Welcome back to Rome Across Europe! We know we haven’t been as up to par as we would like, but that does not mean we won’t keep at it.
Yesterday you may have caught Trajan – Rise to Emperor, the opening half of our 2-part series on Imperator Caesar Nerva Traianus Divi Nervae filius Augustus. We now bring you the finale on Trajan as Emperor.
Serving as a Legatus Legionis in Hispania Tarraconensis, in AD 89 Trajan supported Domitian against a revolt on the Rhine led by Antonius Saturninus. In September AD 96, Domitian was succeeded by the unpopular Marcus Cocceius Nerva.
After a brief and tumultuous year in power, culminating in a revolt by members of the Praetoriani, Nerva was compelled to adopt the more popular Trajan as his heir and successor. When Nerva died on 27 January 98, he was succeeded by his adopted son without incident.
As Emperor, Trajan’s reputation has endured. He is one of the few rulers whose reputation has survived 19 Centuries.
Every Emperor after him was honored by the Senate with the wish Felicior Augusto, melior Traiano (that he be “luckier than Augustus and better than Trajan”). Among medieval Christian theologians, Trajan was considered a virtuous pagan.
The 18th Century historian Edward Gibbon popularized the notion of the Five Good Emperors, of whom Trajan was #2. However, as far as literary sources are concerned, an extant continuous account of Trajan’s reign does not exist.
Book 68 in Cassius Dio‘s Roman History is the best source for the political history of Trajan’s rule. Besides this, Pliny the Younger‘s Panegyricus and Dio of Prusa‘s orations are the best surviving contemporary sources.
Both are flattering speeches that describe an idealized monarch and an equally idealized view of Trajan’s rule, concerning themselves more with ideology than with actual fact. The Volume 10 of Pliny’s letters contains his correspondence with Trajan, which deals with various aspects of Imperial Roman government.
This correspondence is neither intimate nor candid. It is an exchange of official mail, in which Pliny’s stance is almost showing a willingness to please Trajan. Therefore, discussion of Trajan and his rule in modern historiography cannot avoid speculation.
Early in his reign, Trajan annexed the Nabataean Kingdom, creating the province of Arabia Petraea. His conquest of Dacia enriched the Empire greatly, as the new province possessed many valuable gold mines.
Trajan’s war against the Parthian Empire ended with the sack of Ctesiphon and the annexation of Armenia and Mesopotamia. His campaigns expanded the Roman Empire to its greatest territorial extent.
Known for his philanthropic rule, Trajan oversaw extensive public building programs and implementing Alimenta, which earned him his enduring reputation as the Second of the Five Good Emperors who presided over an era of peace and prosperity in the Mediterranean world.
In late AD 117, while sailing back to Rome, Trajan fell ill and died of a stroke in the city of Selinus. He was deified by the Senate and his ashes were laid to rest under Trajan’s Column.
He was succeeded by his adopted son Hadrian. Unlike many lauded rulers in history, Trajan’s reputation has survived for nearly 19 Centuries because of his work as a civilian administrator.
Trajan is best known for his extensive public building program which reshaped Rome. Trajan left numerous enduring landmarks on the Capital such as Trajan’s Forum, Trajan’s Market and Trajan’s Column.
Ancient sources on Trajan’s personality and accomplishments are unanimously positive. For example, Pliny the Younger celebrates Trajan in his panegyric as a wise and just Emperor and a moral man.
Cassius Dio added that Trajan always remained dignified and fair. After the setbacks of the 3rd Century, Trajan, together with Augustus, became in the Later Roman Empire the paragon of the most positive traits of the Imperial order.
The Christianization of Rome resulted in further embellishment of his legend. It was commonly said in medieval times that Pope Gregory I, through divine intercession, resurrected Trajan from the dead and baptized him into the Christian faith. An account of this is featured in the Golden Legend.
Some theologians such as Thomas Aquinas discussed Trajan as an example of a virtuous pagan. In the Divine Comedy, Dante, following this legend, sees the spirit of Trajan in the Heaven of Jupiter with other historical and mythological persons noted for their justice.
Also, a mural of Trajan stopping to provide justice for a poor widow is present in the first terrace of Purgatory as a lesson to those who are purged for being proud. An episode referred to as the justice of Trajan was reflected in several art works.
In the 18th Century King Charles III of Spain commissioned Anton Raphael Mengs to paint The Triumph of Trajan on the ceiling of the banquet hall of the Royal Palace of Madrid – considered among the best works of this artist.
It was only during the Enlightenment that this legacy began to be contested, when doubts were expressed about the militarized character of Trajan’s reign in contrast to the “moderate” practices of his immediate successors. Mommsen adopted a divided stance towards Trajan, at some point of his posthumously published lectures even speaking about his “vainglory” (Scheinglorie). Mommsen also speaks of Trajan’s “insatiable, unlimited lust for conquest”.
It was exactly this military character of Trajan’s reign that attracted his early 20th Century biographer, the Italian Fascist historian Roberto Paribeni, who in his 1927 dual volume biography Optimus Princeps described Trajan’s reign as the acme of the Roman principate, which he saw as Italy’s patrimony. Following in Paribeni’s footsteps, the German historian Alfred Heuss saw in Trajan “the accomplished human embodiment of the imperial title”.
Trajan’s original English-language biography by Julian Bennett is also positive one in that it assumes that Trajan was an active policy-maker concerned with the management of the Empire as a whole. This was something his reviewer Lendon considers an anachronistic outlook that sees in the Roman Emperor a kind of modern administrator.
During the 1980s, the Romanian historian Eugen Cizek took a more nuanced view as he described the changes in the personal ideology of Trajan’s reign, stressing the fact that it became ever more autocratic and militarized, especially after 112 and towards the Parthian War.
The biography by the German historian Karl Strobel stresses the continuity between Domitian’s and Trajan’s reigns, saying that Trajan’s rule followed the same autocratic and sacred character of Domitian’s, culminating in a failed Parthian adventure intended as the crown of his personal achievement.
For Paul Veyne, what is to be retained from Trajan’s “stylish” qualities was that he was the last Roman emperor to think of the empire as a purely Italian and Rome-centered hegemony of conquest. In contrast, his successor Hadrian would stress the notion of the Empire as ecumenical and of the Emperor as universal benefactor and not ruler of this world.
We hope you enjoyed this glimpse into the life of Trajan and his reign as ruler of the Roman world. Please check us out again soon to see what we have in store for you.
Till next time, Don’t Stop Rome-ing!
Ancel, R. Manning. Soldiers. Military Heritage. December 2001. Volume 3, No. 3: 12, 14, 16, 20 (Trajan, Emperor of Rome).
Bennett, J. Trajan: Optimus Princeps, 2nd Edition. Bloomington: Indiana University Press 2001. ISBN 0-253-21435-1.
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Cassius Dio, Roman History Book 68, English translation.
Aurelius Victor (attrib.), Epitome de Caesaribus Chapter 13, English translation.
Pliny the Younger, Letters, Book 10, English translation.