The Latin phrase Pax Romana, meaning “Roman peace,” refers to the period of extraordinary peace and stability that existed in the Mediterranean world from the end of the reign of the Roman emperor Augustus in A.D. 14 to the death of the emperor Marcus Aurelius in A.D. 180.
Beginning with the reign of Tiberius, the period of the Pax Romana included the reigns of such emperors as Claudius, Nero, Trajan, and Hadrian. Before the Pax Romana, the Mediterranean region had been divided into hundreds of city-states*, territories, and kingdoms that often rose rapidly, enjoyed a brief moment of glory and achievement, and then collapsed as a result of internal unrest or foreign conquest. Under Augustus and his successors, however, the Roman Empire brought together the peoples of the Mediterranean under its leadership.
* city-state independent state consisting of a city and its surrounding territory
Unification of the Mediterranean. The Pax Romana rested on Roman administrative ability and military supremacy. Although the Romans conquered lands as far away and as culturally diverse as Britain, Spain, and Egypt, they did not force the inhabitants to adopt Roman customs, and they allowed people from till parts of the empire to participate in the operations of government and in Roman social life. These lenient and tolerant policies, as well as the spread of Roman law, unified the empire and minimized ethnic and cultural differences that might otherwise have threatened its stability. Over time, with the exception of the Jews and Egyptians, who had strong cultural and religious traditions, people came to think of themselves not as Gauls or Iberians but as Romans.
Between A.D. 14 and A.D. 180, the Mediterranean world enjoyed a period of peace and stability that came to be known as the Pax Romano. The Ara Pads, meaning “altar of peace,” was built to commemorate the safe return of Augustus from Gaul and Spain and was an early indication of the great era of peace that followed.
Once the empire’s frontiers had been firmly established, the Roman army ensured security in the provinces* by strengthening trade and local industry. This led to widespread prosperity in which, for the first time in history, the average person could hope to share.
Cultural Growth During the Pax Romana. Cultural activities abounded during the Pax Romana. Formal education increased, as more people learned to read and write, and many attended schools. Art, sculpture, and architecture thrived. Both the Colosseum and the Pantheon were built during this period. Literature flourished. Among the Greek writers of this period were Plutarch, Pausanias, Ptolemy, and Galen of Pergamum. Latin authors of the period included Seneca, Lucan, Pliny the Elder, Juvenal, and Martial. Libraries were built throughout the empire during this period. The Pax Romana in Roman history is sometimes likened to the cultural flowering that occurred in Greece in the fifth century B.C. during the Age of Pericles.
The End of the Pax Romana. As prosperity grew, so did the size and power of the central government, especially the power of the emperor. Gradually, cities and towns began to lose their initiative and even their vitality. The frontiers that had once been manageable came under barbarian attack. When barbarian pressures from outside became great, the Roman armies that for years had done no serious fighting were unprepared and incapable of responding to raids and guerrilla-type warfare. With money and manpower directed toward maintaining frontier security, no new programs were initiated to renew the strength and vitality of the empire.
* province overseas area controlled by Rome
The rulers who followed Marcus Aurelius were unable to halt the economic and military decline that signaled the end of the great era of peace. (See also Cities, Roman; Economy, Roman; Rome, History of; Trade, Roman.)