The Roman Empire Wasn’t “Civilization.” It Was Violence.
Review of Michael Kulikowski, Imperial Triumph: The Roman World from Hadrian to Constantine (London: Profile Books, 2016) and Imperial Tragedy: From Constantine’s Empire to the Destruction of Roman Italy (London: Profile Books, 2019)
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
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