Skip to main content

The Conquest of Ruins

The Third Reich and the Fall of Rome

The Roman Empire has been a source of inspiration and a model for imitation for Western empires practically since the moment Rome fell. Yet, as Julia Hell shows in The Conquest of Ruins, what has had the strongest grip on aspiring imperial imaginations isn’t that empire’s glory but its fall—and the haunting monuments left in its wake.

Hell examines centuries of European empire-building—from Charles V in the sixteenth century and Napoleon’s campaigns of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries to the atrocities of Mussolini and the Third Reich in the 1930s and ’40s—and sees a similar fascination with recreating the Roman past in the contemporary image. In every case—particularly that of the Nazi regime—the ruins of Rome seem to represent a mystery to be solved: how could an empire so powerful be brought so low? Hell argues that this fascination with the ruins of greatness expresses a need on the part of would-be conquerors to find something to ward off a similar demise for their particular empire.

576 pages | 44 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2019

Ancient Studies

History: European History

Literature and Literary Criticism: Germanic Languages

Political Science: Political and Social Theory


“Essential. . . A genuine intellectual tour de force. A complex and challenging read, The Conquest of Ruins will appeal to ruinologists, sociologists, and historians of both antiquity and modernity.”


“It is difficult to overstate the erudition of this work. The Conquest of Ruins is a stupendous achievement, the culmination of over a decade of meticulous research that will interest a wide range of scholars from classicists to post-colonial theorists. it is one of the most refreshing and impressive pieces of scholarship I have read in quite some time. Hell’s text is a testament to her talent as a synthetic thinker, establishing interdisciplinary parallels with an illuminating and trenchant analysis. Written in a lucid prose that leaves no room for unnecessary ambiguity, The Conquest of Ruins is a work I’ll keep returning to not only to inform my own scholarly projects but also as a reference and inspiration for the courses I teach. While the law of ruin stipulates that all things will inevitably deteriorate and collapse, Hell’s achievement looks well poised to defy this principle.”

Matthew Feminella | German Quarterly

“This is rich stuff and well worth the read. . . . The interweaving of textual analysis, art history and politics is impressive and fascinating; her erudition and mastery of her sources breathtaking.” 

Paul Monk | The Australian

“Hell’s dazzlingly ambitious book demonstrates the pervasive presence of Roman ruins—a haunting reminder of empire’s inevitable end—in the imagination of later empire builders, so often drawn to identification with Roman models. Fully alert to the complexity of ancient Roman reflections on ruin, Hell explores the political, aesthetic, and psychic resonance of recurrent scenes of ruin contemplation generated in the Holy Roman Empire of Charles V, revolutionary France, imperial Britain, and beyond. Above all she offers a compelling analysis of Nazi Germany’s deep-rooted and anxious obsession with the image of barbarians contemplating the monumental ruins of Rome.”

Catharine Edwards, author of Death in Ancient Rome

“Was Rome the inescapable model of all imperial enterprises? From the fall of Carthage to the fall of the Third Reich and the end of the colonial empires, Hell develops a brilliant and innovative interrogation of the very concept of mimesis and its modern revivals. A long journey—well informed, full of insights, strongly convincing—through the imperial history of the West. The Conquest of Ruins is going to become a major landmark.”

François Hartog, author of Regimes of Historicity

“One of the most original, learned, and thought-provoking books of the last decade. Encompassing thinkers and empire-builders from Polybios and Scipio to Heidegger and Hitler, Hell surveys the profoundly important topoi of the ruin gazer, the conqueror who recognizes that all empires must end, and the katechon, the delayer, who is able, at least for a time, to stave off the inevitable. The Conquest of Ruins is a landmark achievement, comparable in both scope and brilliance to J. G. A. Pocock’s epoch-making The Machiavellian Moment.”

Suzanne Marchand, author of German Orientalism in the Age of Empire

"Hell’s book, the fruit of extremely wide reading over decades, concentrates on one aspect of the vast range of acts and practices of Roman imitation that pepper the history of Western political thought and action."


"They are a familiar sight for any student of twentieth-century history: staged photographs of Adolf Hitler, leader of the Third Reich, gazing at a neoclassical building complex. Whether they are snapshots of the führer studying a scale model of Germania, the imperial city designed by his architect Albert Speer, or the aerial perspectives of Hitler staring down massive crowds from a gigantic podium during a Nüremberg rally, or footage of Hitler and the Italian monarch Emmanuele III touring Rome’s monuments at night—these images have become obligatory illustrations of the dictator’s megalomania, or of his missed calling as an artist and architect. Now Julia Hell has written a book, The Conquest of Ruins: The Third Reich and the Fall of Rome, that offers a compelling new reading of how these moments of architectural contemplation function in Hitler’s (and others’) will to power by inserting them both in modern German cultural history and in a much longer thread of neo-roman imperial ideology in the West... Hell’s book reads like an invitation to complicate the genealogy of all imperial violence in the West."

Journal of Modern History

Table of Contents

List of Abbreviations
Introduction. Neo-Roman Mimesis and the Law of Ruin

Part 1: After Carthage: The Roman Empire and Its Ruins

Chapter 1. In the Rubble of Carthage: Polybios’s Histories and the Time That Remains
Chapter 2. Building the Roman Stage: The Scenographic Architecture of the Augustan Era
Chapter 3. Virgil’s Imperial Epic and Lucan’s Pharsalia, or the Specter of Hannibal and the Ruins of Rome
Chapter 4. The Ruins of the Conquered: Josephus’s Jewish War and Pausanias’s Periegesis
Chapter 5. Rubble, Ruins, and the Time before the End: Paul, Tertullian, and the Roman Empire as Katechon

Part 2: Neo-Roman Mimesis: Charles V at Tunis, 1535

Chapter 6. “The Imagoes They Leave Behind”: Charles’s Death Masks and the Desire of the Past

Part 3: Neo-Roman Mimesis in the Modern Age: Cook’s Second Voyage to the South Pacific and the French Conquest of Egypt and Algeria

Chapter 7. Against Neo-Roman Mimesis: Johann Gottfried Herder at Carthage and François de Volney at Palmyra
Chapter 8. Edward Gibbon and the Secret of Empire, or Scipio Africanus and the Savages of the South Pacific
Chapter 9. Aeneas Fragment and the Enigma of the End: Georg Forster’s Voyage to the South Pacific and William Hodges’s Views of the Monuments of Easter Island
Chapter 10. Caught Up in “Eternal Repetitions”: Napoleon in Egypt and Rome
Chapter 11. Repetition of a Repetition: The Conquest of Algeria, and Louis Bertrand’s North African Latinité
Chapter 12. Maori in Europe: Ruin Gazing and Scopic Mastery

Part 4: From Germany’s Anti-Napoleonic Barbarians to the Ruin Gazer Scenarios of the Conservative Revolution

Chapter 13. Anti-Roman Barbarians: Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Heinrich von Kleist, C. D. Friedrich, and the Fight against Napoleon in the Ruins of Germania
Chapter 14. The Second German Reich: The Struggle for Rome, or Barbarians Becoming Romans
Chapter 15. Friedrich Nietzsche’s Modernist Mimesis and Gradiva’s Splendid Act of Imitation
Chapter 16. Empires, Ruins, and the Conservative Critique of Modernity: Friedrich Ratzel and Oswald Spengler

Part 5: With the End in Mind: The Nazi Empire’s Neo-Roman Mimesis and the Ruined Stage of Rome

Chapter 17. Hitler in Rome 1: Visiting the Mostra Augustea della Romanità, 1938
Chapter 18. Roman Lessons: Theorizing Empire, Conquering the East
Chapter 19. Creating the Twilight Zone of the Third Reich’s Neo-Roman Imaginary: German Classicists, Resurrectional Performances, and the Trope of the Neo-Roman Conqueror’s Fortified Gaze
Chapter 20. Resurrections in a Modernist Mode: Greeks, Spartans, and Wild Savages, or, the Restoration of Civilization’s Shattered Gaze
Chapter 21. Berlin/Germania: Seeing with Roman Eyes, Building a Roman Stage
Chapter 22. Hitler in Rome 2: The Führer as Ruin Gazer, 1938
Chapter 23. Return to Carthage, or Hitler’s Aeneas/Dido Fragment

Part 6: Romans or Greeks? Carl Schmitt and Martin Heidegger

Chapter 24. Katechon: Carl Schmitt’s Theology of Empire
Chapter 25. Empire and Time: Martin Heidegger’s Anti-Roman Intervention
Epilogue: Anselm Kiefer’s Zersetzungen/Disarticulations

Be the first to know

Get the latest updates on new releases, special offers, and media highlights when you subscribe to our email lists!

Sign up here for updates about the Press