History is far more complicated than we often care to admit. Too often, we tend to oversimply or draw the wrong conclusions from historical events, mischaracterize or dismiss the actions of historical figures and peoples.
Academics today dislike the concept of empire, and their dislike has become widely accepted. The problem with this, Adrian Goldsworthy tells us, is that this dislike prevents academics, and so students and the wider public, from seeing the accomplishments of empires despite their flaws.
Goldsworthy, the author of well-received biographies of historical figures of the Roman world such as Julius Caesar, turns his attention to a familiar Latin phrase in his latest book: Pax Romana: War, Peace and Conquest in the Roman World (Yale University Press).
The dislike of empire, Goldsworthy believes, is one of the reasons why some scholars of our times have considered the notion of a Roman peace as exaggerated. Because they generally characterize the Romans as violent and exploitive, scholars tend to be skeptical about accepting the possibility that the Romans brought civilization and peace to the peoples they conquered.
To Goldsworthy Rome’s vast empire, and the length of time Rome dominated, made taking a close look at the meaning of Pax Romana worthwhile.
So he sought to understand what Pax Romana truly means and to learn “whether or not the Romans did preside over a peaceful and stable empire where war was rare and mainly banished to the fringes of the world.”
What Goldsworthy has discovered through careful analysis is that the Pax Romana truly existed. The warring and aggressive Romans did indeed bring an imperfect peace and stability that benefitted them and the lands and peoples they conquered and dominated.
Relying on both the writings of ancient writers such as Caesar, Cicero, Josephus, Pliny, and Tacitus, as well as scholarly work (the book includes an extensive bibliography), Pax Romana is a superb act of analysis and synthesis.
Goldsworthy looks at Pax Romana from a variety of angles, including Rome’s rise to power, its acts of war, its civil wars, how Rome treated friends and rivals, the role of travelers and settlers in expanding Roman culture and prosperity, emperors, rebellion, banditry, the lives and roles of governors, relations with Greek and Jewish communities, and what life was like under Roman rule.
Roman peace and stability was the result of Rome’s use of fear, power, and strength, as well as the belief in Roman superiority. This is well illustrated throughout the book but in particular through Goldsworthy’s well-told accounts of historical figures such as the German warlord Ariovistus and Briton’s Boudicca, who was publicly flogged and her daughters raped before she went on to lead a rebellion against Roman rule.
Goldsworthy is not an apologist for Roman aggression and brutality. Although Rome’s reliance on war and aggression does not mean that Roman peace and stability could not exist, he clearly shows that its price could be steep. Along with costly peace and stability, however, came expansion of trade and prosperity.
Goldsworthy spends little time on matters directly of interest to Christians, but those he does consider surely deepen our understanding; in addition, the overall theme of the book deepens our understanding of the expansion of Christianity.
Our Lord’s parable of the Good Samaritan, for example, is historically sound because bandits on the road were a real problem throughout the year’s of Roman peace. Banditry, Goldsworthy tells us, existed before Roman conquest and after. Rome could not eliminate banditry, but Roman punishment could be severe and a discouragement.
The publicani, contractors whose role included collecting taxes, and their local agents held great power in Roman provinces and were despised, as we read in Scripture; but surely Goldsworthy’s discussion here will expand the knowledge many have of publicans and tax collectors.
Goldsworthy tells us that Our Lord’s arrest, interrogation, condemnation, and execution came about quickly because he was not a Roman citizen. Our Lord’s attack on the moneychangers at the Temple was considered a direct attack on the authority of the Temple’s priests, and Roman Prefect Pontius Pilate was beholden to these priests to maintain order and control. While this worked to the benefit of the priests threatened by Our Lord, Joseph of Arimathea, a Sanhedrin, benefitted when he requested the body of Our Lord for burial.
Although he was eventually executed, Paul’s long and drawn out arrest and imprisonment was the result of his being a Roman citizen and his execution, which may have been delayed even further, the result of events of the time, including Nero’s decision to persecute and murder Christians.
Goldsworthy also provides insight into the Jewish experience under Roman rule. When the Jewish aristocracy united with rebels against Rome in the year 66, for example, the Roman response, which began with encouraging rebels to surrender, ended with the destruction of the Temple. A later rebellion resulted in the razing of hundreds of villages and towns.
Concise yet filled with detail, Goldworthy’s study is a definitive work on the reality of the Pax Romana. He has written a book of sound scholarship that should appeal to readers interested in classical European and Roman history, as well as Jewish history and the history of early Christianity.