“Pax Romana” was a term coined during Emperor Augustus‘ period of peace following the civil war it is therefore also known as Pax Augustea.
The term is linked to the condition of relative peace in contrast to the unruliness of the barbarian world outside the confines of the Roman Empire. This presumed peace was as much the result of Roman law as it was of the subdual of local warfare between rival tribes or peoples.
Emperor Augustus celebrated the peace he brought with his famous “Ara Pacis” – altar to peace – a marvelous piece of political propaganda which he placed in the campus martius with a solar clock’s shadow falling on it on the day and hour of his birthday.
The Pax Romana is commonly accepted to have lasted some 200 years during which civil war and foreign invasions of Roman territories were essentially unknown, spanning from around 30AD (when Augustus beat Mark Anthony and Cleopatra at Actium to end the Roman civil war) through to the death of Emperor Marcus Aurelius.
It is interesting to note how the Pax Romana outlived its own definition by having lasted past the Empire’s point of maximum extension ie around 117AD at the end of Emperor Trajan’s reign or the beginning of Emperor Hadrian’s.
The Pax Romana is mentioned by Seneca, Pliny the Elder, Lucan and Tacitus in reference to the effect which the Roman Empire had in terms of bringing civilisation and order to the barbaric peoples.
Seneca (De Providentia):
“Omnes considera gentes in quibus Romana pax desinit, Germanos dico et quidquid circa Histrum uagarum gentium occursat: perpetua illos hiemps, triste caelum premit, maligne solum sterile sustentat…”
Observe all those people who have been reached by the pax Romana, i mean to say the Germans and all such peoples as may be found in the region of Histrum: continuous winter, interminable, a somber sky weighs upon them, the infertile ground barely gives them sustenance…
Tacitus (57-120AD), like Sallust before him, seems to have been aware of the ill ways of Roman expansion, the decay of the “boni mores” (the good traditional morals) in favour of the growing lust for power and wealth. Like Sallust he doesn’t openly criticise the imperialist line and in fact likely upholds it as the lesser evil: the Pax Romana is a guarantee of order and survival for all.
Tacitus writes one of the few self criticism of Roman imperialism in his “Agricola” (ch.30) where has the caledonian chieftain put forward the opposing view to the Pax Romana:
“Ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant”
where they make a desert, they call it peace
Pliny the Elder (died in the Pompeii eruption) had the following comment to make regarding the benefits of Roman expansion (Natural History, Book 14, Ch 1): “For these later ages, the enlarged boundaries of the habitable world, and the vast extent of our empire, have been a positive injury.”
Nevertheless he immediately goes on to condemn the ills brought by growing wealth and ambitions: “Since the Censor has been chosen for the extent of his property, since the judge has been selected according to the magnitude of his fortune…..the magistrate and the general (by) a large estate….all the true enjoyment of life have been utterly lost sight of, and all those arts which have derived the name of liberal, from liberty, that greatest blessing of life, have come to deserve the contrary appellation, servility alone being the passport to profit.”