BOOK OF THE WEEK
PAX: WAR AND PEACE IN ROME’S GOLDEN AGE
by Tom Holland (Abacus £30, 448pp)
In the deserts of what is now south Jordan, 1,900 years ago, a man called Lauricius scratched on a stone, in Greek: ‘The Romans always win’. Was he a rebel, lamenting, or a soldier of Rome, boasting? It all depends on your point of view.
Pax is the third in Holland’s majestic three-volume history of ancient Rome. The first, the award-winning Rubicon, covered the career of Julius Caesar and the growth (or decay?) of the old Roman Republic into Empire; the second, Dynasty, focused on the first Emperors, including such monstrous figures as Caligula and Nero, whose notoriety has rung down the centuries.
Pax deals with the somewhat more enlightened rulers who followed, during the years AD 69-138, including the bluff, soldierly Vespasian, who had spent so long campaigning under the Mediterranean sun, that his squint made him look, joked one contemporary rather riskily, ‘like a man straining to have a sh*t’; and the refined and well-travelled Hadrian, who built that famous wall.
These were years of peace and prosperity, when the Empire finally settled down to enjoy the long and civilised Pax Romana. Or . . . were they?
Ancient history was never peaceful for long. And as the Romans, those supremely grim realists, would have said, if you want peace and prosperity, you have to fight for them.
Pax is the third in Holland’s majestic three-volume history of ancient Rome. Inept: A 19th-century painting of Vitellius being dragged to his death
For all that these golden years were described even by the greatest of all the chroniclers of Rome, Edward Gibbon, as the most enviably civilised in world history, they were still riven with revolt and bloodshed. They were the years of the eruption of Vesuvius, of the Jewish Revolt, ending with the utter destruction of Jerusalem, and the building of that great theatre of ritual blood-letting, the Colosseum.
They began in utter chaos as well, with the Year Of The Four Emperors, in AD 69 , when four different rulers followed each other in dizzying succession, each ending in a fate gorier and grislier than the last.
In AD 68, Galba had become emperor on the death of Nero; but in January of AD 69 , the powerful legions on the Rhine proclaimed Vitellius emperor — when a country’s military start deciding its political leaders, you know there’s trouble ahead.
Galba was duly murdered — but the Senate proclaimed one Otho Emperor instead . . . then he was defeated in battle and replaced by Vitellius, who didn’t last long before being stripped naked, pelted with filth, stabbed to death, and: ‘Finally, a hook was jammed into the roof of his mouth and what remained of his body dragged away and dumped in the Tiber.’
Who’d want to be emperor?
Only when the bullet-headed Vespasian arrived back in Rome, with his glamorous war-hero son Titus, was order restored. Yet both men had blood on their hands.
They had won their glory in the appalling carnage of the Jewish revolt and its suppression. This is surely the central episode of the book and seems to have a symbolic significance for readers even today. On one hand you have a fiercely independent Middle-Eastern tribe, proud of its one god and despising all others, adhering doggedly to its ancient customs and traditions, including, to the Romans’ mystification, a refusal to eat pork.
On the other hand, you have a world-bestriding imperial power, determined to impose order — or its own idea of order — on these chaotic tribal peoples and their territories, and stamp its values upon them, with military force if necessary. For the contemporary reader, this doesn’t ring just one bell, but a whole peal of them.
In AD 68, Galba had become emperor on the death of Nero (pictured as portrayed by actor Peter Ustinov)
Tribe vs Empire: the actors may change, but the storyline stays the same. As Tacitus, the most acerbic of Roman historians, wrote of his own conquering countrymen: ‘They make a wasteland and they call it peace’. The revolt in Judea began with an uprising that saw the Jewish rebels fall upon and massacre 6,000 Romans.
It also saw the shameful loss of a legionary standard, the Eagle of the XIIth. Roman honour ‘demanded an unstinting, an annihilative vengeance’. Rome held sway over perhaps 100 million subjects, from Scotland to Arabia, thanks to the Romans’ capacity for discipline and organisation, and for hugely impressive feats of civil engineering, such as roads, harbours and aqueducts: but above all, they held sway through a capacity for extreme violence in battle — and they weren’t afraid to show it.
The Siege Of Jerusalem in AD 70 was one of the great epic onslaughts of history, and Holland evokes it superbly, with the vividness of cinema. The legions first cut down the woods and forests that surrounded Jerusalem, turning them into massive iron-plated siege towers.
These impregnable mobile fortresses then drew up to the walls of the city and began to rain down missiles on this wretched people who still, with tiresome fanaticism, refused to surrender.
The bombardment of rocks, arrows and blazing ballista bolts must have been of an awesome power. The eyewitness historian Josephus described how ‘heads, hit by boulders, might be sent flying like sling-shot. The baby of a pregnant woman, hit in the stomach by a missile, might be borne by it several hundred feet’.
‘Relentless, pulverising, nightmarish,’ says Holland, ‘the bombardment never stopped . . .’
And it could only end one way. The Romans finally breached the walls, slaughtered the inhabitants en masse, crucified others outside the city walls and burned the Jewish Temple to the ground.
Only when the bullet-headed Vespasian arrived back in Rome, with his glamorous war-hero son Titus, was order restored. Yet both men had blood on their hands. Pictured: Triumph of Emperors Titus and Vespasian, from Suetonius’ Life of the Caesars, c.1537
This wasn’t just a church or a cathedral: it was the Holy of Holies, in some ways the actual dwelling place of God Himself.
The implications for the Jews must have been devastating, its ruins ‘a symbol of the might, of the terror, of the invincibility of Rome’.
The legions went on to harrow the entire province. Even the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus had preached just 40 years earlier, became ‘a butcher’s shambles. Fugitives from the legions, taking to fishing boats and rafts, had been hunted by the Romans; and such was the slaughter that the blood and viscera of the slain had come to dye the entire lake red’. The legion which had earlier lost its eagle, the XII Fulminata — The Thunderer — had certainly had its revenge.
There was also the attempt to complete the conquest of Britain — ‘a boggy land of milk-drinking barbarians’ — with the conquest of Scotland, then called Caledonia.
It failed, to the pride of Scotsmen to this day. Holland suggests the main reason the Romans pulled back wasn’t Scottish resistance so much as the sudden irruption of an army of Dacian warriors across the Danube.
This meant that some of the British legions had to be hurriedly withdrawn from Caledonia and sent off to fight the Dacians. Yet they had real respect for the big-boned, red-haired, fighting Caledonians — and they never returned.
Pax is a superb conclusion to Holland’s trilogy. There’s no other historian who can bring the ancient world before the reader in all its sights, sounds and smells, its pomp, magnificence and martial glory, its strivings and sufferings and horror.
Riveting from first page to last.