Pax: War and Peace in Rome’s Golden Age

Image of Pax: War and Peace in Rome’s Golden Age
Release Date: 
September 26, 2023
Basic Books
Reviewed by: 

Holland writes about Rome with a Gibbonesque flair that both informs and entertains.”

Historian Tom Holland in his narrative history of the Roman Empire’s “Golden Age,” notes that it was Edward Gibbon in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire who first identified second century Rome CE as overseeing the most prosperous and peaceful period in human history. Rome’s achievement, Holland writes, was establishing “order” where before there was “chaos.” “Order was better than chaos,” Holland explains, “and the order brought by the Caesars . . . was indeed a thing of wonder.”

Rome’s citizens enjoyed temples, libraries, paved roads, and central heating, while benefiting from sanitation, education, irrigation, freshwater systems, and improved medical treatments. But Holland notes that in the midst of all that light, “there was also darkness”—the darkness of autocratic rule; murderous entertainments of the Collosseum (originally named the “Flavian Amphitheater,” the name Holland uses throughout the book); slavery; pederasty; political conspiracies; the slaughter of innocents; and colonial malfeasance.

But Holland does not judge Rome and its rulers by 21st century values and standards. One of his purposes in writing this history is to attempt “to understand [the Romans] not on our terms, but on their own, in all their ambivalence, their complexity and their contradictions.” In this endeavor, he benefited from archaeological finds that would have “stupefied and delighted Gibbon.” And Holland writes about Rome with a Gibbonesque flair that both informs and entertains.

Much of Holland’s book is about war and peace. Rome’s imperial conquests and suppression of rebellions—often in murderous and horrendous fashion—resulted in order that brought peace. The Roman Empire by the time of Hadrian—one of the best of Rome’s emperors—was, Holland writes, “the wealthiest, the most formidable, the most terrifying state that had ever existed.” This was Rome in its “imperial heyday.”

Maps show the extent of Roman rule. The Roman Empire in 68 CE stretched from Spain to Syria, from Britain to Egypt. Its frontiers were threatened by German tribes, Dacians, Armenians, and Brigantians. It faced rebellious subjects in Judea. Roman order was imposed by Roman legions, often ruthlessly. It was Rome’s legions, Holland writes, that “enabled them to conquer the world.” And those legions had instilled in them discipline and “a passion for honour.” But, as Holland points out, the “Roman people had won the rule of the world not only by force of arms, but also by mastering the arts of peace.”

But at times internal division whetted the appetites of Rome’s external enemies and rebellious subjects. Holland describes a time of troubles in Rome when a series of suicides and assassinations resulted in domestic political upheaval—even civil warfare—and the rise and fall of four emperors in one year (69 CE)—Galbo, Ortho, Vitellius, and Vespasian. There were insurgencies in Judea and Britain, and barbarian incursions on Rome’s frontiers.

The insurgencies were ultimately subdued, the frontiers secured. Emperor Vespasian had calmed the turbulent seas. Holland writes that Vespasian’s achievements were great and lasting. “Vespasian . . . had set the world on new and strong foundations” and ushered in an era of peace.

But peace did not mean the end of challenges and turmoil. Holland describes a series of natural disasters—fires, earthquakes, pestilence, the eruption of Vesuvius—that shook parts of the empire. And Rome’s frontiers and subjects did not remain quiet for long. But a series of strong emperors kept the general peace and prosperity of the empire—Domitian, Trajan, and Hadrian. And it was Hadrian, Holland notes, who saw Rome heading for imperial overstretch, toured vast regions of the empire, and prudently withdrew Roman legions to fortify and secure, at least for a time, Pax Romana.