Pax, by Tom Holland

Peter Hughes

Pax is Holland's third history of the Roman Empire following on from Rubicon and Dynasty.
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One of the delusions of civilisation is that boundaries, barriers and walls offer protection against collapse. It’s not surprising, then, that Tom Holland’s masterful and engaging history of the Pax Romana, covering the Golden Age of Rome from the end of the reign of Nero to the death of Hadrian, opens by taking us to the mythical ‘Wall’ in Game of Thrones. The Wall served as a barrier between civilisation and its Other and the Night’s Watch, scanning the icy wastes, are the fictional counterparts of the Roman soldiers who gazed “from a watchtower on the Rhine to the far bank”, where barbarism ruled.

The reason walls fail to preserve civilisations is because chaos is built into the apparent order of empire, gnawing away at its roots. In Pax, Holland conceives of this as the struggle between two goddesses, Concordia and Discordia, Harmony and Chaos, that foretell the later collapse of the empire.

Holland writes that the violence of the Roman legions was “a necessary precondition of the Pax Romana”. Peace and prosperity were, of necessity, built on war and Rome’s victorious armies were built on structure and discipline. Mastery of the disciplina Romana enabled the legions to conquer the world. Their capacity for violence turned Jerusalem into an “ocean of blood” which served as a “symbol of the might, of the terror, of the invincibility of Rome”. At the apex of the bloodshed stood Caesar. The Pax Romana was not self-sustaining. It needed, according to Holland, “a leader of divine quality” to “drive the chariot of the sun” between the forces that sought to destroy it.

Pax: War and Peace in Rome’s Golden Age is the story of these forces.

Conquest delivered glory, luxury and harmony to the Roman Empire. It also fostered the delusion that the wall that separated Concordia from Discordia, was built on something more than forgetfulness. According to Holland, Roman moralists saw gladiatorial combat as an antidote to the softening of the Roman citizen, a reminder of the blood that built the Pax Romana. During Trajan’s rule, which began in 98AD, the historian Tacitus looked out over the barbarian wastes of Germany “where there were none of the luxuries that had so corrupted and softened the Roman people, and dreaded the worst”. He feared “that the very prosperity of the empire might portend its downfall”.

Yet, while empires thrive, citizens hope. Driven by Concordia, Roman power spawned new knowledge. As the empire grew and gave access to new ideas, territories and cultures, Pliny the Elder, author of the monumental Naturalis Historia, dreamt of knowing “everything in the entire world”. His work ended abruptly when Discordia buried him beneath a sea of molten ash in 79AD as Vesuvius erupted.

In the last pages of Pax, Holland describes how, towards the end of his reign, Hadrian retreated to an enormous villa, “where, below “the vast expanse of the reception halls, the dining rooms, the pavilions, the water features – there stretched an underground chamber designed to simulate the realm of the dead”. The idea of death as the foundation of life, chaos as the foundation of order, war as the foundation of peace, is central to this outstanding book. Pax begins with a mythical Wall and ends with Hadrian’s Wall, a barrier between nothingness and civilisation. Holland’s brilliance keeps us aware that Discordia, “the most terrible of goddesses”, reduces walls to dust as she haunts, and eventually claims, every empire as her own.

Peter Hughes is a philosopher and the author of A History of Love and Hate in 21 Statues.