Pax Romana

Pax Romana

War, Peace and Conquest in the Roman World

Adrian Goldsworthy

Yale University Press, New Haven, Connecticut, 2016, 528 pages

Book Review published on: May 12, 2017

From the leaders of our early republic to the viewers of modern television and movie dramas about gladiators and legionnaires, Rome and its empire have long fascinated Americans as both an inspiration for government and civic virtue and as a cautionary tale of violent imperialism and political decadence and decay. In Pax Romana, Adrian Goldsworthy feeds our fascination for Rome by chronicling how the Romans conquered and then administered its empire. As one of the most prolific and knowledgeable modern scholars of ancient Rome, Goldsworthy is particularly well suited to tell this tale. He leaves no doubt that the Roman Empire came about because the Romans proved more adept at waging war than their neighbors. This, coupled with the fact that Rome “was a society comfortable with ‘pacifying’ peoples in distant lands and which did not accept any other state as an equal,” made it a particularly effective and successful imperialist power. He also makes clear that while their empire often expanded without any deliberate strategic planning or grand vision, the Romans never lost sight of the fact that the be-all and end-all of their imperial possessions was to strengthen and enrich Rome.

The great strength of the book lies in Goldsworthy’s examination in what came after the Roman conquests. He offers a detailed study of how the Romans administered, policed, and secured their provinces. While he never sugarcoats the fact that Roman rule was often harsh and that they frequently suppressed revolts or other challenges to their imperium with great brutality, Goldsworthy maintains that pragmatism, specifically the desire to have wealth flow to Rome as smoothly as possible, moderated their administration of the provinces. He notes, “The aim of Roman government was to keep the provincial communities stable, prosperous enough to pay their taxes in the long term, at peace with each other and content with imperial rule.” As such, the preferred Roman method of administration was whenever possible “letting the provincials run their own affairs.” In accomplishing this, the Romans developed a knack for playing the various factions and tribes within their provinces off of each other, for seducing and subverting local elites, and then slowly encouraging the masses to accommodate themselves to Roman ways and oversight. The only minor weakness in this excellent work is that after masterfully detailing the rise and maintenance of the Pax Romana, the author is too brief in his explanation of how and why the Roman peace unraveled.

Although Goldsworthy is rightly hesitant to draw parallels between the Roman and modern worlds and warns the reader against taking away direct “lessons” from the Pax Romana, his work still raises timeless issues. A changing world and the disappointments of the Republic’s recent nation-building efforts have led many Americans to question the viability and desirability of maintaining the post-World War II “Pax Americana.” During this time of national debate and soul-searching, Pax Romana encourages the reader to consider the nature of empires and the inherent challenges of super powers.

Book Review written by: Lt. Col. Richard S. Faulkner, PhD, U.S. Army, Retired, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas