The best books on Rome in the third century

Michael Kulikowski Author Of The Tragedy of Empire: From Constantine to the Destruction of Roman Italy
By Michael Kulikowski

Who am I?

I grew up playing with toy Roman legionaries, marveling at Roman coins, and poring over diagrams of Roman military equipment and their astonishing feats of engineering, went back and forth between wanting to be a medievalist or a Classicist and ended up settling into the study of the late Roman empire and the way it completely transformed its Classical heritage. Along with writing books on that period, I love writing on much wider ancient and medieval themes in the London Review of Books and the TLS.

I wrote...

Book cover of The Tragedy of Empire: From Constantine to the Destruction of Roman Italy

What is my book about?

The Tragedy of Empire begins in the late fourth century with the reign of Julian, the last non-Christian Roman emperor, and takes readers to the final years of the Western Roman Empire at the end of the sixth century. One hundred years before Julian's rule, Emperor Diocletian had resolved that an empire stretching from the Atlantic to the Euphrates, and from the Rhine and Tyne to the Sahara, could not effectively be governed by one man. He had devised a system of governance, called the tetrarchy by modern scholars, to respond to the vastness of the empire, its new rivals, and the changing face of its citizenry. Powerful enemies like the barbarian coalitions of the Franks and the Alamanni threatened the imperial frontiers. The new Sasanian dynasty had come into power in Persia. This was the political climate of the Roman world that Julian inherited.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The World of Late Antiquity

Why did I love this book?

The third century is the least known era of imperial Rome, but it’s also the hinge between a world that still had distant roots in the city-state that Rome was under the republic, and the world empire it had become. So many changes took place in the hundred or so years between Septimius Severus (r. 193-212) and Constantine (r. 306-337) that it’s impossible to understand later European, North African, and Middle Eastern history without considering them. Peter Brown was one of the first people to recognize that to understand the late Roman empire and early medieval Europe all the way up to Mohammad and Charlemagne, you had to understand the third century. This book inspired a generation of scholars to broaden their horizons to understand the Roman empire in all its colorful diversity.

By Peter Brown,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The World of Late Antiquity as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

These centuries, as the author demonstrates, were the era in which the most deeply rooted of ancient institutions disappeared for all time. By 476 the Roman empire had vanished from western Europe; by 655 the Persian empire had vanished from the Near East. Mr. Brown, Professor of History at Princeton University, examines these changes and men's reactions to them, but his account shows that the period was also one of outstanding new beginnings and defines the far-reaching impact both of Christianity on Europe and of Islam on the Near East. The result is a lucid answer to a crucial question…

Book cover of Imperial Rome and Christian Triumph

Why did I love this book?

Very few books put the history in art history with as much success as this one does. Instead of telling a linear story, in which the third century is a precipice over which Classical art falls into decline, Elsner picks out the many different strands and streams of artistic production that run in parallel with one another, and gets you to think about how they interact with contemporary social developments.

By Jas Elsner,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Imperial Rome and Christian Triumph as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Western culture saw some of the most significant and innovative developments take place during the passage from antiquity to the middle ages. This stimulating new book investigates the role of the visual arts as both reflections and agents of those changes. It tackles two inter-related periods of internal transformation within the Roman Empire: the phenomenon known as the 'Second Sophistic' (c. ad 100300)two centuries of self-conscious and enthusiastic hellenism, and the era of late antiquity (c. ad 250450) when the empire underwent a religious conversion to Christianity. Vases, murals, statues, and masonry are explored in relation to such issues as…

Emperors and Biography

By Ronald Syme,

Book cover of Emperors and Biography

Why did I love this book?

Ronald Syme was one of the greatest historians of the twentieth century, and probably the greatest Roman historian. This may seem like one for specialists only, unlike his classic Roman Revolution, but it’s got his distinctive style – florid and lapidary all at once – and is a master class in how to wring valuable information out of poor and deceptive sources.

Book cover of Hellenism and Empire: Language, Classicism, and Power in the Greek World

Why did I love this book?

This is a dense study of what was once cordoned off as ‘the Second Sophistic’, the flourishing of a revived Classical Greek culture under Roman hegemony. It’s the first really successful transformation of that perspective to a much broader vision of ‘being Greek under Rome’. It gets you to take seriously the many different ways in which language shapes identity, and places the medical writings of Galen and the sprawling histories of Cassius Dio back into the mainstream of Greek cultural history.

By Simon Swain,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Hellenism and Empire as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Hellenism and Empire explores identity, politics, and culture in the Greek world of the first three centuries AD, the period known as the second sophistic. The sources of this identity were the words and deeds of classical Greece, and the emphasis placed on Greekness and Greek heritage was far greater now than at any other time. Yet this period is often seen as a time of happy consensualism between the Greek and Roman halves of the Roman Empire. The first part of the book shows that Greek identity came before any loyalty to Rome (and was indeed partly a reaction…

Book cover of Septimius Severus: The African Emperor

Why did I love this book?

Writing a good biography is very different from writing a narrative history – they’re different art forms. Septimius Severus is the last Roman emperor about whom we can build up a fully rounded biographical portrait until Julian the Apostate, a century and a half later. In Birley’s meticulous telling, Severus comes across as a transformative political genius, a soldier of great skill -- and a monster of a human being.

By Anthony Birley,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Septimius Severus as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In this, the only biography of Septimius Severus in English, Anthony R. Birley explors how 'Roman' or otherwise this man was and examines his remarkable background and career.
Severus was descended from Phoenician settlers in Tripolitania, and his reign, AD 193-211, represents a key point in Roman history. Birley explores what was African and what was Roman in Septimius' background, given that he came from an African city. He asks whether Septimius was a 'typical cosmopolitan bureaucrat', a 'new Hannibal on the throne of Caesar' or 'principle author of the decline of the Roman Empire'?

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