Trajan became one of the greatest and most renowned of Roman emperors. His 19 years of rule were distinguished by military exploits which pushed the frontiers of Rome to their widest extent; by a sound paternalism which sought to establish good administration; and by excellent relations with the senate, which healed the breach in the fabric of Roman government opened by Domitian’s autocratic rule.

Marcus Ulpius Traianus was born on 18 September, probably in the year AD 53, at Italica near Seville. He was in fact the first emperor of non-Italian origin, though his family was an old-established Umbrian one from northern Italy which had chosen to settle in southern Spain. These were no mere provincials. His father, another Marcus Ulpius Traianus, had a distinguished civil and military career, commanding the Tenth Legion ‘Fretensis’ during the Jewish War in AD 67-68, consul in around AD 70, and governor of Syria, one of the most important provinces of the Roman Empire, soon afterwards. Marcus Ulpius senior was clearly a trusted lieutenant. He had also at some stage served as governor of the Spanish province of Baetica, and towards the end of his life was appointed governor of Asia, the Roman province of western Asia Minor. He died some time before AD 100.

With such a distinguished father, the young Trajan had a head start in life. After serving as military tribune under his father in Syria in the 70s he rose rapidly to become commander of the Seventh Legion ‘Gemina’ based at Legio (modem Leon) in northern Spain by the late 80s. In January AD 89 he marched his legion to the Rhine to assist the emperor Domitian in suppressing the rebellion of Saturninus, governor of Upper Germany, but arrived too late to take part in the action. Trajan found favour with Domitian and was chosen to serve as praetor in around AD 85 and consul in AD 91. This association with the unpopular Domitian became something of an embarrassment after Domitian’s assassination and this phase of Trajan’s career is passed over in silence in Pliny’s Panegyric. The Panegyric also makes no reference to Trajan’s Spanish origin, so here too was something best left unmentioned.


Pliny’s Panegyric tells of Trajan’s ‘splendid bearing and tall stature, his fine head and noble countenance, to say nothing of the firm strength of his maturity and the premature signs of advancing age with which the gods have seen fit to mark his hair and so enhance his look of majesty’. Born in AD 53, Trajan would in fact have been in his mid-40s at the time of his accession, a mature but not an old man by Roman standards. (Above) Bust in the British Museum.

Nerva’s heir

On Nerva’s accession in AD 96, Trajan was appointed governor of Upper Germany, and it was there late the following year that he received a handwritten note from the emperor, informing him of his adoption. The use of adoption to establish the imperial succession had been established by Augustus, and the meaning of the action was clear, though whether Trajan had any forewarning of his impending promotion is unknown. Friends at Rome may well have been active on his behalf; there is even a story that Trajan did not in fact passively wait on events, but covertly seized power through their assistance. Whatever the truth, the adoption of Trajan was an astute move by the ailing Nerva, who desperately needed a powerful supporter against the troubles pressing on him at Rome. The most serious was the mutiny of the Praetorian Guard under Casperius Aelianus. Yet Trajan did not hurry back to the capital to restore authority. Instead, he merely sent for the leaders of the mutiny, on the pretext of handing them a special commission. When they arrived at his headquarters in Germany he had them executed.

Such firm action restored confidence and stability in the government. When Nerva died, on 28 January AD 98, Trajan felt no need to start out for Rome to secure his position. Instead, after settling the affairs of his own province, he embarked on a tour of inspection of the Rhine and Danube frontiers. The Danube frontier was cause for particular concern, not only because of external threats. Domitian had been popular with the legions, almost one third of which were stationed on the Danube, and Trajan’s personal visit was a wise precaution to forestall any trouble from that quarter. He may also already have been planning his Dacian War. Pliny tells us how Trajan stood on the banks of the Danube, but since no enemy presented itself he felt no urge to cross, an action ‘demonstrating both courage and moderation’.

The conquest of Dacia Warfare was something at which Trajan excelled. Pliny tells us of his popularity with the troops, and of his willingness to bear hardship and danger along with the soldiers under his command. Trajan came to power at a time when Rome’s neighbours posed relatively little threat, and the campaigns he conducted may largely reflect his personal fondness for military life. Internal politics, and the need to keep the army employed, no doubt also played a part in the decision to wage no fewer than three major wars during his 19-year reign.

The first and second of these wars were fought against Dacia, a powerful kingdom lying north of the Danube frontier in modem Romania. Domitian had campaigned against them from AD 85 to 89, without securing a decisive outcome, and the Dacian king Decebalus was brazenly flouting the terms of the peace which had been agreed on that occasion. Whether Trajan’s expedition was strictly necessary we shall never know. The aim, however, was to forestall further trouble from that quarter by settling accounts with Decebalus once and for all.

Early in AD 101 Trajan left Rome. Leading his troops across the Danube, he struck north into the heart of Dacian territory, defeating the Dacian army near Tapae. This was towards the end of 101. During the following winter, Decebalus attempted a counter-attack across the Danube further downstream, but this was repulsed. The campaign was brought to a successful conclusion the following year, when Trajan’s armies advanced further into Dacian territory and camped before the Dacian capital Sarrnizegethusa. Decebalus sued for peace, which was granted on somewhat lenient terms. Large tracts of territory north of the Lower Danube were annexed, and when Trajan returned to Rome he celebrated a triumph and was awarded the title ‘Dacicus’ by the senate.

The settlement did not last, however, and in June AD 105 Trajan once again left Rome to fight against Decebalus. The Dacians in the meantime had not been idle, and already the Roman outposts had fallen. This time the Roman expedition was able to take advantage of the impressive bridge built across the Danube by Trajan’s principal architect and engineer, Apollodorus of Damascus. Cassius Dio describes this bridge in admiring terms, maintaining that it surpassed all of Trajan’s other achievements, Many allies of Decebalus faded away at Trajan’s approach, and despite an attempt to assassinate the emperor, the Roman armies were able once again to advance to Sarmizegethusa. This time there was to be no mercy Sarmizegethusa was captured and the treasures of the Dacian royal house were carried off to Rome, Decebalus himself was hounded until, in danger of capture, he committed suicide. His severed head was exhibited in Rome on the steps leading up to the Capitol. By the end of AD 106, resistance had been quelled and the entire kingdom of Dacia absorbed as a province of the Roman Empire.


Decebalus himself was hounded until, in danger of capture, he committed suicide. His severed head was exhibited in Rome on the steps leading up to the Capitol.

The story of the Dacian Wars is told in striking visual narrative by the relief carvings which spiral upwards around Trajan’s Column, the vast commemorative pillar erected by order of the senate in Trajan’s new imperial Forum at Rome, The reliefs depict in detail the progress of the campaigns, and give valuable information about Roman military equipment and techniques. Above all, however, the Column immortalizes Trajan’s own role in the wars. A tall and distinctive figure, he is depicted in many roles – receiving envoys, planning operations, sacrificing to the gods, or receiving the submission of the defeated Dacian forces.

The middle years of the reign, from AD 107 to 113, were an interval of relative peace. On returning from the Dacian War Trajan celebrated another triumph and mounted an extravagant series of public games, in which 10,000 gladiators fought and 11,000 animals were killed. He also devoted some of the vast booty he had won to public works, including a new harbour at Ostia, the port of Rome, and the construction of his own Forum and Market. The Forum of Trajan was dedicated by the emperor on 1 January 112, and Trajan’s Column in May the following year.

The eastern campaign

Trajan returned to war in 114, and spent the remaining years of his life campaigning on the empire’s eastern frontier. Here the great enemy was the Parthians, rulers of a once powerful empire which had defeated several Roman armies in previous centuries, but was now in decline. The immediate cause of hostilities was Parthian interference in the kingdom of Armenia, a buffer-state lying between the frontiers of Rome and Parthia. The Parthian emperor had succeeded in placing his own nominee on the throne of Armenia, thus upsetting the delicate balance of power on the eastern frontier. Trajan’s response was characteristically forthright. He settled the matter of Armenia by advancing in force and changing it from a buffer-kingdom to a Roman province. In AD 115 he extended operations southwards into northern Mesopotamia, and in a spectacular campaign the following year, succeeded in conquering the whole of Mesopotamia, including the Parthian capital at Ctesiphon near modern Baghdad.

For a brief moment Rome had a foothold on the Persian Gulf. But these successes were not to last, and Trajan’s final months were marked by a number of reverses. Late in 116 the Mesopotamians launched a rebellion against the occupying Roman forces which was only with difficulty contained. In 117 Trajan’s army failed to take the desert city of Hatra. The emperor himself, riding with an escort around the walls, narrowly missed being struck by an arrow which killed one of his bodyguard. Conditions for the besieging force steadily deteriorated, and Trajan was compelled to break off the operation and withdraw. According to Cassius Dio it was at this point that the emperor’s health began to fail. At about the same time the Jewish population in Cyrenaica rose in revolt, and the unrest soon spread to Egypt and Cyprus. In Cyrenaica alone, it was claimed that 220,000 non-Jews perished in the uprising. New trouble also threatened on the northern frontier. Leaving the army in Syria, Trajan hurried back to Rome in order to take charge of the crisis.

Cassius Dio tells the end of the tale: already afflicted by some circulatory condition, which Trajan suspected was the result of poison, the emperor suffered a stroke which left him partially paralysed. Finally, ‘On coming to Selinus in Cilicia, which we also call Traianopolis, he suddenly expired, after reigning nineteen years, six months and fifteen days. ‘The date was 9 August AD 117. The body of the emperor was brought back to Rome for burial, and the cremated remains placed in an urn of gold at the base of the Column which bore the record of his Dacian victories.

Trajan’s fame as the model ruler lived on down the centuries. He set a standard against which later holders of imperial office were measured. In the fourth century, the senate still prayed that new emperors might be ‘More fortunate than Augustus and better than Trajan’. His reputation survived into the Middle Ages, when the poet Dante gave him, alone of pre-Christian emperors, a place in Paradise.


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