The Triumph of Empire: The Roman World from Hadrian to Constantine by Michael Kulikowski is the first part of a two-volume series intended to survey Late Antiquity from a political and institutional perspective. In this first volume, Kulikowski covers the evolution of the Roman Empire from the Antonines through the Severans and the crisis of the third century to a new order under the governance of Constantine’s family. Kulikowski’s goal is to tell the story of this period not just through the filter of the imperial family and its personalities, but in a way that gives as broad a view as possible of the nature and growth of the administrative state (pp. 6-7).
The book is structured chronologically, beginning with a survey of the state of the empire under Trajan and ending with the rule of Julian—contrary to the book’s title, The Triumph of Empire actually covers a slightly broader stretch of time than that between Hadrian and Constantine (though those two emperors do get significantly more attention than either Trajan or Constantine’s successors, so the title is still reasonable enough). The reign and governmental apparatus of Hadrian, Septimius Severus, Valerian, Constantine, and Constantius receive the most attention—which again is reasonable enough given the nature of the extant sources—but Kulikowski by no means ignores the intervening and transitional events or people.
There are of course any number of challenges associated with writing the history of the Roman Empire during this time, the biggest of which is certainly the problematic (or non-existent) primary sources. In order to overcome the difficulty of such scanty or unreliable sources, Kulikowski supplements and reinterprets (and even occasionally refutes) the extant texts using the latest research in numismatics and epigraphy. These disciplines can be a challenge to the non- expert, and their extensive use runs the risk of swamping a history in arcane detail. Fortunately, Kulikowski is an excellent writer who manages both to present the evidence for his narrative clearly and to tell the story of the later Roman Empire in a style that is scholarly without being inaccessible.
In addition to synthesizing these various disciplines, Kulikowski expands upon the history of the Roman Empire by placing it in its broader international context. He explains how revolutions in the Far East, migrations and developments within Central Asian barbarian tribes, and (above all) events in the Parthian/Persian Empire affected Roman development. Again, inscriptions and coins facilitate this expanded view.
A second challenge with writing about the world of Late Antiquity is the continuing cultural resonance of Edward Gibbon’s magisterial Decline and Fall. Gibbon famously paints this era as a chaotic collapse from a golden age of reason and light into barbaric and superstitious darkness. By contrast, Kulikowski presents us with a compelling counter narrative very much in line with Peter Brown’s World of Late Antiquity. Without denying that the Roman Empire was in a state of transition and occasional upheaval—particularly during the crisis of the third century—Kulikowski pushes back against the perception of an empire in chaotic free-fall. He does this by painting a picture of the two- century-long trial-and-error development of a professional bureaucracy made up largely of the equestrian order. According to Kulikowski, this bureaucracy was fully established under the tetrarchy as the end result of a long and only occasionally intentional replacement of the older style of government-by-senatorial-aristocrat. While this view of the history of the empire is not original to Kulikowski, his incorporation of coins and inscriptions (see above) combined with his retelling of the high-level imperial narrative brings a fresh perspective to historical events and involves the occasional reinterpretation of personalities and events. Even better, despite his prefatory warning that The Triumph of Empire might feel like a morass of obscure Latin bureaucrats (pp. 6-7), Kulikowski’s prose flows lucidly such that the attentive reader is in no danger of getting lost in the increasingly Byzantine administration.
There are a few minor weaknesses in the book. First, and this is undoubtedly the result of a decision by the publisher, is the use of maps. There are a number of maps both at the beginning and scattered throughout the text of the book. There are likewise a number of clear and useful descriptions of terrain and important geographical influences that are worthy of note (especially the description of the various zones of northern Asia—pp. 120-21). However, no connections are drawn between the two. Specific references to specific maps would have saved the reader a bit of searching and flipping around. This is a minor quibble, and again one not attributable to Kulikowski.
Second, at times Kulikowski sounds as if he would rather be focusing on the sequel to this volume instead of on the text at hand. On several occasions we are referred to the forthcoming volume for more on the subject under consideration. There is nothing wrong with teasers or pointing to forthcoming works, but at times it does give The Triumph of Empire the feel of being merely a long preface to a book that is not yet available. I don’t know if that was the intention for this series, but I hope that it was not, given how good this book is on its own merits.
Third, more attention could have been given to the institutional development of Christianity prior to Constantine. Of course church structures in the second and third centuries were still in their early forms, but they did exist. When Christianity entered mainstream Roman culture it was at least partially formed. Kulikowski does provide a good introduction to the key actors, but a more thorough discussion of the structures within which they moved would have sharpened our view of their political life.
With that said, the strengths of The Triumph of Empire far outnumber its weaknesses. Kulikowski is an excellent writer who is simply superb at presenting detailed political history clearly and concisely. We should all look forward to the forthcoming volume, which will track the development of Late Antiquity down to the rise of Islam.