If you search ancient history for impressive civilisations, or periods of governance, the Pax Romana is bound to spring to mind. Latin for ‘Roman Peace’ this period of roughly 200 years saw a largely stable and secure Roman empire. It reached across the Mediterranean, south into North Africa, and north into Britain. Reminiscent of prosperity and abundance, there’s a good reason why we named ourselves after this period. Mainly because here at Pax Romana Auctions we want to channel some of the qualities that made Rome so strong in this period.
1. The Pax Romana wasn’t necessarily ‘peaceful’ at all.
We thought we’d start by critiquing the name often given to this period. As with any sizable empire, the Roman empire had relied on many conflicts to get to the size it was by the first century AD when the Pax Romana was beginning. Very early on in the period, Augustus did bring in reforms that reduced the size of the army significantly. Additionally, he consolidated, but did not push, the northern borders. This would set a precedent for the rest of the Pax Romana.
However, this did not mean ‘peace’. Under Augustus’ successor, the emperor Tiberius, there was ‘tyranny’; later still the ‘mad’ Caligula was assassinated by his personal guard. The empire was not exempt from conflict nor infighting. However, compared to the periods before Augustus there was stability and consistency across the empire. As Adrian Goldsworthy notes on his book about the Pax Romana, peace is relative and for the Romans this period would have felt considerably devoid of conflict.
2. Augustus’ Reforms were the Basis of the Pax Romana
It’s generally said by historians that the Pax Romana started when Augustus, then known as Octavian, came to power in the wake of the fall of Julius Caesar. However, more specifically it was the reforms of Augustus that heralded in this period of change. His biggest interests were reforming the complexities of Roman religion and ensuring that a crisis such as the assassination of Caesar wouldn’t happen to him.
In terms of religion, some of his largest reforms included the restoration of temples, the revival of priesthoods and the imposition of the ‘Imperial Cult.’ The Imperial Cult began a tradition where Augustus especially, but also the emperors who followed him, would be worshipped like gods. This encouraged devotion to the republic and stability. He also encouraged marriage and discouraged extra-marital affairs. This might seem unrelated, but he believed a strong empire had strong moral values. Finally, as seen in the works of Suetonius, Augustus wanted a closer relationship between the senators and the general populace. Therefore, he created administrational positions that allowed for more collaboration. This showed his desire to balance the feelings of the senate with the wider state. It was political choices such as this that allowed for the Pax Romana to take place.
3. The Practice of Slavery Decreased during the Pax Romana
In the Roman empire, the economy and daily life was reliant on human trafficking and slavery. The majority of these slaves came from prisoners captured in conflict or piracy on the Mediterranean. Therefore, as conflicts decreased in the Pax Romana, there were less people who could be taken and trafficked into the Roman slavery system. Over the following 200-year period, there would be less and less people enslaved. Various emperors would bring in legal rights for enslaved people: Claudius announced that if a master abandoned his slave, he’d be free; Nero introduced a law that allowed slaves to complain about their masters in court.
Alongside this, philosophical schools of thought such as the Stoics were starting to have criticisms of slavery. They believed in the equality of man and slavery went against this. However, we do not want you to think the decrease in slavery meant this period was anti-slavery. Indeed, the lack of incoming prisoners of war as well as a substantial practice of manumission did cause a problem. Slavery was still core to how the empire ran itself. Subsequently, a lack of slaves prompted Augustus’ to decree that slaves could not be freed under the age of 30.
4. Trade flourished, and was crucial, to the people of the Pax Romana
This fact might not be a shock. However, the Pax Romana can be pigeonholed as a time of political prosperity with the vast trading networks as a foot note. Trade between Rome, the outer regions and civilisations outside of the empire were crucial. One of the biggest imports to Rome in this period was grain. This grain was a form of ‘tax’ from the provinces, and without it Rome would have starved. They also relied on the provinces for a lot of the luxuries we associate with Roman imperial life – like marble and gold. In fact, the sheer importance and diversity of Roman trade was recognised when Aristides commented that Rome was ‘a common market for the world.’
Roman Roads were the main facilitator of this trade. Originally built for military purposes, they allowed safe and quick passage throughout the empire. A communal Latin language and currency further made trade between different peoples easier. Merchants had trading bases all across the empire that specialised in different goods. For example, consider Antioch, that used its position to become a hub for the spice trade and the resort destination of choice for many Roman emperors.
5. In this period, we have the ‘Five Good Emperors’ (and they don’t include Augustus!)
Throughout the Pax Romana there were 13 different emperors, but history often focuses on the first, Augustus, and the final 5; Nerva, Hadrian, Trajan, Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius. It was the philosopher Nico Machiavelli who first coined the term the ‘Five Good Emperors’ for these men. He argued that they were respected for their good governance and that they proved power should not be passed down by bloodline.
But what did these emperors do that was so special? In this period the border of the Roman empire was consolidated and slightly expanded; even more so than it had been under Augustus. The most famous example of this is Hadrian’s wall in the North of England. Made of stone, it was an inarguable boundary between the ‘barbarians’ and ‘civilised’ Roman life. For those colonies that were secured under or before Augustus, they were now assimilated into the Roman world. This similarity allowed trade and relations to happen seamlessly between far reaching towns.
There were weaknesses in this period; the empire became ever more centralised. This led to increase bureaucracy, that citizens were tired of participating in. Continuing financial troubles also plagued the later emperors. Indeed, with the death of Marcus Aurelius there would be a sharp decline in the fate of the Roman empire. The Pax Romana ended with the then dictator like Commodus and the ‘Year of the Five Emperors’ in 193 AD.