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How do we rate the Emperor Trajan? Trajan is something of an in-between emperor, coming after a bad Emperor, Domitian, followed by a weak Emperor, Nerva, but being followed by the three great emperors who form the apex of the Roman Empire in the second century – Hadrian, Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius. Does Trajan really belong with the three great emperors who succeeded him? The year 2017 marks the 1900th anniversary of the death of Trajan, so the Roman Society combined with the Association for Roman Archaeology to hold a celebratory conference at the British Museum to see how his reputation survives.

I always have a particular interest in Trajan as his death marked the end of the slab of Roman history that I studied at Oxford, which ran from the accession of Augustus to the death of Trajan, so the death of Trajan was when my labours ended.

Trajan has long had the reputation of being one of the best of all Roman emperors, but modern scholarship is slightly more critical. His predecessor before one was Domitian who conducted a reign of terror against the upper classes and was eventually murdered. He was replaced by Nerva, a frail and elderly stopgap who died after two years, having been told to adopt the young and energetic Trajan as his successor.

The imperial fora at Rome. Double click to see the details, but the Forum of Trajan at the left end is by far the biggest.

Trajan was a great builder, known best for his forum at Rome, with the famous Trajan’s column, decorated with an account of his wars in Dacia, modern Romania. The forum was extensively excavated in the 1930s under Mussolini, but since the 1980s, further excavations have been carried out and Amanda Claridge told us how they have been changing our whole interpretation of the area. In particular, the earlier excavations produced the classic plan still widely used, showing a progression through the various fora, but this is not possible as there is no way from the forum of Augustus to Trajan’s forum and she argued that the main approach was down the wide pathway that winds down from the north. It Work continues, — but don’t trust too much any of the plans shown in the guidebooks!

Gold coin of Trajan.
How emperors were addressed: the red line shows the use of optimus, pioneered by Trajan, the black line shows the use of dominus, which took over in the third century.

We then heard a fascinating lecture by the great Austrian numismatist Bernhard Woytek on Trajan’s coinage.  Trajan produced or rather popularised a new form of coinage with a reverse reading SPQR Optimo Principi, that is it was coinage produced by the Senate and people of Rome, dedicated to the best of emperors. He argued this may have been because Trajan did not want to emphasise too much that his authority came from his adoption by Nerva, who he regarded as being weak and ineffectual and he preferred to claim that his authority came from Jupiter, the King of the gods, and from the Senate and People.

However, Trajan was a warrior emperor who expanded the empire to its greatest extent, notably by his conquest of Dacia, mostly modern Romania, and Andrew Poulter, who has carried out widespread excavations in the Balkans deconstructed his conquest. This was not as smooth as he made out. There were two Dacian wars, and it appears that the first of them, from 101 – 102 was not wholly successful, so he had to go back and complete the job from 105 to 6. The trouble is the sources for his reign are poor. The written sources are all based on Cassius Dio, who was writing a century later, but his work only survives in extracts made eight centuries after that.

Trajan’s column (left) and a detail of the sculpture, showing the Dacian wars.

Furthermore, Trajan’s column should be used with care, for it was carved by metropolitan sculptors who had never been anywhere near Dacia, and whose knowledge of war was distinctly metropolitan. Even archaeology is less helpful for although a number of forts have been located, they are mostly small and confusing. Trajan then went on to conquer Armenia, but this was even less successful, and one of the first things his successor, Hadrian did was to withdraw from Armenia and negotiate a peace with the Parthians.

However, compared to Dacia our knowledge of Trajan’s activity in Britain from the from the classical services is precisely zero – there is no reference to Britain in any of the written sources for Trajan’s reign, so we have to rely totally on archaeology. In a masterly survey of the archaeological record, Nick Hodgson  of the Arbeia museum argued that Trajan’s policy in Britain was one of retreat. Under Domitian, Agricola had marched right up into Scotland  where he established a legionary fortress at Inchtuthil. But then a legion had to be withdrawn to fight in Dacia, and in Tacitus’ famous phrase perdomita Britannia et statim omissa – Britain was totally conquered and then immediately lost.

The withdrawal was in two phases, with Newstead being the boundary. All the ground north of Newstead was given up in the late first century, with a further withdrawal in the early 2nd century when  a new border was established along the line of the Stanegate, the forerunner of Hadrian’s Wall. It was left to his successor, Hadrian to tidy it all up and build a wall to separate off civilized Rome from the barbarians.

Ironically, however, we know more about the ordinary life of soldiers in the reign of Trajan than from any other date,  for the vast haul of tablets from Vindolanda date mostly to the early second century, to the Trajanic fortress. There is no reference to wars or military history, just fascinating accounts of everyday life in the fort, and the part played by the numerous civilian contractors who in fact made the Roman Army work.

So as John Wilkes said  in his summing up, the reputation of Trajan today is  somewhat mixed and it was his successor, Hadrian, the great organiser, who made the Roman Empire work and who fixed its success for the next three centuries.


Andrew Selkirk




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