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The Pax Romana, Succession and Christianity in the Roman Empire

The ancient Mediterranean world was undoubtedly shaped by the institution of the Roman Empire. From the early days of the Republic to the Augustan Age and the emergence of the Empire itself, Rome’s influence and establishment of the Pax Romana shaped the modern world in ways which left an enduring legacy for centuries to come.[1] Despite the era of relative peace that can be attributed to the reign of Caesar Augustus during the first century AD, the Empire endured unmitigated challenges which shook the foundations of Roman peace and ultimately resulted in the steady decline of the Empire.[2] This essay will first accentuate how Augustus created the pax Romana during a time of great uncertainty and chaos, necessary in understanding how peace endured and how it was ultimately threatened during the succeeding 150 years. This essay will then argue that the emperors that ruled in succession following Augustus and the subsequent policies and personalities of a select few, resulted in drastic implications for the lives of the Roman people.[3] Secondly, the discussion in this analysis will accentuate how the development of Christianity and the persecution of Christians further influenced the social sphere of the Roman Empire and threatened the foundations of the Pax Romana with which Augustus left as his legacy.[4] This essay will consult the works of Suetonius and Tacitus in relation to Augustus’ res gestae to emphasise how the peace and stability of the Empire was institutionalised, and how it was threatened in the years following Augustus’ death.

Image: A representation of the might of the Roman Empire at the time of Augustus' reign and death - 'peace and stability' marked the legacy of Augustus.

The legacy left by Augustus during his lengthy reign as Rome’s “first and greatest Emperor” and the challenges to said legacy, cannot be understood without first acknowledging how he was able to establish the pax Romana during his reign and why the people were so desperate for stability and peace.[5] Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus, originally known as Octavian and known to the Empire as Augustus, was Rome’s first Emperor and ‘the father of the country’, responsible for transforming the Roman Republic into the Empire.[6] From the time of his victory over Marcus Antonius and Cleopatra at the battle of Actium in 31BC to his death in 14AD, Augustus’ goal was to consolidate his power and create a period of relative peace within the Empire after years of civil war and uncertainty.[7] Augustus understood the failures of the Republic and correctly identified the Roman people’s desire for stability and peace.[8] In doing so, he revitalised the traditions of the old Republic while simultaneously instating policies and legislation to solve the social-economic and political issues that were plaguing the Empire.[9] In his own res gestae, Augustus accentuates that he “found Rome a city of brick and left it a city of marble,” through his various reforms which focused on the beautification of Rome and enforcing policies which transferred power from himself to the “control of the Roman Senate and the people.”[10] Despite this tactic which undoubtedly influenced his popularity amongst the Senate and the Roman people, power still remained firmly within his hands which he used to create the pax Romana.[11] This was done through the accumulation of wealth from overseas conquests which was poured into public projects within Rome.[12] This included the restoration and construction of temples such as the Pantheon and the New Forum which further accentuated Rome’s might and prestige within the Mediterranean world.[13] Augustus additionally doubled the water capacity of the Aqua Marcia and added 3 new aqueducts which improved living conditions for the people considerably.[14] With the improvement of these conditions and the increase in employment that the public projects provided to the people, stability and peace within the social sphere of the Empire were ensured.[15] It should be noted however, that many historians disagree with the direction that Augustus led the Empire, as ancient historian Tacitus credits Augustus with the creation of the “despotism of the Empire,” with which he thoroughly disapproved of.[16] As further argued by Tacitus, Augustus used the chaos of the civil war and exploited the people’s desire for peace to allow a “sole guardian of the laws and morals with supreme authority,” to emerge.[17] Regardless of Tacitus condemnation of the emperor, the peace that prevailed under Augustus’ leadership, despite the concentration of sole power within his hands, cannot be understated.[18]

Image: An artist's rendition of the strength of the Empire and the immediate legacy of Augustus.

It is important to note however, that the success of Augustus’ emperorship relied upon the tumultuous years of the Republic with which Augustus emerged into leadership.[19] The Republic was suffering from the onset of civil wars and restlessness within the Senate, and the political and social conditions exacerbated the already prevalent grievances of the people.[20] It was these conditions that allowed Augustus to emerge and gain power, as the people were desperate for a new direction of government and leadership which could address the people’s sufferings and end the civil war.[21] This was achieved through Augustus’ victory at the battle of Actium and the golden age of peace that he instated which gave the people who lived through the civil war a much needed ‘breathing space’.[22] Furthermore, it was Augustus’ focus on morality which he attributed to the decline of the Republic, that contributed to the pax Romana.[23] The violence and warfare that established the foundations of the mighty Roman Empire caused apathy and corruption to breed within every facet of society.[24] Through the introduction of laws that reaffirmed traditional Italian virtues and morals, Augustus was able to create a greater responsibility for public and private morality.[25] Augustus stated that “neglect of religion” was the undoing of stability within Rome and so he placed great emphasis on worship of the Gods and deities which encouraged morality among the Roman people.[26] He took on the position of pontifex maximus (greatest priest) after the untimely death of Marcus Lepidus and used said position to reinstate his commitment to the religious sanctity of Rome.[27] Not only did his contributions to the religious institution of Rome influence the stability of the Empire, “he made it safe too for the future,” as stipulated by Suetonius.[28]

Image: A marble statue of Gaius Julius Ceasar Augustus.

Of the many successes and innovative tactics that Augustus implemented to maintain autocracy and establish peace throughout the Empire, one failing of his emperorship would ultimately result in the decline of the Empire and the undoing of Augustus’ legacy.[29] This factor was his succession. The emperors that followed in Augustus’ footsteps undoubtedly threatened the foundations of the pax Romana through reckless spending, extravagant tastes and the tyrannical leadership of a few.[30] The leadership of emperors such as Nero, Caligula and Domitian resulted in widespread displays of terror and tyranny which challenged the political stability that Augustus instated following the transformation of the Republic to the Empire.[31] Their reigns further depleted the economic revenues of the Empire and resulted in widespread suffering and grievances amongst the social classes of Rome.[32] Historians have tried to ascertain exactly why a continuous succession of emperors showed such inefficient leadership and tyrannical behaviour, with many theories pointing towards the pressures of the position of power that the inexperienced and ill-equipped emperors found themselves in.[33] Other ideas suggest that lead poisoning resulted in behavioural and development issues within the aristocratic class of the Roman elite, the class that Roman Emperors were plucked from.[34] Ancient Roman plumbing and cooking appliances were often lined with lead which could have resulted in acute lead poisoning, subsequently explaining the long line of unstable and tyrannical emperors, under which Rome suffered.[35] Regardless, these emperors not only showed a lack of leadership skills and innovation concerning the governing of Rome, but they lacked the ambition and passion for the Roman Empire that defined Augustus’ reign.[36] This lack of passion is what contributed to the steady decline of the greatest power in the ancient Mediterranean world.[37]

Image: The Roman Empire, following the reign of Augustus, descended into instability and a period of civil war and uncertainty due to the ineffective leadership of Augustus' successors.

In addition, these emperors showed a great ignorance towards the suffering of the people and how economic expenditure directly impacted the lives of Roman citizens and, subsequently, the period of peace within the Empire.[38] Despite Claudius I reign from 41-54AD generating significant economic benefits from the annexation of Britain, the frivolous economic spending that occurred under the reigns of Caligula and Nero, particularly towards personal projects and exotic desires, depleted the treasury.[39] As a result, taxes were placed on the people and as economic repression and poverty broke out, the grievances of the people were becoming more prominent as excessive force was needed to quell large uprisings.[40] Particularly under Nero’s reign, great economic and social hardship was experienced during the Great Fire of Rome in 64AD which resulted in the destruction of 10 of Rome’s 14 districts.[41] The fire destroyed many homes, temples and public buildings, lasting for 6 days.[42] Tacitus reveals a detailed description of the Fire which he considered a punishment from the Gods for the cruelty and tyranny of Nero’s emperorship as “unlucky birds settled on the Capitol, houses fell in numerous earthquakes and the weak were trampled by the fleeing crowd.”[43] According to ancient historians, Nero was singing as the great fire raged, reflective of poor public opinion of the emperor.[44] Regardless of the motivations and ultimate cause for the fire, Nero used the event to begin his persecution of Christians.[45] Nero would meet his death in 68AD at his own hands after he was declared a public enemy by the Roman Senate, bringing a rapid end to the Julio-Claudian dynasty.[46] The violent and tempestuous nature of the successors of Augustus would ultimately result in great political, economic and social uncertainty which resulted in the Roman Senate considering a regression to a Republic on numerous occasions.[47] It was the ill-equipped and ill-advised emperors in conjunction with their lack of leadership skills that directly threatened the Empire and imperilled the pax Romana.[48]

Image: Legend has it, Emperor Nero sang and played the fiddle as the Great Fire of Rome (64AD) destroyed Ancient Rome and resulted in the deaths of hundreds of Roman citizens.

Furthermore, the emergence of the monotheistic religious tradition of Christianity greatly threatened the foundations of the Roman Empire and Augustus’ legacy of the pax Romana in the years following Augustus’ successors.[49] The plethora of Gods that were worshipped by the Roman people influenced every facet of Roman society as religion was the social and cultural determinate which underpinned all morality and civility of ancient Rome.[50] In essence, the persecution of Christians that occurred exhibited the same religious intolerance that still prevails into the modern day. Under the emperorship of Nero from 54-68AD, Christianity was deemed an “illegal superstition” as it undermined and invalidated the polytheistic belief of ancient Roman society and thus became the subject of Nero’s persecution following the destruction of the Circus Maximus and the Great Fire of 64AD.[51] According to ancient historian Tacitus, the persecutions of the Christians under the tyrannical leadership of Nero represented great suffering and trauma in Christianity’s historical record.[52] Christians were hunted in the streets, “torn to pieces by wild dogs, or crucified, or made into torches.”[53] While the total number of Christian deaths at the hands of the Romans cannot be ascertained with certainty, historians typically agree that well over a few thousand Christian adherents lost their lives, violence born from uncertainty, misunderstanding and fear.[54] Augustus himself preached the importance of religious sanctity in upholding the morals and civility of ancient Rome, yet Nero’s persecutions of Christianity directly contradicted this by encouraging and promoting violence, warfare and immorality within the Empire.[55] Many motivations for the persecutions of Christians have been proposed by ancient and modern historians alike. The most common school of thought accentuates that the persecution of Christians occurred as a way to distract the people from real and lasting political and social issues that threatened the foundations of the Empire.[56] During the third century CE, emperor turnover was high as many emperors met their deaths at the hands of tyrannical political opponents who sought leadership for themselves.[57] In conjunction with the political turmoil that defined the Roman Senate, economic and social implications arose due to ineffective leaderships and excessive spending, and Roman officials and Senate members sought a scapegoat for the tumultuousness of the Empire.[58] As a result, Christians were sporadically hunted and killed throughout the second and third centuries.[59] It wasn’t until 313AD, when Roman emperor Constantine converted to Christianity and the historical record reveals a ‘lull’ in Christian persecutions.[60] Ultimately, the immorality and lack of stability that defined the Roman Empire during the Christian persecutions greatly threatened the pax Romana and contradicted the values that Augustus upheld and instated in the foundations of the Empire.[61]

Image: Due to the perceived threat of Christianity to the polytheistic foundations of Ancient Rome, hundreds of Christians were persecuted with many slaughtered in the Colosseum.

The era of peace that followed the institution of the pax Romana by Caesar Augustus during the early years of the Roman Empire would constitute Augustus’ enduring legacy.[62] This peace was much needed and desired by the people of Rome who suffered greatly under the latter years of the Republic and the tumultuous atmosphere of the civil war.[63] However, the legacy of the pax Romana and the Empire itself was directly threatened by the succession of inefficient emperors who’s tyrannical and tempestuous leaderships would result in great economic and social hardship and the persecution of Christians.[64] Ultimately, the Empire suffered as a result of these factors and endured a steady decline in effectiveness and stability which would spell the undoing of the entirety of the Roman Empire centuries later.[65]

Written by Megan Adler.

BA/BCMS (DS), MTeach (Sec)

[1] W.G. Hardy, ‘Pax Romana: Roman Rule brings Peace and Prosperity’, in Don Nardo (ed.), Classical Greece and Rome (San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press, 2002), p 59. [2] Peter Chrisp, ‘Rome’, in Dominic Rathbone (ed.), Civilisations of the Ancient World (London: Thames & Hudson, 2009), p. 105. [3] Mary Beard, SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome (London: Profile Books, 2015), p. 20. [4] Ibid, p. 32. [5] Michael Grant, ‘Creation of the Roman Empire’, in Don Nardo (ed.), Classical Greece and Rome (San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press, 2002), p. 57. [6] Ibid, p. 61. [7] Jorg, Rupke, On Roman Religion: Lived Religion and the Individual in Ancient Rome (United Kingdom: Cornell University Press, 2016), p. 67. [8] Grant, ‘Creation of the Roman Empire’, p. 58. [9] Hardy, ‘Pax Romana: Roman Rule brings Peace and Prosperity’, p. 60. [10] ‘Augustus Recalls his Achievements’ taken from Res Gestae by Augustus Caesar, in Don Nardo (ed.), Classical Greece and Rome, vol. 2 (San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press, 2002), pp. 125-6. [11] Hardy, ‘Pax Romana: Roman Rule brings Peace and Prosperity’, p. 62. [12] Ibid. [13] Rupke, On Roman Religion, p. 121. [14] Beard, SPQR, p. 22. [15] Ibid. [16] Sjarlene Thom, ‘What’s in a Name? Tacitus on Augustus’ Acta Classica, vol. 51, (2008), p. 152. [17] D.C.A. Shotter, ‘The Debate on Augustus: Tacitus, Annals I, 9-10’, in Mnemosyne, vol. 20, no. 2 (1967), p. 175. [18] Ibid. [19] Grant, ‘Creation of the Roman Empire’, p. 60. [20] Lee. L. Brice, Warfare in the Roman Republic: From the Etruscan Wars to the Battle of Actium (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2014), pp. 32. [21] Ibid, p. 33. [22] Ian Crofton, World History: 50 key milestones you really need to know (London: Quercus Publishing, 2011), pp. 34-5. [23] ‘Augustus Recalls his Achievements’, p. 126. [24] Hardy, ‘Pax Romana: Roman Rule brings Peace and Prosperity’, p. 62. [25] Rupke, On Roman Religion, p. 69. [26] ‘Augustus Recalls his Achievements’, p. 126. [27] Ibid. [28] C. Suetonius Tranquillus, ‘‘The Life of Augustus’ taken from, The Lives of the Twelves Caesars (Accessed: November 1st, 2020) URL: [29] Grant, ‘Creation of the Roman Empire’, 62. [30] Ibid, p. 65. [31] Chrisp, ‘Rome’, p. 106. [32] Jonathan Edmondson, ‘Approaching the Life of Augustus,’ in Augustus (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2014), p. 4. [33] Grant, ‘Creation of the Roman Empire’, 67. [34] Ibid. [35] Ibid, p. 68. [36] Edmondson, ‘Approaching the Life of Augustus’, p. 6. [37] Ibid. [38] Chrisp, ‘Rome’, p. 107. [39] Grant, ‘Creation of the Roman Empire’, 102. [40] Ibid. [41] Beard, SPQR, p. 58. [42] Ibid. [43] Shotter, ‘The Debate on Augustus: Tacitus, Annals I, 9-10’, p. 178. [44] Sjarlene Thom, ‘What’s in a Name? Tacitus on Augustus’ Acta Classica, vol. 51, (2008), p. 157. [45] Rupke, On Roman Religion, p. 75. [46] Ibid. [47] Chrisp, ‘Rome’, p. 113. [48] Hardy, ‘Pax Romana: Roman Rule brings Peace and Prosperity’, p. 62. [49] Ibid. [50] Rupke, On Roman Religion, p. 83. [51] Ibid, p. 86. [52] Shotter, ‘The Debate on Augustus: Tacitus, Annals I, 9-10’, p. 178. [53] Ibid. [54] Rupke, On Roman Religion, pp. 84-5. [55] ‘Augustus Recalls his Achievements’, p. 126. [56] Beard, SPQR, p. 29. [57] Ibid. [58] Hardy, ‘Pax Romana: Roman Rule brings Peace and Prosperity’, p. 65. [59] Rupke, On Roman Religion, pp. 84. [60] Ibid. [61] Hardy, ‘Pax Romana: Roman Rule brings Peace and Prosperity’, p. 66. [62] Edmondson, ‘Approaching the Life of Augustus’, p. 9. [63] Brice, Warfare in the Roman Republic, p. 33. [64] Hardy, ‘Pax Romana: Roman Rule brings Peace and Prosperity’, p. 66. [65] Ibid.


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