Pax Romana

By Lucia Carbone

Auferre trucidare rapere falsis nominibus imperium, atque ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant.

To plunder, butcher, steal, these things they misname empire: they make a desolation and they call it peace.

(Tacitus, Agricola 30.6. Transl. M. Hutton). Fig.1
Figure 1. Ara Pacis Augustae, 9 CE: Eastern Wall, the so-called Pax panel. 

In the past few weeks, I had the good fortune to teach in collaboration with the New York Classical Club a three-session workshop titled Learning about Cicero, Caesar and Vergil via coins, where numismatic and literary evidence provided the means to discuss aspirations and self-representation for the Roman élites in the second half of the first century BCE.  Because of their mass-produced nature and widespread circulation, they represent the privileged communication channel between élites and lower classes, as brilliantly exemplified—among others—by Clare Rowan for Roman Republican coinage, by Carlos Noreña for Roman Imperial coinage and by Chris Howgego, Volker Heuchert and Andrew Burnett for the coinage issued in the Roman provinces. The Roman historian Fergus Millar once stated that “coins are the most deliberate of all symbols of public identity.” Coin types thus represent the quintessential embodiment of the way in which élites wanted to be perceived and wanted lower classes to read reality, thus allowing for a better understanding of the political discourse at the times of their production.

As the unfortunate events unfolding in front of our eyes show, pax (peace), especially in correlation with conquest and power over foreign nations (imperium) is central to the political discourse, now as it were in ancient times. The assessment of Roman imperialism from Tacitus’Agricola, quoted in the introduction and put in the mouth of the Caledonian chieftain Calgacus, is a condemnation of the realities of imperialism, justified and sometimes disguised as “peace.” This crude denunciation is in striking contrast with the representation of Pax presented in Fig. 1. This marble relief was one of the panels decorating the Eastern wall of the Ara Pacis Augustae, commissioned by the Roman Senate in 13 BCE to honor the return of Augustus to Rome after three years in Hispania and Gaul (Res Gestae Divi Augusti 12) and then inaugurated in 9 BCE. Pax, which has also been variously identified as Tellus (Earth) or Venus Genetrix, is here represented while sitting amid a sort of bucolic paradise, with the personifications of prosperity-bringing gales with billowing garments (aurae velificantes) on both sides and twins (possibly Romulus and Remus) on her lap. Overflowing vines and acanthus frame the relief, as to signify that Pax ushers in a new era of renewed vitality for the world at large, in all the realms of its living creatures.  However, essential precondition for this prosperity is Rome’s victory, the establishment of imperium, the dominion over foreign nations. This is why the other panel on the Eastern Wall of the Ara Pacis is Roma Victrix (Victorious Rome) (Fig. 2).

Figure 2. Ara Pacis Augustae, 9 CE: Eastern Wall, Roma Victrix.

The depiction of Roma as victorious bellatrix (warrior) is attested for the first time on the reverse of RRC 287/1, a denarius issued in 114–115 BCE, where the identity of the goddess is made certain by the presence of the Capitoline she-wolf with the twins in the right field (Fig. 3).


Figure 3. Rome, Anonymous. Silver Denarius, 114–115 BCE. RRC 287/1. 20.9 mm. 3.86 g. Bibliothèque nationale de France, département Monnaies, médailles et antiques, REP-3112.

The representations of Pax and Roma Victrix are thus mirroring each other in the Eastern Wall of the Ara Pacis, as to signify that Pax and imperium deriving from victorious war are two sides of the same coin (pun intended). In the words of Greg Woolf, “pax at home depends on concordia (concord) between the orders as well as among the élite, and pax abroad, which is to be intended in the sense of an unequal peace between Rome and those she had pacified (p. 177).” 

Concordia, the concord among social orders, is a term strongly linked to the re-establishment of ‘correct’ social hierarchies. It is therefore tightly connected to the preservation of the traditional establishment under the guidance of the senatorial élite, the optimates. A temple to Concordia had been erected in the forum by L. Opimius in 121 BCE, after the killing of C. Gracchus for his allegedly treacherous actions, mostly consisting in passing legislation favoring lower classes (Fig. 4).

Figure 4. Rome, Tiberius. Brass Sestertius, 36-37 CE. RIC I 67. 34 mm. 20.47 g. CNG Triton XXIV, 19 January 2021, lot 1022.

The personification of Concordia appeared for the first time on denarii issued in 62 BCE (RRC 417/1a), in order to celebrate the victory of the famous orator M. Tullius Cicero, consul of the previous year, over the Catilinarian Conspiracy, which threatened to overcome the Res Publica, the Roman state (Figs. 5–6).

Figure 5. Rome, L. Aemilius Lepidus Paullus and L. Scribonius Libo. Silver Denarius, 62 BCE. RRC 417/1a. 20 mm. 3.98 g. Bibliothèque nationale de France, département Monnaies, médailles et antiques, REP-18388.
Figure 6. Cesare Maccari, Cicero denounces Catilina (1889). Rome, Palazzo Madama. 

Catilina, scion of an aristocratic family, had built his support by proposing a cancellation of debts, a measure clearly in favor of the lower classes (Fig. 7).

Figure 7. Terracotta Pocula, 64 BCE. Cato and Catilina seeking votes. Roma, Museo Nazionale Romano delle Terme di Diocleziano. 

The goddess Concordia, presented on the obverse of the denarii issued by L. Aemilius Lepidus Paullus and L. Scribonius Libo, memorialize the victory of the optimates. The reverse type of these coins, the puteal Libonis, further specifies the danger narrowly escaped by Rome’s élite classes.  As pointed out by Liv Yarrow, “the puteal Libonis had not only a religious significance, but in the late Republic and early Empire took on also a judicial association, being the location to which delinquent debtors would be summoned by their creditors” (p. 164) (Fig. 8).

Figure 8. Rome, L. Scribonius Libo. Silver Denarius, 62 BCE. RRC 416/1c. 19 mm. 3.82 g.  
Leu Numismatik Web Auction 18, 18 December 2021, lot 2463.

The Bonus Eventus (good outcome) commemorated on the obverse of RRC 416/1c is precisely the victory of the élites and of the status quo over the allegedly outrageous demands of lower classes. Going back to the already quoted definition of pax by G. Woolf, the concordia he refers to the concord among the élites, as this is the meaning the term is generally given by Roman authors.  At home, the pax Romana was thus built on the approval of the élites, while any attempt of reform in favor of lower classes was viewed a threat to the existence of the res publica. A rare quinarius issued in 44 BCE (RRC 480/24) pairs these two concepts, with the personification of Pax on the obverse (made certain by the obverse legend PAXS) and the handshake on the reverse, usually interpreted as representation of concordia (Fig. 9).

Figure 9. Rome, L. Aemilius Buca. Silver Quinarius, 44 BCE. RRC 480/24. 13 mm. 1.60 g. 
NAC 63, 17 May 2012, lot 462.

The reverse of RRC 468/2, issued in 47-46 BCE (Fig. 10), dramatically visualizes the “unequal peace” mentioned by G. Woolf (Fig. 11).

Figure 10. Moving mint, Julius Caesar. Silver Denarius, 45–46 BCE. RRC 468/2. 18.7 mm. 4.32 g. Bibliothèque nationale de France, département Monnaies, médailles et antiques, REP-13016.
Figure 11. Gallia at the times of Caesar. 

The trophy with oval shield and carnyx in right hand and oblong shield and carnyx in left hand highlights Rome’s victory—Caesar’s, more specifically—over Gaul. Below the trophy are two Gaul captives, a man and a woman, each displaying their despair at their new enslaved condition differently. On left, the man, bearded and with uncombed hair is unwillingly kneeling with hands tied behind his back. He still tries to challenge his defeat by looking back at the trophy. The stark contrast between the restlessness of the captive and the immobility of the trophy shows how vain his efforts are. On right, the seated female captive rests her head in right hand in an attitude of quiet despair. The female captive is the prototype for the famous IVDAEA CAPTA sestertius, issued in 72 CE to celebrate the conquest of Iudaea (Fig. 12).

Figure 12. Rome, Titus as Caesar. Brass Sestertius, 72 CE. 32mm. 25.05 g. RIC II.1 422; Hendin 6553. CNG Triton XXV, 11 January 2022, 846. 

Here the trophy has been replaced by Titus in heroic pose, making the nature of Rome’s imperium more personal and directly linked to the persona of the emperor, as it could be expected in Imperial coinage. However, the stark contrast between the indifference of the winner and the despair of the defeated are still the same as in RRC 468/2. Going back to the latter, I would like to focus on the representation of the Gallic warrior, with his uncombed hair, his beard and his aggressive attitude, even in defeat.

These elements characterize the warrior as different, “other” from the Romans. This characterization is even more recognizable in RRC 448/2a, issued in 48 BCE, right after the end of Caesar’s Gallic campaigns and in the midst of the civil war between Caesar and Pompey (Fig. 13).

Figure 13. ANS 1937.158.247.

The “otherness” of Gauls is also clearly delineated in Caesar’s Gallic Wars (7.42), where it is stated that “[…] Avarice, […] anger and […] recklessness were characteristic of their race, treating frivolous hearsay as assured fact.” The physical and moral traits evidenced by numismatic and literary sources seem to suggest that the treatment reserved by Rome to Gauls is justified, as they were not made inferior and ‘other’ by their defeat, but they already were well before.

However, Celtic coinage seems to draw a different picture.  The weight standards of the so-called deniers gauloises and of Roman quinarii were aligned already since the very beginning of the second century BCE. Moreover, Roman coinage represents the prototype for several coinages issued in Gaul (Martin 2015, pp. 68–71) (Figs. 14–15).

Figure 14. Aedui, KAΛETEΔOΥ type. Silver denier gaulois, ca. 120–100 BC. La Tour 8178; Martin 2015, 68–71. 15 mm. 1.85 g. Auctiones eAuction 74, 12 December 2021, lot 1.
Figure 15. Rome, C. Servilius Vatia. Silver Denarius, 127 BCE. RRC 264/1. 18.5 mm. 3.81 g. Bibliothèque nationale de France, département Monnaies, médailles et antiques, REP-18603.

Some members of the Gallic élite seem to have been Roman citizens before the Gallic Wars, as suggested by their names, as in the case of the coinage in the name of Q. DOCI SAM F. from the tribe of Sequani (Martin 2015, pp. 74–78) (Fig. 16).

Figure 16. Sequani. Silver denier gaulois, ca. 125–60 BCE. Martin 2015, 74–78; La Tour 1892, pl. XVI, nos. 5405–5411.13.6 mm, 1.91 g; 3:00. ANS 2015.20.504.

While certainly different in lifestyle, several Gallic tribes had a strong relationship with the Romans, since tribes like the Aedui are called fratres et consanguinaei (brethren and kinsmen) of the Romans (Gallic Wars 1.33). Anyway, in spite of their previous relationship with Rome, all the Gauls ended up fighting against Rome in Alesia in 52 BCE, following Vercingetorix’ lead, ultimately being defeated (Fig. 17).

Figure 17. Lionel Royer, Vercingetorix Throwing down His Weapons at the feet of Julius Caesar (1899). Le-Puy-en-Velay, Musée Crozatier.

Summing up, in spite of the pre-existent friendly relationships with Rome entertained by some of the Gallic tribes, all Gauls ended up being represented as “others” on the Roman coinage of 40s BCE, quite likely with the aim of reinforcing the legitimacy of the Gallic Wars.

Even for what concerns one of the most famous representations of Pax on Augustus’ coinage, the one on the cistophori issued in Ephesus between 28–20 BCE, it is difficult not to see that these coins were in direct dialogue with the cistophori produced by Mark Antony, Augustus’ rival, who had been defeated by that time in Actium in yet another civil war, after having depicted—despite being a well-recognized Roman general—as an enemy of Rome (Figs. 18–19).

Figure 18. ANS 1944.100.39180.
Figure 19. Ionia, Ephesus. Mark Antony and Octavia, 39 BCE Silver Cistophorus. RPC I 2202. 27 mm. 11.86 g. Bruun Rasmussen 901, 3 May 2021, lot 352.

For empires, and quite certainly for the Romans, pax was thus directly linked to imperium, which is clearly derived directly from war. In this context, peace is only another face of war. In the words of Michel Foucault, “Isn’t power simply a form of warlike domination? Shouldn’t one therefore conceive all problems of power in terms of relations of war? Isn’t power a sort of generalized war which assumes at particular moments the forms of peace and the State? Peace would then be a form of war, and the State a means of waging it (p. 123).”