Pax: War and Peace in Rome’s Golden Age


Over several centuries, Rome met and bested every other organised state of the Mediterranean basin. By overcoming all rivals, Rome extinguished the ability of other states to make war, which was now its monopoly. It was an empire the likes of which had never been seen before. ‘The [Roman] empire was the wealthiest, the most formidable, the most terrifying state that had ever existed,’ writes Tom Holland in Pax. It was ‘a state that repeatedly… made a show of its invincibility, so that even its enemies came to believe it could never be defeated’.

This time of Roman paramountcy came to be known as the Pax Romana, the ‘Roman peace’. From roughly 31 BC, following the Battle of Actium – where Octavian defeated Mark Antony, and soon thereafter became Rome’s first emperor – until the late 2nd century AD, the lands under Roman control experienced decade after decade of unprecedented peace and the economic prosperity that accompanied it.

However, the Pax Romana did not come without a major caveat. ‘The Roman peace was maintained at the point of a sword,’ notes Holland. This central paradox – a time of general peace underpinned by the constant threat of violence, and much actual bloodshed – is one of the primary themes of this book, which will be of interest to readers for what it conveys concerning the relationship between overwhelming military power and the benefits that it brought to the Roman world for the two centuries of the Pax Romana.

Holland’s purview in Pax is the period stretching from the late AD 60s to the late AD 130s. Given that it was of vast importance who commanded Rome’s armies, Holland draws portraits of each of the men (I do not bother to mention hereafter the soon-off-the stage losers of the Civil War of AD 69) to occupy the imperial throne during these years. There was the sybaritic, self-indulgent, philhellene Nero; the rugged old soldier Vespasian; his son, the young, popular soldier Titus; Vespasian’s second son, the unpopular but dutiful and conscientious Domitian; the briefly reigning, elderly Nerva; the great conqueror-emperor Trajan; and, lastly, the intellectual philhellene Hadrian, who reconsidered the wisdom of imperial expansionism.

At root, the empire was a military monarchy, with the emperors at its head, and all depended, in the final analysis, on the soldiers. Surprisingly then, the stupendous empire was guarded (‘held down’ applies equally as well) with a notable economy of manpower. Between 25 and 30 legions existed during this period, augmented by non-citizen, auxiliary units that, taken altogether, were roughly equivalent to legionary manpower. A polity that stretched from Britain to North Africa, from Portugal to Syria, was protected by a standing army of approximately half a million soldiers.

It ought to be remembered that the Pax Romana was a relative thing. Though the age of unending great wars may itself have come to an end, wars still occurred, and these were not themselves inconsequential affairs. In just the period covered by Pax, Nero’s reign was followed by the Roman Civil War of AD 69. Next came a war against an uprising in Judaea, which saw Jerusalem captured, as well as Masada. Significant wars were fought with the Dacians on the Danube frontier, and contumacious Britons were chastised in the far north of their island.

When the wealthy Dacian kingdom was finally crushed by Trajan in the opening years of the 1st century AD, vast amounts of treasure poured into Rome’s coffers. At the emperor’s subsequent triumph in Rome, ‘Of the gold and silver carted back from [Dacia]…’, says Holland, ‘…only a fraction could be displayed to the cheering people.’ Trajan would also fight a major war against Parthia a decade later, between AD 115 and 117. The Pax Romana was anything but total.

And the making of war, even when conducted by a fighting force as brilliantly able as the Roman army, came freighted with potential problems. Significant offensive operations beyond the imperial frontiers required denuding other sections of troops, or drawing them off from postings deeper inside the empire. Rome’s enemies were certain to notice any signs of weakening defences, and take advantage of them. In one example, while Emperor Trajan was on his multi-year campaign against the Parthians, leading an expeditionary force of a number of legions, there were serious disturbances in several eastern cities and provinces, particularly among the widely spread Judaeans who had migrated to other parts of the empire.

Potential problems Not even victorious wars could be counted on to be worth the effort expended in securing them. Trajan’s initially successful campaign against Parthia would in the end prove disappointing. The gains he made in Armenia and Mesopotamia were impossible to hold, and would soon be abandoned after his death.

The Battle of Actium, as depicted by Laureys a Castro in 1672. The naval clash of 31 BC saw Octavian defeat Mark Antony, and marked the beginning of the Pax Romana. Image: Wikimedia Commons

So what did this say about the nature of the Pax Romana? Was it as substantive an achievement as it seems from a historical distance? Or was it a thing that could exist only temporarily because of the relative weakness of the empire’s foes, whether external or internal?

Rome was fortunate, in ways it had not been either before the Pax Romana or would be afterward, that it had comparatively few very strong enemies to deal with. This state of affairs was thrown into stark relief when the great peace unravelled fully in the 3rd century, and an even more highly militarised, autocratic ‘Late Empire’ came into being to contend with more aggressive enemies all around, including a rejuvenated Persia under the Sassanid dynasty, and larger Germanic tribal confederations on the far sides of the Rhine and Danube.

But the Pax Romana was no mere mirage of imperial propaganda. It provided more than a semblance of order and security, among other things, to the people of the empire, especially, but not solely, those of the interior provinces. That it was at all possible had been primarily because the Roman army held a massive military edge over its enemies. The legionaries were plainly more effective fighters, and this did not come about by accident, but through soldierly discipline, bravery, and superior organisation. By being so powerful, the Roman army could enforce a peace that broadly benefited the people.

Holland is as talented and engaging a writer as you will find today. His scholarship never overwhelms the narrative, which unfolds organically across several decades of the Roman Golden Age. It was a golden age that also happened to be shot through with a fair share of iron years of war. Though Holland’s purpose with Pax is not to write a military history of the era, it’s well worth reading the book in light of the military picture it paints.

Tom Holland
Abacus Books, hbk (£30)
ISBN 978-1408706985