What was the Pax Romana?

Pax Romana: The period of peace for the Roman Empire that was initiated with Augustus becoming an Emperor.

What was the Pax Romana?
The front of the Ara Pacis Augustae. Credits: Rabax63, CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED

The Pax Romana, which translates to "Roman Peace," was a significant period in the history of the Roman Empire. Spanning approximately 200 years, from 27 BCE to 180 CE, this era was marked by an unprecedented state of tranquility across the vast Roman territories, from as far north as Scotland to the sands of Egypt in the south.

Understanding Pax Romana

Definition and Timeline

The term "Pax Romana" was first coined by historian Edward Gibbon in his work "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire." It describes the time from the beginning of the reign of Emperor Augustus in 27 BCE, following the end of the Final War of the Roman Republic, to the death of Emperor Marcus Aurelius in 180 CE.

The Pax Romana,  marked a time of relative tranquility and stability across the Roman Empire. During these years, the empire achieved its largest geographical size through a combination of conquest, diplomacy, and cultural assimilation, often referred to as Romanization.

The absence of significant external or internal threats enhanced the empire's stability, allowing Roman emperors to concentrate on administration. This focus fostered a significant expansion in trade and commerce, as well as a cultural renaissance that influenced every corner of the extensive Roman territories.

The moment Augustus became an Emperor
The moment Augustus became an Emperor. Illustration: DALL-E

Governance and Political Stability

The Pax Romana, also known as the "Roman Peace," marked an era of unparalleled peace and prosperity that commenced in 27 BC with Augustus founding the Roman Empire. This Golden Era concluded around 180 AD following the death of Marcus Aurelius and the subsequent assassination of his successor, Commodus.

Throughout this extended period of stability, Rome emerged as a dominant force in the ancient world. The empire enhanced its economy through strategic military expansions that incorporated affluent regions, notably the gold-rich province of Dacia. Moreover, Augustus' annexation of Egypt facilitated the opening of the Indian Ocean trade route, forging vital economic and diplomatic ties with India and China.

Central to the Pax Romana was the establishment of a stable governance structure under Augustus, who implemented a form of monarchical rule hidden behind the façade of traditional Roman Republican values. Rising as the triumphant leader after the civil wars, part of Octavian's  (Augustus) brilliance was in how he presented his victory. He utilized highly sophisticated propaganda techniques:

“Behold, at last, that man, who was foretold…
Augustus Caesar, kindred unto Jove.
who brings with him a golden age…
His sway shall extend into India and Africa,
and he shall stretch the dominion of the Romans
beyond the sun and stars.”

[Virgil, Anead, Book. 6- 2. 788-796]

Augustus was heralded as a new founder of Rome, hailed as the savior of humanity. Known as a "peace bringer," he was credited with rescuing Rome and its territories from the brutal realities of civil war. It would indeed be cynical to point out that Augustus himself was responsible for the deaths of many fellow Romans to secure this peace. Above all, Pax Romana was the cornerstone of Augustan success, celebrated through the establishment of the Ara Pacis Augustae (Altar of Peace) and other symbolic gestures:

“The temple of Janus Quirinus, which had been closed but twice before his time since the founding of the city,​ he closed three times in a far shorter period, having won peace on land and sea.”

[Suetonius, Life of Augusts, 22]

Two Praetorian guards are checking the progress of the sculptor on Augusts' Ara Pacis Augustae, in his workshop
Two Praetorian guards are checking the progress of the sculptor on Augusts' Ara Pacis Augustae, in his workshop. Illustration: Midjourney

Augustus’s ability to curb the ambitions of the senatorial class was largely due to his skill in maintaining the appearance of Rome’s Republican structure. While preserving their outward values, he effectively stripped these institutions of their true power. Authority was now centralized in the hands of a single individual, the princeps, or "first citizen" of Rome. Although the cursus honorum (the prestigious career path of public office) still existed in name, its roles were significantly weakened under the emperor’s dominion.

Similarly, the Senate continued to meet, but its influence was greatly diminished. The emperor would preside over the Senate from a curule chair, protected by armed guards—a measure instated after the assassination of Julius Caesar.

Following the collapse of the Second Triumvirate, Augustus maintained the appearance of a free Republic, with power ostensibly held by the Roman Senate, the executive magistrates, and the legislative assemblies. Yet, in truth, he continued to exercise autocratic control as a military dictator. Augustus was legally endowed with lifelong powers by the Senate, which included supreme military command along with the roles of tribune and censor. It required several years for Augustus to craft a system where a nominally republican state could operate under his singular command.

Between 30 and 2 BCE, Augustus enacted a series of legislative changes that effectively shifted the Roman Republic’s constitution to that of the Roman Empire. In this period, he overhauled the Roman tax system, built extensive road networks complete with an official courier service, established a permanent army and the Praetorian Guard, and introduced formal police and fire services in Rome. He also spearheaded a significant reconstruction of the city throughout his rule.

This period saw fewer wars and minimized internal conflicts, which were common in the preceding centuries. The political stability, coupled with a strong legal system and widespread Roman laws, fostered a safe and stable environment for trade and economic activities to flourish.

Impact of Pax Romana

Economic Growth

The peace established during the Pax Romana led to increased trade routes, not only within the empire across the Mediterranean but also with distant lands such as India and China. The secure and expanded network of roads facilitated easier movement of goods and people, which boosted economic prosperity and allowed Roman culture to influence distant regions.

During the Pax Romana, the expansion of long-distance maritime trade and the Silk Roads resulted in an influx of luxury goods such as spices, perfumes, jewelry, and fine silk clothing into Rome. Despite this global trade, the Mediterranean Sea remained the core of the Roman Empire. Throughout this era, thousands of merchant ships navigated the "Mare Nostrum" (Our Sea), as the Romans called the Mediterranean.

A ship, part of the mighty Roman navy carrying goods via the Mediterranean
A ship, part of the mighty Roman navy carrying goods via the Mediterranean. illustration: DALL-E

The significance of Mediterranean trade was underscored by the presence of a formidable Roman navy, tasked with safeguarding the sea routes and protecting vital shipments, such as the Egyptian grain fleets destined for Rome, from pirate attacks. Furthermore, the thriving trade across the Mediterranean supported the growth and prosperity of Roman cities, including Rome itself, which saw its population swell to one million inhabitants by the first century.

Cultural Integration

As Rome integrated diverse cultures and people from different parts of Europe, Africa, and Asia, the Pax Romana helped in the assimilation process by promoting peace and economic interdependence among provinces. This led to a kind of cultural homogenization, where local traditions blended with Roman practices, enriching the Roman state's cultural tapestry.

Architectural and Engineering Feats

This period also witnessed remarkable achievements in architecture and engineering. The construction of iconic structures like the Pantheon, the expansion of the Roman aqueducts, and the consolidation of the Roman road network highlighted the era’s advancements. These constructions not only served practical purposes but also stood as symbols of Roman engineering prowess and imperial might.

The Ara Pacis Augustae, also known as the Altar of Augustan Peace, stands as a prominent example of Augustan artistic propaganda and a key symbol of the newly established Pax Romana. Initiated by the Senate in 13 BCE, it was built to celebrate the peace and prosperity that Augustus brought upon his return from campaigns in Spain and Gaul. The theme of peace is predominantly illustrated on the east and west walls of the Ara Pacis, each featuring two panels, although today only fragments of one panel on each side survive.

On the east wall, an enigmatic goddess—thought by some scholars to be Tellus, Venus, or Peace—is depicted in an allegorical representation of abundance and fertility, with twins and a cornucopia of fruits in her lap. She is encircled by personifications of the wind and sea, each atop a bird or sea creature. Below her, a bull and lamb, traditional sacrificial animals, rest among blooming plants. The second, almost incomplete panel on the east seems to portray a female warrior, possibly Roma, amidst the treasures of victory.

Emperor Augustus inspecting the newly formed Praetorian Guard
Emperor Augustus inspecting the newly formed Praetorian Guard. Illustration: Midjourney

Events Characterizing Pax Romana

Key Milestones

The reign of Augustus marked the beginning of the era, where he secured the empire’s borders and reformed the Roman army. The establishment of the Praetorian Guard by Augustus as a force dedicated to protecting the emperor.

The "Five Good Emperors," starting with Nerva and ending with Marcus Aurelius, who are noted for their philosophical, just, and benevolent rule, which contributed significantly to the prosperity and stability of the empire.

Decline

The death of Marcus Aurelius in 180 CE is traditionally considered the end of the Pax Romana. His successor, Commodus, was less capable and his reign saw increased political instability, leading to the gradual decline of the Roman peace.

While the term "Pax Romana" translates to "Roman Peace," it doesn't imply a complete absence of war. In fact, this era was characterized by ongoing military expansion, with the formidable Roman legions persistently extending the empire's boundaries in all directions.

The adversaries Rome faced, including the once-formidable Parthia in the East, stood little chance against the imperial forces. Even the internal strife, such as the Year of the Four Emperors in 69 CE, consisted of rare and brief conflicts that barely impacted the robust foundation of the vast Roman Empire.

The stability of this era began to waver during the reign of Marcus Aurelius, the last of the Five Good Emperors. The disintegration of the Danubian border, coupled with barbarian incursions into Italy—the core of the Roman Empire—and a catastrophic plague, signaled the conclusion of this Golden Era.

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