“But I find myself thinking, not about the fall of the Republic, but about the Pax Romana that came after — the two-plus centuries of stability that followed Augustus. Believe it or not, I think that era does have some lessons for us; this may be a sign of mental infirmity, but I’m gonna let it all hang out.
Not long ago, I would have said that very little about the Roman Empire was relevant to anything modern. It may have fascinated early modern Europeans like Edward Gibbon, but in the end it was a pre-industrial society, incredibly poor by modern standards, and sharing few modern values. True, the Roman Empire was bigger than most pre-industrial empires, and lasted a lot longer. But was it really different in any important way from, say, Assyria?
But I read a lot of history in my spare time, and as best I can tell modern scholarship is telling us that Rome really was something special.
What I learned first from Peter Temin, and at greater length from Kyle Harper, was that Rome wasn’t your ordinary pre-industrial economy. Of course it didn’t have a technological takeoff; but peace, interregional trade, and a sophisticated business and financial system made it surprisingly productive, with an overall standard of living probably not equaled until the 17th century Dutch Republic. Harper notes that Rome was held back in some ways by a heavy burden of disease, an unintentional byproduct of urbanization and trade that a society lacking the germ theory had no way to alleviate. But still, the Romans really did achieve remarkable things on the economic front.
They also achieved remarkable things on the political front. The Romans were not nice guys; they weren’t Edwardian gentlemen in togas. They had no qualms about slavery, were often casually cruel, and had no compunctions at all about using extreme force to put down any challenges to imperial rule. But while the threat of violence always lurked in the background, the Roman Empire wasn’t held together by a reign of terror. For the most part the Pax Romana was maintained through the willing cooperation of local elites. “