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Review of Pax Romana: War, Peace and Conquest in the Roman World by Adrian Goldsworthy

‘If a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world, during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus [i.e. AD 96–180]. The vast extent of the Roman empire was governed by absolute power, under the guidance of virtue and wisdom.’ -Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

By most standards, Gibbon was right. Perhaps the Victorian Era of the British Empire could compare to Rome after Augustus clothed it in marble, America after the end of the Second World War might have, in some respects, compared, but other than that, Rome at its height was the greatest period in the history of mankind. The sculptures, the glory, the construction projects, the philosophy, all of it. Who compares to Augustus, to Hadrian, to Marcus Aurelius? No one. Nothing can compare to the Pax Romana.


That is why, in the words of Goldsworthy, “the Romans continue to fascinate us even though more than fifteen centuries have passed since the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West.

They were proud men, seemingly born to rule, and, if not, then they were certainly well adapted to it. Again, in Goldsworthy’s rules, “Like most imperial powers, the Romans felt that their domination was entirely right, divinely ordained and a good thing for the wider world.” Much like the British at their peak, back when Europe still believed in itself, the Romans kept their chins high and dominated.

But, unlike the tyrants of the 20th Century, Romans during the Pax Romana were not intolerable tyrants. Rather, they actually bought the peace and prosperity promised by many a dictatorial empire. As Goldsworthy tells it:

“Under Rome all this area had been united, sharing the same sophisticated Greco-Roman culture. It was a monarchy, lightly veiled by ‘the image of liberty’, but of universal good when the monarch was a decent, capable man. Monuments to its prosperity – temples, roads, aqueducts, circuses and arches – survived into Gibbon’s day. Most remain today, and centuries of archaeology have added greatly to their number and provided many other objects great and small. The empire was prosperous because it was peaceful, warfare banished to the frontiers which were protected by the army. This was the Pax Romana or Roman Peace, which allowed the greater part of the known world to flourish.”

It was a land at peace. Yes, legionnaires fought battle after battle along the frontier, providing many young men with the opportunity to win their renown and experience adventure, but the rest of the territory was peaceful and humanity could flourish.

That is why “As the system decayed around them, the people in the provinces still wanted to be Roman. A world without Rome was very hard to imagine and does not seem to have held much appeal.” Even when the dream that was Rome had been gone for many years, those who lived among its embers desperately wanted it to be real. Instead of the glory of Augustus they were left with a greedy, lecherous clergy that preyed on them rather than praying to God while barbarians placed them under a yoke.

Goldsworthy, in Pax Romana: War, Peace and Conquest in the Roman World tells the story of how that glorious empire came about.

There were the men that made it possible, first in the Republic and then under the Emperors:

“Legionaries were men of property – overwhelmingly farmers – who were felt to have a stake in the success of the Republic and who, when the army was disbanded, would return to their homes and normal lives…Romans – and their allies, who appear to have raised contingents in a similar manner – willingly accepted this obligation to their Republic. The levy worked because year after year men presented themselves to be selected by the officers tasked with raising new legions. Romans of all classes appear to have identified strongly with the state, and thus the Roman army was in a very real sense the Roman people under arms, commanded by leaders it had elected.”

“the young men could endure the hardships of war, they were taught a soldier’s duties in camp under a vigorous discipline, and they took more pleasure in handsome arms and war horses than in harlots and revelry.”

And those men of honor trampled their enemies time and time again:

“Early in the second century BC it was decreed that at least 5,000 enemy dead needed to have been counted after a battle for the victory to qualify for a triumph. On this calculation, the recorded triumphs would equate to at least 425,000 enemy corpses…It may well be that more human beings were killed by Roman gladius swords than any other weapon before the modern era.”

And with that violence, they accomplished great things. Immense power, wielded by philosopher kings, let them rid their world of pirates, rid most every road of robbers, and turn territory that would have been continuously plundered by barbarians into the beating heart of the world for centuries.

And even then, the good emperors were men that felt such a duty to their subjects that would make many a modern man blush. Take this story, for example:

“Hadrian travelled almost as widely as Augustus, and ‘once, when a woman made a request of him as he passed by on a journey, he at first said to her, “I haven’t time,” but afterwards, when she cried out, “Cease, then, being emperor,” he turned about and granted her a hearing’. There was a widespread and deeply rooted expectation that rulers, whether kings or emperors, should be willing to listen and should also be the source of generous benefaction.”

Can anyone imagine Joe Biden stopping to solve a commoner’s legal issue?

The story Goldsworthy tells is one that we’d all do well to remember. The Pax Romana was the greatest time in human history. Yes, there was brutality that the soft, pasty inhabitants of the present couldn’t handle. But it was more than that, so much more. There was glory in Imperium that we must not forget.

By: Gen Z Conservative.

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