- Pax Romana: War, Peace and Conquest in the Roman World by Adrian Goldsworthy
In his best-known oration, the skilled rhetorician Aelius Aristides spoke of Rome as the pinnacle of civilization, defender of the righteous and bringer of [End Page 241] peace. This is a peace that was won at great cost, defended by the emperor and his legions, and supported by the columns of Roman government. It is a prize whose worth is all but impossible to quantify. It is not just a good thing, but the defining victory of the Roman world order. In contrast, in a speech within his Agricola, Tacitus introduced us to Calgacus, leader of the Caledonians. This barbarian spoke of Rome, and of the peace the Romans brought. It was a peace won through slaughter and slavery, a manifestation of an unquenchable greed that would never be satisfied. The notion of the Roman peace is a complex topic for us to decipher, as it was for ancient contemporaries. It has both positive and negative consequences, depending on when we are looking, and what we are looking for. There is a danger here in oversimplifying what is a nuanced and shifting sense of political order. It can invite a simplistic and rather unhelpful dichotomy: that Rome was a depriver of liberty and consequently peace was achieved at the expense of freedom (e.g., Tacitus); or, more worrying for modern commentators, that imperialism is a good thing (e.g., Aelius Aristides).
A full discussion of the reality of Roman imperial power, and of the creation and maintenance of peace, is needed perhaps now more than ever, as the ancient world begins once more to be drawn upon to defend the realities of modern political rule. The volume by Goldsworthy is a fluently written and in parts persuasive interpretation of the Pax Romana. The great strength of this work is its confident portrayal of the Roman and barbarian characters who shape the narrative of the late Republic and the early Empire. Cicero, Caesar, Pliny, Boudicca and Arminius appear as dynamic historical actors, fully realized as key players in Goldsworthy’s plotline. The book is also successful in navigating a course between celebration and castigation, and it demonstrates throughout an excellent understanding of the importance of peace to the Roman political order, as well as Roman alertness to the constant threat of violence at the hands of the legions and their enemies beyond their borders.
This is, then, a good historical analysis, with much to praise; but there is a single crucial weakness. The argument is at no point presented as strongly as needed, and this becomes more apparent as the book proceeds, when some of the points would have benefited from a much tighter articulation of the main argument, and exploration of the most recent scholarly perspectives. This is a strange omission, as in the introduction Goldsworthy stresses quite strongly how “[d]islike of empire tends to encourage scepticism over its achievements” (14), and presents the hint of an important revaluation of the Pax Romana.
The book is set out in two broad chronological sweeps, looking first to the Republic, and then to the Principate. Each section contains thematic chapters that dip into different areas and different characters of the Roman world (e.g., provincial government, benefits of empire, political institutions). There is much to praise here. The first tranche on the Republic (21–160) is insightful, and students will gain much by reading Goldsworthy’s account of the rise of Rome (21–36), the role of war (37–62) and the political value of friendship and enmity (63–86). Each of these chapters provides a good balance between narrative flair and clear historical analysis. Although the argument only appears sporadically, these are among the strongest elements of the book. The sections on Roman mercantile efforts and the governing of provinces remind the reader of the different manifestations of Roman power, but in truth these stretches become rather too descriptive, as indeed...