Fall of the Roman Empire is revisited in new book by Penn State historian
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — The cascade of events that led to the toppling of an empire may not be as easy to trace as it seems, according to a Penn State historian who recently penned a new book on the fall of the Roman Empire.
Michael Kulikowski, Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of History and Classics at Penn State, said the process of researching and writing the book — published in November 2019 by Harvard University Press — made him rethink much of what he knew about the fall of Rome.
“There’s a lot of human excitement in this story. It’s a story about battles and palace intrigue, about princesses sending their rings to barbarian leaders,” Kulikowski said. “But it’s also interesting to explore the role of contingency and accident, that people can destroy something without meaning or wanting to. That’s the lesson that I took from it — that people can work in what they believe to be the best interests of the state and still destroy it.”
The book — titled “The Tragedy of Empire: From Constantine to the Destruction of Roman Italy” — opens in the fourth century during the reign of the emperor Julian. Kulikowski then follows 200 years of Roman history, ultimately ending with the fall of the western empire while the eastern empire continued to thrive.
“I wanted to explain why one half of the empire crumbled and the state structure disappeared, and one half survived,” Kulikowski said. “It survived in somewhat different form, but it survived and remained quite robust into the sixth century. I wanted to delve into these differences over the course of 100 years.”
According to Kulikowski, the Roman Empire went through several political upheavals in the third century CE before reemerging under the reign of Constantine, the first Christian emperor. Discord began in the western part of the Roman Empire, which is now western Europe and northern Africa, during the 400s when various aristocrats and generals started attacking state institutions in order to take control of them and access to power and wealth that came with them.
But, Kulikowski said their tactics ended up backfiring.
“The cumulative effect of this was that after a generation and half of people ripping down elements of the state structure in order to control it, they find that they’ve hollowed everything out, there’s nothing left, and it falls apart,” Kulikowski said. “And that’s what’s interesting, the idea that the effective short-term technique of sabotaging an element of a state that you want to take control of has the long-term effect of rendering that same state worthless.”
Ultimately, Kulikowski said, a new world emerged in the early 500s, with small kingdoms in Africa and to the west of Rome, and what was left of the eastern Roman empire being confined to smaller territories.
Kulikowski said that for him, the real story was the differences in how invested people in eastern and western Rome were in their governments.
“Human engagement with the structures of government makes an enormous difference,” Kulikowski said. “If people aren’t invested in the polity that they live in, then it’s quite possible for it to disappear without anybody willing it to go away.”
Kulikowski said that in times of political strife, people sometimes want to take lessons from the fall of Rome to apply to the modern world. While he generally cautions against these historical comparisons, he said some insight can still be gleaned.
“What I would say is that hostility, be it literal or rhetorical, to the institutions that you want to participate in,” Kulikowski said, “is a good way to destroy those institutions.”
The book is a sequel to Kulikowski’s “The Triumph of Empire: The Roman World from Hadrian to Constantine,” which recounts the history of Rome through the beginning of the reign of Constantine.