Today one struggles to find much sympathy for Edward Gibbon’s view that, at its height, “the vast extent of Roman Empire was governed by absolute power, under the guidance of virtue and wisdom.” Contempt for empire, and for the British Empire in particular, is palpable. The student-led campaign to remove a statue of Cecil Rhodes from a building at the University of Oxford last year was no anomaly. Even among those who accept that there is little to be gained from obliterating such monuments, unease often still lingers over the roots of Western power and prosperity. That unease has found its place in the academy, and some say that it has done so to its detriment. While few would advocate a return to the gung-ho attitudes of some eighteenth- and nineteenth-century historians, there is certainly a risk that, by going too far in the other direction, we develop a myopic understanding of the empires of the past.

The Romans are now often scorned as blood-crazed empire builders.

The Romans are now often scorned as blood-crazed empire builders, who imposed their iron will upon blameless foreign peoples. Adrian Goldsworthy, the historian of ancient civilizations, rejects that characterization as simplistic and broadly inaccurate.1 He should not be considered contrarian for taking Roman peace, Pax Romana, as the subject of his monumental and highly engaging new book. “Pax,” as he explains, is derived from the same root as “pacare,” the verb the Romans used to describe the act of “pacifying” or subduing non-Romans through war. Roman peace, in other words, followed Roman conquest. The terrible human cost of Roman expansion is one that Goldsworthy readily acknowledges, but his book comes at a febrile time. We may well have reached the point at which no historian who highlights the achievements of empire is immune from accusations of being an apologist.

Rome did not become the empire that it was at its height without considerable aggression and bloodshed. Few of the soldiers who fought its wars could have doubted that they were acting honorably. “Virtus” was a martial quality: the valor and courage that ran in the blood of every true and decent Roman “vir,” or man. The historian Polybius, whom Goldsworthy quotes, attributed the Senate’s willingness to dispatch an army against Dalmatia in the mid-second century B.C. to their fear that the Italians might “become effeminate owing to the long peace.” To demonstrate virtus to oneself and to others in war was no less significant than the quest for security and wealth.

Roman soldiers thrived on “warring down the proud”—to the point that, by the early second century B.C., it was ruled that for a Roman victory to be considered worthy of a triumph, the enemy dead needed to exceed 5,000. Goldsworthy calculates that between 200 and 91 B.C., a period during which the Romans celebrated a staggering eighty-five triumphs, 425,000 non-Romans must have lost their lives. Given that a million more are thought to have died in the course of Julius Caesar’s campaigns in Gaul, Goldsworthy probably isn’t wide of the mark when he conjectures that “more human beings were killed by Roman gladius swords than any other weapon before the modern era” (though he adds that “the ubiquitous AK-47 has no doubt surpassed this grim record in the last half-century or so”).

Compare the empire of Rome to that of Alexander the Great, and you’ll find that it was larger and more enduring, but hardly more violent. Alexander’s assault on Persia set the tone for many later conflicts. It is against the background of these and the earlier campaigns of the Greeks and Persians that Goldsworthy believes Roman expansion should be understood. The difference, perhaps, is that the Romans learned to take as much pride in the peace that resulted from conquest as from the conquest itself. Non-Romans (as well as modern readers) may have eyed this so-called peace with suspicion; Goldsworthy quotes Tacitus’s account of a Caledonian war leader who claimed that the Romans “create a desolation and call it peace.” But the Romans certainly thought that the kind of peace they were capable of bestowing was to be lauded.

In the Res Gestae, his glorified résumé, Emperor Augustus boasted of ordering the doors of the temple of two-faced Janus to be closed three times, an act permitted only in peacetime. His great marble altar, the Ara Pacis (Altar of Peace), bore happy, rustic scenes of fertility and grand processions of the imperial family. In reality, Goldsworthy notes, the doors of Janus were shut just twice, and for barely a year at a time. The doors were prevented from being closed on the third occasion by the outbreak of war elsewhere in the empire. There was very little let-up in military campaigns under Augustus’ rule. Augustus was the great expander—had he not been, he could hardly have “found Rome made from brick and left it paved in marble.”

That is not to say that peace was not the Romans’ ultimate aim. Cicero once said that the Senate’s designation of provinces “should aim at maintaining lasting peace,” and one gets the impression that many shared his view. It wasn’t exactly in a Roman general’s interest to further antagonize the erstwhile rulers of freshly acquired territory. Few Romans had the patience to deal with bickering foreign chieftains, so they often permitted provinces to retain their old laws in the interest of stability. Goldsworthy is particularly good at explaining how the growing empire functioned administratively on a day-to-day basis.

Governors often permitted provinces to retain their old laws in the interest of stability.

We are on slightly riskier ground when we try to define certain Roman campaigns as defensive rather than offensive. While some Romans must certainly have felt that the bitter infighting and migration of Gallic tribes in the first century B.C. posed a threat to the stability of their surrounding territory, there is no doubt that Caesar was itching for a war, which the activity of the Gallic tribes duly gave him. Equally, Goldsworthy is right in suggesting that the Romans might genuinely have feared Mithridates VI Eupator of Pontus (a kingdom in Asia Minor, on the southern coast of the Black Sea). It ought, however, to be stressed that Rome’s establishment of the province of Asia on Mithridates’ doorstep, and its rapacious tax-farming in that region, are important background to the conflict. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the Romans often brought a lot more strife upon themselves than was necessary.

After the defeat of Carthage, for instance, piracy became a major headache for the Romans. Places such as Delos, which had helped to keep banditry at bay, were so weakened as a result of Roman activity that pirates gained the upper hand. A young Julius Caesar was among those captured near Rhodes. It would be some years before Pompey the Great was granted an extraordinary command to see the pirates off once and for all. In light of the Romans’ short-sightedness regarding the effects of subduing the places that had once restrained piracy, it is perhaps no surprise that Goldsworthy identifies the greatest threat to Roman peace and prosperity as having come from themselves during the same period. The civil wars of 88–30 B.C., he says, were the most destructive to security in Roman history.

While his prose is clear and measured, Goldsworthy’s argument is pleasingly impassioned. It is not right, he argues forcefully, to view all Romans as innately expansionist, when Roman expansion was largely resigned to the Republic and rule of Augustus. Later emperors engaged in war, of course, but after Augustus died in A.D. 14, there was less appetite for conflict. Why this change took place, Goldsworthy must concede, remains unclear. It is true that Augustus advised his heir Tiberius against further expansion. The reason Augustus issued that advice at all, however, is unknowable. Was it merely because he knew that further expansion would overstretch Rome’s resources, and that the empire had reached its natural limits, or was he more afraid of Tiberius overtaking his record? Did he mean that the Romans ought to keep the empire within its present limits for the time being, or forever? Goldsworthy is convinced that Augustus’ advice against further expansion could only have had a short-term effect. In the longer term, the later emperors’ relatively restrained foreign policy might reflect their unwillingness to leave the city for too long, and perhaps also their heightened regard for the peace that had already been achieved. A lack of war could be taken as a sign that Rome was so powerful that no one dared confront her.

The Pax Romana helped to put an end to a number of intertribal conflicts.

What, then, did Pax Romana achieve? In the long term, many territories were more peaceful than they had been before they were ruled from Rome. Revolts, Goldsworthy shows, were relatively rare, and when they did occur they tended to erupt in the immediate aftermath of takeover. Indeed, the Pax Romana helped to put an end to a number of intertribal conflicts. There was no more head hunting in Britain, for example, after the demise of Boudicca. Goldsworthy is surely right to suggest that one reason for the lack of rebellion was that the Romans strove hard to make conditions acceptable to those they imposed them upon. Though the Romans themselves liked to believe that peace reigned because everyone knew that they were unbeatable, Goldsworthy perhaps places a little too much emphasis on this as a further explanation for the lack of revolt. Are revolutionaries really so easily deterred? Was it not worth making one’s voice heard, despite knowing that little could change?

More convincing to the modern mind is his explanation that fear played a role in the success of Roman peace. People who had seen how the Romans forged that peace had every reason to fear the repercussions should they have broken it. One’s gut reaction is that Goldsworthy has played down the fear factor in his account. By the time one reaches the end of his book, however, one realizes how far modern distaste for imperialism has colored our view of the Roman Empire. Certainly there were cases in which fear played a part in people’s acceptance of Roman rule, but Goldsworthy’s achievement is to show that the alternative to Roman peace was often either unappealing or long forgotten. He has set Pax Romana in its proper context, which isn’t today’s politically correct world, but the Romans’ own world. Britain as the Romans found it would not have been a place we would have wanted to inhabit. The question that lingers is one provoked by our own times: Peace, but at what cost?

1Pax Romana: War, Peace and Conquest in the Roman World, by Adrian Goldsworthy; Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 528 pages, $32.50.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 35 Number 5, on page 79
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