‘Pax’ Review: A Real-Life Game of Thrones

From The Wall Street Journal:

“They make a desert and call it peace.” That harrowing critique of the high Roman Empire is often attributed to the historian Tacitus. In fact, the line is found in a speech that Tacitus quotes (or invents), delivered by a barbarian chieftain, Calgacus, on the eve of a battle against Roman forces. Tacitus surely didn’t endorse the sentiment, especially since his own father-in-law was facing Calgacus that day. To Tacitus, pax Romana, “Roman peace,” implied, first and foremost, stability and order across the Mediterranean world, not wanton destruction.

Whose viewpoint are we modern folk to adopt, that of Calgacus, the victim of Roman aggression, or that of his foes, who led the West on a path of unparalleled progress? The question is implicitly posed by historian Tom Holland at the outset of “Pax,” a lively survey of Roman warfare and foreign affairs at the height of the empire. Mr. Holland gives the Calgacus quote as one of the book’s epigrams, right beside an opposing opinion by Pliny the Elder. Pliny proclaimed “the Romans and the boundless majesty of their peace” to be a gift from the gods, as bright as a “second sun.”

“If there was light, there was also darkness,” Mr. Holland writes, balancing “sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public order” and other fruits of the pax against the rivers of blood that were spilled to secure them. He ranges Edward Gibbon’s famous pronouncement, that the high Roman Empire was the “most happy and prosperous” era in all history up to his day (the late 18th century), against the nightmarish portrait in Revelation of the Whore of Babylon, where Rome is reimagined as a gruesome, blood-drinking fiend.

“Pax” leaves it largely to readers to struggle with this opposition. As he exits his preface, Mr. Holland sets moral questions aside and turns his hand to what he does best: sure-footed, tight-wound historical narrative, enlivened with keen insights. He has a talent for making readers at home in the ancient world, even if they’re first-time visitors. In this book he describes an era few but specialists know in any depth: the seven decades between the deaths of Nero (A.D. 68) and Hadrian (138), a span that saw nine rulers come and go, including four in a single, turbulent year.

That year, A.D. 69, occupies about half the length of “Pax.” Mr. Holland takes us in painstaking detail through the civil war that brought Galba, Otho, and Vitellius to power in quick succession. Rome’s first dynastic line, that of the Julio-Claudians, had come to an end the previous year with the forced suicide of Nero. Absent any other path to the emperorship, the leaders of Rome’s far-flung armies used main force to establish legitimacy. Finally Vespasian, the first of the so-called Flavian line, managed to hold onto rule.

During his account of this year-long melee Mr. Holland casts frequent looks backward to Nero, a figure whose complex legacy had to be dealt with by all of the Flavians. Though lower-class Romans had idolized Nero, the political class deemed him an embarrassing failure, and his successors did their best to distance their reign from his. The Flavian amphitheater, aka the Colosseum, was built atop demolished portions of Nero’s pleasure palace, the Golden House, to signal to Rome the end of the Neronian adventure in megalomania.

The second half of “Pax” moves at a faster clip, covering nearly 70 years and numerous foreign wars and rebellions. The siege of Jerusalem led by Vespasian was brought to a conclusion by Titus, his son, but the Jews rose up and were conquered twice more. Roman arms ventured north into Scotland and eastward across the Danube and the Euphrates. The empire reached its greatest extent under Trajan, who died on campaign in the East in 117; his successor, Hadrian, retrenched, relinquishing some of Trajan’s conquests and building the wall across Britain that bears his name. To give up expansion was not a popular move, as Mr. Holland makes clear. Hadrian obscured the pullback by giving Trajan lavish funeral rites, then interring his ashes inside the carved column, still standing in Rome, that illustrates some of his triumphs.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

PG notes that, when he was preparing this post, the audio version of Pax was available for $5.95 US “with discounted Audible membership” (Whatever that means.).

He has no idea if, considering any fine print, this is a good deal, how long this offer will last or whether something similar is being offered outside the United States.

5 thoughts on “‘Pax’ Review: A Real-Life Game of Thrones”

  1. New Audible members get their first book free. Now they’ve bundled that concept with a discounted monthly membership price for four months. I’m a heavy Audible user, paying just under $10 per book with credits. Don’t tell my wife.

    • Thanks for enlightening me about current costs of audio books, D.

      I keep telling myself I need to try out a good audio book, but, as mentioned before, I like the speed of conventional reading and worry an audio book would go too slowly.

      On the other hand, I understand that an audio version of an ebook is really a different medium and will spur thoughts and insights that would likely not be part of the conventional reading experience.

      As Marshall McLuhan wrote many years ago, “The medium is the message.”

      • I’ve tried audiobooks and, for me at least, fiction audiobooks don’t have the immersion of a quiet text read.
        Non-fiction, however, tends to feel more like a good college lecture.
        Podcasts feel like eavesdropping. 😉

      • You can speed up the audiobooks. I listen to most at 2.5 times speed. In fact, most narrators now record them in a slower speaking voice for enunciation because most listen at faster speeds. To start, I’d recommend the late Edward Herrman for non-fiction and Scott Brick for fiction. They are two of the best in the business. You can search for ones they’re narrated and find one you like.

        I could read David McCullough describing paint drying and similarly, Herrman reading that. The John Adams bio is fantastic.

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