(AD 98- 117)

(Caesar Marcus Ulpius Nerva Traianus Augustus)



Optimum Princeps

Because of his moderate disposition, outstanding military achievements, lack of ostentation and flair for energetic and responsible administration, Trajan was often considered by subsequent ages to be the best of all emperors (Optimum Princeps).


Although it is known, that on occasion, Trajan could be a rather heavy drinker, he actually led a virtuous personal life, entirely free from scandal and his well run administration set the very highest ethical standard for his successors to follow.


A Cultured and Tolerant Emperor

Trajan never “lost the common touch”, but was equally at home whether addressing the Senate House in Rome or sharing field rations with the troops at a military camp on the border. Consequently he was popular with all his subjects. Although he was a provincial, and had been a soldier from an early age, Trajan had actually received a first rate education and was in reality a deep-thinking cultured, man who could express himself well with the written word.


This is clearly evidenced in his exchange of letters with Pliny the Younger, which have survived to this day. Pliny, a senator who was a prominent lawyer and writer, served as Trajan’s governor of Bythnia, and published copies of his various exchanges with the emperor and other correspondence besides. We are very fortunate that these letters have been preserved and can still be read in the original words. Pliny’s letters give a valuable insight into the benign spirit of the times, and through Trajan’s own writing, we get first-hand confirmation of the moderate and tolerant character of the emperor himself.


Trajan’s insistence on good governance and fair administration, is clearly demonstrated by his responses to Pliny’s repeated requests for guidance and instruction. In his correspondence, Trajan expressly emphasised the point that Christians were to be tolerated and never persecuted for their faith. This fact endeared him to subsequent church historians, who later honoured him to be a virtuous pagan.



Trajan was born in AD 53 in Western Spain (Hispana Baetica) in the town of Italica, a Roman colony, his mother Marcia was Spanish, but his paternal family (the gens Ulpii) was of Italian rather than Spanish stock. Trajan’s father, Marcus Ulpius Traianus was a successful general who became the first member of the family to obtain senatorial rank when he was made consul by Vespasian in AD 70. He was governor of several provinces and was responsible for saving Syria from the Parthians. Marcus’ sister Ulpia was the grandmother of the future emperor Hadrian.


Trajan’s Rise to Prominence

Trajan, like his father, was above all a soldier and he learned his trade well as a young officer, serving in several  tough campaigns with Rome’s frontier armies. With a reputation as a brave and dependable officer, he was well considered by the emperor Domitian. In AD 89, whilst in Spain as legatus legionis of the 7th Gemini legion, he was ordered by the emperor to help put down a rebellion by  L. Antonius Saturninus, the governor of Upper Germany,  but probably arrived after loyal troops from Lower Germany had already crushed the uprising. However his swift march across Gaul had proved his loyalty to the emperor and as Trajan was also a very effective administrator, Domitian made him a consul  in 91. He thereafter served in that emperor’s wars against various German tribes. Trajan was married to Pompeia Plotina a well educated woman who was interested in philosophy and literature. As empress, she was renown for her intelligence, virtue  and philanthropic activities and like Trajan was popular for her simple lifestyle  and unassuming ways.


Always popular with his troops, in AD 97 Trajan found himself in the powerful position of supreme general, in charge of the formidable Rhine army of Upper Germany, just at the point in time that the aged emperor Nerva was losing his grip on the administration of the empire. Nerva knew that he needed a strong ally to protect his position in a rapidly deteriorating situation. So to forestall an immanent power struggle, although Trajan had been closely associated with Domitian, Nerva took him to be his adoptive son and heir apparent. The choice was a political master-stroke and not only saved the day, but prepared the way for the golden age that was to follow.


Nerva now appointed Trajan to be his co-consul and allowed him to accept the salutation of Imperator , for his successes against the Germans. Then tired and with deteriorating health, the old emperor virtually retired from all but ceremonial functions and ceded all de facto power over the administration to his capable protege. Calmly and without fuss Trajan took control. He deliberately remained with the armies on the border to ensure the continuing loyalty of the troops and governed from there . His administration was moderate, but one of his first steps was to demonstrate his firmness by executing the guilty leaders of the praetorian guards, who had acted rebelliously towards Nerva. On the other hand he began restituting land and other assets that had been seized by Domitian, to their rightful owners. Both of these actions strengthened his support in the Roman Senate and he already ensured the support of the military. Thus when Nerva died, early in 98, Trajan’s succession as emperor was smooth as he already held all the power and authority of the office and his adoption by the ruling emperor gave him the full legitimacy of a natural born son in Roman law.



Before returning to Rome, Trajan remained at the frontier for two years to strengthen the Roman defences and military efficiency. He took steps to improve the military logistics by road building between the Rhine and Danube and extended the ‘Limes’  to improve security. On returning to Rome he paid all due respect to the institutions of the senate. From early in his reign he was popular for bringing order and stability, without attendant harshness and bloodshed and his plain soldierly habits and personal attributes of  tolerance, humility and generosity set the tone for his administration.  The emperor reduced taxes and undertook a great number of public works projects, building roads, bridges and other civic facilities in Rome, Italy and the other provinces. his water commisioner Julius Frontinus vastly improved Rome’s aqueduct water supply.


Unjust laws were repealed and relief given to citizens and communities wherever necessary. The emperor instituted the ‘alimenta’ a state foundation for the care and education of poor orphans. His moderate attitude towards government and his tolerant guidance of provincial affairs is amply demonstrated in Trajan’s correspondence with Pliny, who was a member of the senate and the governor of the eastern provinces of Bithynia and Pontus. Trajan’s own words of advice to his governor are preserved to us in Pliny’s extant ‘Letters‘, so we can judge for ourselves the measure of the man.


Trajan’s Wars

Under Trajan the Roman empire expanded to its maximum extent, mainly due to the military expertise of the emperor, who  usually insisted in taking personal charge of all major campaigns. Trajan was a brilliant military strategist and enjoyed nothing more than sharing camp life with his troops, so it was inevitable that, once he was emperor, he would soon seek out a campaign worthy of his talents.


Trajan decided to complete the conquest of the troublesome kingdom of Dacia, on the far side of the Danube, where Domitian had campaigned earlier with no success and had entered into a humiliating treaty. Dacia was rich and powerful and possessed several gold-mines. From AD 101 – 102, after a hard fought campaign, the Roman armies were victorious and king Decebalus sued for peace, becoming a vassal of Rome. However, he took up arms against Romeagain in 105 and threatened Roman territory again.


Trajan outmanouvered the Dacians, by building roads and his architect Appolodorus built a stone bridge across the Danube.  In 106 Trajan utterly destroyed the kingdom and looted the vast palace treasure. Dacia became a Roman province and King Decebalus committed suicide. Trajan used much of the loot from Dacia for public works projects, such as his new forum and expanding the harbour at Ostia. For his victories Trajan was given a triumph and took the name Dacicus Maximus and in his new forum he erected an impressive column, which depicted scenes from the war in graphic detail.






After Dacia, the empire peacefully annexed the Nabataean kingdom, which lay astride the major trade route to the east. It became the Roman province of Arabia. However this upset the strategic balance in the region and provoked trouble with the Parthians, who were already interfering with Roman interests in Armenia. In AD 113 Trajan  decided to take up arms against the powerful eastern empire. He had great initial success and took all of Mesopotamia, between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, making it a Roman Province, and  Armenia was also taken.


However Trajan over extended himself by crossing the Tigris into  Babylonia and Parthia itself, where he deposed the Parthian king Osroes I. But the situation was unstable. A huge revolt of Jews within the empire broke out, with large massacres of Roman provincials and also part of Mesopotamia rebelled in his rear. Then Trajan personally tasted defeat for the first time in battle at the siege of Hatra, west of the Tigris. In AD 116 these setbacks caused him to pull his troops back to consolidate his gains, with a view to regaining the initiative in a later campaign . However by AD 117, his health was failing and he headed back to Rome, leaving Hadrian in charge of Syria and the army.


 Death and Succession

Trajan died in en-route to Italy at the town of Selinus in Cilicia AD 117 of natural causes. Although Trajan had never designated a successor, the succession passed smoothly from Trajan to Hadrian – in what was a rather suspect last minute,  ‘death-bed’ adoption of his nephew, who thereby became his posthumus son. However, as the veracity of the ‘adoption’ was attested to by Trajan’s highly respected wife Plotina, it was accepted as legitimate – an almost foregone conclusion, as no-one wanted civil war, especially with Hadrian sitting in control of the mighty battle-hardened Syrian army.


Actually, it has always been something of a mystery, as to why Trajan had not earlier designated Hadrian as his heir, as he and Plotina had no children of their own and he been the guardian of Hadrian since the boy was ten. On the face of it Hadrian was the obvious choice and his abilities, both as a soldier and as an administrator had certainly been tested by Trajan over an extended period. He had been a provincial governor, held the most senior priesthoods  and in AD 108 he had been  ‘consul suffectus’  – the highest rank after the emperor,


Indubitably one of histories truly great men, Trajan was universally remembered long after his death for the example of his benign rule and impressive personal dignity, kindness and moderation. Thereafter the senate greeted all future emperors on their appointment to the throne with the salutation – “felicior Augusto,  melior Traiano“. an admonition to be as lucky as Augustus and as benign as Trajan.







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