Pax Romana: Augustus to Nero

Hubert Rober's 'The Fire of Rome/Incendie à Rome.' (1785) via Wikipedia, used w/o permission.
“The Fire of Rome,” July 64 A.D., by Hubert Rober. (1785)

The Pax Romana had been in progress for eight decades on July 19, A.D. 64.

A fire started in a retail district near Rome’s Circus Maximus. It was a windy night.

The fire spread. Fast.

The Great Fire of Rome burned for six days before folks extinguished it.

Make that almost extinguished it. The fire got its second wind, roared through the city for another three days. Then it went out for good.

It destroyed three of the city’s 14 districts. Another seven needed repairs.

On the other hand, four districts hadn’t been scorched. Even so, I figure that most Roman residents didn’t feel that they were living in a golden age. Particularly since some arsonists claimed they’d been told to torch the city.

“…And no one dared to stop the mischief, because of incessant menaces from a number of persons who forbade the extinguishing of the flames, because again others openly hurled brands, and kept shouting that there was one who gave them authority, either seeking to plunder more freely, or obeying orders.
(“The Annals,” 15.38; Tacitus (ca. A.D. 116) Translation based on Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb (1876) via Wikisource [emphasis mine])

I gather that there had been a half-dozen mainstream rumors about Rome’s big fire. One said it was an accident. The remaining rumors blamed Nero, but disagreed on why he started the fire, and gave him credit for blaming an already-unpopular minority.

Tacitus pointed out that Nero was out of town when the fire started, opened his own gardens to displaced Romans, and had shelters built for them. The rumors kept going anyway.

I figure maybe Tacitus was right about that: and that he wrote “Annals.”

On the other hand, starting in the 18th century, assorted academics have said that Tacitus didn’t write “Annals” — because he didn’t write like a proper historian, or because some Italian Renaissance humanist wrote “Annals.”

Me? I’d be mildly surprised if a first century Roman politician wrote as if he was an Enlightenment-era French historian. Make that very surprised.

I’ve talked about history and documentation, attitudes and assumptions, before.1

Nero’s Public Relations Problem

Henryk Siemiradzki's 'Nero's Torches.' (1876) From Henryk Siemiradzki, via The National Museum in Kraków Digital Collection and Wikipedia, used w/o permission.
“Nero’s Torches,” by Henryk Siemiradzki. (1876)

Nero had a massive public relations problem on his hands after the fire.

Way too many Romans either assumed he’d started the fire or had hired arsonists; that he’d watched the blaze from a tower or sang and played a lyre on a private stage while the city burned, or both.

I figure many or most of the ‘Nero did it’ rumors sprouted from the well-fertilized soil of Roman politics and public angst. I’m also pretty sure that Romans weren’t any more likely to think straight after a major disaster than Americans are. Or anyone, for that matter.

In The British Museum's collection: 'Complete pack of 52 playing-cards depicting the Popish Plot; suit-mark and value at top; description at bottom.' Francis Barlow, formerly attributed to William Faithorne. (1679)After London’s big 1666 fire, for example, an official investigative committee decided that Catholics and other foreigners had started the fire. One of them was tried, convicted, and hung. In that order, remarkably enough.

Never mind that Robert Hubert hadn’t arrived in England until two days after the fire.

Then, a dozen years later, in the interest of national security, the proper authorities killed 22 folks before juries started wondering if being Catholic should be a capital offense.

Getting back to first century Rome and Nero’s public relations problem, he blamed a minority “hated for their abominations:” Christians.

“…Sed non ope humana, non largitionibus principis aut deum placamentis decedebat infamia, quin iussum incendium crederetur. ergo abolendo rumori Nero subdidit reos et quaesitissimis poenis adfecit, quos per flagitia invisos vulgus Chrestianos appellabat.…”
(“P. Corneli Taciti Annalivm Liber Ovintvs Decumvs/Annals,” 15.44; Tacitus (ca. A.D. 116) via [emphasis mine)

“…But all human efforts, all the lavish gifts of the emperor, and the propitiations of the gods, did not banish the sinister belief that the conflagration was the result of an order. Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace.…”
(“The Annals,” 15.44; Tacitus (ca. A.D. 116) Translation based on Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb (1876) via Wikisource [emphasis mine])

His solution made sense. From a political perspective, at any rate. Until he overdid it.

After the fire, decent Roman citizens had been doing the right thing: rebuilding their city; consulting the Sibylline Books; praying to Vulcanus, Ceres, Proserpina and Juno; holding sacred banquets and nightly vigils. (“Annals,” 15.43-44)

As for Christians, Tiberius saw their “mischievous superstition” as the sort of “hideous and shameful” aberration that kept slithering into Rome.2

“…Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. … an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind.…”
(“The Annals,” 15.44; Tacitus (ca. A.D. 116) Translation based on Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb (1876) via Wikisource [emphasis mine])

Attitudes and Authority, Respect and Rules

Wiley Miller's 'Non Sequitur,' regarding perceptions of infallibility, smiting and rational thought. (October 19, 2012; February 28, 2013)Can’t say that I blame him.

Ideally, Tiberius would have set aside the beliefs and attitudes he’d grown up with: listened carefully to what Christians said, watched what they did, and considered the possibility that they might be right.

But, as I keep saying, we don’t live in an ideal world. So Tiberius classified Christians and Christianity with “all things hideous and shameful,” and recorded that Nero overdid his scapegoating of that much-hated minority. (“Annals,” 15.44, Tacitus (ca. A.D. 116))

Maybe Tiberius hadn’t had opportunity to notice Christian behavior.

We were, at that point, a minority in Rome: and a suspect one, at that.

Again, can’t say that I blame Tiberius. From his viewpoint, Christianity was a weird foreign cult about some troublemaker in a troublesome province.

Worse yet, the Christians wouldn’t even worship Roman gods. Refusal to worship a dead emperor made them look treasonous. From a post-Augustan Roman viewpoint.3

Correspondence we call the letters to Romans and Timothy were mostly about screwball notions we’re still dealing with. But both included reminders that authority matters, and that respect for secular authority comes with being a Christian.

“Let every person be subordinate to the higher authorities, for there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been established by God.
“Therefore, whoever resists authority opposes what God has appointed, and those who oppose it will bring judgment upon themselves.
(Romans 13:12)

“First of all, then, I ask that supplications, prayers, petitions, and thanksgivings be offered for everyone,
“for kings and for all in authority, that we may lead a quiet and tranquil life in all devotion and dignity.
“This is good and pleasing to God our savior,
“who wills everyone to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth.
(Timothy 2:13)

Well, respect for legitimate authority.

Everybody’s got responsibilities, including citizens and secular authorities. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2207-2243)

Ideally, the folks in charge would make and enforce rules that follow natural law: ethical principles woven into the fabric of reality. (Catechism, 1905-1912, 1950-1960, 2235-2237)

And folks like me should follow the rules and do what the authorities say. (Catechism, 2238-2243)

Obedience, Yes; Blind Obedience, No

Dick Orkin's Chickenman, fighting crime and/or evil: see,33009,843884,00.htmlHere’s where it gets tricky.

Respect for authority is a good idea. Obedience is a good idea. That’s reasoned obedience. Blind obedience is a bad idea and I shouldn’t do it. No emperor, king, president or boss is above natural law. (Catechism, 1900-1903, 2242-2243)

Sometimes the folks in charge give orders that defy natural law. When that happens, the right thing to do may be to not follow orders, or to break a law. (Catechism, 2242-2243)

Like I said: that’s where it gets tricky.

Even if the rules are wrong — if they go against natural law — that doesn’t mean I can do whatever I like.

Bad laws and daft-or-worse leaders don’t make bad behavior okay.

I’ve said this before.

Armed resistance to an oppressive authority is an option. But only if that’s the only option left. And success is likely. And — no, really — if there is no other option. (Catechism, 2243)

And that brings me to the Roman patriots who thought they were saving the Republic.

The Roman Republic: Wars, Revolts and Pesky Ethics

Jacques-Louis David's 'Oath of the Horatii.' (1784) From Jacques-Louis David, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.
“Oath of the Horatii” — a Roman legend, as imagined by Jacques-Louis David. (1784))

Rome’s Senate predates the Roman Republic by at least two centuries.

Sorting out legend, myth and history from Rome’s origin stories isn’t what I’m doing this week, so I’ll boil the seven centuries before Caesar down to a couple hundred words.

Rome’s last king assassinated his way to first place, and committed many atrocities. Then the virtuous Romans decided they’d had enough of kings and formed the Roman Republic. According to the Republic’s folklore.

The Republic’s government had three branches: legislative, executive and judicial. If that sounds familiar, it should. My country’s founders modeled their new government on Rome’s, with improvements.

The Republic changed, a lot, during the five centuries after they threw out their last king.

Plebes/plebians got more political and economic clout. Not on a par with patricians, but enough to make “plebian nobility” a real, if paradoxical, phrase.

I think letting folks other than the top five percent have a say is a good idea, but I’m well into the other 95 percent: so I would.

Maybe the Punic Wars (264 to 146 B.C.) and Servile Wars (135 to 71 B. C.) felt like threats to the Republic at the time, but I think was their main problem was Rome’s upper crust in general and the Senate in particular.

Picking up new populations of slaves after each war didn’t help, either.

This isn’t quite the same as 18th and 19th notions regarding “decadence,” and that’s another topic.

The Senate had an admirable system of checks and balances which, along with their code of ethics, would have helped Senators deal with the occasional bad apple in their ranks.4

Would have, that is, if Senators hadn’t kept finding ways around those pesky ethical standards.

Saving the Republic — From the Pax Romana
Jean-Léon Gérôme's 'The Death of Caesar.' (ca. 1859-1867) via Wikipedia, used w/o permission.
“The Death of Caesar” in the Theatre of Pompey, as imagined by Jean-Léon Gérôme. (ca. 1859-1867)

But after five centuries of high ideals and dirty tricks, a hotshot general and politician got himself appointed dictator — the title didn’t mean then what the epithet does now — and started sorting out Republican Rome’s latest mess.

His attempted reforms were bad enough.

I suspect what really upset Rome’s defenders of the status quo was that Gaius Julius Caesar was making his reforms work.

And so, quite possibly with the best interests of the Republic at heart, they dry gulched Julius Caesar at a meeting in what we’d call Pompey’s convention center.

They saved the Republic, all right.

Instead of Julius Caesar’s scary reforms, the Roman Republic got three bosses: tresviri rei publicae constituendae, the triumvirate for organizing the republic.

The Second Triumvirate split the Republic’s territory three ways. Each ruled his own share, while trying to take over the other two parts.

That led to what I gather is now called the War of Actium, although I prefer the older “Last War of the Roman Republic” or “Final War of the Roman Republic.” When the dust settled, Gaius Octavius was the surviving member of the Second Triumvirate.

Gaius Octavius let the Roman Senate look like they were still in charge, and got himself named Augustus. Roman naming conventions are — complicated.

Augustus also launched the Roman imperial cult by deifying Julius Caesar, became the Roman Empire’s first emperor, and established Pax Romana.5

Pax Romana, Emperors and Reputations

Thomas Cole's 'The Consummation of Empire.' (1836) From Thomas Cole, via New York Historical Society and Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.
“The Consummation of Empire” from Thomas Cole’s “The Course of Empire” series. (1836)

I figure Augustus folklore from the last two millennia of says as much about his successful public relations work as it does of what sort of person he was. That said, Augustus was a remarkable leader.

Once he’d survived the Last War of the Roman Republic, Augustus continued Julius Caesar’s unsettling willingness to accommodate the lower classes.

But he also set up the Principate, which let the Senate pretend they were still living in the good old days of the Republic.

I’m not sure when folks started calling time from the 27 B.C. to A. D. 180, the start of the Roman Principate to the death of Marcus Aurelius, the Pax Romana.

Another version of when the Pax Romana happened is from the Last War of the Roman Republic’s end in 31 B. C. to A. D. 250. I’m not sure why someone picked 250 as that termination date. Maybe because the Plague of Cyprian was in progress then.

And I’m not sure when Seneca the Younger’s “Romanae pacis” became “Pax Romana.”

“Romanae pacis” is from his “De Clementia,” “Of Clemency.” It’s a sort of ‘how to be an emperor’ book for Nero.6

“…Rege incolumi mens omnibus una;
amisso rupere fidem.
“Hic casus Romanae pacis exitium erit, hic tanti fortunam populi in ruinas aget; tam diu ab isto periculo aberit hic populus, quam diu sciet ferre frenos, quos si quando abruperit vel aliquo casu discussos reponi sibi passus non erit, haec unitas et hic maximi imperii contextus in partes multas dissiliet, idemque huic urbi finis dominandi erit, qui parendi fuerit. Ideo principes regesque et quocumque alio nomine sunt tutores status publici non est mirum amari ultra privatas etiam necessitudines; nam si sanis hominibus publica privatis potiora sunt, sequitur, ut is quoque carior sit, in quem se res publica convertit. Olim enim ita se induit rei publicae Caesar, ut seduci alterum non posset sine utriusque pernicie; nam et illi viribus opus est et huic capite….”

“…Bees have but one mind, till their king doth die,
But when he dies, disorderly they fly.
“Such a misfortune will be the end of the peace of Rome, it will wreck the prosperity of this great people; the nation will be free from this danger as long as it knows how to endure the reins: should it ever break them, or refuse to have them replaced if they were to fall off by accident, then this mighty whole, this complex fabric of government will fly asunder into many fragments, and the last day of Rome’s empire will be that upon which it forgets how to obey. For this reason we need not wonder that princes, kings, and all other protectors of a state, whatever their titles may be, should be loved beyond the circle of their immediate relatives; for since right-thinking men prefer the interests of the state to their own, it follows that he who bears the burden of state affairs must be dearer to them than their own friends. Indeed, the emperor long ago identified himself so thoroughly with the state, that neither of them could be separated without injury to both, because the one requires power, while the other requires a head….”
(“De Clementia,” IV; L. Annaei Senecae ad Neronem Caesarem; Lucius Annaeus Seneca (55-56 AD) via Wikisource
Of Clemency,” IV; Addressed to Nero Caesar; Lucius Annaeus Seneca; translated by Aubrey Stewart (1900) via Wikisource [emphasis mine])

Remembering Nero, Caligula and “True Detective” Magazine

Eduardo Barrón's sculpture: 'Nero and Seneca' from Eduardo Barrón/Museo de Zamora (E.Barrón: 1858-1911) via Wikipedia, used w/o permission.I talked about history and viewpoints a few months back:

Briefly, we see the past through our own eyes: and through the eyes of folks who wrote about goings-on in their day, and in their past.

Sometimes it’s hard to tell what’s fact, what’s opinion, and what’s either wishful thinking or politically-motivated screed.

Take this, from Suetonius’ “The Life of Caligula,” for example:

“…He had planned, besides, to rebuild the palace of Polycrates at Samos, to finish the temple of Didymaean Apollo at Ephesus, to found a city high up in the Alps, but, above all, to dig a canal through the Isthmus in Greece, and he had already sent a chief centurion to survey the work.
“So much for Caligula as emperor; we must now tell of his career as a monster….”
(“The Lives of the Twelve Caesars,” The Life of Caligula; C. Suetonius Tranquillus (ca. 121) translation by J. C. Rolfe for Loeb Classical Library (1913‑1914))

Someone said Suentonius’ history was “racy,” and I wouldn’t argue against that. I’m not, however, sure how much of his “The Life of Caligula” is based on rumor, and whether or not it was a second-century analog to early “True Detective” issues.7

I very strongly suspect we’re stuck with studying Imperial Roman history with documents that are as strictly objective as America’s current political campaign commercials.

Maybe Caligula and Nero, the third and fifth Roman Emperors after Augustus, really were the out-of-control lunatics described in surviving records.

I’m not about to try rehabilitating either of those two. But I suspect that their popularity with the lower classes — didn’t encourage praise from folks writing for Rome’s better sort.

And I think that those two famously infamous emperors being in the Pax Romana’s first century speaks volumes about the late Roman Republic’s reputation.

Maybe they weren’t good emperors. But at least conditions during their administration were better than during the Republic?

Then again, maybe not.

Either way, the Augustine Pax Romana arguably qualifies as a golden age. And, seen through the rose-colored glasses of nostalgia, set a high bar for current leaders. Which may not be a bad thing.

Looking back, from my viewpoint:

1 Making sense of history:

2 Reacting to disasters:

3 Christians and a cult:

4 History, society and ideas (slavery, by the way, is a bad idea and we shouldn’t do it. (Catechism, 2414)):

5 Roman history, mostly:

6 The Principate, Pax Romana and a plague:

7 Rome, remembered:

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About Brian H. Gill

I was born in 1951. I'm a husband, father and grandfather. One of the kids graduated from college in December, 2008, and is helping her husband run businesses and raise my granddaughter; another is a cartoonist and artist; #3 daughter is a writer; my son is developing a digital game with #3 and #1 daughters. I'm also a writer and artist.
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5 Responses to Pax Romana: Augustus to Nero

  1. “And so, quite possibly with the best interests of the Republic at heart, they dry gulched Julius Caesar at a meeting in what we’d call Pompey’s convention center.

    They saved the Republic, all right.”

    The above turns of words somehow gave some sort of revitalization to my 21st-century youthfulness. XD

  2. ‘I’m not sure when Seneca the Younger’s “Romanae pacis” became “Pas Romana.”’

    Assuming you meant “Pax”, that’s easy.

    “Pāx Rōmāna” (or “Rōmāna Pāx”, the word order doesn’t matter here) is “Roman peace” (or, freely translated, “the peace of Rome”) in the *nominative* case, which is used for the subject of a sentence or clause.

    “Rōmānae pācis” is the same phrase in the *genitive* case, corresponding typically to where we would say “of” in English (“of the Roman peace”).

    So, when Seneca writes about “the end *of* the peace of Rome”, he uses the genitive case, “Rōmānae pācis exitium,” the phrase “Pāx Rōmāna” is already there, just in a different grammatical form.

    • 😀 Thanks for letting me know – both about “Pas Romana” and Latin grammar.

      Which shows that resources saying Seneca the Younger coined Pax Romana – knew what they were talking about.

Thanks for taking time to comment!