Imperial Tragedy: From Constantine's Empire to the Destruction of Roman Italy (AD 363–568)
Michael Kulikowski
Profile Books
416pp, 25 colour illustrations and 14 black-and-white maps
Hardback, £25

The decline and fall of the once vast and mighty Roman empire is a topic that has fascinated many historians over the centuries, and Edward Gibbon's famous 18th-century work on the subject has become something of an icon of non-fiction. The last centuries of the empire certainly were 'interesting times': the empire was divided between east and west, there was continual warfare and plenty of conflict between those at the top, and a new religion replaced the old gods, bringing about social transformations.

In this lively new book, Michael Kulikowski, Professor of History and Classics at Penn State University, is our guide to these turbulent times. A follow-up to his earlier book Imperial Triumph: The Roman World from Hadrian to Constantine (AD 138–363), published by Profile Books in 2016, Imperial Tragedy focuses on internal politics rather than external attacks, to tell the intriguing tale of Rome's gradual collapse, with regional factions, networks of families and powerful personalities all playing their part.

The two-emperor system with a senior emperor (Augustus) and a junior emperor (Caesar) was a sensible set-up for governing such a vast territory, but it was not without its problems. Tensions could flare, and that is the case with Constantius II, who executed his cousin and Caesar Gallus and appointed his last remaining male relative, Julian, to the role. Julian (much of whose family, relatives descended from Constantius' grand-father's second marriage, had been killed in a massacre ordered by Constantius), strove to be more than Caesar and even went as far as minting gold coins as Augustus. Ultimately, he succeeded, as Constantius made him co-Augustus, and therefore his successor, on the day that he died in AD 361.

Though Julian had been given a Christian education, he is perhaps most famous as the Apostate emperor, turning to Roman polytheism instead of the Christian church. As sole ruler and the last male survivor of the Constantinian dynasty, he sought to undo the social and political changes Constantine had made, but his reign was too short. Still, he introduced anti-Christian policies and some of his writings have survived, as have those of historian Ammianus Marcellinus, who accompanied the emperor's fatal expedition to the Persian capital Ctesiphon and provides a first-hand report of his death, one of the ancient sources used in the book.

While Constantinople was successfully set up as a thriving second Rome and the capital of the Eastern Empire, parts of the Western Empire gradually fell beyond the peripheries of imperial rule. The changes in these Western Kingdoms and in Rome itself are also charted by Kulikowski.

We learn, for instance, that Rome's senate enjoyed a certain degree of independence from the imperial throne late in the reign of the Western emperor Valentinian III (r 425–455) and under the quickly changing succession of rulers that followed. With this independence also came something of a cultural renaissance, from which we have surviving finely sculpted ivory diptychs handed out by consuls as they inaugurated the year.

This book is illustrated with well-chosen coloured plates of artefacts (including an exquisite example of an ivory diptych) and sites. It also has a handy series of maps showing the Roman empire in the 4th, 5th and 6th centuries, key cities and regions, and the domains of the Sassanian Empire.

A list of emperors offers further aid to anyone who may muddle their Justin and Justinian or Constantine, Constantinus, Constantius, and Constans. Weaving together a more than 200-year history of complex family affairs, rebels, battles, coups and intrigue into engaging prose, Kulikowski's book is an enjoyable read for anyone who is interested in late Roman history.

Lucia Marchini