Peace. It’s more than just a word. It’s what nearly every person desires, yet it often seems so elusive. Just out of reach.
No one really likes war, what with all the bloodshed, destruction, and depravity and all. But war has been a part of life since the early days of human civilization.
Whether its resources, land, religion, or some combination of all three, not to mention plain old human greed or ambition, people always seem to be fighting other people about something.
Rejoice in Peace
For this reason, when the fighting stops, even if for just a moment, people take notice. There’s a collective sigh of relief, and everyone who was once scared or worried about their impending doom can take a break for a moment and actually get stuff done.
These periods of peace, however, are few and far between in our collective human history, whether ancient or modern. So much so that when they happen we tend to mark them as significant events and give them special names.
Pax Romana, which literally translates from Latin to “Roman Peace,” was a roughly 200-year period starting with the reign of Augustus Caesar (27 BC – 14 AD) and ending with that of Marcus Aurelius (161 – 180 AD) that was marked by relatively little conflict (though not none) and a dramatic expansion of Roman power across Europe, North Africa, and western Asia.
As Roman power spread, so too did its cultures and customs, connecting the ancient world more tightly than ever before, and laying the groundwork for the modern Western world..
Pax Romana: The End of the Civil Wars…Sort of
The issue with labeling this time period “Roman peace” is that it implies, quite directly, that there actually was peace.
Alas, there was not.
Instead, it’s better to say that there was quite a bit more peace than there ever had been before. Power consolidated into the hands of just a few families, and this brought relative stability to the Roman state, opening the door for a new era of progress and prosperity.
The Fall of the Roman Republic
During the era of the Roman republic (509-29BC) , this was not the case and civil wars were frequent in Rome.
Although power during this time ultimately rested with the Senate, an elected body set up to try and rule Rome democratically, aristocrats, merchants, and military commanders could win the favor of the people and challenge for more authority.
Army generals could also gain immense fame and influence through victories in war, and the many publicly elected officials, such as the tribunes, took power out of the hands of the Senate.
In the end, however, when two powerful men clashed, it was not uncommon for them to seek a solution on the battlefield.
In fact, both Julius and Augustus Caesar, the first men to rule Rome absolutely, came to power as a result of civil war. They used their influence with their armies to defy the Senate and coerce it into giving them complete control over the city and its territories.
Julius Caesar: The Hero of the People
The people of Rome had become tired of all this infighting and had begun to lose faith in the ability of the Senate to rule Rome.
Julius Caesar, an army general and powerful Senator, was seen as a hero and the savior of Rome, and he was beloved by the people.
When he was assassinated, shortly after being named dictator perpetuo, or dictator for life, the people viewed this as true treachery, a ploy by the aristocratic classes to seize power away from the people.
In the subsequent civil war, Caesar’s adopted son, Augustus, became the favorite amongst the people. Upon his victory, he was welcomed back to the city as its one and only ruler.
In this sense, the Roman Republic fell because the people wanted it to.
After Augustus’ reign began this process of never-ending wars these civil wars largely stopped.
So, as the Roman Republic crumbled, the empire emerged from the ashes, bringing with it the Pax Romana.
Of course, to say that the Pax Romana was without civil strife would be quite incorrect. Throughout these two centuries, power passed through the hands of several different families, with blood being spilt the entire way. But as compared to the epic wars from the times of the Republic, things were quite a bit calmer in Rome and its territories during this 200-year period.
This allowed the Roman civilization to grow in both size and influence, reshaping the world along the way.
Expanding the Roman Frontier
People tend to be calmer and more cooperative when they feel safe and secure. It’s only natural. And one way to feel safer and more secure is to put more and more miles between you and your enemies, making it harder for them to get to you and bringing you peace of mind.
A big part of the reason why there was any “pax” at all in Rome during this time was because the empire was constantly expanding outwards.
As each new emperor took the throne, they took it upon themselves to push the frontier of the Roman empire. This meant campaigning into northern and western Europe (into England and Scotland) as well as east (into Syria, Iraq, and Iran).
Pushing the boundaries of the Roman empire not only helped leaders and politicians gain influence with the people (by bringing glory to the empire), but it also made the Roman empire “safer.”
The people living in its interior — across modern Italy, Spain, Portugal, southern France, Greece, Israel, Lebanon, Egypt, all the way to Tunisia and Libya — were able to spend less time occupied with fighting nearby enemies. This meant they could do a whole lot more stuff. This, plus the expanded access to resources thanks to Rome’s growing territorial size, helped make Rome richer and more prosperous than ever before.
The Roman empire reached its peak territorial size during the Pax Romana, specifically during the reign of Hadrian (117 – 138 AD).
Connecting vast areas boosted trade and also contributed to the formation of a unique culture, one that mixed Latin and the local, and that created allegiances to a Roman identity, unifying Roman territories into an empire.
After the Pax Romana, this unity started to degrade. Rebellions from the provinces combined with a growing influence of Christianity wrinkled Rome’s grip on power throughout its empire. Add in some military pressure from Germanic tribes in the north and you’ve got the perfect recipe for an empire to fall.
In this sense, Pax Romana can be seen as the pinnacle period of the Roman empire, one in which it stood as a unified nation more than any other time during its history.
Making the World Roman: Building the Cities of the Roman Empire
Although people living in peace certainly contributed to the prosperity and political unity of the Pax Romana, the Roman emperors during the time of the Pax Romana also made an intentional effort to solidify Roman rule across Europe and the Mediterranean.
Hoping to build an empire, the elites of Roman society, particularly those in the imperial family, set out spreading Roman culture throughout the empire.
First the People
What makes a place a place? The people of course!
To make the Roman empire stronger and more cohesive, one of the things the Romans did was to settle its people, particularly military veterans, in lands it had conquered.
As soldiers got older and were replaced by new troops trained in Rome, they would be given a plot of land where they were. Roman troops traveled vast distances. Often, by the time of retirement, they had no home to return to, and so they were content settling wherever they found themselves at the time.
Sometimes as many as 90,000 troops could be settled in one of these “colonies.” The introduction of so many Romans to these new lands would dramatically reshape their culture and customs, with the local populations being forced to become more “Roman” in order to survive in this new world.
One of the biggest examples of this is that they had to learn at least some Latin, leading to the mixing of Latin with several languages resulting in what we now call the Romance languages: Spanish, French, Italian, Portugues, Romanian, Catalan, and many more.
The growth of these modern languages can in part be traced back to the influence of Latin during the heyday of the Roman empire.
Throughout the growth of the Roman republic and also during the Pax Romana, citizenship rights were granted to more and more people living in the provinces. This gave them a voice in the Senate and expanded their connections back to the city of Rome.
All of this meant there were a lot of people living in lands far from Rome — as many as 750,000 across just France, Spain, and Italy — who thought of themselves as Roman and sought to carry out the influence of Rome in the lands where they lived. The presence of these people gave these places a unique Roman feel that led to the strong bonds of empire characteristic of the Pax Romana.
And the Places of Course
People make a place. Sure, But there’s more to somewhere than just the people. The Romans seemed to know that. To show their love for Rome and its culture, the elites living throughout the provinces, often with the help of the emperors, set out to build cities across its empire that emulated Rome.
Roman architecture was put into cities as far away is London and Beirut, and public works projects became an important facet of imperial rule.
During the Pax Romana, the Flavian dynasty (that followed the families of Julius and Augustus Caesar), began and completed construction of their famous amphitheater, a building we know today simply as “The Colosseum.”
These efforts helped make places that were geographically very far from Rome look and feel a lot closer. This helped keep the elites there connected to and interested in Roman culture, which spread it and also strengthened the unity of the entire empire.
Connecting the Ancient World
They say “all roads lead to Rome” for a reason. During Roman times, they actually did!
Almost as soon as Augustus Caesar took over as the first emperor of Rome, it became custom for Rome’s “first citizen” to invest heavily in road building across the empire.
By the middle of the Pax Romana, roads traced across all of Europe, North Africa, and western Asia, connecting cities as far as London, Byzantium (Istanbul/Constantinople), Antioch (in modern Lebanon), and beyond.
The existence of these roads made trade across the empire even easier, helping contribute to the economic prosperity of the time. It also made it easier for armies to move throughout Roman lands, allowing them to get to the frontier sooner or to respond more quickly to a new threat.
In addition to roads, the Romans also built aqueducts, which were giant elevated canals that could carry freshwater across long distances. Many of these can still be found scattered across Europe and speak to how connected the Roman empire really was.
Bringing together its many cities helped spread and strengthen Roman influence across the lands it controlled.
Stability in Rome during the Pax Romana allowed these efforts to go on relatively uninterrupted for nearly 200 years, and the result of all this effort was an uber-connected Europe and a relatively strong Roman culture scattered across all the lands to which she laid claim.
Letting the Locals Be Locals…But Also Slaves
One of the reasons why the Romans were able to take and keep control of such a large area of territory was the result of how they approached people they conquered.
A common fate for those who’d fallen to Rome was to be made a slave. You might be forced to do hard manual labor, or, if you were young, you might be sent to Rome to learn a trade, where you would become indoctrinated with Roman culture, though you’d forever be a slave.
The threat of slavery made many people not want to mess with Rome. The stakes for losing were just too high.
So, when the Romans and their armies came knocking, it was common to make peace with them. At a base level, this meant subjecting to their taxes/tributes.
To smooth things out with the locals and solidify their conquet, the Romans would often turn around and hand power right back to the local people. They were allowed to run their own affairs and govern themselves, so long as they remembered their connection to Rome and fulfilled their commitments to her, mainly taxes.
This approach, along with the introduction of Roman people and customs into an area, helped improve relationships between Rome and its faraway subjects, even if the initial connection was that the Romans would invade you and make you slaves.
During the Pax Romana, this seemed to work better than during any other period, which is why it’s regarded as one of the most internally stable periods of ancient Roman history.
The Double Edged Sword of Absolute Power
The fact that transitioning from a republic to a military dictatorship or empire helped usher in a 200-year period of peace and prosperity known as the Pax Romana is not a ringing endorsement for democracy. Parts of the Roman republic remained during imperial times, but the reality is that most of the power was held by the emperor and those closest to him.
In the beginning, this seems to have helped Rome. It ended all of the civil wars and internal struggles that partially defined its history as a republic (509 – 49 BC). This stability then allowed Rome to tighten its grip on the vast territories it had conquered, forming a unified nation and a cultural bloc that would reshape the land it was formed on and, along the way, all of western history.
In the end, though, all this power in the hands of such a small group invited greed and ambition into the mix, which was followed closely by paranoia.
By the end of the Pax Romana, it was common for the emperor to turn on his supporters or vice versa as different people competed for power.
This eventually eroded the Pax Romana and thrust the empire into crisis, putting it firmly on the point path decline by the time Marcus Auerlius, the last emperor of the Pax Romana, turned the throne over to his son Commodus.
This opened a new chapter in Roman history, one that was defined by infighting, war, and decline. The peace and prosperity of the Pax Romana would become nothing more than a distant memory.
Written by Matthew Jones
Illustrated by Jean Galvao