Michael Kulikowski

Michael Kulikowski teaches at Penn State. Imperial Tragedy: From Constantine’s Empire to the Destruction of Roman Italy was published last year.

A Very Bad Man: Julius Caesar, Génocidaire

Michael Kulikowski, 18 June 2020

Consider​ the many things that would not exist without Caesar’s account of the Gallic Wars: Asterix and Obelix; The Wicker Man; Gauloises cigarettes; the little Airfix Romans and Britons that many of us grew up with. Even today, Caesar’s legionaries and their colourful Gallic foes are bread and butter for companies that sell expensive toy soldiers to middle-aged schoolboys. One...

How to End a Dynasty: Rehabilitating Nero

Michael Kulikowski, 19 March 2020

Threecenturies after the death of the emperor Nero, his name had become a byword for the very worst kind of ruler. For Ausonius of Bordeaux, in his didactic poem the Caesares, Nero was a savage and baleful matricide (saevus, dirus and matricida). By this time, the bad Nero was the only version anyone knew, his reputation distilled from the works of Tacitus and Suetonius, one of them a...

He Couldn’t Stop Himself: Justinian’s Wars

Michael Kulikowski, 21 March 2019

Had​ you been a sixth-century Christian, living in lands that had been or still were part of the Roman Empire, you would probably have met a demon. Every tree, hill and stream, every hovel and hamlet, harboured some threat to mortal souls. Demons coiled round the legs of dying sinners and snatched them up in their gaping jaws. They landed in wine cups and tricked people into drinking them....

Where Romulus Stood: Roman Town-Planning

Michael Kulikowski, 16 November 2017

The Romans​ were formidably good at organising space. Anyone who has flown into Venice from the west will have noticed the unusually rectilinear field systems (Google Earth will show you too), a legacy of Roman surveyors two millennia ago, and far from unique: Roman conquerors and colonists left this type of centuriation behind wherever they went. Roman milestones and boundary markers are...

Companions in Toil: The Praetorian Guard

Michael Kulikowski, 4 May 2017

Commodus,​ the only surviving son of the venerable Marcus Aurelius, lurched into megalomaniac excess soon after his succession. He thought he was divine, an incarnation of Hercules, and proclaimed imperial victories over Amazons and other imaginary peoples. He also fancied himself a gladiator (Ridley Scott’s film got that bit right) and delighted in slaughtering exotic creatures in...

‘Unless​ we can recognise the affinities as well as the differences in our studies of other societies, it is hard to explain why anyone should pay or be paid for studying them.’ You have to admire an academic monograph that wears its neoliberalism so proudly as to approve the abolition of academic study lacking in immediate ‘relevance’. Peter Acton throws out a red...

They were all foreigners: ‘SPQR’

Michael Kulikowski, 7 January 2016

Neil Tennant​ described his run of hits between ‘It’s a Sin’ and ‘Heart’ as the Pet Shop Boys’ imperial phase, when they owned the charts and charmed the critics by setting Che Guevara and Debussy to a disco beat. We are now in Mary Beard’s imperial phase, and she’s entered it with wit and charm and insight rather than the intellectual...

Anglophone​ ancient historians have never had much time for Marx. They tie themselves in knots to avoid class-based analyses, recasting what can look an awful lot like class in terms of something else (status, say, or ‘social stratification’); or they dismiss class as an analytical category on the grounds, refuted long ago by Fredric Jameson, that it’s inapplicable in a...

Mark Antony’s Last Throw: Hellenistic Navies

Michael Kulikowski, 25 October 2012

Hellenistic history is exceedingly hard to write, a kaleidoscope of great kings and petty warlords, huge armies fighting pointless wars. The period is badly documented, too often dependent on a stultifying first-century BC cut-and-paste job by Diodorus the Sicilian. Knowledge advances incrementally: a new reading here, an unpublished coin there, scattered archaeological finds here, there and...

Play the game: Cleopatra

Michael Kulikowski, 31 March 2011

We know much less than we would like about the Syrian queen Zenobia of Palmyra, and rather less than our 19th-century predecessors, who wrote before source-criticism eliminated much of the supposed evidence for her life. For a short time in the 260s and 270s AD, Zenobia ruled most of the Roman near east without reference to anyone’s authority but her own. In defeat and forced...

Butcher Boy: Mithridates

Michael Kulikowski, 22 April 2010

To cheat one’s enemy of victory can be a victory in itself, at least when any hope of actually winning a war has disappeared. So it was with one of Rome’s most flamboyant enemies, Mithridates VI Eupator, King of Pontus. He had cheated death for decades, at the hands of family, of ostensible friends, of many a declared enemy. Time and again he had checkmated Rome’s most...

Un-Roman Ways: The Last Days of Rome

Michael Kulikowski, 24 September 2009

Dates have a funny way of imposing a preconceived analysis on the past. They can function by synecdoche: 1776 for the five years of the American Revolution, 1976 for the punk revolution and its aftermath. Or they can work by metonymy: 1789 stands for the dawn of modernity itself. When a book takes that sort of date for a title, it’s rarely more than a gimmick to spice up a familiar...

High in the Pyrenees, early in the fifth century, a knot of Roman soldiers huddled together over the saddest kind of duty. A comrade-in-arms had died young, after just two years under the standards. They buried him with the honours he deserved, in his best uniform and his shining metal belt – the cingulum that was every fighting man’s pride, the sign that he was a soldier. No headstone would mark his grave – there was no one for miles to do the carving and, besides, headstones had been falling out of fashion for centuries. Only the memory of the young soldier would remain, fixed in the minds of onlookers by the spectacle, by the precious things deposited with the body, vanishing for ever as the earth fell on it. Without a headstone, we can’t know this young soldier’s name. In that, as in the manner of his burial, he is typical of thousands of fifth-century soldiers whose graves have been excavated. Or typical save in one respect: the dead Pyrenean soldier was a monkey, an adolescent macaque from the coast of North Africa, a thousand kilometres from where he died.

Letter
In my recent piece on Justinian’s Code I inadvertently misstated the point at issue in the central theological controversy (LRB, 21 March). This was indeed Christological, dealing solely with the problem of God the Son and having nothing to do with God the Father. The question was whether the son had two different natures, divine and human, in one indivisible divine person, or was one nature,...

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