Featured Reviews

Tom Holland – Pax [Feature Review]

An Easy Entrance into Another Era

A Feature Review of

Pax: War and Peace in Rome’s Golden Age
Tom Holland

Hardcover: Basic Books, 2023
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Reviewed by Joel Wentz

I have to believe that Tom Holland titled his new historical work with a wink and a nod. A book titled “Peace” (the ancient Latin word ‘Pax’) contains more than its fair share of violence and turmoil: military conquest, revolts and suppression, betrayal, suicide, and even a (literal) volcanic eruption. The third entry in Holland’s series on ancient Rome (following
Rubicon and Dynasty) begins in the waning days of Nero’s tumultuous reign and deftly guides the reader through the end of the Augustan dynasty, the emergence of the Flavian dynasty and concludes with the reign of Hadrian, known even to the marginally-interested for his massive construction project of a wall across the British isle which marked the Northernmost boundary of the expansive Roman empire. All told, Pax covers approximately 70 years of Roman history, and it is an enthralling journey.

Holland strikes a precarious balance between what could be either academically stultifying prose, weighed down with citations and impenetrable jargon, or simplistic entertainment with a thin veneer of historical flavor. Thankfully Pax is neither of these, weaving Holland’s clearly- intimate familiarity with primary source texts into a cohesive and readable narrative. He is the rare breed of serious historian who is fluent in the material, confident in his interpretations, and able to write with a novelistic flourish. Honestly, all 400+ pages of Pax are just so fun to read.

Admittedly, I approached this particular volume with a more-than-passing prior interest in the subject, having studied both classical Latin and Greek languages, as well as the Greco-Roman backdrop for the New Testament literature, but I daresay that even the uninitiated will find Holland’s writing enjoyable and genuinely illuminating. Almost every reader will know names like Nero or Vespasian or Trajan, have heard of events like the “year of the four emperors” or the eruption of Pompeii, or engineering feats like the Colosseum or Hadrian’s Wall, and Holland’s brilliance is in his ability to place these people and events within a broader narrative that contextualizes and nuances the conventional understanding. Nero’s descent as the final ruler in the Augustan line, fueled by his anxiety over the lack of a clear heir, or Vespasian’s emergence as the ruthless leader who successfully suppressed the Judean revolt and opportunistically leveraged that victory to shore up his own reign in the wake of the utter chaos of the four quickly-failed emperors before him are merely two examples.

The events surrounding Vespasian may, in fact, be of specific interest to readers of the Englewood Review, as the Judean revolt looms largely in the background of New Testament literature, and the Jewish historian Josephus figures prominently in Holland’s own research. The ways in which the Jewish people were perceived by the Roman elite, contextualizing the revolt within the broader historical chaos within the Roman Empire of the late 60s, and the complicated role Josephus himself plays in the ensuing recording and interpreting of these events, are all insightful aspects of Pax that alone make the book easy to recommend to any student of the New Testament or to anyone responsible for teaching from it.

As previously mentioned, Holland is not afraid to incorporate literary flourishes into his historiography. His account of the devastation of Pompeii lends itself to this quite well; 

“Many of those who had opted to shelter in their homes rather than fleeing had perished: trapped beneath immense accumulations of pumice, and either asphyxiated or crushed beneath fallen masonry . . . Dogs howled, frantic with hunger and fear. It seemed that the very city, like a crippled beast, was moaning in pain. . . When the black cloud of gas and molten rock descended on Pompeii, it moved too fast to be escaped, killing every living creature in its path. The woman, who, falling to her knees, pressed in vain a piece of cloth to her mouth. The slave shackled in a villa just outside the city, whose fetters were fused to his bones . . . Ash fell on them, and on all the dead. Everyone, and everything, was buried” (252-253).

Some may accuse him of favoring style over substance in these moments, but this reviewer found Holland’s style a consistent benefit to guiding the reader through what could easily be a dry and complicated recounting of complicated events and personalities. Furthermore, this stylistic approach goes a long way towards helping the reader understand the sprawling cast of characters, a dramatis personae that rivals the likes of fantasy fiction by George R.R. Martin. Holland leans into imaginative recreations of personality types and leadership styles, and by the end of Pax one can imagine what it may have been like to be in the room with Domitian, and how radically different his approach to imperial rule may have been from Hadrian or Trajan. Is this all a bit too imaginative for serious historiography? Perhaps, but it serves to engage the reader at such an enjoyable level that it is easy to forgive.

A final note on what sets Holland’s historical approach apart from many in his refreshing posture towards material others would relegate as “mythical” or merely “legendary.” Whether it is the account of a Roman emperor supposedly healing subjects of maladies like blindness by merely touching them, or the stories of Hercules as founder of multiple cities, Holland simply recounts the tales as pieces of historical information that necessarily impact the way in which those of the time would have understood themselves, and should likewise figure into our own historical imaginations. He spends no effort on “getting behind the text” to “what really happened,” and such a lack of pretense, or what Lewis famously called “chronological snobbery,” from such an eminent and accomplished historian is like a breath of fresh air. I wish others took a similar approach, but am grateful for Holland’s voice in the midst of so much rigidly materialistic historical argumentation.

In sum, Pax is a deft and sweeping account of a period of Roman history that many of us may fancy ourselves familiar with, but as Holland demonstrates so ably, even familiar histories are populated with surprises. Thankfully, Holland has made this particular era a joy to revisit.

Joel Wentz

Joel Wentz is currently the Executive Pastor at Missio Dei Church in Portland, Maine. He previously served in college campus ministry with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. In addition to reading and writing, his passions include tabletop gaming, music, and coffee. His favorite book genres are epic fantasy and epic theology. He lives in Portland, Maine with his wife and son, and his personal writing and podcast are at: joelwentz.com

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