Pax: War and Peace in Rome’s Golden Age by Tom Holland - review by Allan Massie

Allan Massie

Anni Mirabiles

Pax: War and Peace in Rome’s Golden Age


Abacus Books 400pp £30

One of the most famous of any historian’s judgements is Gibbon’s claim that the second century of the Roman Empire was ‘the period in the history of the world, during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous’. Gibbon’s opinion may be questioned now or even dismissed as Eurocentric, but until at least the middle of the 20th century, educated Europeans usually subscribed to it. Within the bounds of the Roman Empire, what was known as the Age of the Antonines, the time of the ‘five good emperors’ (Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius), was a period of unprecedented and never to be repeated peace and prosperity. Of course, contemporaries might have seen things differently, as Tom Holland shows in this masterly and thoroughly enjoyable history of the ‘golden age’ of Rome, which carries us from the shambles that followed the revolt against Nero in AD 68–9 to the start of Hadrian’s reign.

Holland prefaces his narrative with two quotations. The first is from the Roman senator and author Pliny the Elder: ‘Truly, it is as though the Romans and the boundless majesty of their peace have been bestowed by the gods upon humanity to serve them as a second sun.’ The second comes from the greatest of Roman historians, Tacitus, writing in around AD 98: ‘Where they make a desert they call it peace.’ Tacitus, however, put this bitter judgement in the mouth of a Caledonian chief living at the very edge of the Roman Empire; Tacitus had his own reasons for expressing ambivalence. Within the empire, things were different. There, cities were granted a degree of self-government, or even, as Holland says, ‘the illusion of autonomy’, though Rome made sure that ‘the illusion never shaded too far into reality’. The Pax Romana depended on maintaining this delicate balance.

By AD 68, Holland’s starting point, the order that had been established by Augustus and maintained by Tiberius was being disturbed. There was trouble on the Rhine frontier and a Jewish rebellion in Palestine. Nero, the last of the Julio-Claudian emperors, was popular with the common people, loathed by

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