The Emperor Trajan, preceded on the throne by the short-reigning, undistinguished Nerva and followed by that Hadrian, took the empire to its apex of territorial expanse. The able soldier-emperor was in fact officially declared optimus princeps (“the best ruler”) by the Roman Senate, perhaps not impartial but with a certain vantage point. Trajan is also known for his relatively philanthropic reign (at least, compared to most other emperors), launching extensive public building projects and implementing forward-thinking social policies, many of the latter being abandoned by the short-sighted Senate after his death in 117 AD. He is considered to be the second of the “Five Good Emperors” (although Machiavelli coined that term in 1503, so take it with a rather large grain of salt).
Born in the Roman province of Hispania Baetica in 53 AD, son of a prominent senator and general, Trajan wasn’t even purely Roman – perhaps for the best. As a youth, he joined the imperial army, a career path in the empire that often lead to good things … assuming one survived the near continuous warfare along the borders. Trajan rose through the ranks rapidly, seeing action on some of the most contentious frontiers, and gaining the respect of powerful men. He was nominated as a consul, made a good marriage into a wealthy family (although contemporary accounts take note of some casual extramarital activities), and was declared by the new Emperor Nerva as his adopted son at the “urging” of the Praetorian Guard.
When the old emperor died 15 months later, Trajan succeeded him, and shortly thereafter deified Nerva (it helps to have friends in high places). Upon his entry into Rome – Trajan at the time was off on the borders as usual – he gave the plebeians a monetary handout, insuring his popularity with the mob. He also cleverly feigned reluctance to take power, even as he began building pragmatic relationships with wealthy senatorial families. Ironically, one of the dominant themes of Trajan’s tenure was his steady encroachment on the Roman Senate’s traditional prerogatives in decision-making.
Trajan had a taste for construction, and sponsored building projects across the empire as well as in the city itself. He also had a taste for putting his name on these, just in case history should forget he was the emperor. Hence, in time there was Trajan’s Column, Trajan’s Forum, Trajan’s Bridge, Trajan’s Market, the Puente Trajan at Alcantara (Spain), and a lot of roads, aqueducts and other useful constructs scattered about. He also had a weakness for financing triumphal arches to celebrate Roman victories; given the successes his forces had in wars in the East, he had no shortage of opportunities.
Trajan was, however, more celebrated by the Romans as a victorious general (after all, what’s to get excited about yet another pile of stone compared to more land and slaves). His first conquest was the “client” kingdom of Dacia astride the Danube River, which had been shamefully granted an unfavorable – to Rome, that is – peace by the Emperor Domitian a decade earlier. No sooner was Dacia swallowed whole than Trajan annexed Nabataea (today, southern Jordan and northwest Saudi Arabia), another client state that had proved annoying. In 113 AD Trajan embarked on his last campaigns, against Parthia in the east, which had had the arrogance to sponsor a king in Armenia that was unacceptable to Rome. Trajan first marched into Armenia and added it to the empire, then went marching about Mesopotamia subduing Parthian cities and client-states. By late 116 it was over, and Trajan had deposed the Parthian king and put a Roman puppet in place over the rump kingdom. But, Trajan’s health was starting to fail; in addition, before he could complete his plan to conquer all Asia Minor, he was forced to pull legions out to deal with some pesky Jewish rebels.
Although he was often absent from Rome, Trajan nevertheless made his presence felt, keeping the mob content and supportive. Among one of his better-received efforts was a three-month gladiatorial spectacle in the Colosseum, in which some 11 thousand people (mostly slaves and criminals) and thousands of “ferocious” beasts died; it supposedly drew over five million spectators. Somewhat more benevolent was Trajan’s organization of the Alimenta, a government fund to support orphans and poor children in and around the city. It was one of several imperial efforts to improve the lot of the Roman citizens, at least those living on the Italian peninsula.
All these wars and games and buildings and public programs were expensive. So Trajan set about dealing with the financial crisis he inherited. His first effort was the establishment of correctores (auditors) to oversee the civic spending of those technically free Greek cities; they also insured that collection of imperial taxes was on the up-and-up (given the Greek tradition of corruption, a wise move). In 107 AD, Trajan devalued the Roman coinage, lowering the amount of silver in the denarius, and then minted a larger quantity of denarii than any of his predecessors. In short order, despite Trajan’s expensive proclivities, Rome was once again solvent.
Trajan, feeling ill, set out for Rome from his latest Parthian campaign. But he suddenly died of edema – in bed, a rare feat among Roman emperors – upon reaching Selinus (later renamed Trajanopolis, of course). At the time of Trajan’s death, the Roman Empire had reached its greatest extent, stretching from Hispania to the Euphrates and from the edge of Scotland to the Lower Nile. His successors, starting with Hadrian next, would spend most of their time (when not reveling in debauchery) fortifying those borders.