Trajan (53 - 117 AD)
Emperor: 98 - 117 AD
Born on September 18 in the year AD 52 or 53, in Italica (near modern Seville, Spain) Marcus Ulpius Trajanus was to become the first 'provincial' emperor. This, however, can be a bit misleading. The Ulpians were descended originally from Umbria in northern Italy and transplanted to Hispania in the 3rd century BC, for reasons largely unknown. If Trajan was a direct descendent of these original Ulpii, then despite some certain mixing with local Iberians over the centuries he was for the most part simply a displaced Italian. However, there have been arguments, largely only theory, that the Trajanus line was actually adopted into the Ulpian, thereby making him truly a provincial. Regardless, in the eyes of Rome, Trajan was considered somewhat of an outsider, but his illustrious military career and skillful governing abilities would leave little doubt as to his authority.
Trajan's father, of the same name as his son, was the first in the family line to obtain a Senate seat and rose as high as the consulship in the chaotic period following Nero's death (around AD 70). Having served under Vespasian in Judaea, the Trajanus family rose rapidly along with Vespasian's ultimate accession to the throne. The elder Trajan eventually served governorships in the provinces of Baetica (southern Hispania), Syria and the prestigious post of Asia Minor. Despite the son's future adoption as Nerva's heir, Trajan did not ignore his familial roots. Trajan's father likely lived long enough to see his son's accession and coinage reflects the deification of the natural father in AD 113.
Trajan followed the path set by his father, attaining rank in the customary 'cursus honorum' fashion, but did so with a definite emphasis on the military. By his middle to late 20's (mid 70's AD) he served as a Legionary Legate under his father in Syria and was elected (appointed) to a Quaestorship shortly thereafter. About this time he was married to Pompeia Plotina (one of the highly influential, if little known women in Roman history) and he continued to enjoy the favor of the Flavian emperors attaining the Praetorship around AD 85. Under Domitian he was appointed as Legate of Legio VII Gemina in Hispania Tarraconensis, which he rallied to the support of the beleaguered emperor during the revolt of Saturninus in AD 89. Though Trajan's march was ultimately unnecessary (the revolt was put down long before his arrival), the action cemented his alliance with Domitian. While it provided increased potential for upward mobility, Trajan's loyalty to the despised Domitian may have been at least a mild source of embarrassment after the emperor's assassination. Regardless, after serving Domitian in his wars along the Danube his advancement continued, reaching the Consulship in AD 91, followed by appointments as governor of Moesia inferior and Germania Superior.
With the death of Domitian and accession of Nerva in AD 96, Trajan's ultimate fate began to unfold. Though Nerva was popular with Roman aristocracy, he was not a favored choice of the Legions or the Praetorians. Trajan, a life long soldier of considerable reputation became the catalyst that would secure Nerva's reign and provide for a smooth transition of power between the Flavians and the so-called '5 Good Emperors'. He maintained an air of familiarity with his men and came to be endeared by them. However, his authority was unquestionable and his familiarity with provincial administration thanks to his father's and his own long terms of service abroad, provided a firm foundation for imperial governing.
Under political fire from the Praetorian Guard, Nerva nominated Trajan as his heir in the autumn of AD 97 and mutinous machinations were immediately quelled. News of the decision arrived in Germania along with the future emperor Hadrian, whom Trajan was a guardian of, and with it came full imperial and tribunician power essentially making Trajan co-emperor. Rather than make his way immediately to Rome to assume control, however, the new emperor moved north to Germania Inferior where he assured the loyalty of legions guarding the Rhine. Here he stayed for several months, where he dealt with the mutinous Praetorians that he had summoned to him, and settled various provincial and military affairs. In January of AD 98, word arrived that Nerva had died and Trajan was confirmed as the next Roman Emperor but again Trajan remained away from the capitol city. Instead, Trajan remained in Germania and along the Danubian border provinces to undoubtedly make arrangements for his future invasions. Fortifications (limes) were inspected and expanded, loyalty of legions secured, military roads constructed and by AD 99 the time had come to make his grand entrance at Rome.
Trajan eventually arrived in Rome in AD 99 under circumstances that rivaled a triumphal procession. He entered the city on foot and was greeted by massive crowds. The Senate too was pleased with this new choice in spite of his 'provincial' origin and the manner of his selection as heir without their pre-approval. He re-affirmed the vow by Nerva that no Senator would be harmed and applied the Augustan principals of the principate. Trajan was considerate and mindful to Republican tradition making sure that the position of emperor appeared again like that of a first citizen among peers rather than a despot that ruled at his own whims. He ruled with an outward lack of political ambition and it endeared him to both the masses and the aristocracy. Coupled with his abilities as a general and conqueror, he would come to be loved as a model of Roman virtue and dignity.
The Dacian Wars
Before Trajan returned to Rome in AD 99 to assume his place as 'emperor', time spent scouting enemy dispositions and investigating the Danube fortifications assuredly inspired him to prepare for an offensive into Dacia. Earlier campaigns against the Dacians as well as against Germanic tribes across the Danube by Domitian had met with some success, but the situation had been largely left unsettled. The Dacian King Decebalus, who had remained in power as a thorn in the proverbial Roman side, had spent the better part of the last decade securing his position and preparing armies in the Roman style. Thanks in large part to engineers provided by Domitian, Decebalus had fortified the approaches into his kingdom and created a formidable obstacle to Roman dominance of the region. As Decebalus raised his status to one that was among the most capable enemies in Roman history, Trajan had little choice but to plan a campaign to eliminate the threat.
Though the new emperor was a soldier at heart, he also understood the necessity of making political arrangements in Rome before entirely focusing his energy elsewhere. The year AD 100 was spent in Rome both honoring Nerva, ultimately with deification, and building a sense of governing authority within the Senate. The imperial court was minimal in comparison to previous 'administrations' and Trajan preferred a low key approach to government. Throughout his reign he would rely upon provincial governors to make decisions on their own merits and defer to the emperor only it matters of extreme importance. Thanks to Pliny the Younger, the provincial governor whose correspondence with Trajan is largely extant, a vivid portrait of Trajan's style can be seen (despite the terrible lack of information from other ancient historians). In effect, his rule was much like that of a general using subordinate officers in a military sense. Like Nerva, Trajan continued the popular measures that punished the delators (informers) for their part in creating administrative disorder and he reduced the power of the Praetorians and reformed the court system. For his deeds in continuing and perfecting the social welfare system known as the alimenta, he earned the name Optimus, or best, from the people. In the short time that he stayed in Rome, Trajan prepared the Roman world for 60 years of steady and effective leadership.
All the while he stayed in Rome however the emperor's sights were set across the Danube. The great historian Tacitus, a contemporary of Trajan, had published his work 'Germania' in this time period (one of the few ancient sources dedicated to the little known Germanics) initiating public propaganda that would support military expeditions to the north. Though Trajan's target never quite fell in line with Tacitus' expectations, there was likely wide public and aristocratic approval, thanks in part to the historians' efforts. Trajan raised two legions prior to launching an attack, II Traiana and XXX Ulpia (so numbered as it was the 30th active legion at the time) and shifted existing legionary placement to support a large scale campaign. By the spring of AD 101 plans were settled and the emperor marched north with an army that would eventually involve as many as 11 legions.
Unfortunately the details of Trajan's campaign are largely lost to history. Dio Cassius' account is partially fragmented and lacking the military attentions of past writers, such as Caesar. The other notable historians of the era, Suetonius, Tacitus, etc. did not focus much attention on the reigns of contemporary emperors but instead wrote largely about events prior to their own lifetimes thereby leaving Trajan ignored by the most common ancient resources. Despite this, we do know that the Dacian War was a combination of difficult fighting mixed with marvels of engineering. The defenses of Decebalus were impressive and Trajan was required to use the vaunted discipline and perseverance of the Roman army to succeed. With the service of the engineer Apollodorus of Damascus, the Romans completed immense road works along the Danube, begun a century earlier under Tiberius, and defeated the difficulty of logistics and hazardous terrain. In a great feat of engineering and architecture, Apollodorus designed a road straight up to and through the Iron Gates of the Danubian gorges by cantilevering it from the sheer rock face. This marvel of technology essentially allowed the legions to walk on top of the river as they made their way into the Carpathian Mountains.
A significant battle was fought at Tapae in AD 101 (the sight of a previous battle under Domitian in AD 89) on the approach to the Dacian capital of Sarmizegethusa. According to Dio Cassius keeping with the tradition of Trajan as a compassionate commander, "(Trajan) engaged the foe, and saw many wounded on his own side and killed many of the enemy. And when the bandages gave out, he is said not to have spared even his own clothing, but to have cut it up into strips. In honor of the soldiers who had died in the battle he ordered an altar to be erected and funeral rites to be performed annually." Soon after the Romans advanced upon the Dacian capital and Decebalus was forced to capitulate. Surprisingly, the powerful leader was left in power as a client king to Rome, but he agreed to raze his fortresses, surrender weapons and prisoners and likely paid a sizeable tribute (though Dio doesn't provide any detail.)
Temporarily victorious and having been rewarded the title Dacicus, Trajan returned to Rome to celebrate a triumph. He entertained the people with gladiatorial games and rewarded his officers for their service in the campaign. The celebration was short-lived though as Decebalus may have mistakenly compared the conviction of Trajan to that of Domitian. After his 'defeat' to Domitian (in which the Romans actually paid a tribute to Decebalus in order to keep the peace) he was allowed to rebuild his army and defense systems virtually unopposed. After this more recent defeat however, similar actions that effectively broke the peace arrangements were met with swift and decisive imperial response.
In preparation for another Danube crossing, Trajan again turned to his engineer Apollodarus for project of unprecedented military grandeur. A massive stone bridge spanning over 3,500 feet (1,100 meters) in length and 60 feet (19 meters) in width was built using enormous wooden arches set upon 20 stone and cement pillars. Built over the course of 2 years, this bridge became the primary source of traffic to and from Dacia. Despite finally being purposely destroyed a century and a half later by Aurelian as the Romans pulled out of Dacia, it was to remain for more than a thousand years the longest bridge that had ever been built. In AD 105 the new campaign was launched, and according to Dio, "Trajan, having crossed the Danube by means of the bridge, conducted the war with safe prudence rather than with haste, and eventually, after a hard struggle, vanquished the Dacians. In the course of the campaign he himself performed many deeds of good generalship and bravery, and his troops ran many risks and displayed great prowess on his behalf." A hard fought war lasting for just over a year ended with the Romans once again descending upon the Dacian capital of Sarmizegethusa. This time however, there was to be no respite for Decebalus. Rather than retain the right to rule as a client King, he was forced to flee. Rather than end up as a trophy in Trajan's second Dacian triumph, Decebalus was eventually forced to take his own life.
Dacia was immediately annexed as an imperial province, and many new colonies were founded laying a foundation for Roman influence that lasts into the present day. In fact, Romania, the modern equivalent to a portion of Dacian territory speaks a language that claims to be the most closely related modern tongue to that of ancient Latin. Additionally, again thanks to Apollodorus, Trajan left two impressive monuments commemorating his victory. The Tropaeum Traiani (restored in the late 20th century after 2 millennia of slow decay) in modern Adamclisi stands atop a hill and its visibility from great distances was a constant reminder of Rome's power. In Rome, Apollodorus built one of the great lasting treasures of imperial architecture. Trajan's Column is a sculpted pillar, standing 100 Roman feet tall, with 23 rings depicting a vast assortment of images relaying the history of the Dacian Wars. While it served as an unparalleled piece of propaganda glorifying the emperor and his achievements, it also stands today as an invaluable primary source of information into the Roman legions and ancient warfare.
When Trajan returned to Rome in AD 106, he did so with a vast treasure. According to Trajan's ancient contemporary Cryton (whose original work was lost but retold through Ioannes Lydus in the 6th Century) 'the sum of five million gold and twice as much silver' was taken. Though this number is difficult to translate into modern equivalents (and must be measured with a sense for ancient exaggerations) one scholar, Jerome Carcopino, roughly translated this immense sum to 180 tons (165,000 kg) of gold and 360 tons (331,000 kg) of silver. With this enormous haul Trajan was able to secure the health of the imperial treasury, finance projects such as the draining of the Pontine Marshes and provide a triumph that was unrivaled in the long history of Rome. 123 straight days of gladiatorial games were held, including fights between as many as 10,000 pairs of gladiators and the death of 11,000 animals. With his popularity among the people and the aristocracy at an unrivaled peak, even embassies from as far away as India came to Rome to pay respects to the man who was commonly becoming regarded as the greatest Emperor since Augustus, if not the greatest of all.
The Return of the Principate
The key element of Trajan's administrative reign was the return of favorable relations with the aristocracy. Much like Augustus, Trajan readily delegated governing authority, and unlike previous 'emperors' there was a fundamental shift from the use of the freedman as political advisor and confidant back to the traditional Senate and Equestrian classes. During his near 20 year reign, he held the consulship only 6 times (contrasted by the 34 consulships held by the Flavians in the quarter century that they held power) while returning it to a position of honor in which numerous friends and allies openly served multiple terms.
At the same time such delegation of power was made with the intent of centralizing Roman government rather than allowing the corruption of past semi-independent provincial authority. The position of the curatores (a financial officer of the imperial government) was expanded upon to limit corruption and solidify standard practices of provincial rule. In these representatives Trajan placed the utmost trust as illustrated by the letters of Pliny the younger, who served Trajan in such a capacity in Bithynia et Pontus. In fact, Trajan expected these officers to function in much the same capacity as military subordinates, using their own discretion for most decisions and deferring to emperor only in matters of extreme importance.
Despite his attention to provincial government and the expansion of grand public welfare measures such as the alimenta, Trajan was not a reformer. The alimentary system of providing food and general welfare to the citizenry may have been advanced far beyond any previous gestures (so much so that the general complacency of Romans was referred to as 'panem et circenses' or bread and circuses by the contemporary Satirist Juneval), but its expansion was not a concept conceived by Trajan, nor was it simply intended as aid for the poor. Trajan understood the importance of Latin and Italian origins to the overall health of the empire and the alimenta largely encouraged the birth rate in Rome and Italy. As a life long man of the military, he also observed what was certainly deemed a dangerous trend towards barbarization of the legions, which could be slowed or reversed through these social programs. His view of Christianity, preserved by Pliny in his numerous letters, shows a general indifference provided they recognize the authority of the Roman gods, despite later accusations of intolerance by the Christian author Tertullian.
In addition to the alimenta, Trajan sponsored imperial building projects that touched all corners of the empire. From his military monument and bridge building efforts in Dacia to the famed Trajan's column in Rome, he relied upon his famed architect Apollodorus of Damascus for a wide array of improvements. Included in the more grand of these projects was Trajan's Forum, the largest of any such fora in the city, the Markets of Trajan which were built as the Roman equivalent of a modern shopping mall and the imperial baths which used the foundations of Nero's Domus Aurea (Golden House) and were fed by a newly constructed aqueduct (the Via Traiana). Shipping throughout the empire was increased through port expansion including that of Ostia (Rome's harbor on the Tiber and the Mediterranean). Road construction was expanded throughout the empire, the most well known being the Via Traiana, which provided a better alternative from Rome to Brundisium than the famous Via Appia (Appian Way). Along this route, one of southern Italy's most preserved Roman monuments was built; the Arch of Beneventum which was constructed to highlight Trajan's many great achievements.
Trajan's reign too was notable for inclusion of women in imperial public life. Having no children of his own and a considerably small primary family, the influence of his wife and sister is perhaps unrivalled in Roman history. Unlike such previous imperial women as Livia (wife of Augustus), Messalina and Agrippina (wives of Claudius with the latter being the mother of Nero), the women in Trajan's life were considered positive influences and were honored for their service to the empire rather than vilified in the historical record. Pompeia Plotina, Trajan's wife and Marciana, his sister were both honored with the title of Augusta in AD 105. Marciana's daughter Matidia went on to be honored in the same way upon her mother's death and she and Pompeia were instrumental in the accession of Hadrian after Trajan's passing. To illustrate the importance in public sentiment Hadrian, in order to cement his connection to Trajan, was married to Sabina (the daughter of Matidia) and remained so despite years of mutual loathing and his own suspected homosexual preferences.
The emperor however, despite his many achievements in Rome as a civilian ruler was a still a general at heart. Expansion in the east, including previously uncontrolled portions of Syria and Arabia Petraea (annexed in AD 105), put Rome into a position which controlled critical strategic trade junctures between east and west. As such, affairs in Armenia, long contested for political influence between Rome and the Parthian Empire came to a head by AD 113. Parthia had placed a candidate upon the throne of Armenia that did not meet with Roman approval and Trajan sought to put an end to Parthian rivalry once and for all.
The Parthian War
Dating from the eastern conquests of Licinius Lucullus and Pompey Magnus in the 60's BC and into the imperial period, Roman expansion made conflict with Parthia inevitable. During the reign of Nero (50's - 60's AD), a major campaign to ensure Roman hegemony over Armenia was conducted under Cnaeus Domitius Corbulo.
Though the war between Rome and Parthia largely resulted in a stalemate, the matter was settled by allowing Rome the final authority in naming the Armenian King. Despite the settlement the situation remained problematic for the better part of the next half century and during Trajan's reign matters of Armenian succession flared into war again.
By AD 113, the Parthian King Osroes I (in the midst of an internal conflict with rival King Vologases III) had deposed the Armenian King in favor of his own nephew (likely to strengthen his position within the Parthian borders), breaking the already tenuous peace between Rome and Parthia. Trajan's reaction was swift and he moved east from Rome while preparing an invasion force. Failed attempts to broker a peace by the Parthians before any impending Roman invasion led to understandable contemporary speculation that Trajan's true motive was an Alexandrian style campaign of conquest, and political events simply offered a convenient excuse. Regardless of Trajan's personal motivation for going to war he marched into Armenia in AD 114. Initial resistance was weak and ineffective (perhaps an indication of the debilitating internal struggle in Parthia); Armenia's royalty was deposed and its independence stripped with its annexation as a Roman province.
Over the following two years, Trajan moved south from Armenia directly into Parthian territory. Militarily, his campaign was met with great success and resistance in the field was ineffective. With the capture of such cities and Babylon and the Parthian capital of Ctesiphon on the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers, Mesopotamia and Assyria (essentially comprising modern Iraq) were annexed as Roman provinces and the emperor received the title Parthicus. Trajan continued his march to the southeast, eventually reaching the Persian Gulf in AD 116. Though Dio Cassius reports that Trajan would have preferred to march in the footsteps of Alexander, his advanced age (approximately 63 years) and slowly failing health forced him to abandon any such thoughts.
Despite the swiftness of the initial victories, the long term prospects for Roman control were completely in doubt. Returning to the west and crossing the Tigris, Trajan stopped to lay siege to the desert town of Hatra. In AD 117, with poor supply and unable to breach the walls, the Romans suffered their first defeat of the campaign with Trajan narrowly avoiding personal injury. To add insult to the defeat, the recently 'conquered' population of Jewish inhabitants began to revolt against newly installed Roman rule. For reasons that aren't entirely clear, though religion certainly played a major part, the revolt spread to Jews living in Egypt, Cyrene and Cyprus.
The massacre of Roman citizens on a massive scale by armed Jewish mobs in Cyprus (recorded as 240,000) and Cyrene as well as the destruction of pagan temples forced brutal retaliation. Massacre was met with massacre as Trajan ordered legionary response to the uprising. Jews were virtually expelled from Cyprus and the population of North Africa (Jewish, Roman and Greek) was decimated. The revolt and its suppression dragged on even into the reign of Hadrian (who would be faced years later with another considerable Jewish uprising in Judaea), but Trajan still yearned for his Alexander style eastern campaign and exacting revenge against the people of Hatra. A planned renewal of the offensive was brought to a halt as the emperor fell ill during the summer of AD 117, and Trajan began the trip back to Rome. Landing in Cilicia after a short journey by sea, the emperor died in Selinus on August 9 most likely of natural causes.
Trajan, having no children of his own, had never settled the matter of succession, but Hadrian (the son of Trajan's cousin) had long held a favored position with the Empress Plotina. Though the official word was that Trajan adopted Hadrian on his death bed, rumor had it that the choice was made only after the emperor's death. Regardless, it was Hadrian who was left in command in the east after Trajan fell ill and the matter of his succession was uncontested (and abruptly gave up all of the eastern territorial gains).
Trajan, who had held the same level of power as such predecessors as Domitian, wielded it with far less strict authority and won the admiration of both the masses and aristocracy. He was quickly deified by the Senate and Trajan's greatness was recognized for centuries to come. Each successive emperor even through to the Christian era of the late 4th century AD, was blessed with the prayer "felicior Augusto, melior Traiano" ([may he be] luckier than Augustus and better than Trajan).
Did you know...
The Dacian wars are celebrated in Trajan's Column. The reliefs, apart from their artistic value, are an interesting example of war propaganda.
Did you know...
Trajan's Forum was intended as a visual realization of its builder's political propaganda. The extensive use of expensive, imported colored marble emphasized imperial power and wealth.
Did you know...
The Parthian tactic was that of harassing the enemy by the hit-and-run action, dividing his forces by pretending retreat and enticing pursuit but then turning unexpectedly back and showering the foe with deadly arrows.