What Was the Pax Romana?

Were the Romans Really That Peaceful?

An early modern representation of the Roman goddess of peace. Jastrow/Wikimedia Commons

Definition: Pax Romana is Latin for "Roman Peace." The Pax Romana lasted from about 27 B.C. (with Augustus) until A.D. 180 - the death of Marcus Aurelius. Some date the Pax Romana from A.D. 30 to the reign of Nerva. Others date it as late in the reign of Augustus as the year A.D. 14.

Edward Gibbon, author of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is sometimes credited with the idea of the Pax Romana.

He writes:

"Notwithstanding the propensity of mankind to exalt the past and to depreciate the present, the tranquil and prosperous state of the empire was warmly felt and honestly confessed by the provincials as well as Romans. 'They acknowledged that the true principles of the social life, laws, agriculture, and science, which had been first invented by the wisdom of Athens, were now firmly established by the power of Rome, under whose auspicious influence the fiercest barbarians were united by an equal government and common language. They affirm that, with the improvement of arts, the human species was visibly multiplied. They celebrate the increasing splendor of the cities, the beautiful face of the country, cultivated and adorned like an immense garden; and the long festival of peace, which was enjoyed by so many nations, forgetful of their ancient animosities, and delivered from the apprehension of future danger."

The Pax Romana was a period of relative peace and cultural achievement in the Roman Empire, especially in the area of building (e.g., Hadrian's Wall, Nero's Domus Aurea, and the Flavians' Colosseum and Temple of Peace), and Silver Age Latin literature. Roman roads traversed the empire by land, and for ships, the Julio-Claudian Emperor Claudius established Ostia as a port city for Italy.

The Pax Romana came after an extended period of civil conflict in Rome. Augustus became emperor after his posthumously adoptive father, Julius Caesar, was assassinated. Caesar had begun a civil war when he crossed the Rubicon, leading his troops into Roman territory. Earlier in his life he had witnessed the fighting between his uncle-by-marriage Marius and another Roman autocrat, Sulla. Shortly before, the famous Gracchi brothers had been killed for political reasons. Proscriptions under Sulla and the Second triumvirate of Octavian (Augustus), Mark Antony and Lepidus, sanctioned civilian slaughter and property theft.

Peace is a relative term, when looking at the Pax Romana. Romans no longer fought one another, by and large. There were exceptions, like the period at the end of the first imperial dynasty, when, after Nero committed suicide, four other emperors followed in rapid succession, each deposing the previous one violently.

The Pax Romana did not mean Rome was at peace vis-a-vis the peoples at its borders. Peace in Rome meant a strong professional army stationed mostly away from the heart of the Empire, and instead, at the roughly 6000 miles of frontiers of imperial frontier. There weren't enough soldiers to spread evenly, so the legions were stationed at the locations thought most likely to cause trouble.

Then, when the soldiers retired, they generally settled in the land where they had been stationed.

To maintain order in the city of Rome, Augustus established a sort of police force, the vigiles. The praetorian guard protected the emperor.

Examples: Antiquities of Rome's Pax Romana Page lists the following ancient users of the term pax romana:

  • Seneca
  • Pliny the Elder
  • Lucan and
  • Tacitus

-Edited by Carly Silver