Pax Romana: War, Peace and Conquest in the Roman World
by Adrian Goldsworthy.
Yale University Press, 2016.
Hardcover, 528 pages, $32.50.

Historians, journalists, and amateur commentators over the last century have found in the Roman Empire a ready-made comparison for the United States: its political and military institutions, its mores, and—with renewed urgency since 2001—its role in the wider world. The Internet teems with think pieces on America’s similarities to Rome. (Call them legion, for they are many.) The idea that America is, somehow, going the same way as Rome has even seeped into the popular consciousness. For The Eagle, a film adaptation of Rosemary Sutcliffe’s novel The Eagle of the Ninth, director Kevin Macdonald deliberately cast American-accented actors in the Roman roles to further suggest—in a plot that already features bearded religious fanatics publicly beheading captured soldiers—unsubtle parallels to current politics.

How refreshing then that Adrian Goldsworthy’s study of the Roman Empire at its height, Pax Romana, largely eschews the question of America’s similarity to Rome. Such comparisons, he writes, are largely unhelpful and often fundamentally compromised by partisan motives. Contemporary Western students of history also “take the stability, security, wealth and much higher life expectancy of the post-war world as both natural and normal—even as a right.” That the peace and prosperity afforded by the Roman Empire created similar conditions should not reinforce that assumption. The Romans, as Goldsworthy demonstrates, were aware of the fragility of their peace. Their struggle to maintain it—through war and brutality, if necessary—is the story of the Empire.

Goldsworthy begins with the creation of the empire, which preceded the office of emperor (princeps) by centuries. The Romans had assembled their empire without plan and not always through conquest. Friendship (amicitia) with Rome proved alluring, and so diplomacy assumed early importance alongside the sword. Even the explosive growth of the Republic’s subject territory during Julius Caesar’s years in Gaul (58–50 BC) grew out of old patterns of military and diplomatic relations. Roman fides, integrity and good faith, dictated the actions of its provincial governors. Requests by friends for aid required Rome’s attention: enemies must be met, dealt with, and—the Romans felt no shame in admitting it—profited from. Trade and war were joint endeavors that both benefited Rome, though Goldsworthy notes that the Romans never started a war solely out of business interest. The Romans aimed to maintain the status quo through vigorous military action and efficient administration, and pursued both with pragmatic flexibility.

In the imperial period that makes up the majority of the book, from the reign of Augustus to the collapse of the empire into nearly continuous civil war (27 BC–AD 220), Goldsworthy does not recapitulate the usual stories of the imperial boudoir; the emperors, in this account, are distant figures, as they surely were to the empire’s subjects. Governors and the army provided the local face of the empire, especially as the Senate wielded less and less real power. Goldsworthy tellingly notes the difference in tone and content of the letters of Cicero (106–43 BC), who spent a year governing a province on behalf of the Republic, and those of Pliny the Younger (AD 61–c. 113), who governed a province on the Black Sea 160 years later under the emperor: “Wholly absent is Cicero’s concern for the outcome of elections, for building political friendships with others, for the changing balance of power and influence within the Senate and with the details of legislation. The reader of Pliny’s Letters can be left in no doubt that this was a state controlled by a princeps, whose influence … was everywhere.”

The ultimate result was a peace in which the emperor and the army were all that mattered. Subjects and citizens of the provinces could appeal directly to the emperor when accused of crimes or abused by their governors, and the Romans, remarkably, sacked governors proven to be guilty. Governors like Pliny consulted the emperor directly on issues both vexing (Christians) and mundane (allocating funds for infrastructure projects). Others, who negotiated crises that could not wait for replies by letter, nonetheless felt the pressure of acting on the emperor’s behalf. In perhaps the most famous Roman diplomatic crisis of all, a mob insisted that Pontius Pilate, prefect of Judea, was “not Caesar’s friend.”

The most striking chapters of Pax Romana deal with the rebellion, banditry, and lawlessness that Roman governors strove to suppress. Goldsworthy demonstrates that, rather than a constant low boil of insurrection, the pattern was similar over most of the empire—conquest or absorption, organized rebellion within the first generation or so, and finally a sustained peace under the accepted, if not enthusiastically embraced, rule of Caesar. Arminius and Boudicca, despite their cult status as nineteenth-century nationalist heroes, were exceptions rather than the rule. Arminius, who led a rebellion in Germany that annihilated three legions in AD 9, is doubly exceptional in that he is the only figure from this period to eject Roman forces permanently. The Roman army destroyed Boudicca’s rebellion (c. AD 60) and pacified Britain, which remained Roman until the fifth century. Other rebellions in Egypt, North Africa, and Judea met similar fates.

If the later chapters of Pax Romana, on garrison duty and the frontiers, lack some of the pizazz of reading about warfare, ambush, and massacre, it is indicative of the success of the Roman project. It also reflects the state of evidence for large swathes of the empire over long periods. Literary evidence for the day-to-day activity of the army is rare—even a fortification as famous as Hadrian’s Wall “is only mentioned some half-dozen times in Greek and Latin literature, even including Bede and others who wrote after the Roman period.” The occasionally discovered duty report, receipt, or memo may tantalize but is too little to extrapolate from with certainty. Archaeological evidence is abundant but still subject to questions and mountains of interpretation, a difficult reality given the adaptability of the Roman system to local conditions.

Goldsworthy, who has made a reputation for clear, thorough, and balanced scholarly biography and military history, shows restraint in these chapters and throughout the book. He avoids ideologically driven skepticism—and credulity—toward the sources, judiciously weighs evidence, and rejects the impulse to assert with confidence what is only conjecture. He leaves open the many possibilities for misunderstanding due to the silence of the archaeological and the selectivity of the literary evidence. There is always more to know.

But throughout, Goldsworthy emphasizes that there was real peace and stability through much of the period. That this was possible should invite admiration but not, Goldsworthy states, emulation. The Roman willingness to commit atrocities for pragmatic ends, as in crucifixion or the mutilation of captured enemies, “could not—and obviously should not—be contemplated.” He further notes, in one of his only allusions to the modern era, that no Roman army ever conquered an area “with the intention of establishing a functioning democracy and then withdrawing.”

It is only obvious differences like these that may be worth pointing out; real similarities to this “very different” world are few, contingent on evidence, and therefore incomplete, and we deceive ourselves if we indulge in them too readily. Instead, Goldsworthy offers Pax Romana as an invitation to rethink our assumption that peace is the natural state of the world, that conditions since 1945 are the norm. “This is most certainly not,” he concludes, “a call for a new Roman Empire, and is instead a reminder that so precious a thing as peace must be worked for.” The Romans, who built their peace through strings of forts and chains of administrators, would have agreed. 

Jordan M. Poss teaches history at Greenville Technical College in South Carolina and writes historical fiction in his spare time. He is the author most recently of The Last Day of Marcus Tullius Cicero.