Book Review by Philip Matyszak
An Empire worth defending
The ancient Romans were brutes. They wantonly invaded a succession of gentle, tree-hugging native peoples and set up a harsh, exploitative empire that did nothing for its unfortunate subjects but expose them to rampant corruption and prohibitively high taxation, and all the while a predatory army and swarms of bandits pillaged what was left.
The above paragraph is something of a parody of the way that modern revisionist historians portray the Roman empire. Nevertheless there can be little doubt that views of ancient Rome have recently changed. Perhaps from revulsion at the more unsavoury practices of modern colonial empires, there is a modern trend to portray Rome as uniquely savage, violent and a force for bad in the ancient world.
Pax Romana is a rather gentle but comprehensive refutation of this view – or at least a solid thesis by the author that 'the pendulum has swung too far'. In this book author and scholar Adrian Goldsworthy looks at Rome and its empire in a series of detailed studies – from conquest, to administration and frontier defences – and asks 'Did the Pax Romana really exist?' And if it did, was it beneficial for the people who lived under it?
At the start of the book, one is entitled to have doubts. The Romans were not gentle conquerors. As we read of Caesar in Gaul, the callousness and at times downright barbaric behaviour of the Romans is impossible to ignore. However, as Goldsworthy points out, not everyone suffered in the same way. Some leaders sided with the Romans from the outset and were gently and willingly romanized. What this section shows very well is that the Romans were always but one of the players in a highly complex game of regional politics in which a multiplicity of factors influenced the protagonists.
Another point which the author makes repeatedly is that we should not make the mistake of judging the Romans by one standard – that of 21st century Europe – and everyone else in the ancient world by another. The Romans were people of their time, and those were not gentle times. The Germans were every bit as warlike as the Romans, and aggressively expansionist too. Those gentle Britons did not live in hill forts because they enjoyed the view, and for a 'peaceful' people they were remarkably skilful and practised when it came to fighting off Caesar's legions.
As Goldsworthy remarks, the Romans saw nothing wrong with having an empire. They were very proud of it, and they were unequivocal that this empire was for the benefit of the Romans. Yet no other people before or since were so ready to share being Roman with 'subject peoples', to make once-foreign cities imperial capitals (as Rome ceased to be one), and to serve under emperors whose ancestors had been conquered by those Romans.
The section on the Roman frontier is especially revealing in this context. We see the frontiers not as a simple set of fortifications, but as part of a complex and interwoven web of political, economic and military interactions. There is, as Goldsworthy remarks, a certain irony that the frontiers were so effective that some modern critics deem that they were unnecessary.
By the end of this book – and it is not a short read – one has a clear idea of how Rome's empire worked. There is no attempt to whitewash Rome into a benevolent and altruistic overlord. But the Romans were above all pragmatists. They had worked out that peaceful provinces were easier to govern, that contented subjects needed fewer soldiers to control them, and prosperous provinces paid more taxes. So the Pax Romana strove for peace, content and prosperity, and succeeded to a remarkable degree. Not because of modern notions of morality, not out of philanthropy, but because it was the most efficient way to run an empire.
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Adrian Goldsworthy was born in 1969. He was educated up to the age of sixteen at Westbourne House Preparatory School and Westbourne Boys College in Penarth, South Wales. He attended the Sixth Form at Stanwell Comprehensive School for his A-Levels. From there he went to St John's College, Oxford University and took a First in Ancient and Modern History. Remaining at St John's, he was awarded a D.Phil. in Literae Humaniores (Ancient History) in 1994. The topic of his thesis was 'The Roman Army as a fighting force, 100 BC-AD 200'. A modified version of this was subsequently published in the Oxford Monographs series under the title of The Roman Army at War, 100 BC - AD 200 (1996). This remains in print and is one of the best selling works in the series.
Philip Matyszak is a British non-fiction author, primarily of historical works relating to the ancient world. Matyszak has a doctorate in Roman history from St John's College, Oxford. In addition to being a professional author, he also teaches ancient history for Madingley Hall Institute of Continuing Education, Cambridge University.
Book Review of Pax Romana: War, Peace and Conquest in the Roman World - Related Topic: Five Good Emperors