At the turn of the 1st century AD, the Roman Empire was living in an era often referred to as the “Pax Romana”. This was a time of relative calm and prosperity, when most inhabitants of the Empire experienced long periods of peace.
The foundation for this era was laid under the Emperor Augustus, but it reached its height a century later. This was largely due to the rule of the so-called “Five Good Emperors”. Edward Gibbon, English historian of the 18th century, in his monumental work “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” described this period in glowing terms:
“If a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus.
The vast extent of the Roman Empire was governed by absolute power, under the guidance of virtue and wisdom. The armies were restrained by the firm but gentle hand of four successive emperors, whose characters and authority commanded respect.
The forms of the civil administration were carefully preserved by Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian and the Antonines, who delighted in the image of liberty, and were pleased with considering themselves as the accountable ministers of the laws. Such princes deserved the honour of restoring the republic, had the Romans of their days been capable of enjoying a rational freedom.”
While the previous generations of Romans knew war up close and personal and many of the males had participated in battle, during the Pax Romana, there were several generations that grew up without getting anywhere close to fighting. This encompassed also many of the other peoples that were living under Roman hegemony, such as the Greeks.
During this time, a class of distinguished gentlemen arose that never knew the taste of battle, but instead had enough time to turn their energy to more intellectual pursuits. One of these was Plutarch, now known chiefly as a historian, biographer and writer of extensive essays, but who throughout his lifetime also served in several other positions like a magistrate or priest at Delphi.
Plutarch is best remembered for his “Parallel Lives”, a series of biographies of prominent Greeks and Romans, which was meant not only to teach history, but also moral ethics and character. He also wrote “Moralia”, a series of essays on different topics of morality and daily life. One of these was “On Tranquility of Mind”.
In many ways, the problems of that era paralleled many of the modern era. After all, the human mind works in similar ways. While most people were free of the dangers of war, the typical problems that make people anxious, angry, or moody persisted.
The world might have been more peaceful than before, but it was still turbulent. Rome was a megalopolis full of crime and infestation, trade brought it many goods from the outside, but also led to a hectic lifestyle.
The provinces also had their share of problems, and the lives of their inhabitants were not stress-free. Merchants worried about losing their cargo, magistrates were concerned about keeping the bureaucracy running, and in a world where medicine was still rudimentary, everyone faced the prospect of losing their loved ones early.
What many people were looking for was a peace of mind, calmness and tranquility. They wanted to know how to keep a cool head in a turbulent world.
Plutarch came with some answers. His essay “On Tranquility of Mind” offers solutions to the perennial problem. Addressing his friend Paccius, he outlines his thesis that the way to keep a cool head in a hectic world is to turn to self-knowledge and self-control. By having your reason rule over your emotions, by setting the right priorities, and not being daunted by setbacks, you can navigate through turbulent waters.