BMCR 2024.04.08

Pax: war and peace in Rome’s golden age

, Pax: war and peace in Rome's golden age. New York: Basic Books, 2023. Pp. 480. ISBN 9780465093533.



The title of this book is somewhat misleading, as its main subject is wars. It covers the period spanning from the First Year of Four Emperors, 68/69 AD, to the aftermath of the Bar Kokhba revolt 137/138 AD. The Antonine epoch, traditionally deemed, rightly or wrongly, as an age of peace (so that one might have expected the upper-case main title “PAX” to refer to this era) is not included in the book. Furthermore, in the internal structuring of the text, only the second half of the book (starting ab excessu Divi Vespasiani) is called “Peace”, as opposed to the first half, which is called “War”. As a result, Domitian’s Danubian wars, Trajan’s Dacian wars, the latter’s catastrophic attack on Armenia and the Parthian empire, the multiple wars at the beginning of Hadrian’s reign, and the extremely deadly Bar Kokhba revolt, are all treated under the heading of “Peace”. Then, when a period of roughly 20 years began, which might be regarded as a comparatively peaceful one, the plot breaks off.

However, laying such a heavy stress on questions of how the book could have been more sensibly titled may be seen as neglecting evident reasons of promoting and attention-catching. If the book had simply been called, for example, “Roman History from the Fall of Nero to the Death of Hadrian” it might easily have been perceived by general readers as an academic text not intended for them. Nothing prevents professional historians from reading it  as a well-written narrative that recounts Roman history from the fall of Nero to the death of Hadrian in a vivid and illustrative manner. The reader is provided with a wide variety of information on political, cultural, military, and societal matters in numerous excursions. Nevertheless readers, academic or not, who consult the book with the expectation to find some deeper-reaching reflection on the nature and the coming to be of ‘Roman PAX’ may perhaps be somewhat disappointed.

The genre of the book oscillates between novel and source-based historical narrative. The preference for vividness of style and suspense is reminiscent of the historical novels of Robert Harris. On the other hand, the text is underpinned with notes throughout, providing the reader with the most essential historical evidence, if not comprehensive information concerning the sources and secondary literature. However, Holland allows himself in a number of cases to be carried away by his characteristic flair for story-telling, such as when he vividly portrays Poppaea Sabina persuading Nero to recall his ban on gladiatorial contests in Campanian cities (pp. 186-187). In the accompanying note Holland explains: “The narrative has to be deduced exclusively from archaeological evidence, and particularly from inscriptions, edicts and graffiti preserved in Pompeii and Herculaneum.” (p. 381). In passages like these, the author’s imagination fills in large gaps in the factual evidence – without detriment to the book, as long as the reader is aware of the author’s creative approach.

Things are somewhat different in passages like the following one – randomly picked as a typical example illustrating the narrative strategy of the author: “Reprisals on the barbarians who had presumed to massacre the garrison of Vetera were predictably brutal. Just as the Judaeans had been punished for their criminality by the destruction of their temple, so were the Germans obliged to endure the loss of their great prophetess” (p. 165). It goes without saying that Holland does not want to imply that the Judaeans had been justly punished for a crime that entailed the destruction of their temple. Nor does he endorse a statement such as “Barbarians, by their very nature, were shiftless, treacherous, migratory” (p. 57). Rather, the perspective chosen by the author is one that may be called an “outer monologue” addressed by an imagined ancient Roman voice to the modern-day reader. Through this narrative device, a voice is given to a general cultural consciousness seen as more or less common to all Romans. Sometimes, the line between the writer’s authoritative text and the empathic “voice of the Roman culture” becomes blurred, as, for instance, when modern equivalents of ancient place names are inserted in the outer monologue.

Discussing his own research and placing it into the context of scholarly debates does not fall within the scope of Holland’s book, that is first and foremost meant to entertain. Indeed, it would be somewhat narrow-minded to select cases where the author opts for one version of a historic event without mentioning alternative versions handed down by tradition. Holland aims at making historical events comprehensible by using imaginative powers rather than analyzing philological problems in minute detail. However, the credibility of the book would have been improved if some inaccuracies had been avoided. I pick out randomly some examples from chapter II, first Section (p. 54-71).

On page 55, the author asserts: “It was never a matter of policy for the Roman people to exterminate their adversaries.” The sources tell a different story. For instance, Livy describes the genocide committed against the Aequi in 303 BCE (Liv. 9.45.17-18); Appian recounts the massacre of the Senones in 283 BCE (Exc. de leg. p. 70 de Boor), and Polybius presents the wholesale slaughter of the inhabitants of Carthago Nova in 209 BCE as a common practice when a city was taken by force (Polyb. 10.15). Caesar, by his own account, killed most of the Usipetes and Tencteri (Gall. 4.1) and exterminated the Eburones (Gall. 6.29-44), and Germanicus massacred the Marsi (Tac. Ann. 1.50-51; 2.25). “To exterminate their adversaries” was indeed a common option in Roman politics. On page 57 Holland comments on the high concentration of troops stationed along the river Rhine: “The aim was to render Gaul and the vitals of the empire impenetrable.” This can hardly be true. Garrisoning a defense line spanning some 1200 kilometers so densely as to make it that it became impassable for attackers, was an impossible task to achieve in antiquity. Even if the commanders in chief had had some 100,000 men (an estimate) at their disposal in the early phases of occupation, such resources would have been nowhere near enough to block the crossing of the Rhine at every point effectively. The legions and auxiliaries stationed at the Rhine (or in any other location) by Augustus and its successors were an instrument of conquest, not of defense. On the following page (p. 58) it is stated that “There was no word for ‘frontier’ in Latin.” What did Augustus mean, then, when he gave his famous consilium coercendi intra terminos imperii (Tac. Ann. 1.11)? On page 61, the author writes: “On the Rhine, which had the heaviest concentration of troops anywhere in the empire, seven (?) legions in all, there were two such headquarters. One, Vetera, stood in Lower Germany; (…).” In my understanding, the headquarter of an army is where its commander and his staff are permanently based, in this case, therefore, (in the praetorium) of Cologne. “Throughout the entire existence of the republic, the Roman people had voted in centuries” (p. 65). What about the comitia tributa and the concilium plebis, being so significant for Roman republican history? “Only with the coming to power of Augustus had this constitutional arrangement finally ended: (…)” (ibid.). Rather, it was integrated into the modified constitution of Augustus

It is not my purpose here to draw up a comprehensive list of inaccurate or debatable statements, or instances of repetitions of old prejudices. Such a list would do no justice to a book that does not aim at lecturing doctores, but at telling general readers an old story in a modern way. In this, Holland succeeds with this book as he has done with many before.