Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.04.11 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.04.11

Hannah Cornwell, Pax and the Politics of Peace: Republic to Principate. Oxford classical monographs.   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2017.  Pp. xiv, 254.  ISBN 9780198805632.  $95.00.  

Reviewed by Carsten Hjort Lange, Aalborg University (


This book, consisting of five main chapters, started life as an Oxford doctoral thesis. There can be little doubt that the great difficulty in writing a monograph on the subject of Roman peace is to find the right balance between “peace” and “victory”. Cornwell admirably shows just how interrelated these two concepts were, focusing roughly on the period from 50 BCE to the death of Augustus. According to Cornwell: “The orthodoxy of war being a natural and ubiquitous state in the ancient world is a persistent one” (1). It must here be remembered that before the First World War, war was widely understood as a productive force, as something that should be used for the purposes of creating peace. 1 Cornwell proposes that peace should not just be viewed as an aftermath of war, but as part of a wider discourse on the nature of power in the ancient world (2). The role of peace in Roman ideas of imperialism and “language of empire” is at the centre of attention (2-4). Chapter 1, "The Meaning of Pax", provides the background study on which the book rests, focusing on the different meanings of peace within the political language of the Late Republic. The usage of the concept is considered in relation to contemporary poetry, prose, and historical writing, describing power relationships with gods and different civic entities, including foreign states, defining relations of power and the language of negotiation. That apart, it should be remembered that the Romans generally imposed peace settlements as victors, commonly by exacting an act of surrender (deditio). While the discourse on war and peace centred round a distinction between domi and militiae, peace does not stand in opposition to war (12; cf. Res Gestae 13).

Chapter 2, "Peace in Civil War", focuses on the pressure that civil war exerted on the conventional language of the Late Republic: the (in)famous joint ovation of Marcus Antonius and Young Caesar in 40, for not fighting it out with each other (44-45), symbolises what Cornwell calls the politicization of pax in the 40s (47). This is about language as a political weapon, but also reflects that the volume under review is another fine addition to the growing body of scholarship on the impact of civil war in the ancient world. A good example is the changing meaning of the word hostis, now being integrated in the language of civil war (51). One of our best examples of these conceptual “difficulties” is found in Cicero (Phil. 12.17). In 43 he was trying to get Antonius declared a hostis, but was opposed by L. Iulius Caesar, who wanted the word bellum replaced with tumultus. Cornwell rightly emphasises Cicero’s warmongering (67-71). The chapter ends with a brief description of the Pact of Misenum in 39 (78; cf. 72, 44 BCE, pact between Lepidus and Sextus Pompeius). The chapter shies away from bellum civile and towards reconciliation, but nicely explores the relationship between concepts of peace and the like, as well as the protagonists’ aims and arguments.

Chapter 3, "Peace over Land and Sea", considers the role of peace within triumphal ideology in the aftermath of civil war. The focus has moved from one of reconciliation to one of victory by land and sea (120). According to Cornwell the triple triumph of 29 was over foreign enemies. 2 Looking at the slogan of pax terra marique, Cornwell argues that Octavian’s victory in 36 becomes the precursor of Actium. Young Caesar was given an honorific column on the Forum after Naulochus, with rostra and an inscription: “Peace, long disrupted by civil war, he restored on land and sea” (App. B Civ. 5.130; the context of 5.130 and 5.132 suggests “civil war”). The remarks on Appian seem to imply that he thought that the civil wars ended in 36 (91), but the final civil war would have been in his Egyptian History; this does not mean that Appian did not regard the Actium/Alexandria war as a civil war. Cornwell concludes that “Octavian claimed to have brought an end to civil war and restored peace… Yet while the aspect of civil war was not denied, it was not lingered upon either” (92). This fails to convince. This is an honour by the Senate, given for Young Caesar’s accomplishment of the assignment of the triumvirate (App. B Civ. 4.2; 4.9; 5.43; cf. 5.130; 5.132: end civil war; cf. RG 34.1). Cornwell also suggests that in the extant contemporary material there is no claim to either servile or civil war (92). But apart from the inscription on the monument itself we know of two letters written by Young Caesar which accuse Sextus Pompeius of encouraging piracy (App. B Civ. 5.77, 80; cf. Hor. Epod. 9.9-10, fighting a slave war). Rather than interpreting the ovation of 36 as taken because the war was deemed to have been against pirates/slaves, Cornwell sees it as another pacific ovation like those of 44 and 40 (92-93). However, a great deal of blood had been spilt in the Sicilian War. Ovations had been standard against unworthy enemies since the later second century. For Young Caesar there were two vital and non-conflicting narratives: a triumphal narrative, focusing on victory against a non-exclusively civil war enemy and a triumviral narrative, focusing on the ending of civil war and the bringing of internal peace. The conclusion that terra marique esset parta victoriis pax was employed to justify power after civil war stands (90, cf. 94). The chapter also brings attention to the commemorations of 29: the statue of Victory and other similar commemorations left little room for peace (98-102), but the Temple of Janus is there to balance the ideology of Augustus (102-106). The Victory Monument at Actium (105-106; inscription, 113) is seen as a symbol of consolidation of power in the East (109). The connection to the triumph in Rome is rightly noted (114). Nicopolis is a Greek city and the monument expressed Roman power (118). Cornwell emphasises the absence of the civil war opponent in the triumphal celebrations (119), but focusing on the Nicopolis monument, perhaps this is exactly what turns it into a conspicuous civil war monument. Why was no foreign enemy mentioned? The claim in the inscription that the Actium war was fought pro re publica implies that it was about civil peace between Romans (cf. RG 2).

Chapter 4, "Peace in the New Age of Augustus", examines pax as part of the novum saeculum and Augustus’ control over the Roman state and empire. More than anything the chapter focuses on the moment the Parthian Settlement – a diplomatic accord – reflects the rhetoric of empire and triumphalism. The Parthian Arch (132-139; or perhaps preferably Actian-Parthian Arch) is part of this development: “the quadriga represents the currus triumphalis and so implies the arch commemorated a triumph” (133). There are alternatives to this interpretation: Cassius Dio makes it clear that this was presented as a triumphal honour; the Senate offered an ovation and a triumphal arch; the first Augustus declined, the second he did not. The curious case of Lucius Cornelius Balbus and the last triumph outside the imperial family in 19 comes next (135, 139). On page 138 Cornwell concludes that “the outcome of the Parthian Settlement is the end of triumphs” (138; cf. 139: last non-imperial triumph). There was no further need for triumphs. However, if that is what Cornwell is saying, it certainly cannot mean that there were to be no more triumphs (at the least he must have planned that the princes of the imperial family should hold triumphs, as happened for Tiberius). It is true that the Fasti Triumphales were designed so that there was no space for more entries, but how this is to be explained is uncertain. In fact we know that public opinion expected a Parthian war, but Augustus decided to play it safe, instead opting (against all Roman precedent) for a diplomatic solution instead – and then had to talk it up. The question of the perpetuation of peace (142-153) concludes the chapter. The new role of the Forum of Augustus is emphasised, focusing on peace negotiated within the display of Roman victory (144), but also it seems further triumphal celebrations (146; Suet. Aug. 29.2; Cass. Dio 55.10.3).

As a consequence of the decision to focus mainly on the celebrations occasioned by Augustus’ Parthian Settlement of 20 and his return from the East the following year, Cornwell has virtually passed over the crucial first years of Augustus’ sole rule, including the arrangements about his own position in the state made in 28/27 and 23. This is unfortunate, since the division of the provinces made in 27 and periodically renewed over the rest of his reign has important implications for her theme. The triumvirs had promised to give up their extraordinary powers once they had carried out their assignment of ending the civil wars, and Augustus claimed to have fulfilled this undertaking by the settlement made in 28/27. However, to maintain his power he needed to retain command of most of the armies and the provinces in which they were stationed. He justified this, as Cassius Dio tells us (53.12.2-3, 13.1), by claiming that he would hold these provinces just for a limited period in order to pacify them and such neighbours as threatened them, and subsequently renewed his command for five or ten-year periods throughout his reign on the grounds that the work of pacification was not yet complete (in 18, a five-year renewal, soon extended to ten, and then again for ten years in 8, 3 and 13 CE). The triumviral assignment became the model for Augustus’ retention of the powers needed to carry out the assignments presented to him by the Senate and the people. This commitment to an indefinite pacification programme helped to shape both Augustus’ arrangements about his own powers and his external warfare and diplomacy. 3

Chapter 5, "The Pax Augusta", focuses on the dedication of the Altar of Augustan Peace at Rome, the first monument it would seem associated with the personification of Pax. In the context of the Res Gestae the Ara Pacis is testimony to the extent and completion of imperium (159; cf. RG 13 and parta victoriis pax). The altar and the archaeological remains are partly used to conclude, in a characteristic post-modern way, that it is misleading to look for one single depiction of the goddess on the altar itself (163). Looking at the area on the Northern parts of the Campus Martius, the solar meridian emphasises in one sense an example of the extension of pax (181).

The book’s conclusion rightly reiterates that the relationship between peace and victory was fluid (196). Cornwell is surely right to say that pax as a concept of negotiation, conflict and victory developed during the civil war period (199). Besides its detailed study of pax and related concepts in texts and iconography, the volume contains helpful discussion of a number of key monuments (Nicopolis, the Parthian Arch, the Ara Pacis). The focus here has partly been on disagreement, but Cornwell is to be commended for an important addition in a long line of scholarly endeavours on the transition from Republic to principate. The volume will undoubtedly foster new debates on this most fascination of questions: how did Augustus and his contemporaries perceive the civil war period and how did later evidence reflect upon the transition from Republic to principate?


1.   J. Bartelson, War in International Thought (Cambridge, 2017).
2.   82-83; cf. 86; 198, civil war was concealed; contra C.H. Lange, Triumphs in the Age of Civil War: The Late Republic and the Adaptability of Triumphal Tradition (London, 2016).
3.   J.W. Rich, “Augustus, War and Peace”, in J. Edmondson (ed.), Augustus (Edinburgh, 2009) pp.137-164; and see now M. Lavan, “Peace and Empire: Pacare, Pacatus and the Language of Roman Imperialism”, in E.P. Moloney and M.S. Williams (eds.), Peace and Reconciliation in the Classical World (London, 2017) pp. 102-114.

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