Peace & Pillage: Pax Romana by Adrian Goldsworthy

The Roman empire was once the hub of the world .

It is still the hub for me sometimes. After a particularly bad-news day, I like to read Latin literature.  What can be saner than the odes of Horace (65 B.C. to 8 A.D.), who often in his lyric poetry celebrated wine, love, and even the Pax Romana (Roman Peace), which was first established by Augustus after years of civil war?  And Seneca’s letters, which are essays on Stoicism?

And Roman history, too, enlightens us:  I recently read Adrian Goldsworthy’s brilliant history, Pax Romana:  War, Peace, and Conquest in the Roman World, a study of the remarkable achievement of Pax Romana (the Roman Peace first established by Augustus).  But he also writes about the paradoxes:  there was widespread peace in Rome and most of its provinces (rebellion was rare), while war was always waged elsewhere, as soldiers expanded the empire.

Although there are many comparisons between Rome and the U.S. (and of course the former British empire), the Roman Peace is no longer regarded as highly or romantically as it was in the 18th century when Edward Gibbon wroteThe Rise and the Fall of the Roman Empire.  Attitudes toward empire have changes.  Goldsworthy explains,

Peace is almost as rare today as it was for Gibbon and his contemporaries, and if the Romans truly did create a long period of peace over such a wide area then this deserves to be explained.  Praise of peace was commonplace for authors in the ancient world, Greek as well as Roman, but they also readily accepted that war would be frequent.  The word pax came to mean something very close to our “peace” by the first century B.C.  Peace was celebrated by  poets and often held up as the most desirable state.  Roman emperors boasted of preserving peace, and sometimes the expression “Roman peace’ was used when speaking of the good brought by the empire.  They also spoke a good deal of the glory of victory.  Imperator, the word from which we get our “emperor,” meant “victorious general,” and an emperor’s reputation was badly damaged if his troops suffered serious defeats, whether or not he was personally in command.

Goldsworthy’s writing is lucid, and though he is not as famous as Mary Beard, his books are just as readable.  Like Beard, he consults on documentaries for the History channel, National Geographic, and the BBC.  I very much admire the organization of the book: It is arranged not just chronologically, as in a traditional general history, but also by subject. In chapters like “How much did you make?–Government,” “Provincials and Kings,” “Rebellion,” “The Emperors,” “Life under Roman Rule,” and “Garrisons and Raids,” he describes trends, customs, and attitudes over a period of centuries.  And because he raises points about so many subjects, our favorite Roman characters,  Caesar, Cicero, Ovid, Trajan,  Paul (of the New Testament), Pliny, and even Pontius Pilate (the most famous governor) make many appearances.

The government of the empire was unique.  There were Roman governors, their small staffs, and garrisons in the provinces, but the provincial cities, villages, and other local groupings did much of the governing. And the expansion of the empire was, of course, for Roman profit. Provinces paid taxes, and commerce thrived;  aristocrats and the maddest of emperors, Caligula, Nero, and Domitian, liked their bangles as well as blood.

Goldsworthy reminds us that the Roman peace lasted till the fifth century, and did not disappear overnight.  He writes, , “Though the  Romans were very aggressive and well-armed, and were primarily interested in profit, there actually was a Roman peace, especially for those who lived in Rome.”