Pax Romana: Good Times, Remembered

Giuseppe Becchetti's drawing of the Roman Forum. (1893) colorized, via Dan's Roman History, Facebook, used w/o permission.
Giuseppe Becchetti’s “The Roman Forum”. (1893) Colorized.

“…the glory that was Greece,
And the grandeur that was Rome….”
(“To Helen,” Edgar Allen Poe (1845) via Wikipedia)

I don’t yearn for ‘the good old days’ of my youth, or for more remote golden ages.

My memory’s too good, and I’ve studied history. On the other hand, some bygone eras really were comparatively good times.

The best of the lot, arguably, was the Pax Romana. That’s what I’ll be talking about today.

Two Centuries of Good Times

Walter Crane's Map of the British Empire. (1886) Map of the British Empire, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.The Pax Romana isn’t front and center on the nightly news or in headlines.

But in academic circles it’s been a big deal, off and on.

It’s been enough of a big deal for folks to have rung changes on the name for other peaceful eras: real, alleged or attempted:

  • Pax
    • Americana
    • Britannica
    • Europaea
    • Hispanica
    • Khazarica
    • Mafiosa
    • Mongolica
    • Ottomana
    • Sinica
    • Sovietica
    • Syriana

Some of those I’d heard about before starting this thing, others were new to me.

All those “Pax Somethings” raise a question: why is the Pax Romana such a big deal?

And why, a millennia and a half after it crumbled, does the Roman Empire still take up such a big chunk of my culture’s historical and legendary landscape?

For one thing, many Roman records survived. And Romans were — colorful. Stories told about them were, anyway.

Plus, although it wasn’t a perfectly perfect golden age, the Pax Romana really was two centuries of reasonably good times.

Folks living in the Roman Empire could, for the most part, live peaceful, prosperous lives. Everybody wasn’t in the top five percent, of course. But it was good times.

Certainly better than what came before and after.1

The Roman Republic, Julius Caesar and Defenders of the Status Quo

Agnete's photo: 'Grabstein einer römischen Familie aus den Vatikanischen Museen' / 'Tombstone of a Roman family from the Vatican Museums. (October 19, 2009) via Wikipedia, used w/o permission.
Agnete’s photo: a Roman family’s tombstone, in the Vatican Museums.

Cesare Maccari's 'Cicerone denuncia Catilina' 'Cicero Denounces Catiline.' (1889)The Roman Republic looked good on paper.

That it lasted five centuries may be more a credit to the non-political virtues of Romans than to their Senate.

Let’s put it this way: Roman politics made the American version look good.

Then infighting and backstabbing — figurative and literal — gave Julius Caesar the excuse he needed to usurp the rightful rule of the Senate. Or inspired him to oppose corruption and injustice. Or maybe a bit of both. Take your pick.

Either way, he upset Rome’s applecarts. A great many grass-roots folks liked his reforms, which included extending Roman citizenship to non-Latins.

Meanwhile, a committee of serious-minded Senators were aghast at Caesar’s threat to tradition and the Senatorial way — and their grip on Rome’s wealth.

Jean-Léon Gérôme's 'The Death of Caesar.' (ca. 1859-1867) via Wikipedia, used w/o permission.So they dry-gulched Julius Caesar, saving the Roman Republic from the clutches of a would-be dictator. From their viewpoint.

They saved the Republic, all right.

With Julius Caesar dead, the powers that be went back to business as usual.

Nearly two decades and the Last War of the Roman Republic later, Octavian got himself renamed Augustus; and began sorting out the Republic’s mess.2

That was the start of the Pax Romana.

Comparative Peace and Prosperity: Not Perfect, But Not Bad

Reed College's photo: Ara Pacis Augustae, with a color projection suggesting the original colors. (2010)
Reed College’s Ara Pacis Augustae, showing an approximation of the original colors.

I’ll grant that Seneca’s “Romanae pacis” was partly a mix of propaganda, politics and public relations. Which I’ll also grant could be seen as three labels for one thing. So was the Ara Pacis Augustae, Altar of Augustan Peace.

Anyway, the Pax Romana wasn’t perfect. But after centuries of Senatorial mismanagement, blundering, corruption and civil wars, I’d be surprised if many folks in Roman territory weren’t glad to have someone competent running the show.

Emperors like Augustus made a point of letting the Senate and Senators maintain the polite fiction of speaking for the people of Rome. SPQR, Roman politics and all that are barrels of worms I’ll set aside for another time.

Politics and public relations are one thing, The daily business of working, buying and selling are another.

And from the time of Emperor Augustus to Marcus Aurelius, day-to-day life in the Empire was about as good as it got.

There were wars, but not nearly as many as in the ‘good old days’ of the Republic.

Roman law, currency and roads may have made life harder for bandits and local warlords. But I figure most folks benefited from trade within the Empire. And from trade with much of Eurasia and Africa.

We’d know more about Roman commerce and economics, if the era’s account books had survived; and that’s another topic.3

Bottom line? The Pax Romana wasn’t perfect. But life for folks who weren’t Senators was better than it had been during the Republic. Most folks, at any rate.

Sic Transit Pax Romana

Edwin Howland Blashfield's 'Commodus Leaving the Coliseum.' (1878) The Hermitage Museum, via Wikipedia, used w/o permission.
Edwin Blashfield’s ‘Commodus Leaving the Coliseum at the Head of the Gladiators.’ (1878)

Emperor Marcus Aurelius was a Stoic philosopher who valued asceticism. His son, Commodus, profoundly was not: Although he was the next emperor.

And that’s when the Pax Romana went kaput.

I’d been planning on talking about Commodus, Roman emperors, public image and related topics: but I’ve run out of time this week.

Besides, what we know about Commodus is colorful, even by Roman standards.

That encourages me to take Commodian tales with a pinch or two of salt. And that, in turn, takes time which I don’t have.

You’d think that someone with a degree in history like me would know what’s what where folks like Commodus were concerned. But I like to double-check what I think I know. Some of what I’ve learned may not reflect what historians in general have learned since the 1980s, and I’m drifting off-topic.

Moving along, Commodus was apparently quite the athlete, enjoyed showing off his skills as a gladiator, and assassins finally managed to kill him.

Then Pertinax headed the roster in the Year of the Five Emperors, and Imperial Rome was never quite the same. Well, of course. Change happens. It’s the Heraclitus thing I mentioned last week:

“Everything changes and nothing stands still.”
(Heraclitus, quoted in Cratylus (ca. 500 B.C.) via Wikiquote)

The Year of the Five Emperors was 193 A.D. — and the Roman empire lasted for centuries after that.

Gibbon’s “…Decline and Fall…” notwithstanding, the Empire didn’t so much fall as crumble.4

And for some reason, folks remembered the Pax Romana. Which may be why wannabe emperors like Charlemagne made restoring Imperial Rome part of their platforms.

Living Among The Ruins of a Better Age

Claude Lorrain's 'Capriccio with ruins of the Roman Forum'. (ca. 1634) via Google Art Project, used w/o permission.
Claude Lorrain’s “Capriccio with ruins of the Roman Forum”. (ca. 1634)

I strongly suspect that Pax Romana kept its charm partly because it fits the “golden age” theme, and partly because so many folks lived in or near what was left of Roman cities.

Globe Master - SideEffect's photo: 'The reconstructed Middle Ages village in Biskupin, Poland'. (July 23, 2015) via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.
Globe Master/SideEffect’s photo: “The reconstructed Middle Ages village in Biskupin, Poland”.

Thomas Cole's 'Aqueduct Near Rome.' (1832)Hearing stories about times and places like Camelot and The Peach Blossom Spring are one thing.

Living in a world where aqueducts have long since stopped working? But roads could still be used if it weren’t for bandits? And your civic leaders may be the bandits?

Where your largest buildings are dwarfed by ruins of an earlier era?

That might make stories of the Pax Romana seem less make-believe, and more a reminder that something better than “now” is possible.

Or it might encourage fashionable melancholy.5

Happily, quite a few of us didn’t stop working with what we had, improving what we could, and passing along what we knew.

And now, the usual links:

1 Part of the past in perspective:

2 More Roman history:

3 More Roman history:

4 Still more Roman history, and a catchy title:

5 Folklore and an attitude:

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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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