The Books of 2020, #6: The Tragedy of Empire: From Constantine to the Destruction of Roman Italy, by Michael Kulikowski

I am an absolute sucker for books that take place AFTER epoch-defending events/times end. I feel like the Big Events are all copiously-covered by historical literature; there’s no shortage of books on World War II, the Roman Empire, the Civil War, etc.

But I am much more interested in the codas to these events. Okay, cool: Japan has surrendered. Rome has “fallen”. Lee has knelt to Grant at Appomattox.

Now what?

The Tragedy of Empire tries to answer this question, at least as regards the fall of Rome, by starting in Constantine’s reign, a decent consensus choice for “last high point of the Roman Empire”. We go from Rome’s final peak through the absolutely tragicomic “fall” of the Western Roman Empire, that part ruled generally from some city in Italy (though not always Rome near the end; ‘sup, Ravenna?) and not the eastern-ish half ruled mostly from Constantinople.

I was generally disappointed in this book. It is HEAVILY weighted towards a discussion of political, military and religious leaders and issues directly related to those topics; social, economic, and climactic factors, not so much. That’s fine, there is certainly a valid story to be told discussing primarily the lives and actions of the leading military, political and religious figures of the day, but it’s not the story I particularly want to read.

To be fair, there are (very) short sections two-three times throughout the book that talk (very) briefly about socioeconomic factors, or the changing climate we now know greatly affected the Roman world during this time; that’s good, but it’s not nearly enough.

But Kulikowski seems mostly interested in simply condensing and recording all that the primary sources have to say about the rulers through this time period. It does not matter if those rulers were good, bad, or barely noticeable; he gives the reader what is known about them. One might argue that it’s not particularly important to capture in great detail the life and doing of some Roman “Emperor” from the 420’s who was placed on the throne as a front by men of actual power, who did absolutely nothing while “ruling”, and who was summarily slaughtered in his bed after a glorious reign of a few weeks, but this book is going to tell you about him. His name was on a law promulgated somewhere once, and therefore He Matters.

The book would probably be better for the more-casual reader if the author exercised any editorial authority on which rulers to just leave the fuck out, either due to there not being much primary source material about them or because they simply didn’t do jack shit worth talking about. But, and all snark aside, this is a valid choice, I do believe Kulikowski expressly wanted to capture everything known about every leader of the era, good, bad or indifferent. In that, at least, he succeeds.

If you like old school, Great Men Make History-style recitations of high-ranking individuals and what they did or did not do well, this book will be your jam. Everybody else would be vastly better served reading something like The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians by Peter Heathers for a great, modern, general overview of all of the factors that contributed to Rome’s “fall” or The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End of an Empire by Kyle Peters, for a view that specifically focuses on climate and health as primary driving factors of the fall. Actually, reading Kulikowski’s book AND Peters’ work would combine to give you a good understanding of all that went in, but the Heathers book combines all of that together in a well-written narrative that would be my single recommendation on the topic as a whole.