Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.06.52 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.06.52

Adrian Goldsworthy, Pax Romana: War, Peace, and Conquest in the Roman World.   New Haven; London:  Yale University Press, 2016.  Pp. ix, 513; 16 p. of plates.  ISBN 9780300178821.  $32.50.  

Reviewed by Michael J. Taylor, University of California, Berkeley (


Adrian Goldsworthy’s Pax Romana represents a broad and reputable survey of the history of the Roman peace from roughly 150 BC to AD 235, with pax here seen not as a blissful moment of non-violence, but rather as a state of control established and continuously enforced by organized coercive force. It is worth highlighting at the start a few pitfalls into which such a work could easily descend. It could devolve into a ‘guts and glory’ military history narrating Rome’s conquests and imperial wars, with purple passages describing gladii carving through various aspects of human anatomy. The dust jacket provided by the press, featuring a handsome Imperial helmet, certainly seeks to appeal to those book buyers with a taste for old-school military history.

The Roman army is an ever-present institutional actor in his story, and the violence it precipitated an ever-present reality, but this is not a history of warfare. The book, for example, largely glosses Republican conquests, so that its first major discussion of the Roman army in action provocatively explores a massacre in a supposedly conquered province: the treacherous slaughter of surrendered Lusitanians by the forces of Ser. Sulpicius Galba in 150 BC. Here Goldsworthy does discuss the grisly nature of killing with a sword, but his point is not some tired variation on the theme that ‘war is hell,’ but rather to highlight the disciplined physical exertion and the perilous moral ease with which Rome’s citizen soldiers butchered defenseless men, women and children. When G. discusses the conquest of Gaul in Chapter 3, he focuses on Caesar’s divide and conquer strategy, and emphasizes how the sudden appearance of a Roman general with a powerful army inspired ready collaboration as well as resistance, fragmented along traditional internal and external rivalries.

Nor is it a narrative history in the strictest sense, being rather a set of chronologically ordered thematic chapters. These are organized into two major sections, the Republic and the Principate, with the book concluding with the collapse of the Severan dynasty. The first part discusses Republican institutions (Chapter 1), Roman warfare, including war motives (Chapter 2), Roman diplomatic strategies (Chapter 3), the Roman diaspora (Chapter 4), provincial governance (Chapter 5) and relations with Hellenistic kings (Chapter 6), including the doomed romance between Antony and Cleopatra. The second Part, on the Principate, opens with a discussion of the Augustan peace (Chapter 7), and subsequently examines provincial rebellions (Chapter 8), the critical problem of banditry (Chapter 9),provincial governance and corruption (Chapter 10), the advantages and costs of empire to subjects (Chapter 11), Roman military deployments on the frontiers (Chapter 12), small-scale raids and Roman countermeasures (Chapter 13), and finally looks outside the Pax Romana, both geographically, beyond the frontier, and also temporally, to the Third Century Crisis (Chapter 14).

A project entitled Pax Romana could easily take a Life of Brian turn by listing every good thing that came from Roman domination (such as, roads, wine, and sewers), the sort of rosy-glassed vision of empire that still lingers in some Anglophone conservative circles. At times, Goldsworthy does come dangerously close: “A century or so ago most — though not all — people in the West had a vague sense that empires could be, and often were, good things. Nowadays the opposite is true…. The danger is that we have simply replaced one over-simplification with another. Dislike of empire tends to encourage skepticism over its achievements” (p. 14). Interestingly, Goldsworthy does not affiliate himself with a good deal of the recent scholarship on the Roman economy, a field that has over the last generation become positively Pythonesque, having cast aside the Marxist pessimism of Moses Finley to laud with neoliberal optimism what the Roman Empire did for the Mediterranean economy (pointing towards accelerating urbanization, robust industrial production that darkened Greenlandic ice, and brisk trade that sprinkled the seafloor with ever more wrecks). For Goldsworthy, peace and prosperity emerged as a largely unintended consequence of the blunt Roman quest for security and control.

Many of the issues discussed are familiar case studies in Roman provincial administration: Cicero’s governorship in Cilicia, Pliny’s letters from Bithynia, Judea as presented in both the New Testament as well as Josephus, the Roman diaspora in the provinces, etc. Several provincial rebellions challenged the Roman peace, ranging from Arminius’ ambush at the Teutoburger Wald/Kalkriese, a unique case of a rebellion that led to a permanent loss of territorial control, to a slew of failed rebellions: Tacfarinas in North Africa, Boudicca in Britain, and the three great Jewish rebellions. Goldsworthy raises an important point: by the High Empire, schismatic rebellion had all but ceased. Even the Jews, the religiously inspired arch-rebels of the Roman world, who had previously carved their own kingdom out of the flailing Seleucid Empire, did not revolt again after the failure of the Bar Kochba rising. The end of schismatic revolt is all the more puzzling given that such actions would have been more than feasible during the chaotic Third Century Crisis. But all subsequent rebels posed as pretenders rather than schismatics (including Postumus in Gaul and Zenobia as regent for her son), aspiring to rule the whole empire rather than separate themselves permanently from it.

Much recent scholarship has emphasized the failure of Roman authorities to control banditry within the empire, while deemphasizing the threat of raiders from the outside. Since the seminal work of Brent Shaw, banditry has been widely viewed either as a repudiation of Rome’s hegemonic pretensions, or even as the embodiment of resistance to Roman rule.1 Goldsworthy argues, in a compelling analogy, that banditry should perhaps be viewed the way as we do automobile accidents: a serious, and even lethal threat, to be sure, but ultimately a negative externality upon an economic system characterized by high mobility and general prosperity. This certainly sounds correct: despite the threat of banditry, people travelled for quite casual reasons, just as the risk of serious automobile accidents do not deter most from driving to the movies. This is a point worth developing further, but also a frustration with a book written by a scholar for a non-scholarly audience: right when Goldsworthy makes an interesting and important intervention, he moves on to keep up the brisk pace.

Meanwhile, raiders across the frontier are often viewed in recent scholarship as either a minor nuisance, or even as an excuse for unnecessary, aggrandizing imperial warfare. Goldsworthy, however, argues that Roman authorities took frontier peoples with martial traditions of raiding as a serious threat, suggesting the substantial violence deployed against them was often rooted in defensive calculations, and from the perspective of those living within the frontiers, largely salutary. I agree that this is basically correct, although the book breezes on, rather than grapple in depth with the large body of cogent scholarship suggesting otherwise (relevant counter-studies, for example the work of Benjamin Isaac and Susan Mattern, are briefly engaged with in the notes, and the bibliography is overall quite solid).2

One tidbit (illustrated in the plates) is nonetheless quite instructive. During the first and second centuries AD, the Romans built numerous walls, both for military installations and around thriving cities. Many of these sported towers that barely projected out from the curtain wall, limiting the ability of soldiers in the towers to provide enfilading missile fire against anyone trying to scale the wall. Some of these walls may have still served a pragmatic purpose by providing barriers and control points, but they were not designed to endure direct assault. In the third century AD, not only did new walls go up, but the towers began to project far from the curtain, an acknowledgment in stone of metastasizing threats, and a reminder of the privileged complacency the lengthy period of relative peace had engendered even in the realm of military architecture.

The book succeeds admirably at its goal of communicating the complexities of Roman imperial history with great clarity and insight. Pax Romana is a well-crafted piece of historical writing that will certainly enlighten a wide audience.


1.   E.g. Shaw, Brent. “Bandits in the Roman Empire.” Past and Present 105 (1984), 3-52.
2.   E.g. Isaac, Benjamin. The Limits of Empire: The Roman Army in the East. Oxford University Press, 1990, and Mattern, Susan. Rome and the Enemy: Imperial Strategy in the Principate. University of California Press, 1999.

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