The Pax Romana (“Roman Peace”) spanned from 27 BC to 180 AD and brought peace and prosperity to the Roman Empire after a turbulent period of wars and internal conflicts during the Roman Republic. Caesar Augustus (formerly known as Octavian), initiated the Pax Romana by establishing stable governance and ensuring law and order within the empire, even if this meant separating it from the wider world and defending, or even expanding, its borders through military conquest.
Renowned historian Tom Holland’s acclaimed Roman Empire trilogy concludes with Pax: War and Peace in Rome’s Golden Age – our Book of the Month for July 2023 – and is a portrait of the ancient world’s ultimate superpower at war and at peace, featuring many of the most celebrated episodes in Roman history.
Here, we explore the role of the Emperor Augustus in facilitating Rome’s golden age.
Augustus’ rise to power
In 44 BC, Octavian’s great uncle, Julius Caesar, was assassinated by members of the Roman Senate opposed to his attempts to reform the government and wary of the influence of his lover, Queen Cleopatra of Egypt.
Caesar had no living legitimate children under Roman law, and so had adopted Octavian, making him his primary heir. Aged 19, Octavian took command of Caesar’s army, and made strategic alliances to defeat political rivals, joining forces with Caesar’s Chief General, Mark Antony. Together they hunted down those that had assassinated Julius Caesar, ultimately sharing power in Rome. However, their alliance soured due to personal rivalries, political differences, and conflicting ambitions, and Octavian emerged victorious in the Battle of Actium in 31 BC against Antony and Cleopatra.
Returning to Rome, Octavian was acclaimed a hero. Seeking to consolidate his authority and bring stability, he made a show of returning full power to the Roman Senate, claiming he acted for the glory of the Roman Republic rather than personal power. As a reward, in 27 BC the Senate gave Octavian the name Augustus (‘exalted one’) and the title of Princeps (‘first among equals’ – the member of the Senate with the highest precedence). This is seen as the start of Augustus’ reign as Rome’s first Emperor.
Augustus would rule for 44 years, and his reign began the era of peace and prosperity, known as the Pax Romana.
Augustus aimed to reorganise Roman life, seeking peace and – according to the historian Suetonius – to establish a stable, reformed government. He implemented a series of political, social and economic policy reforms that formed the Pax Romana’s foundation, and gradually diminished the importance of the Senate. He embarked on extensive public works projects, constructing 50,000 miles of new roads, bridges, and aqueducts to facilitate trade and communication.
A system of efficient administration was also established, with governors overseeing the provinces and ensuring the rule of law. Additionally, an official courier system of relay stations was implemented, enhancing communication across the expanding empire.
Augustus travelled extensively, visiting every province in the Empire. With Rome’s civil wars concluded he reformed and strengthened the military, bolstering its organisation and discipline, supported by numerous auxiliary units often recruited from recently conquered areas. His extensive building of Roman road networks also allowed Rome’s armies to march at an unprecedented pace, incorporating new tactics or weapons or absorbing former enemies into their army, enticed by the benefits of joining.
By guaranteeing that Roman legions received pensions from the public treasury rather than from generals, Augustus ensured soldiers were no longer incentivised to be loyal to their commanders over Rome itself.
Thus Augustus managed to expand the Empire to double its size, annexing Egypt, part of Spain, areas of central Europe, and Judea, creating a vast trading network that boosted the economy. While the Pax Romana was not entirely free from conflicts, military campaigns were limited compared to previous centuries, as Roman legions aimed to maintain peace and deter external threats.
Economic prosperity and the flourishing of culture
The Pax Romana ushered in a period of unprecedented economic prosperity and cultural advancement. Trade thrived within the vast empire and beyond, facilitated by the extensive network of roads and sea routes established by the Romans that now thrived after clearing the Mediterranean of pirates. The growth of cities and a prosperous middle class fostered a vibrant cultural and intellectual climate.
Writers such as Livy, Tacitus and Virgil produced influential works that chronicled Roman history and mythology, while artists and sculptors created beautiful mosaics and lifelike statues. Craftsmen and architects constructed beautiful grand palaces, temples and public amphitheatres (including landmarks such as the Colosseum and Pantheon), while entertainment venues like the Circus Maximus were improved, transforming Rome into the gleaming Eternal City.
Law and governance
Augustus established a system of imperial governance – laws were codified and standardised, ensuring uniformity and stability throughout the empire. The Roman legal system provided a framework for justice, protecting citizens’ rights and promoting social order. A salaried civil service was established to enforce laws, collect taxes, and govern more efficiently – shifting power from nobles to bureaucrats.
Augustus allowed individual provinces to create and administer their own laws whilst remaining under Roman protection and governance, which helped facilitate the empire’s expansion. He implemented revenue reforms, bringing a larger portion of the Empire’s territory under direct taxation. This standardised the financial relationship between Rome and the provinces, increasing Rome’s net revenue.
Augustus also introduced a census to ensure fairer taxation with fixed quotas for each province, and established a postal service, a regular police force, and fire brigade. He also created the Praetorian Guard, initially a personal bodyguard that evolved into an imperial guard and influential political force in Rome.
Augustus sought to embody Republican virtues, connecting with the concerns of ordinary people and curbing excesses. He also passed laws promoting marital stability and reviving religious practices.
Pax Romana’s continuation
Shortly before his death in 14 AD, Augustus commented:
“I found Rome a city of bricks, and left it a city of marble.”
Younger generations had never known any form of government other than the principate, and older citizens would certainly not have wanted a return to the violence prior to Augustus’ rule. Thus the Pax Romana, and Rome’s lure, continued.
Despite subsequent emperors not always living up to Augustus’ standards, their rule was generally sufficient to maintain the peace for around 200 years. Rome’s continuous prominence was due to its ability to assimilate and incorporate various individuals (such as freed slaves) and groups (former enemies) into its empire. The promise of Roman citizenship and the associated benefits attracted people to become Roman. Its strength lay in its capacity to turn former enemies into allies, harnessing their contributions for future success.
Conquered territories were allowed to maintain their identities and self-govern as long as they remained loyal to Rome. This decentralised approach granted provinces the freedom to uphold their laws, worship their own gods, and preserve their customs. Rome only intervened if there was a threat to the empire. Consequently Rome became a powerful force, with a vast empire and diverse population.
The Pax Romana’s end
The decline of the Pax Romana was a gradual process, with threats emerging both internally and externally. Rome faced challenges from political instability, economic crises, external invasions, succession conflicts, and a loss of traditional values.
Internally, economic issues such as inflation, currency devaluation, and wealth disparities created social unrest among the lower classes burdened with heavy taxation. Externally, barbarian invasions, conflicts with neighbouring empires, and military strain weakened Rome’s defences. The peaceful transfer of power became uncertain, leading to power struggles and civil wars.
Marcus Aurelius (r. 161-180 AD) was the last Emperor of the Pax Romana. Latterly he transferred power to his son, Commodus, serving jointly from 177 AD until his death. Commodus’s decadence and incompetence, disregard for governance and dictatorial behaviour eroded the empire’s stability. He squandered resources on lavish spectacles and undermined the authority of the Senate, leading to political instability and the erosion of Roman values.
His reign ended in 192 AD with his assassination, sparking a civil war that brought an end to a golden age of Roman history. Despite these challenges, there were no independence movements within the Empire itself. The allure of being Roman persisted, highlighting Rome’s enduring draw.
Tom Holland is an award-winning historian, author and broadcaster. His bestselling books include Rubicon: The Triumph and the Tragedy of the Roman Republic, which won the Hessell-Tiltman Prize for History and was shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize. Holland has translated works for Penguin Classics; has adapted Homer, Herodotus, Thucydides and Virgil for the BBC; and in 2007, he was the winner of the Classical Association prize. Holland hosts (with Dominic Sandbrook) the no.1 podcast The Rest is History. He has written and presented a number of TV documentaries for the BBC and Channel 4, on subjects ranging from religion to dinosaurs. His book, Pax: War and Peace in Rome’s Golden Age, is published by Little, Brown Book Group, available from 6 July 2023.