stanford history professor Walter Scheidel, Kulikowski does not filter his narrative through a haze of apologetics. He tells it, instead, with scholarly dispassion leavened by wry humor and neatly carried along in fluid prose.
Above all, and perhaps most important for understanding Rome today, when the temptation is to see Roman history as a mirror for our own time, Kulikowski rejects the use of Rome as analogy. His remit in Imperial Triumph and Imperial Tragedy is to portray Roman history not as prelude or lesson but as fact, a set of things that happened long ago. Kulikowski writes:
That the current world order is in crisis seems, as I write [ca. 2019], to have become an article of faith. At all such moments, invocations of Rome’s decline and fall are de rigueur, their vehemence in inverse proportion to their discernment. Professional historians can be forgiven the urge to contribute: a mistake. Historical analogy requires, by definition, simplification at odds with historical understanding. History neither repeats nor rhymes, and the only thing it should teach us is that, constrained by custom, by psychology, and by our always faulty memories, constrained most of all by circumstance not of our individual making, humans tend to make a mess of making their own fate. I hope I do justice to the mess and the muddle. (Imperial Tragedy, viii)
For the most part, Kulikowski keeps his promise across these two splendid volumes and sticks to the sources, speculating where those sources thin but always staying, to my mind, within the bounds of historical professionalism. Imperial Triumph and Imperial Tragedy are a fine set of histories, especially welcome at a time when Roman history qua Roman history—and not qua metaphor for the imperial present—is perhaps hardest to tell.
One of the most welcome features of both Imperial Triumph and Imperial Tragedy is Kulikowski’s skill in clarifying the almost overwhelming complexity of Roman politics. From the days of the late republic until the last gasps of the empire in the West, there were within Roman political consciousness layers and interconnections of political office, tradition, rank, privilege, and nomenclature. All of the various consuls, proconsuls, Caesars, Augustuses, ordines, protectores, notarii, agentes, comeses, prefects, and magisterium militums (these hardly come close to exhausting the list) are daunting to the reader some two thousand years removed from the context of those terms. But Kulikowski embeds them all within a clear governmental structure and clothes them in the cultural and religious realities of various times and places, helping the reader to understand who was doing what when and under what authority. If you took Roman history in high school or college and found yourself completely lost, don’t despair. Imperial Triumph and Imperial Tragedy are very thorough guides for the formerly perplexed.
That said, there are times in both volumes when Kulikowski might have been a touch less diligent in recreating the political minutiae of ancient Rome. Kulikowski is nothing if not an historian faithful to his sources, and it is true that political complexity (which abounds in Roman history) sometimes demands extensive explanation. But, in more than a few passages, my mind went woolly trying to keep separate the string of emperors named Constantine I (r. 306–07), Constantinus (Constantine II, r. 337–40), Constantius II (r. 337–61), Constans (r. 337–50), and Constantius III (r. 421) (Imperial Tragedy, 317). And this wasn’t even the hardest part. Roman imperial history is laced with personal and place names ranging from Celtic to Greek, Gothic to Persian. None of this is Kulikowski’s doing, of course. Roman history would be a tangle even if no historian were around to tell it. But I got the sense that in trying to condense a thousand years of political turmoil into about 620 pages or so across both volumes, Kulikowski was forced to sacrifice a bit of cultural context in the interest of keeping all the names and dates in place. There are lists of Roman emperors and Persian kings at the back of both volumes (the Romans were constantly fighting with or scheming against the Persians, hence the need to list the Persians with the Romans). This is a huge help, as are the splendid maps in each volume showing how Rome’s power ebbed and flowed over time. But still, the going can be a little hard in places. “History is just one damn thing after another,” the famous saying goes. I strove mightily in a handful of pages not to give in and agree.
Although he writes with a very old-school sense of detachment and scholarly decorum, Kulikowski does occasionally hint at the personal stakes of his scholarship in the rare sentence or two when he lets slip his mask of disinterest. It becomes clear reading through both Imperial Triumph and Imperial Tragedy that Kulikowski is particularly interested in complicating the received historical narrative about the “Huns.” For Kulikowski, the term “Hun” covers far too many bases and appears to have very little, if any, historical meaning. “In the fourth century AD,” Kulikowski writes,
a very old ethnic name reappears on the Eurasian steppe, that of the Huns. Linguistically, our word Hun goes back to the name of the Xiongnu (sometimes written Hsiung-nu), an extremely powerful nomadic empire that was the paradigmatic example of a steppe empire for the Chinese sources…. China’s Han dynasty had destroyed the Xiongnu empire in the first century BC, though a rump of the former ruling elites survived in the Altai region. In the fourth century, people styling themselves as Xiongnu began to make a reappearance. We find them described as Hunnoi (Latin and Greek, and their modern derivatives), or Chionitae (the Latin and Greek word for the central Asian subjects of the Persian empire), Huna (Sanskrit), and Xwn (Sogdian). These are almost certainly all different ways of writing the same indigenous word and that indigenous word is almost certainly what the people called themselves. But does that mean that all these people were “really” Xiongnu in some authentic existential sense? (Imperial Tragedy, 75)
Kulikowski’s answer is that probably the term “Hun” was applied to various peoples at various times, but that this apparent sameness reflects more about the “scholarly tropes” that European scholars in the “early modern centuries” associated with the “fall of Rome” and which those same scholars also “superimposed … on the world’s other cultures” at the time during which “Europe discovered and tried to conquer the rest of the world” (Imperial Tragedy, 76). Group identity “does not stay the same over generations just because [the group’s] name does,” Kulikowski argues (Imperial Tragedy, 76). Kulikowski spends a handful of pages in both Imperial Triumph and Imperial Tragedy explicating his theories of the variety of peoples who went under the catchall name of “Huns,” a very important part of his interventions into Roman history overall. More complexity to the story, yes, but this time in a very revealing way.
The Huns, whoever they were, were peripheral to Roman history, at least from the Roman perspective. But the lessons of identity which Kulikowski imparts can apply, I think, just as well to the Roman center as to the wilds beyond her borderlands. If “Hun” was a contested appellation, then so, too, was “Roman,” in many ways. Kulikowski’s historical narrative highlights the endless fight among over who got to be called “emperor” (or any of two dozen other official titles), whether the claimants came from the provinces or were born and raised in the shadow of the Seven Hills. Goths, Franks, Alans, Gauls, and a dozen other groups besides all wrangled for control of the imperial machinery of state. All of them were part of “Roman” history, of course. But as Rome expanded beyond the bounds of Italy and stretched into Africa, the Levant, and the untamed British Isles, the meaning of “Roman” and of “Rome” took on perhaps as many kaleidoscopic variations as “Hun” did.
My sense on reading Imperial Triumph and Imperial Tragedy is that this contested Roman center, in turn, reveals the true history of Rome, the true lesson for our time. Roman political history was bloody and ruthless. Yes, but then again, states are ever so. The more the Roman center was intrigued and schemed over, the more the body count increased as people fought and murdered to wear the imperial purple. What was Rome? It was violence, political violence as an organizing principle.
But here a distinct irony comes into play, at least in the western half of the Roman Empire. As Kulikowski shows, the more people fought over who got to be a Roman emperor, the more distant the actual city of Rome as a political organizing principle became. With constant fighting in the provinces against invaders and breakaway kings, and among rival claimants to the purple, “Roman” emperors grew increasingly aloof from Rome. Sometimes Rome is a backdrop to Kulikowski’s narrative, a trend which intensifies as we move deeper into the fifth and sixth centuries. The political center shifted to Ravenna in northern Italy, for example (especially during the 440s under Placidia, Emperor Valentian III’s [r. 425–55] daughter [Imperial Tragedy, 207]), and before that Diocletian (r. 284–305) had constructed a palace in the very early 300s at Split, Dalmatia, in modern-day Croatia (Imperial Triumph, 217). The emperor Hadrian (r. 117–38) had been intrigued by Greece and spent much of his time there, studying philosophy and taking part in the Eleusinian Mysteries (Imperial Triumph, 19–20). The much later emperor Justin I (r. 518–27) was compelled by warfare to sojourn at length on campaign along the Danube and Rhine (Imperial Tragedy, 1–4). By the latter third of the fifth century, as Kulikowski writes in Imperial Tragedy, some emperors didn’t even visit Rome at all.
This gradual disassociation of Rome the city from Rome the empire marked a trend that, in the end, would make for the true end of the Roman imperial period. Kulikowski is very good at showing how, over time, the various regions of the empire gained more and more autonomy and developed into political centers in their own right. The end of Kulikowski’s tale is especially apropos, for it is not so much an ending as a trailing off. People stopped caring about Rome, especially in the western half of the increasingly unmanageable empire that Constantine the Great (Constantine I, r. 306–37) had split in two in the early fourth century. (In the east, or course, Constantinople, named for that emperor, lingered on until it fell to the Ottoman Empire in 1453.) Eventually, Kulikowski writes, “Gothic Gaul and Spain” became “not simply Roman provinces under new management, but rather social worlds being transformed by outside practices that would have been utterly unfamiliar to the majority of the population. That was how the Latin Middle Ages began” (Imperial Tragedy, 273–74).
The historical diptych Imperial Triumph and Imperial Tragedy is a rich, scholarly, well-written retelling of the oft-told tale of the rise and fall of Rome. I recommend both books to anyone interested in Roman history or in history or politics in general. Kulikowski does not disappoint—this is a splendid history of Rome. But as the reader finishes the last pages of the second volume, I wonder if he will not agree with me that looking back over the intrigues and political assassinations, the wars and palace coups that give Roman imperial history its character, the end of that thousand-year experiment in statism was no tragedy at all. The real tragedy of empire, perhaps, is that the center is not worth fighting over in the first place and that the more people do fight over it, the more meaningless it becomes.