Book Review: “Pax Romana” by Adrian Goldsworthy

Pax Romana by Adrian Goldsworthy

Adrian Goldsworthy’s latest book aims to examine what “Pax Romana” actually was, and how it was achieved. The term refers to the centuries of dominance of the Roman Empire, enforced by overwhelming military power, as well as diplomatic and economic hegemony.

But what does “Pax” (peace) mean? There was certainly armed conflict during those times, including major foreign and civil wars, disorder, piracy and bandits, and a variety military operations. For that matter, the Pax was maintained by hundreds of thousands of troops on active duty from Scotland to Arabia.

On the other hand, many places experienced safety and very little military violence for unprecedented periods of time. Commerce thrived across great distances, and law replaced combat for most local disputes.

Goldsworthy wants to work out a balanced assessment of how the Roman system really worked, with an eye to how “Pax” was experienced by people in many walks of life. To a certain extent, he is revising revisionist histories, actually multiple revisions of history.

Rome has been a fascination of scholars for a long time, and there has certainly been a tendency to project contemporary concerns onto the incomplete information we have about the ancient empire. As a result there have been many interpretations of Roman history which lean heavily on preconceived or anachronistic ideas.

One reason there have been so many different interpretations is that the first hand evidence consists of ancient texts (written by Romans) and archaeology. There are quite an array of texts, but they are fragmentary, often lack context, and mostly represent the view of certain Romans. (One exception is the conflicts between the Romans and Jews, which are documented from several sides.) The archaeology is unevenly distributed, and difficult to interpret unless there is sufficient context, but shows remains from everyday life that did not reach the written record.

Goldsworthy wants to sift through all this evidence to give us an overall picture faithful to the Romans themselves. He does a reasonable job of letting us know what he thinks without totally obscuring the views of earlier scholars.

The overall picture is of an active and aggressive military and diplomatic power, that enforced “peace” in its provinces and out into neighboring states, whether they wanted it or not. But who’s who and who did what is less clear.

For one thing, the Romans were amazingly good at absorbing newcomers into their system, and also were adept at diplomacy to support “friendly” neighbors. It can be very confusing to try to understand what the “sides” are, and who is fighting who.

So, in the end, what were the Romans up to?

Goldsworthy see Romans as always interested in dominance, and of acquiring profits from their military dominance. As he says, they were always open on this point: what mattered was winning, and exploiting the dominated for the benefit of Rome. Goldsworthy argues that once conquered, Rome needed to keep the peace within the provinces and protect them from external attack. This “Pax” stemmed from self-interest, it was not the goal of conquest.

The Roman state wasn’t democratic or humane or interested in the well being of anyone except the ruling elites; and the “peace” was never perfect, large areas did experience comparative peace and prosperity for centuries. And this Goldsworthy says, is worth admiration.

This book is a popular history, with sources but not obsessive citations. His prose is clear and readable, though I had plenty of trouble with the geography and dates—he tends to assume I know where Roman provinces and cities are, and the time period of the leaders, which I don’t.

As a broad, general history, he breezes through stuff, jumps around, and summarizes sources with little explanation. It’s hard to follow, and even harder to judge his arguments. In some cases, I know enough about the sources to trust his coverage, but other places (e.g., the Jewish and Christian sources, and some of his economic analyses), his interpretation seems to stretch awfully far based on highly questionable sources.  That makes me worry about his other generalizations.

But overall, his point is not to draw conclusions (or grind axes) about current concerns. Rome was Rome, and he wants us to understand it in its own terms. I certainly agree with that.


  1. Adrian Goldsworthy, Pax Romana: War Peace and Conquest in the Roman World, New Haven, Yale, 2016.

 

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