The Pax Romana, or “Roman Peace,” is commonly defined as the period running from the foundation of the Roman imperial system under Augustus Caesar from 27 BCE until around180 CE, with the death of Emperor Marcus Aurelius.
Yet the Pax Romana was not just a period of time, it was above all an ideal. A cultural notion that fundamentally shaped the Roman Empire and even our modern conception of what ordered living is.
Under the Pax Romana Rome consolidated her empire, progressing her “civilizing” agenda over conquered peoples, in the West, Africa, and the Near East. Always benefiting Romans the most, prosperity increasingly benefited provincial peoples, who were assimilated into the empire.
“Give therefore your love and respect to the cause of peace, and to that capital in which we, conquerors and conquered, claim an equal right.”
[Tacitus, Histories 4.74]
Before the Pax Romana: A Broken Republic
The Pax Romana was in part defined by the discord of the Roman Republic that preceded it. The Republic had become untenable with its fractious politics, galloping expansionism, and highly volatile nature.
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Riven with civil violence, the Republic descended into coups and counter-coups, as successive strong men sought to monopolize power. Marius, Sulla, Caesar, Crassus, Pompey, Antony, and Octavian were all notable. Entire generations from among Rome’s senatorial and equestrian orders were killed in the troubles. This period witnessed civil and political violence on a massive scale, blighting generations, and creating future cycles of vendetta.
Indeed, the Republic suffered deep social, economic, and political trauma, and at its heart was the behavior of Rome’s elite. “The world was not enough” for Rome’s rapacious governing class. As the rewards and resources of the empire grew to obscene proportions, so too did the relentless ambition of the most competitive and deadly political class the world has ever seen.
The unintended effects of empire rocked the state, with Republican Italy seeing a massive influx of slaves that would fuel servile revolts, land clearances, disenfranchisement, rapid urbanization of the disposed poor, coups, political fighting, and a damaging social war with Rome’s own allies. Piracy and brigandage from across the destabilized Mediterranean came to Italy itself on an endemic scale. Rome’s elite gorged upon the riches of the empire, and in doing so, they almost killed the patient, on several occasions.
The provinces also suffered; the Republic was known for its rampant mismanagement and reckless greed. The notorious case of Verres (governor of Sicily), showed just how provincial office was used for personal enrichment. Other “stakeholders” of empire, like the publicani (private enterprise tax collectors), were also notorious, and provincial deputations to the Senate became a conspicuous feature of the age.
Fractious, dysfunctional, and creaking under the strain of empire, the late Republic was the antithesis of Pax Romana. If Rome was to flourish, something had to give.
The Augustan Settlement
Pax Romana began under the consolidated rule of Octavian (Augustus) Caesar, the adopted heir of Julius Caesar. Emerging as the victor from the civil wars, part of Octavian’s genius lay in his framing of victory. He deployed some seriously sophisticated propaganda:
“Behold, at last, that man, who was foretold…
Augustus Caesar, kindred unto Jove.
who brings with him a golden age…
His sway shall extend into India and Africa,
and he shall stretch the dominion of the Romans
beyond the sun and stars.”
[Virgil, Anead, Book. 6- 2. 788-796]
Augustus was nothing less than a new founder of Rome, the savior of all mankind. A “peace bringer,” he had delivered Rome and her dominions from the bloody horrors of Romans-killing-Romans. Churlish indeed was the person who mentioned that Augustus had also killed many of his own countrymen to achieve that peace.
Pax Romana, above all else, was the very basis of the Augustan achievement and it was celebrated with the dedication of the Ara Pacis Augustae (Altar of Peace) and other highly symbolic acts:
“The temple of Janus Quirinus, which had been closed but twice before his time since the founding of the city, he closed three times in a far shorter period, having won peace on land and sea.”
[Suetonius, Life of Augusts, 22]
Yet, governing fractious Romans, was no cake walk:
“Rome is not like primitive countries with their kings. Here we have no ruling caste dominating a nation of slaves. You are called to be the leader of men who can tolerate neither total slavery nor total liberty.”
[Tacitus, Histories, I.16]
The other masterful element of Augustan propaganda focused on his deft “packaging” of the new settlement.
That Augustus was able to curb the ambition of the senatorial classes, was largely down to how he maintained the façade of Rome’s Republican structures. Retaining their outward values, these institutions were stripped of their real power. Authority now resided in one man, the princeps, or “first man” of Rome. Though the cursus honorum (the elite career ladder of public office) still stood in name, these coveted posts were largely neutered under the power of the emperor.
So too the Senate would still sit, though its power was considerably muted. The emperor would attend the chamber on a curule chair, guarded (since the assassination of Julius Caesar) by armed men and the threat of force. A new generation of fearful sycophants would award him honors. A Republican like Cicero would have turned in his grave — a grave Octavian had helped him into.
Provincial and military commands were also under the imperial prerogative with key provinces (like Egypt — critical to Rome’s grain supply) exclusively within the control of the emperor. Provinces where the army was concentrated, were retained by the emperor with commands given only under his designated authority. In Rome and Italy, only the Praetorian cohorts, the personal troops of the emperor, held arms.
The now provincially based legions were re-ordered. The armies of Rome became regularized and professionalized as the mass levies of the civil wars were disbanded. The new imperial legions were increasingly concentrated on Rome’s critical frontiers, in many instances becoming semi-static in their placement along the empire’s borders, like the Rhine, Danube, Northern Britain, and the Near East.
The Augustan settlement and the laying of a dynastic legacy represented nothing short of an epochal change for Rome. The Republic was gone. The age of the emperors had arrived.
The period of the Pax Romana saw several emperors and dynasties, some more successful than others. However, as a rule their reigns were largely stable with several emperors ruling for prolonged periods. Though many dynasties followed a familial succession, the pragmatic Roman custom of undertaking political adoption allowed for imperial succession to be largely versatile and resilient.
The Augustan dynasty, the Julio-Claudians, saw a transition, as the princeps became fully autocratic emperors. There were of course both good and bad emperors. Among the Julio-Claudians alone (27BCE to 68CE), Augustus, Tiberius, and Claudius were all highly stable, with Caligula and Nero being far more erratic. Yet the imperial system held, and although some emperors were not popular, the system itself was durable.
The system almost faltered in 68/69 CE when Nero was usurped in what came to be known as “the year of the four emperors”, when several pretenders (Galba, Otho, Vitellius) contested the right to rule. However, the Flavian Dynasty (69 – 96 CE) of Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian restored a period of stability, though Domitian was not popular.
The latter half of the Pax Romana was dominated by the Nervan Dynasty (96 to 138 CE) — Nerva, Trajan, and Hadrian — followed by the Antonine Dynasty (138 to 192) — Antoninus, Marcus Aurelius, and Commodus. The first five of these men became known, to history as the “five good emperors” with the last, Commodus being widely hailed as the beginning of the end for the Pax Romana and Rome’s golden period.
This period (27 BCE – 192 CE) produced an exceptional run of stability and prosperity. In it the Roman empire stabilized its dominions and its rule, building infrastructure on a massive scale and developing a highly prosperous and sophisticated economy. If Augustus could boast “that he had found Rome made of brick and left it made of marble,” then we must set his words, against those of Dio who lamented the advent of Commodus:
“… our history now descends from a kingdom of gold to one of iron and rust, as affairs did for the Romans of that day.”
[Cassius Dio, History, 72.36.2]
Truly the 1st and 2nd centuries CE were the time of Rome’s greatest stability when the Pax Romana flourished.
Stability for the Empire
In terms of management, the rule of one man also meant that the vast Roman empire now had a coherent single plan and direction:
“… for “the condition,” he said, “of holding empire is that an account cannot be balanced unless it be rendered to one person.”
[Tacitus, Annals 1.6]
No longer could self-serving commanders roll out expansionist campaigns just to seize personal power: power turned against the state itself.
In this period Rome’s dominions and boundaries were far more stable than in any period before or after. Following the trauma of defeat in the Teutoburg Forest in 9 CE there was constant tension between those emperors who favored expansion, and those who tended towards the Augustan doctrine, that the empire had reached its natural limits. Though imperial campaigns continued in all periods, they tended to be much more defined, and strategic to those that had been rolled out, ad hoc, under the Republic.
In terms of imperial management, the empire was also more stable. With an emerging civil service, the management of trade, taxes, and laws all stabilized and were regularized. Provincial governors reported directly to the imperial regime. The lengthy letters of Pliny the Younger (61 – 113 CE) reveal a plethora of administrative minutiae that an ambitious governor might write to an emperor.
An Age of Growth and Integration
Massive programs of civic building across the empire reflected this period of peace and prosperity. Showy elites, who once vied with each other for triumphs, now turned that rivalry into outdoing each other in their public munificence:
“With the growth of the empire private wealth too,” he said, “had increased, and there was nothing new in this, but it accorded with the fashions of the earliest antiquity. … The State was the standard of everything; when it was poor, the homes of the citizens were humble; when it reached such magnificence, private grandeur increased.”
[Tacitus, Annals 2.33]
This age gave us much of the Roman architectural legacy that we still celebrate today. It was not just buildings in Rome, like the Colosseum, Trajan’s Column, or the Pantheon, it was major civic infrastructure, all over the empire in the form of roads, bridges, canals, harbors, lighthouses, amphitheaters, basilicas, forums, water houses, and aqueducts. The Pont du Gard, the Theatre at Merida, Hadrian’s Wall, the Porta Nigra at Nimes, and many others all hail from the 1st and 2nd centuries CE. The resulting effects on trade, economy, sanitation, education, and the rule of law all blossomed across a vast area: from the North Sea to the Middle East from Africa to the Rhine.
Prosperity was underwritten by periods of sustained stability on Rome’s frontiers, the army was stationed on established boundaries like the Rhine, Danube, or Hadrian’s wall. War and its threat were periodically present, but this really was the most settled period in Roman history:
“All these details Augustus had written with his own hand, and had added a counsel, that the empire should be confined to its present limits, either from fear or out of jealousy.”
[Tacitus, Annals. 1.11]
Though Augustus had decreed that Rome should abide by the “natural” limits to her empire, defined major campaigns did continue like Claudius’s conquest of Britain, Trajan’s Dacian Wars, and various campaigns against Parthia in the East. Emperors needed victories, yet the Republican model of unsustainable, laissez faire conquest was now over.
Provincial integration also flourished during the peace. Regional capitals like Alexandria, Carthage, Trier, Ephesus, and others, all blossomed as important Roman centers. The empire was at the earliest stages of embracing a pan Roman culture that would only deepen as Romanization took hold. Areas like provincial Spain and Gaul, grew in relative importance, with their own Romano-provincial elites becoming ever more serious players in the politics of empire. Other regions like Africa, the Balkans, and the Near East were not far behind and would profoundly impact the later empire.
Problems with the Pax Romana
It’s an oversimplification to think the Pax Romana was without problems. In this period there were wars, military mutinies, fires, riots, natural disasters, plots, coups, and even a brief civil war. Yet it was still markedly more stable than the late Republic.
In 9 CE the disaster of the Teutoburg Forest offered a profound shock and a stain on Augustus’s personal legacy, but it was little threat to the empire. There were also major wars of conquest under Claudius in Britain and various regional campaigns in the Balkans and against Rome’s new rival, mighty Parthia, to name but a few.
Periods of bad governance were also evident under Caligula and Nero. Tiberius and Domitian, although stable, were not well-liked. When Caligula was assassinated in 41CE, we can see the earliest roots of trouble to come. The perverse power of the Praetorians was highlighted when they chose Claudius as Caligula’s successor. This phenomenon would later blight the empire.
But if all that was problematic, then in Nero especially the imperial system began to feel the strain. With financial and provincial mismanagement Nero’s reign witnessed three major provincial revolts in Britain, Judea, and Gaul.
Forced to commit suicide in 69 CE the fall of Nero really was a serious challenge to the Pax Romana. It witnessed a short spell of bitter civil fighting of the kind the Republic had known. It also demonstrated a new inherent weakness of the imperial system:
“[Nero’s death] roused varying emotions, not only in the city among the senators and people and the city soldiery, but also among all the legions and generals; for the secret of empire was now revealed, that an emperor could be made elsewhere than at Rome.”
[Tacitus, Annals, 1.45]
This would have profound impacts on later periods of Roman history.
Emperors had to govern their empires and yet the tension between staying in Rome or bonding with the provincial citizens and armies was ever-present. Drusus had apparently said: “Princes … must often visit the extremities of their empire.” [Tacitus, Annals. 3.34], although this was clearly not the view of the emperor Tiberius:
“… it would be undignified for emperors, whenever there was a commotion in one or two states, to quit the capital, the centre of all government
[Tacitus, Annals, 3.47]
This was the constant tension which emperors fretted, and on which the Pax Romana hung.
Romans, like many imperialists, flattered themselves with the notion of the “civilizing” benefits of empire, and in this regard the Pax Romana was not just for Romans, it was also a gift to mankind:
“Roman, remember by your strength to rule
Earth’s peoples—for your arts are to be these:
To pacify, to impose the rule of law,
To spare the conquered, battle down the proud.”
[Virgil, Anead; [6.1151–1154]
How good this felt for provincials is debatable. Even the most bullish of Rome’s imperialists, acknowledged the perversity:
“To robbery, slaughter, plunder, they [The Romans] give the lying name of empire; they make a wasteland and call it peace.”
[Tacitus, Agricola, 30]
Ouch! This much Tacitus put into the mouths of Rome’s enemies, but he went far further, when he mocked the deceptively hollow benefits of Romanization:
“[Those Britons] … who lately disdained the tongue of Rome now coveted its eloquence. Hence, too, a liking sprang up for our style of dress, and the “toga” became fashionable. Step by step they were led to things which dispose to vice, the lounge, the bath, the elegant banquet. All this in their ignorance, they called civilization, when it was but a part of their servitude.”
[Tacitus, Agricola, 21]
When Vespasian emerged victorious from the troubles in 69 CE to take the throne, he too glorified the Pax Romana. The dedication of his Forum as a Temple to Peace, was not at all tarnished by the reality that the money for it had been plundered from the sack of Jerusalem.
In short, the Pax Romana was never “good” for everyone. The Romans obliterated all resistance to imposing their peace. Read the dialogue in Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, it’s a theme that repeats throughout history.
Pax Romana: A Golden Age
The Pax Romana was a relative golden age for Rome and her empire.
Although there were periodic challenges, the legacy of the Augustan system proved remarkably successful and resilient. No period was without problems but compared to the era of Republican turmoil, and what would come later during the “Crisis of the Third Century” the 1st and 2nd centuries were remarkably peaceful.
Pax Romana provided an age of incredible stability and consolidation for the empire. It witnessed a major flourishing of Roman culture, the economy, arts, and living standards. A period that brought not only peace, but all the benefits of peace, in the form of trade, commerce, building, and an explosion of culture and the arts. Deepening integration with the provinces also flourished and it created a new dynamic that would eventually change the very nature of “Roman” power forever.
The cultural significance of the Pax Romana has echoed down through history. This was an exceptional period not only in the ancient world, but within the context of wider history. Though we perhaps do not appreciate it fully ourselves, such periods of peace are extremely rare within human history and should never be taken for granted.