War & Peace alla Romana

Covers of Pax Romana and Imperial Triumph
Covers of Pax Romana and Imperial Triumph
Pax Romana: War, Peace and Conquest in the Roman World 
Adrian Goldsworthy
Orion Books 513pp £25 

Imperial Triumph: The Roman World from Hadrian to Constantine 
by Michael Kulikowski
Profile Books 360pp £25


How was a small community on the banks of the Tiber able to rise to dominate the Mediterranean world? Further, how did it secure the continuity of that empire once it had acquired it? These questions, particularly the second, are at the heart of these two complementary studies. Anyone interested in the history of the Roman Empire will have much to learn from them.

A work entitled Pax Romana may suggest that the pre-eminent military historian of Rome, Adrian Goldsworthy, has gone soft. He has not. There is a great deal here about war and conquest, as well as some enlightening reflection on how the Empire was run in time of peace. He turns early to the shameful 150 bc massacre of the Lusitanians by legionary forces led by Servius Sulpicius Galba. Elsewhere he quotes the Greek historian
Polybius on the carefully choreographed slaughter during the sack of New Carthage in 210 bc. He is a reliable guide on how to use a short sword or a spear and offers a bravura account of the dynamics of a frontier raid.

Yet this study offers far more than straight military history. A key problem is how a governor could hope to administer his allotted province when the civilian retinue accompanying him from Rome was typically so small. Goldsworthy puts great emphasis on the maintenance of the structures of civil society before the Roman conquest: a Greek city was welcome to elect its own magistrates and hold its own assemblies as long as taxes were paid and order maintained. He also emphasises the prevalence of inter-communal disputes before and after the arrival of the Romans: to rival communities such as the Jews and the Samaritans, the trick was to induce the new imperial administrators to side with them against their existing adversaries. Goldsworthy makes excellent use of anything from the Gospels to inscriptions and other archaeological remains in order to illustrate his claims.

A Roman governor would often operate like a circuit judge holding assizes. He would travel through the major towns of his province, hear appeals and resolve disputes. There was money to be made and it was understood that the costs of a successful political career could be recouped through more or less discreet acts of embezzlement. Those who overstepped the mark too flagrantly, such as Verres, the governor of Sicily, could find themselves on trial in Rome, but the Roman ruling class had no fundamental interest in preventing their peers from more moderate acts of self-enrichment. Goldsworthy makes excellent use of Cicero’s letters home when serving as governor of Cilicia in 51-50 bc. Cicero himself had no wish to take up such a role and had little need of the money, but he still had to deal with some of the seamier schemes of the Roman elite: the activities of Brutus in Cyprus show the noblest of the Romans empowered by the senate to lend money at a rate of 48 per cent compound interest per annum and then enforcing payment with means that would make a modern payday loan shark blush. 

Michael Kulikowski takes up the story pretty much where Goldsworthy leaves off. Both describe the reputedly golden years of the second century ad and the imperial policies of Hadrian and the Antonines. Yet what follows is truly extraordinary. The Roman Empire had been convulsed in ad 69 – the Year of the Four Emperors – as different claimants marched on the city from Spain, Germany and Judaea, but relative calm was restored and emperors from Trajan to Marcus Aurelius enjoyed long and prosperous reigns. What followed thereafter puts some strain on the title Imperial Triumph, with ever more violent contests for power and a dizzying succession of short-lived rulers. Kulikowski makes clear that things were already going wrong as early as the usurpation of power by Septimius Severus in ad 193 and that the same struggles resumed both before and after the reign of Constantine. 

In Roman myth the primitive struggle for power is encapsulated in the contest to be King of the Grove at Nemi: the challenger must kill his predecessor and will remain king only as long as he can avoid being killed himself. The contest for the throne in the third century ad suggests no great advance on this procedure, save that now it is not just the emperor who faces death but also any of his close relatives who can be tracked down. Yet at the same time the Roman Empire was becoming a highly sophisticated bureaucratic organisation and developing the legal systems that are perhaps its greatest legacy to the modern world. The emperor Caracalla emerges from this study as a fratricidal megalomaniac, but in ad 212 he also extended citizenship to all subjects of the Empire and thus made applicable to every community the law codes that best survive to us in the Digest of the later emperor Justinian. If the Empire endured through these years, it is perhaps because it mattered less who sat on the throne than how his titular servants maintained the administration. However, the struggle for power and the establishment of bureaucratic order could become entangled: in ad 223 the great jurist and theoretician of human rights, Ulpian, fell victim to the machinations of a rival and was murdered in sight of the emperor.

These are two fine books, elegantly written and equipped with maps and suggestions for further reading. Goldsworthy’s study adopts a more thematic approach, while Kulikowski aims for a more continuous narrative enriched by chapters that reflect on the later empire as a system. If readers find Imperial Triumph a distinctly grim story, they should note that its forthcoming sequel is to be called Imperial Tragedy.

Matthew Leigh

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