Pax Romana: A Review

Pax Romana: A Review August 29, 2016

Adrian Goldsworthy. Pax Romana: War, Peace and Conquest in the Roman World. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016.ISBN 0300178824.

Review by Michael C Thompson

One of the first aspects of life under Roman rule that a beginning New Testament student learns is the Pax Romana (Roman peace). The phrase points to an ideal that characterized certain aspects of the empire, which would have helped construct the context of Jesus and the early church. However, even among the majority of those who have been introduced to the concept, the notion of Pax Romana remains undeveloped as facet of life in the Roman world. In this volume we are reminded that history is always more complex and nuance than we might at first suspect.

Adrian Goldsworthy is a well-known historian of the Roman world, having produced a number of volumes on various aspects of the empire and its most famous characters. Here he details the historical development and nuance of Pax Romana, documenting its widespread reach into Roman life. “Whatever we think of empires in general and the Romans in particular, this was a remarkable achievement and one deserving admiration …” (415). In regards to understanding the New Testament in its context, this is a study that will prove valuable.

As readers and interpreters of scripture it is often a challenge to keep in mind the complexity of a culture that is quite different than our modern world. Even a concept such as Pax Romana can quickly become oversimplified, both in ideal and reality. On the one hand: “The empire was prosperous because it was peaceful, warfare banished to the frontiers which were protected by the army. This was the Pax Romana or Roman Peace, | which allowed the greater part of the known world to flourish” (9–10). And yet, on the other hand: “For all the talk of peace, Rome under [Augustus’] leadership was almost permanently at war somewhere in the world, just as it had been under the Republic” (169).

And this seems to be at the center of Goldsworthy’s study — namely, that Pax Romana was not simply a peaceable kingdom on earth, but rather its existence was a peace within the bounds of Roman ideals, which were build upon military conquest and strength. The Pax Romana began with Augustus’ achievement of ending the years of civil war, but also developed along the lines of imperial dominance that would come to characterize the empire. There are many aspects of life to consider in this regard, and Goldsworthy does a remarkable job in presenting such a wide range of material.

Of special interest to the New Testament reader are chapters that rely heavily on the evidence in and around Judea (chs. 8–9). Mostly centered on the Jewish rebellion, there is simply more historical data from this region than any other place in the Roman world. But here we discover an opportunity to develop a better understanding of the events leading up to the Jewish war, the political drives that played a part in motivating the Jewish leadership during the Second Temple period, the reality of responsibility for Pontius Pilate in dealing with the Jewish aristocracy in regards to Jesus, and the significance of being labelled lestai (as those crucified alongside Jesus). These realities did not exist in a vacuum, but were part of a larger context of Roman rule, notably the Pax Romana.

“The ancient world was a dangerous, warlike place” (56). That Rome was able to effectively put an end to local skirmishes and tribal fighting, relegating the majority of military conflict to the border areas, is quite an accomplishment. It should not surprise us that many Roman historians and poets praised the Pax Romana and the emperors who saw to its establishment and maintenance. This, of course, did not eliminate crime and banditry, but it did bring about a new world in which the military strength of the empire kept order throughout its provinces.

Nevertheless, “Rome and its emperor infiltrated every aspect of public life until it was hard to imagine a world where this was not the case” (281). One of the realities that came along with the Pax Romana was creation of a culture in which Roman ideology became normative among various tribes and peoples. Those who would live out-of-step with these ideals (most notably in the ancient world, the Jews and the Christians), would be seen as odd and suspect. Hence, the message of the gospel would be culturally subversive not because it was against societal peace, but rather in its evaluation of militarism and conquest, both of which served as foundations of the Pax Romana.

To effectively capture a major concept such as Pax Romana is a challenging task, and Goldsworthy does well to provide a rather comprehensive portrait of the ancient Roman world. If a book such as this can only provide an introduction to the many ins and outs, ups and downs, and rules and exceptions to such a prominent characteristic of this great empire, then a simple review will undoubtedly fall short. Suffice to say, there is an entire world behind the phrase Pax Romana, and our ability enter into this reality of daily life in the empire will certainly assist our quest in understanding the message of the New Testament.

Goldsworthy intentionally stops short of offering critique of our modern world, remaining instead on the footing of ancient historian. As pastors this would be the next logical step, especially in reading the documents from the early church, written under this same Pax Romana. In describing Rome he states, “Their empire was created and then maintained by the frequent use and ever-present threat of military force” (410). In our world today this hope for peace is often found in the same militarism that characterized the Roman Empire. But will the church collude with those who trust in the weapons of war, or will we find a greater peace in that which has been accomplished in Christ?

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