After decades of political dysfunction, civil wars and assassinations that caused the Roman Republic’s downfall, Ancient Rome flourished during two centuries of relative tranquility and prosperity known as the Pax Romana (Latin for “Roman Peace”). Ushered in by the ascension of Augustus as the first Roman emperor in 27 B.C., this era of political stability and security lasted until the death of Marcus Aurelius in 180 A.D.
Although comparatively peaceful, the Roman Empire was hardly devoid of bloodshed during Pax Romana. Tyrannical emperors killed political rivals as Rome brutally suppressed revolts in provinces such as Judea and Britain. And it continued its imperial conquests, which caused Caledonian chieftain Calgacus to quip that the Romans “create a desolation and call it peace.”
For many Romans, however, Pax Romana was a golden age of arts, literature and technology. It was a time when the empire doubled in size to stretch from Great Britain to North Africa—and came to include a quarter of the world’s population, according to some estimates.
Augustus Revitalized Rome’s Political and Military Might
After purging his enemies in the wake of the assassination of his great-uncle Julius Caesar, Augustus revived Ancient Rome’s political, military and economic power during his nearly 50-year autocratic reign. By guaranteeing that Roman legions received pensions from the public treasury rather than from their generals, the emperor ensured that soldiers were no longer incentivized to be loyal to their commanders over Rome itself. Augustus then deployed that army to expand the empire to borders that were more easily defensible.
“Pax Romana didn’t just naturally occur. Augustus made deliberate decisions about where Rome should expand to and where it should stop,” says Edward J. Watts, a history professor at the University of California, San Diego and author of The Eternal Decline and Fall of Rome: The History of a Dangerous Idea. “What Augustus could do was for the first time adjust Roman military policies around strategic objectives that would take a long time to bear fruit.”
Augustus integrated newly conquered territories into the empire by decentralizing power from the capital to the local provinces. Those provinces that accepted Roman taxation and military control were permitted to continue local customs and religions that didn’t directly violate Roman law, and “client kings” were allowed to rule on local and religious matters. Augustus also gained provincial support through political reforms, such as instituting a permanent civil service that shifted power from nobles to bureaucrats and creating a mechanism to investigate and punish corrupt provincial governors who exploited their positions for personal gain.
As the Roman Empire Grew, Its Economy Flourished
Political stability encouraged money lending and allowed long-distance trade to boom. Sea commerce thrived as the Roman navy under Augustus largely cleared the Mediterranean of pirates. Romans purchased luxurious silks and gems from the Far East and found markets for their glass and rugs as far away as India and China.
The investment of imperial resources in large infrastructure projects that would have been unaffordable with local resources integrated the provinces and brought further economic benefits. Under Augustus alone, Rome built 50,000 miles of new roads that eased the movement of troops, information and goods. Water flowing through Roman aqueducts allowed cities to prosper. Bridges and harbors built by Trajan as part of an enormous public works program also spurred trade.
“There was clearly a belief among the emperors that it was their role to facilitate the economic growth of the empire, particularly in provinces where natural disasters or population growth might have necessitated additional resources,” Watts says.
Arts and Technology Thrived During Pax Romana
Roman literature flourished under the rule of Augustus, who patronized artists who glorified the empire in their works. Virgil’s epic poem the “Aeneid,” for example, not only tells the legend of the mythical founder of Rome, but draws parallels to Augustus and paints an optimistic future for the empire. It was during this time period that poets such as Horace penned classic verses and Livy wrote his monumental history of Rome.
Throughout Pax Romana, the Romans assimilated provinces through a cultural imperialism that attempted to recast conquered people in their own image. The spread of Roman hairstyles, clothing, literature and theater outward from the capital created a common culture among educated elites, who were encouraged to adopt Roman citizenship and even serve in the Roman Senate. This was particularly true in western regions of the empire that lacked the more sophisticated urban cultures found in eastern provinces.
“There was a sustained effort to encourage people to adopt Roman names and behaviors and structure settlements in a new fashion that included Roman building processes,” Watts says. “Roman emperors built infrastructure that sustained a way of life that is distinctly Roman.” These included chariot race stadiums, forums, amphitheaters and bathhouses, which were integral to Roman civic life. The development of concrete from a mixture of volcanic sand, high-grade lime and small stones or broken bricks enabled the construction of rounded arches and domes, which became symbols of Roman imperial power.
While Rome recast cities such as London and Beirut in its own image, massive beautification and building programs implemented by emperors transformed the imperial capital from a dilapidated town on the Tiber River into the gleaming Eternal City. Roman landmarks such as the Colosseum and Pantheon were built during this time period. Augustus expanded the Roman Forum and oversaw the construction of more than a dozen new temples, a new Senate house and public halls, which caused him to proclaim on his deathbed: “I found a Rome of bricks; I leave to you one of marble.
Pax Romana ended following the death of Marcus Aurelius, who broke with recent tradition by anointing his son Commodus as his successor. Plagued by decadence and incompetence, the reign of Commodus ended in 192 A.D. with his assassination, which sparked a civil war that brought an end to a golden age of Roman history.