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Trajan: The Greatest Emperor You Have Never Heard Of

Who is the best Roman Emperor? This is a subjective question with no agreed upon answer. Many claim that Augustus was the best for building the Roman Empire and ushering in a period of prosperity. Others might argue for Marcus Aurelius, with his stable rule and renowned philosophizing. In the search for the greatest Emperor, among these lofty names, is Trajan.

Trajan embodies much of what one might associate with an Emperor. He rose to prominence through a decades-long military career, developing valuable strategic skills and a formidable reputation.[1] In 96 CE, after winning a significant military campaign in Pannonia, near present day Hungary, Trajan’s popularity reached an all-time high.[2] Around the same time, the unpopular and aging politician Nerva was crowned Emperor. Unable to control the army and stabilize the Empire, Nerva knew his days were numbered.[3] Looking for a successor who would not suffer the same fate, Trajan emerged as the clear frontrunner. He was adopted by Nerva, a common practice in selecting successors, and became Emperor in 98 CE.[4] Unlike his short-lived predecessor, Trajan’s rule would be extensive, seeing its end nearly two decades later in 117 CE, when he died of natural causes.[5]



Drawing from his military background, Emperor Trajan achieved massive success through warfare. He won the most significant military victories of his career in the two Dacian Wars, which ended with Rome gaining sizable territories near modern-day Romania.[6] He would also wage successful campaigns in Parthia, modern-day Iran, further expanding Rome.[7] His conquests brought riches to the Empire and gave him a reputation on par with Augustus. By the end of Trajan’s reign, Rome reached its territorial peak. Beyond his conquests, Trajan was known to be modest, charismatic, merciful, and strategically gifted. The Senate often held celebrations in his honor, showered him with prestigious accolades, and upon his death, they granted him the rare privilege of having his ashes placed within the city of Rome.[8] Overall, in the eyes of average citizens and aristocrats alike, he was a near perfect ruler.


It may seem surprising that Trajan is a lesser-known Emperor. Despite his successes, far more people know about the heinous acts of Nero and Caligula, the foundational achievements of Julius Caesar and Augustus, and the prosperous rules of Marcus Aurelius and Hadrian. Though he is comparable to the best Emperors of Rome, Trajan is by no means a household name. One factor in his relative obscurity is the mysterious lack of sources surrounding his rule.

Despite Trajan’s accomplishments, his long reign, the monuments built in his honor, and the numerous coins minted with his likeness, historians have perplexingly little to work with. The sources that do exist are either unreliable, barely mention Trajan, or were written centuries after his reign.[9] The historian Pliny the Younger documented some of his correspondence with Trajan, though it reveals little about the Emperor.[10] The writer Suetonius died years after Trajan, but even though he wrote biographies on all the Roman Emperors before Nerva, he never wrote one on Trajan, despite his accomplishments and long reign.[11] At the height of the Pax Romana, in a golden age of history and literature, nobody had anything to say about their massively influential Emperor, Trajan. As Associate Professor Jen Ebbeler once said, “It's weird, almost as if writers purposely avoided the topic.”[12] If they did, the reason is lost to time.

One potential explanation for this historical mystery surrounding Trajan is that contemporaries wrote plenty about him, but their work didn’t survive. Though it sounds plausible, this seems highly unlikely. Throughout Roman history, a few Emperors posthumously received the Senatorial decree of damnatio memoriae, or the damnation of memory, where Roman authorities attempted to erase their legacy and strike them from history.[13] Even with a decree of damnatio memoriae, enough accounts on disgraced Emperors like Caligula, Nero, and Commodus survived to sufficiently document their lives.[14] If documentation of Rome’s worst could survive damnatio memoriae, it makes the popular and celebrated Trajan’s predicament even more perplexing.

There are no satisfying explanations for Trajan’s absence in primary sources. Much of what we do know about him is the result of extraordinary efforts on the part of historians and archaeologists. Over time, they have been able to string together a rough narrative of Trajan’s life using physical evidence and the few known primary sources. We may never know how much of our knowledge on Trajan is accurate or just propaganda, or why so few accounts of his life exist today. We can only hope that future research provides answers. Nevertheless, for the foreseeable future, Trajan will remain both a prototypical and enigmatic Emperor.

Notes

[1] Julian Bennett, Trajan: Optimus Princeps (London: Routledge, 1997), ix.

[2] Bennett, ix.

[3] S. E. Finer, The History of Government from the Earliest Times. Vol. 1, Ancient Monarchies and Empires (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 531.

[4] Finer, 531.

[5] Bennett, Trajan: Optimus Princeps, xi.

[6] Edward Togo Salmon, “Trajan’s Conquest of Dacia.” in Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association (1936), 93-94.

[7] Emma Dench, Empire and political cultures in the roman world (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), 61.

[8] Penelope Davies, “The Politics of Perpetuation: Trajan’s Column and the Art of Commemoration.” in American Journal of Archaeology (1997), 46.

[9] Bennett, Trajan: Optimus Princeps, xii-xiii.

[10] Bennett, Trajan: Optimus Princeps, xii-xiii.

[11] Jen Ebbeler, “The evidence, or how do we know what we think we know?” (2015).

[12] Ebbeler.

[13] 1. Alexander Meddings, “Damnatio Memoriae: How the Romans Erased People from History,” March 20, 2022, https://alexandermeddings.com/history/damnatio-memoriae-romans-erased-from-history/.

[14] Meddings.


Bibliography

Articles:

Bennett, Julian. Trajan: Optimus Princeps. London: Routledge, 1997. https://search-ebscohost-com.proxy-um.researchport.umd.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=97979&site=ehost-live.

Davies, Penelope. “The Politics of Perpetuation: Trajan’s Column and the Art of Commemoration.” American Journal of Archaeology 101, no. 1 (1997): 41–65. https://doi.org/10.2307/506249.

Dench, Emma. Empire and political cultures in the roman world. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018. https://www-cambridge-org.ludwig.lub.lu.se/core/books/empire-and-political-cultures-in-the-roman-world/70EFC6A43B1BBBE00C597BCFE37501D0.

Ebbeler, Jen. “The evidence, or how do we know what we think we know?,” March 15, 2015. https://inventingtrajan.blogspot.com/2015/03/the-evidence-or-how-do-we-know-what-we.html?m=1.

Finer, S. E. The History of Government from the Earliest Times. Vol. 1, Ancient Monarchies and Empires. The History of Government From the Earliest Times. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999. https://search-ebscohost-com.proxy-um.researchport.umd.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=12349&site=ehost-live.

Meddings, Alexander. “Damnatio Memoriae: How the Romans Erased People from History.” Alexander Meddings | Content Specialist, March 20, 2022. https://alexandermeddings.com/history/damnatio-memoriae-romans-erased-from-history/.

Salmon, Edward Togo. “Trajan’s Conquest of Dacia.” Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association 67 (1936): 83–105. https://doi.org/10.2307/283229.

Pictures:

“Damnatio Memoriae.” Wikipedia, November 9, 2023. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Damnatio_memoriae.

Hurley, Jacob. Trajan in front of the Roman Wall. September 30, 2023. Tower Hill, London.

Hurley, Jacob. Trajan Statue. October 25, 2023. The Glyptotek, Copenhagen, Denmark.

Vulic, Vladimir. “Roman Empire Map: Unveiling Its Vast Territory.” The Roman Empire, June 10, 2023. https://roman-empire.net/maps/map-of-ancient-rome/.


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