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The Imperial High Tide: Rome in the Reign of Trajan (98-117 AD)
Category: Classical Mediterranean and Europe: Roman Politics
He was the most powerful man of his age, ruler of an empire that stretched from Scotland to Iraq, yet he dreamed of further conquests. Born to power and privilege, he never lost the common touch. A warrior, a conqueror, he was also a benefactor of orphans. He expanded his empire ruthlessly, and indirectly planted the seeds of a nation that endures to this day. His name was Marcus Ulpius Traianus, and he has gone down in the history books as the emperor Trajan of Rome.
Trajan was the first Roman emperor to be born outside of Italy. His father, also M. Ulpius Traianus, was a powerful landowner from the province of Baetica, in what is now southern Spain. Wealthy enough to be admitted to the elite class of senator, he was the first of the gens Ulpia to receive this honor. Traianus the Elder had been a general, and an important administrator. He commanded a legion in the brutal suppression of the Jewish Rebellion of 70 CE. Later he was made governor of the important frontier province of Syria, guarding Rome’s eastern flank against the inroads of the Parthian Empire, Rome’s chief rival, which controlled much of what is today Iraq and Iran.
Trajan was born September 18, 53 CE, in the Roman colony of Italica, modern Santiponce, 5 miles northwest of Seville, some 60 miles up the Guadalquivir River from the Atlantic. As was typical of a youth of his day, Trajan was slated to follow in his father’s footsteps. Around the age of twenty-two Trajan was made a military tribune under his father in Syria. Here, as a young officer, he first gained experience in the challenges of desert warfare and the command of men.
In a family as powerful as the gens Ulpia, marriage was not for love, but for political connections. Trajan soon married Pompeia Plotina, daughter of a wealthy landowning family from Nemausus (mod. Nimes in what is now southern France). This gave Trajan important contacts with the Gallo-Roman aristocracy, an important step in building a political power base outside of his home province of Baetica.
Besides marriage, another way one rose in Roman society was through the practice of clientage. A powerful man would become a patron, financing and protecting younger men who also wanted to rise in the system. In exchange the patron could expect deference, status and political support. In this spirit Trajan became in 86 CE one of the guardians of the young Hadrian. A fellow townsman of Italica in Baetica, Hadrian belonged to the gens Aelia. The relationship was a mutually beneficial one. Hadrian became a trusted protege of Trajan, and ultimately his successor to the imperial purple. All the while Trajan continued to rise in the imperial bureaucracy, becoming a quaestor in 78 and a praetor circa 84 CE.
The Emperor’s General
The two emperors who ruled before Trajan, Domitian (81-96 CE) and Nerva (96-98 CE), shaped Trajan’s career and defined the problems and issues Trajan had to face as emperor. Domitian was a capable general and a competent administrator. But he was also a ruthless killer with a dark, paranoid streak that ultimately destroyed him. From the time he succeeded his popular brother Titus in 81 CE Domitian sought to expand the empire. He overran what is now Lowland Scotland, securing a defensive line from the Firth of Clyde to the Firth of Forth, across the narrowest part of the island of Britain. He also systematically conquered the Agri Decumates in what is now southern Germany. This was meant to close the V-shaped wedge bulging south into Roman territory between the upper Rhine and the upper Danube and shorten Rome’s frontier line. It is worth noting the practical, methodical approach Domitian took to conquest. While a merciless autocrat, Domitian nevertheless was careful to conserve Roman strength.
Domitian’s worst nemesis, besides his own paranoia, was Decebalus, king of Dacia, centered on what is now Romania. The Dacians were a Thraco-Phrygian people, descendants of Indo-European speaking nomads who had migrated into the Balkans some two thousand years earlier.
By Domitian’s time the Dacians had attained a respectable level of sophistication and political cohesion. The Dacians were helped by the discovery of rich deposits of gold and silver in the Carpathians. These mines helped Decebalus finance his wars with the Romans, and also stimulated Roman avarice. War was inevitable. In a series of clashes 85-88 CE Decebalus generally got the better of the Romans. In 85 CE he crossed the Danube and advanced into Roman territory, defeating and slaying the Roman Governor of Moesia in what is now northern Bulgaria. A year later Decebalus defeated a Roman punitive expedition, killing one of Domitian’s praetorian prefects. Finally in 88 CE one of Domitian’s generals pushed into Dacian territory, winning a convincing enough victory that Domitian could make a face saving peace. It was not to Domitian’s liking. Decebalus got a generous "subsidy" (that is, tribute) in exchange for leaving the Romans alone. Decebalus also got the use of a number of Roman engineers, who he promptly set to work building fortifications defended by Roman-style siege catapults and ballistae.
One reason why Decebalus was able to get away with what he did was that the Dacians were not the only unsubdued people the Romans had to contend with. The long Roman frontier ran up the Rhine from what is now the Netherlands, jogged across Domitian’s newly conquered Agri Decumates to join the upper Danube in southern Germany. Thence the border followed the line of the Danube eastward to the Black Sea.
Unfortunately for the Romans the Danube was not a real barrier. It could be crossed at any number of points with rafts or small boats. In the winter the river could even freeze over entirely. Also, instead of running perfectly east to west the Danube took a sharp bend south near what is now Budapest, Hungary before turning east again to form the northern border of Bulgaria. Then, just before hitting the Black Sea the Danube turns north again before emptying into the Black Sea in a broad delta. What this meant was that Romans had to deal with an enormous southward pointing bulge of independent territory impinging on their sphere of control. Clearly a shorter defensive line was possible, but this would mean cutting through the heart of Dacian territory. Finally, it was entirely possible that the Dacians, given time, could build up enough power to launch a full scale invasion of the Roman lands south of the Danube and reach the Adriatic or Aegean Seas.
To the east of the Dacians were the Roxolani, in what is now southeastern Romania, a nomadic Sarmatian people living by raiding and cattle herding. A similar people, the Jazyges, occupied what is now eastern Hungary, sandwiched between the Roman line of the Danube and Decebalus’ kingdom. These peoples spoke a similar, Iranic tongue, reflecting their common origin on the South Russian steppe. Further up the Danube were the warlike Germanic tribes of the Marcomanni and Quadi. Whenever the Romans concentrated enough troops from along the frontier to gain a real advantage over one of these tribes, the others would take advantage of Roman weakness along their stretch of the Danube to raid and plunder at will. In short, while the Roman frontier was impressive, it still needed to be ceaselessly guarded. It took all of Domitian’s time and energy to maintain it.
Domitian made enemies quickly, and in January of 89 CE Trajan got his moment to stand out as a leader, when the Roman commander on the Rhine, Antonius Saturninus, led a mutiny at Moguntiacum (mod. Mainz, Germany). Trajan at the time was commander of legio VII Gemina based at Legio (mod. Leon) in Hispania Tarraconenis (modern northeastern Spain). Faithfully following Domitian’s orders Trajan led his legion north over the Pyrenees into Gaul. Saturninus’ rebellion collapsed before Trajan could get there. This had unique political benefits for Trajan. It showed that Trajan was a reliable, faithful commander, but at the same time he was not directly affiliated with Domitian’s vengeful purges.
After this Trajan was clearly on his way up. In 91 CE he was made a consul, the highest ranking post in the government below the emperor, one which conferred immense prestige. Trajan was also made Governor of Moesia (roughly, modern Bulgaria), part of the defensive line against Decebalus. He was then given command of the recently mutinous Rhine army at Moguntiacum. Domitian now trusted him with top level, politically sensitive positions.
By Domitian’s reign, the Senate had long lost any real power over the government, but the Senate was still important as an assemblage of the wealthy, landed aristocracy of the Empire. This aristocracy was bound together by family and marriage connections, clientage, and privilege. Taken as a whole, they could be an important power bloc in the imperial system. From the time of Augustus (27 BCE - 14 CE), the founder of the imperial system, Roman emperors had usually been careful to cloak their absolute power in the rhetoric and trappings of Republican government, deferring to the Senate and appearing to consult it. There had been spectacular exceptions: Caligula and Nero, but they had been overthrown. This seemed to confirm the wisdom of Augustus’ policy of veiled control in at least an ostensible partnership with the Senate. But the hard-headed Domitian would have none of this. He was in charge and didn’t care who knew it. Domitian also had a cold, suspicious personality that tended to push people away. Consequently Domitian soon found himself noticeably unloved.
In time this suspicion hardened into paranoia – the occupational disease of autocrats. One prominent Roman after another was denounced by delators, the corps of paid informants in the service of the emperor. Once denounced those accused were doomed, with execution or exile following swiftly. Machiavelli, in a later age, once remarked that if a prince must eliminate people, he should do so as quickly and quietly as possible, always striving to limit, rather increase the number of victims. Sadly, this piece of practical wisdom never seems to have occurred to Domitian. Finally in September of 96 CE, he was assassinated by a palace clique, backed by his divorced wife and enjoying the all important support of the Praetorian Guard.
The plotters were momentarily in control, but their position was precarious. As unpopular as Domitian was with the Senate, he had been popular with the army, if only because he took pains to maintain it. Domitian’s father, Vespasian (reigned 69-79 CE) had been a successful general who seized power by armed force in the chaos that followed Nero’s assassination. The obvious lesson was that if a provincial army commander could convince enough legions to support him, he could seize the throne by force, Senate approval or not. To try to stabilize their position the coup plotters chose the venerable M. Cocceius Nerva as Domitian’s successor. Scion of a respectable Italian patrician family, Nerva was acceptable to the Senate. Nerva had the added advantage of being 61 and childless. Thus everyone knew Nerva’s reign would be a relatively short, transitional one. Any general who wanted a shot at the throne had at least some incentive to wait, if only for a time.
Nerva proved to be a good choice in that he was conscientious and reasonably competent. He issued a political amnesty and restored property confiscated by Domitian. He also vowed not to execute a senator without a fair trial before the Senate. He built storehouses for grain and ordered aqueducts repaired. He cut unpopular taxes and sought to contain administrative costs. He kept Domitian’s corp of delators on the payroll, but was clearly not the bloodthirsty type.
But mercy and forbearance are too often seen as weakness. In the summer of 97 CE the Praetorian Guards, using their power as personal bodyguards of the Emperor, forced Nerva to remove Secundus and Norbanus, the two praetorian prefects who had accepted Domitian’s assassination. They then forced Nerva to appoint Casperius Aelianus, an old lieutenant of Domitian, as praetorian prefect. In a matter of months Casperius was ready to make his move. He led the Praetorians up the Palatine Hill and took Nerva hostage. They forced Nerva to hand over two of the key plotters of the coup against Domitian and executed them on the spot. They then forced Nerva to issue a public statement thanking the mutineers for their action. In short, it would be the Praetorians who would be running things.
Nerva had one last card to play. Passing over his own relatives entirely, Nerva adopted the popular general Trajan, commander of the Rhine armies, as his own son and heir. The Roman’s frequently used adoption as a part of their system of family patronage. The most memorable case was Julius Caesar’s adoption of the young Octavian, who eventually succeeded him, becoming emperor with the name Augustus. Nerva now had a strong army commander of proven reliability as an ally. By avoiding a strictly hereditary succession, Nerva created the soothing appearance of handing on command of the empire down to the best man. And Trajan had never been part, as far as we know, of the move to depose Domitian.
On January 27, 98 CE, Nerva died. Hadrian, Trajan’s ward and fellow Baetican, raced north from Rome to inform Trajan of his succession. The logical conclusion here is that Trajan had anticipated Nerva’s demise and kept a trusted man in Rome to keep an eye on his interests. We can see how important these kinds of connections were in Roman power politics. Trajan still had to secure his position, and to do so he carefully avoided the temptation to dash to Rome precipitously. Instead Trajan stayed on the frontier, making sure that the Germanic tribes didn’t take advantage of the transition period to raid over the borders in force. He then had the praetorian prefect Casperius summoned up from Rome to Moguntiacum. Casperius had to obey, or declare himself openly. Once Trajan had Casperius isolated from his fellow Praetorians, he had him executed.
Having eliminated his most dangerous opponent, Trajan then took steps to consolidate his power and prevent the problems that Nerva had. The Roman army had long had a corps of couriers connected with the maintenance of the capital’s grain supply. Trajan reorganized these frumentarii as a military secret service, with checkpoints monitoring all the roads leading to and from Rome. Trajan also established a new personal bodyguard, the equites singulares, an elite regiment of cavalry made up of hard riding German and Pannonian horsemen. At first 500, then expanded to 1,000 men, the equites singulares had a camp on the Caelian Hill, near the headquarters of the frumentarii. Notably, the equites singulares, unlike the Praetorians, had their camp within the city walls. Thus Trajan built up a network of agents monitoring traffic into and out of the capital and an elite strike force, separate from the Praetorians, at the center of this network available to move fast in an emergency. And if it ever came to crunch, the main body of the Praetorians could be sealed out of the city on short notice. Here we see Trajan’s style. He reiterated Nerva’s pledge not to execute a senator without trial, but he backed this legality with an armed force and an intelligence network that Domitian would have been proud of.
It was customary for a new emperor to give bonuses (donatives) to the military and special allotments to the urban poor of Rome. These were thinly veiled bribes. They are important for revealing some of the key institutional weaknesses in the imperial system. They shed light on the economic reasons for Trajan’s policy of imperial expansion.
For the urban poor Trajan provided the congiarium, an allotment of oil, essential for lighting and for cooking. This came to 300 bronze sesterces for each of the 150,000 people on the dole in the capital, or 45 million sesterces (=11.25 million silver denarii). To give an idea of the magnitude of this outlay, it was equal to the annual cost of maintaining five imperial legions, out of an army of some 30 legions. Here we see a crucial flaw in the imperial system. The empire, as it evolved under Julius Caesar and Augustus in the century or so before Trajan, for all its glory, was the product of a corrupt bargain. The emperor kept the senators well groomed and pampered in a gilded cage, while carefully emasculating the popular assemblies that had once been the voice of the plebeian classes of Rome. In exchange the senators didn’t challenge the essentially autocratic system that Caesar created and Augustus adorned with a pleasant gloss. The price of all this was ‘bread and circuses’, a steady stream of entertainments, gladiatorial competitions, and "special allotments" to the urban poor – a soothing pacifier to make the poor forget the rights and economic independence they had once enjoyed. To give an idea of just how important these allotments were politically: the 150,000 people on the dole in Rome came to over 10% of a population of 1.25 million. 150,000 people rampaging through the streets of a capital with a high proportion of wooden buildings in narrow streets, would be a truly terrifying thing. Whatever it cost, Trajan had to keep bread and circuses coming.
A donative could be even more expensive. After the assassination of Caligula in 41 CE, the new emperor Claudius, had paid out 747 million sesterces, or 90% of the imperial annual revenue to secure his position. We don’t know exactly how much Trajan paid out, but in 99 CE Trajan devalued the aureus, the imperial gold coin, by 5%, debasing the gold with other metals, in order to be able to pay the donative. Here was another fundamental problem with the imperial system. However grand it might appear on the surface, the empire was at heart a military despotism. As long as the army maintained its discipline, things would be stable, but the lure of a donative gave the average Roman soldier a standing economic incentive to make a new emperor by force of arms. The potential for a military coup was always there.
One way a capable emperor might be able to work his way out of these institutional problems was by a successful war of conquest. While warfare was expensive, a successful conquest could provide an enormous stock of plunder of all kinds, as well as endow the emperor with a level of prestige that would make mounting a successful coup against him difficult. Thus Trajan had every incentive to turn his attention to settling scores with the Dacians. Dacia was a particular problem because it provided a safe haven for Roman deserters and fugitives from justice of all kinds. And it was richly endowed with gold and silver mines.
Beginning in 100 CE, Trajan began mustering his strength, calling in troops from as far away as the Rhine and Britain. Having been governor of Moesia, one of the provinces bordering Dacia, Trajan was well aware of how tough a nut Dacia would be to crack. The heart of the kingdom was centered on Transylvania, now northwestern Romania, surrounded by the rugged, 8,000 foot peaks of the Carpathians. Trajan was also familiar with Decebalus’ penchant for taking the war to the enemy. To forestall this, Trajan appointed three veteran generals to become governors of the provinces bordering Dacia.
In the spring of 101 CE, Trajan set out from Rome, establishing a forward base at Viminacium (mod. Kostolac, Serbia) just down the Danube from what is now Belgrade. He soon assembled a force of nine legions, backed by 55,000 auxiliaries as well as allied tribes such as the Iazyges. In May Trajan’s army began crossing the Danube via pontoon bridges. Mindful of the need to keep his army adequately supplied, Trajan brought along a gifted engineer, Apollodorus of Damascus. Apollodorus oversaw the construction of a stone bridge over the Danube at Drobeta (Turnu Severin, Romania). Trajan pushed north from the gorges of the Iron Gates on the Danube, through the Carpathian Mountains into the heart of Dacia, with some 50,000 troops, leaving the rest to guard the long line of the Danube against Dacian counterattacks.
The problem Trajan faced was that the Dacians were mobile, and operated with a home court advantage. Careful not to try to winter in the mountains, where communications were poor at best, Trajan pulled back at the end of 101 CE to winter south of the Danube. Decebalus took advantage of Trajan’s strategic withdrawal to harass the Romans, raiding over the frozen lower Danube into the Roman province of Moesia (mod. Bulgaria). Although stopped in a clash at Adamclisi in the south Dobruja, Decebalus gave the Romans enough trouble that Trajan had to call in additional troops from as far away as Britain and the Parthian frontier.
In 102 CE Trajan took the offensive again, pushing north again from the Iron Gates. To distract Decebalus, Trajan sent a force of cavalry under his trusted lieutenant, Lusius Quietus, to cut around to the via the Vulcan Pass to the east. At the same time a flying column under Laberius Maximus pushed up the Olt, further still to the east. Now Decebalus had to divide his forces to guard three possible axes of advance. Decebalus’ capital, Sarmizegetusa, was part of a network of six fortresses that guarded the heart of Dacia. But strong as Decebalus’ position was, the Romans were remorseless. Laberius Maximus captured one of the six strongholds, Costesti, and took Decebalus’ sister hostage. Trajan, Quietus & Maximus now linked at up at Aquae (Calan), only twenty miles from Sarmizegetusa. At this point, Decebalus realized that he had to make peace. If the Romans could their siege gear up around his capital, the war was as good as lost. Decebalus signed over the Banat to the Romans and agreed not to trouble the Romans again.
Neither side was under any illusions that this was a permanent settlement. Trajan placed his trusted protege Hadrian in charge of the new province of Pannonia Inferior, with his headquarters at Aquincum (mod. Budapest, Hungary), so as to guard the exposed Roman flank where the Danube turns south below Budapest. Trajan also broke up the semi-autonomous Thracian principalities and converted Thrace to a regular province, thus strengthening the Roman grip on the Balkans south of the Danube. Decebalus in turn, made use of the break in the war with the Romans to go after the pro-Roman Jazyges. The Jazyges were particularly vulnerable in that they were nomads, who annually would migrate with their cattle down the Danube to the Black Sea for the winter. Now Decebalus sought to cut this route and hammer the Jazyges into submission.
Trajan determined to be ready for the final confrontation with Decebalus, creating two new legions, proudly named legio II Traiana and legio XXX Ulpia. This raised the total number of Roman legions to thirty. Trajan now had 400,000 men under arms: 180,000 legionaries, 200,000+ auxiliaries, and some 11,000 allied irregulars. In the spring of 106 Trajan struck. Advancing by the 5,320 foot (1,621 meter) Vulcan Pass, Trajan stormed into Dacia with eleven legions. Decebalus fought back grimly, supported by the Iranian Roxolani. But it was to no avail. In mid-July Trajan stormed into Sarmizegetusa and put it to the sack. Two hundred fifty TONS of gold and 500 tons of silver swelled the Roman coffers. The total treasure came to some four billion denarii. Decebalus fought on, but was captured and killed in September of 106. Trajan proclaimed the annexation of Dacia as an imperial province, ordering the rebuilding of Sarmizegetusa as a Roman colony, while planting other colonies of Roman settlers at strategic points throughout the former kingdom. A major colony, was established at Apulum, where the gold mines were. The Romans renamed it Alba Julia. Some Dacian tribes, such as the Costoboci to the north or the Carpi in the east, broke away to maintain a sullen independence, but the core of Decebalus’ realm, with the all-important gold and silver mines, were now in Roman hands.
The prestige Trajan gained was enormous. 50,000 Dacian prisoners marched in a colossal imperial triumph in the capital. 10,000 of the prisoners were slaughtered in the arena, along with 11,000 animals, in gladiatorial games and celebrations that lasted 123 straight days. The rest of the Dacian prisoners were sold off as slaves. So vast was the plunder from Decebalus’ treasure trove that Trajan was able to embark on an enormous campaign of construction. Trajan was able to complete an imposing new forum, the Forum of Trajan, on the Quirinal Hill. At its center was the Basilica Ulpia, effectively a large community center, with both Greek and Latin libraries. Trajan also commissioned a great pillar, The Column of Trajan, with the story of his conquest and subsequent triumph told in pictures in a band spiraling upward around the column. He also dedicated the Baths of Trajan (We can see that excessive modesty was not one of his flaws.) on the foundations of Nero’s House of Gold on the Esquiline Hill, and a new aqueduct, the Aqua Traiana, bringing fresh water to Rome 37 miles from near Lake Sabatinus (mod. Lake Bracciano) to the Janiculum Hill, where it also served to power industrial mills there.
But this was not the end of Trajan’s building campaign. Between 106 and 113 CE Trajan oversaw the construction of a mighty artificial harbor at Ostia at the mouth of the Tiber. The primary purpose of the harbor was to ensure the constant supply of grain, mainly from Egypt, for the hungry masses of Rome. The Forum of Trajan on the Quirinal Hill was not only a vast market, but also the administrative headquarters of the annona, the imperial grain distribution agency. Finally, Trajan used his influx of Dacian gold to establish the alimenta, a trust fund to provide financial subsidies to orphaned children around Italy.
All these moves were part of a calculated policy. Trajan knew that to keep his position secure he not only had to triumph militarily, but also keep the vast and restless unemployed and under-employed proletariat of Rome pacified. This is why he proclaimed four straight months of celebrations, with plenty of free food. This is why so much of his construction projects, which acted as a kind of 2nd century New Deal to keep people employed, were centered around ensuring the steady flow of food supplies into the capital. Even his trust fund for orphans was designed in part to prevent the further impoverishment of the Italian rural population.
Here we see the true flaw in the Roman imperial order. Too many people could not rise in the system. Too many people were condemned to a life of unending misery at the bottom of the economic heap. This had a number of significant impacts. For one, the Roman emperors had a standing incentive to try to pile up military glory, and hopefully plunder, abroad. Trajan’s military triumph, staggering as it was, did not solve the basic socio-economic equation. If anything, it made it worse by papering over the problem for a while. The continuing misery of much of the common people also had another long term impact. The Roman emperors, by failing to alleviate the poverty of so many of their subjects, created a ready made audience for a new religious movement. One which taught that earthly empires were unimportant, and that a true Kingdom awaited the poor, the meek, and the downtrodden.
This new religion came out of the Middle East, where Rome had established a vast colonial empire in a great crescent running from the Bosporus to the Euphrates and back to the Nile. Like Britain’s empire in India in the 19th century the East had much of the urban population and trade of the empire. Here we need to understand something of the Roman Empire’s fiscal woes. In the days before computers, tax evasion by the rural peasantry was rampant. Even where taxes could be effectively levied, most of the rural population could only pay in kind, and grain could only be transported economically so far, even over the best Roman roads. Thus having possession of a city, like Antioch or Alexandria, made tax collection infinitely more efficient for raising gold and silver coin. Thus the East was of major importance to the Roman Empire, and after the successful completion of his Dacian campaign, Trajan turned his attentions there.
The Nabataean Arabs had built up a trading network that extended from the Sinai and the Negev far down into the deserts of the Hijaz, in what is today Saudi Arabia. Centered on their well protected capital at Petra, in what is now Jordan, the Nabataeans traded in the frankincense (an aromatic resin) and myrrh (used in perfumes and incense) from what is now Oman, and the spices of India. Every year a fleet of 120 ships sailed down the Red Sea to India, borne on the cyclical winds of the monsoon. The Nabataeans maintained an emporium at LeucL KomL (‘The White Village") 240 miles down the Red Sea coast of the Hijaz (mod. El Haura). A Roman centurion there levied a 25% duty on all goods coming in. In other words, the Nabataeans and the Romans had what we would today call a customs union. The King’s Highway ran from what is now Aqaba on the Red Sea, via Petra, to Bostra and Tiberias and thence to Ptolemais (mod. Acre, Israel) on the Mediterranean coast, with branch routes going off to Gaza and Egypt. It was a very profitable operation, and the Nabataeans grew quite comfortable on their earnings.
Why then did Trajan put an end to the status quo? Without having access to the Empire’s balance sheets we can only surmise that the Romans calculated that they stood to gain by taking the trade entirely for themselves. The Nabataeans were the last state other than the Roman Empire to have access to the Mediterranean Sea trade. The Romans also guessed that the Nabataeans were not inclined to a very hard fight, so long as they still stood to turn a profit. In 106 CE, just after the completion of the Dacian campaign, Rabbel II Soter, the king of the Nabataean Arabs, died, and Trajan took the opportunity to proclaim the annexation of Nabataea as a Roman province. A. Cornelius Palma, Governor Syria, led the invasion, which was in truth a bloodless occupation, and stationed a legion at Bostra (mod. Bosra, Syria) astride the trade route. Trajan solidified this with the construction, over the next five years, of a Roman road, the Via Nova Traiana, paralleling the King’s Highway, and allowing the Romans speedy access down into the Nabataean heartland to be able to deal with any possible rebellion. Rome was now the first, and so far the only empire to have complete control of the Mediterranean coastline, from the Pillars of Hercules to the shores of Lebanon and Syria and back again.
But the Mediterranean world was not a closed economic system. In the 1st century the Roman scholar Pliny the Elder estimated Roman trade with India and China at 50,000,000 sesterces a year. Silk, spices, gems, precious stones, ivory, medicines, and exotic animals made their way by sea or along the caravan routes of Central Asia to Rome, with the sea routes being more economical. Here we see why Nabataea, sitting astride the Red Sea route, was such a valuable prize. Another important route was via the Caspian Sea, where silk bearing caravans from China came in from across what is now Kazakhstan, to the Black Sea via a portage between the Volga and Don Rivers in Russia. A third was up the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf to what is now Iraq, and thence up the Euphrates and over the caravan routes to Syria and the Mediterranean. With one route in hand, Trajan now turned his attention to the other two. The Black Sea - Caspian route would be hard to control directly, and the Bosporan kingdom centered on the Crimean Peninsula was already a respectful Roman client. But the third route was in the hands of the Parthians.
The Parthians were a semi-nomadic people, who spoke an Iranic language akin to Persian. In the 3rd century BCE, when the empire built by Alexander the Great began to fragment and collapse, the Parthians moved south from what is Turkmenistan onto the Iranian plateau. Using armies of mobile, mounted archers, the Parthians made themselves the masters of what is now Iraq and Iran by 141 BCE. The shahanshah of Parthia was the closest thing the Roman emperor had to a rival west of China. Literally the King of Kings, the shah was overlord of a realm that extended from the Euphrates to the gates of India. The Parthians controlled the Persian Gulf trade, and were also within striking distance of the Black Sea. If the Parthians could ever choke off or get control of all three routes it would alter the terms of trade quite drastically against the Romans. The Parthians could also threaten the Roman position in Syria, and even Palestine and Asia Minor if the they were not ceaselessly watched.
Trajan also had important economic incentives to seek a showdown with Parthia. As flush with cash as Trajan was after the conquest of Dacia, the Roman emperors were never far from serious financial trouble. Extravagance, gladiatorial games, informers, and "donations" to the army were a constant drain on the imperial coffers. Domitian had increased the Roman army’s pay by a third. And the army had to be kept loyal.
Around 105 CE, the beginnings of an opportunity dawned in the east for Trajan. The Parthian shah died, leaving a disputed succession. One claimant, Valgash (Lat: Vologases) III, made himself master of the Parthian homeland in Iran, basing himself at the Parthian summer capital of Ecbatana (mod. Hamadan). The other, Khusrau (Lat. Osroes) I held onto Iraq and the Parthian winter capital of Ctesiphon (20 miles down the Tigris from present-day Baghdad). For a while Trajan was busy mopping up Dacia, but in 110 CE Trajan got an opportunity to force a showdown.
The ancient kingdom of Hayastan, known in the West as Armenia, had been a borderland and a bone of contention between Rome and Parthia for years. With a feudal aristocracy culturally closer attuned to Parthia, and a king drawn from the ruling Parthian dynasty, Armenia had nevertheless been a Roman client state off and on since 66 BCE. Roman pre-eminence had been confirmed in a war fought in Nero’s time (55-63 CE). The situation had remained fairly stable since then because the status quo was beneficial to all concerned. The Parthian Arsacid line had a cadet branch safely ensconced on the Armenian throne. The Romans had a docile client covering their eastern flank. And the Armenians had their own kingdom and a good deal of independence. Armenia, while strategically well placed, was mountainous and not particularly wealthy. So it made sense to leave well enough alone. But in 110 CE Khusrau I deposed Axidares, the king of Armenia, and replaced him with his own older brother Prince Parthamasiris without consulting Trajan. The records we have of Parthia in this era are scanty, but we can surmise that Khusrau, controlling only a part of the Parthian realm, and caught up in a rivalry with Valgash III holding Iran, wanted to secure his flank. Moving a potentially discontented sibling out of the palace probably also seemed like a good move, giving the precarious state of the Parthian throne. But now Trajan had what he needed most: a casus belli.
At this point, it is worthwhile to stop and take a closer look at the situation in the East and at the nature of empire in the time of Trajan. On the surface, the Middle East can be neatly divided into Roman and Parthian spheres of influence. Politically this makes sense, but there were important economic and cultural connections between the peoples in the two empires. Linguistically, Aramaic was the lingua franca over a large portion of the region, from what is now Israel to Iraq. Trade flowed back and forth across the borders, along with spies, rumors, plagues, and religious practices. There was a very large Jewish community in Parthian Iraq, dating back to the days of the Babylonian Diaspora in the 6th century BCE. By Trajan’s time the Jews in Iraq numbered in the millions. Jews in Babylon wove silk from China and shipped it across the desert for sale in Palestine, Syria and points west. One Parthian vassal state, Adiabene, in what is today northern Iraq, was even ruled by a Jewish dynasty. The growing Christian movement was also spreading in the East, gaining footholds in the cities of Parthian Mesopotamia.
The Roman and Parthian empires can be compared to hockey pucks sliding back and forth across the ice. The frontiers might change, but the local tribal and ethnic communities that made up each empire, barring some periodic upheaval, only changed slowly. We can see this clearly when we look at the system of vassal states each empire ringed itself with. Neither empire was a monolithic bloc, but both had client states of varying levels of loyalty on their borders. We have already looked at Armenia. There was also Osroene, with its capital at Edessa (today ]anliurfa in southeastern Turkey). Osroene was directly east of the Euphrates from Roman Syria. There were also semi-independent Arab sheikhdoms in Singara, Batnae, and other places in northern Mesopotamia. While these states were in the Parthian sphere initially, a successful campaign by the Romans could wrench them out of the Parthian orbit very quickly.
Even lands that were ostensibly imperial provinces were often run through a network of arrangements with local power brokers. Tadmor, better known in the West as Palmyra, was technically a part of the Roman province of Syria. In practice the rulers, we can call them sheikhs, of Palmyra, had their own government, their own army, and their own foreign policy. This same type of arrangement reoccurred often, sometimes even at the village level. The Romans were perfectly happy being absentee landlords, as long as the tribute kept flowing.
Trajan understood logistics. He knew that in any invasion of Parthia supplies and communications would be vital, and so laid his plans carefully. In April of 112 he made his trusted lieutenant Hadrian commander in the East, with his headquarters at Antioch, in Roman Syria. At the same time he ordered the Via Egnatia, the overland route across the Balkans from the Adriatic, to be restored. The Mediterranean was very dangerous in the winter, between November and March. The Via Egnatia ensured quick communications between Rome and the armies of the East. In 113 Trajan also separated Cappadocia, in Asia Minor, bordering on Armenia, from Galatia, making it into its own province, and thus tightening Roman control there.
It is worth noting that in the same year that matters escalated with Parthia, Trajan’s government carried out the only two serious acts against the growing Christian movement of his reign. Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch and Simeon, Bishop of Jerusalem, were executed. Other than these two executions, Trajan was relatively tolerant of the underground Christian movement. The executions may have been a coincidence, but if Trajan wanted to overawe and intimidate a potentially dissident minority in the Roman East and with connections over the border in Parthia before a major war, it would make sense.
On October 27, 113, Trajan set out from Rome for the East, traveling via Brundisium on the heel of Italy and Corinth to Athens. There, he received envoys from Khusrau I bringing gifts and eager to discuss a diplomatic settlement. Trajan pointedly rejected the gifts and the offer of peace. He had decided to transform the situation in the East once and for all. Meeting with Hadrian in December at Mt. Kasios, near Antioch, he offered sacrifices to the gods before settling in for the winter. All this time, more and more troops arrived in Syria, until Trajan had a least eleven full legions there.
Just how serious the situation was for Khusrau I can be seen in how quickly the minor border kingdoms, normally Parthian satellites, moved to make their peace with the Romans. As spring arrived Abgar VII, king of Osroene, Mannus, sheikh of the Scenite Arabs of Singara, and Sporaces, king of Anthemusia (cap: Batnae), all sent emissaries to Trajan in Antioch. Khusrau I, no fool, himself sent renewed peace offerings to Trajan. But Trajan again rejected them, staking his hopes on total victory.
But rather than invade the Parthian homeland directly, Trajan instead struck north, toward Armenia. Advancing from Antioch in April of 114, Trajan drove north via Aleppo, Zeugma (mod. Bireçik, Turkey), Samosata & finally Melitene (mod. Malatiya, Turkey), scooping up the three legions guarding the Cappadocian frontier line with Armenia. At Melitene he established a forward base, before pushing through 6,000 foot passes and occupying the Armenian city of Palu. In late May, he moved north to Satala (mod. Sadagh, Turkey). There he linked up with two more legions fresh from the Danube, coming via the Black Sea port of Trapezus (mod. Trabzon). Trajan now had elements of 17 legions, some 80,000 men, no small feat of logistics.
An army of this size eats up enormous quantities of supplies. A single legion of 6,000 men could strip an area like locusts in a very short time. Armies needed to be either quartered in areas with a steady supply of food or keep moving. Trajan wasted no time. He drove east 110 miles to Elegeia in the Armenian homeland and occupied it without resistance. Parthamasiris was having trouble with the remnants of Axidares’ followers holding out in the hills; and the Armenian nobility did not seem to be hurrying to get into a fight with the Romans. Realizing the weakness of his position, Parthamasiris tok a gamble and decided to submit directly to Trajan. He went to Elegeia with a delegation of Armenian nobles, and prostrated himself before Trajan. This would seem to give Trajan what he wanted - a compliant vassal on the throne of Armenia, but Trajan made his intentions clear. Normally when a client king had humbled himself the Roman emperor would place the crown back on his head. Trajan instead promptly proclaimed the throne of Armenia vacant, and declared Armenia annexed on the spot! Trajan then ordered the shocked Armenian nobles to stay where they were, as they were now his vassals, and dismissed Parthamasiris, with an ‘escort’ of Roman cavalry. Shortly afterward Parthamasiris was ‘killed while trying to escape’. Politics in the Middle East has not changed in two thousand years.
Trajan spent the rest of 113 and 114 securing his position in Armenia. Sending flying columns out in all directions, some operating in the high country using Armenian snowshoes, Trajan obtained the submission of one tribe after another. Ever aware of his flanks, he nominated an ally to be king of the Albani, high in the Caucasus mountains to the north, and accepted the nephew of the king of Iberia (today the Republic of Georgia) into his service.
In late spring of 115, Trajan was ready for his next move. Sweeping down from the Armenian highlands, he struck toward Edessa, the capital of Osroene, and the Parthian stronghold of Nisibis. This would give the Romans a shortened frontier with Parthia, while making it difficult to get direct access to Armenia. It is an index of the weakness of the Parthian shahanshah that Khusrau I had not only failed to protect his Armenian client, but was now doing little to resist Trajan’s advance into Mesopotamia. We can only surmise that Khusrau could not. Any advance north and west from his capital of Ctesiphon would have left him vulnerable to a lightning strike by his relative and rival Valgash III in Iran. Parthian disunion was Trajan’s greatest ally. The main threat to Trajan in his advance south was not the Parthian shah, but the king of the Assyrian realm of Adiabene, between the Greater & Lesser Zab Rivers in what is now far northern Iraq.
Mebasraspes, king of Adiabene, withdrew east over the Tigris, pressed by Trajan’s cavalry commander Lusius Quietus, pushing south from Armenia. Trajan meanwhile captured Batnae (mod. Incidere), capital of Anthemusia, chasing Sporaces, its pro-Parthian king east. Trajan then occupied the Parthian citadel of Nisibis, guarding the eastern approaches of Osroene. Abgar VII, now isolated, submitted forthwith to Trajan as a vassal. The Arsacid prince of Corduene, north of Adiabene, and the Scenite Arabs of Singara also submitted. Khusrau I could do nothing, except send raiders to harry Cordyene.
Trajan was being methodical. He linked up with Lusius in Adiabene, where Mannus, sheikh of the Scenite Arabs arrived to do homage. Trajan wisely placed a garrison in Mannus’ capital of Singara, and also in the desert trading city of Dura Europos. Now only Hatra on the Tigris held out against the Romans, under its Arab king Santaruk II.
Late in 115 Trajan returned to Antioch to winter and prepare for his final stroke against Khusrau I. But while proudly announcing the annexation of Armenia and Mesopotamia as provinces to the Senate, and receiving the honorary title of Parthicus in return, that winter Trajan got a blunt reminder of his true position in the universe. On December 13, 115 CE, a gigantic earthquake struck Antioch, forcing His Majesty, Marcus Ulpius Nerva Traianus, conqueror of the Dacians and smiter of the Parthians, to jump out of a window as buildings crumpled around him. He eventually took shelter with his shaken entourage in the Circus.
Despite this lesson in cosmic humility, Trajan continued his plans for the destruction of Parthia. In the early spring of 116 Trajan swept east from Antioch, crossing the Tigris on pontoon bridges before the spring floods could make the river impassable. It was a daring gamble, as he could well become trapped on the eastern side of the river. But by this time Trajan was confident in his military superiority and in his lieutenants’ ability to control the newly won lands west of the river. Following the path taken by Alexander the Great some four centuries earlier, Trajan captured Nineveh, Arbela (mod. Erbil), the capital of Adiabene, Gaugamela, and then Adenystae, helped from within by a revolt led by a captured Roman centurion. He occupied Babylon, meeting no resistance.
Proclaiming still another new province, this time calling it Assyria, Trajan then pulled back to Dura Europos on the Euphrates, while leaving a force to subdue the rest of Adiabene. At Dura Europos Trajan made ready of fleet of fifty ships, and then pushed down the Euphrates via Phalga and Naarda (mod. Neharde’a) to near what is now Falljuah. There he and his men portaged some twenty miles to the Tigris. While this way may seem roundabout, like Trajan’s first move north toward Armenia and the Black Sea, it made excellent sense logistically. This was Trajan’s true genius - he knew how to use his strength well, to get an army to position where it could a) be supplied, and b) strike at the enemy.
What happened next was almost an anti-climax. Trajan advanced and besieged Khusrau I’s capital of Ctesiphon. Ctesiphon soon surrendered, yielding Khusrau I’s golden throne and Khusrau’s daughter as a hostage. Khusrau I fled east over the Zagros Mountains, a beaten man.
Trajan seemed at the height of his powers. Proceeding down the Tigris with his flotilla, he reached the Persian Gulf, where Attembalos V, ruler of Arab trading sheikdom of Mesene (sometimes referred to as Characene) formally did homage at his capital of Charax Spasinu. Trajan had gotten what he and other Roman statesmen had been dreaming of for years - direct access to the markets of India. But his triumph was to be short lived.
The war, while a success, had been expensive. Half the legions of the Roman army had been involved. Just moving them from place to place and keeping them in the field was expensive. To defray costs Trajan tightened up the collection of tariffs on the vast and lucrative trade flowing through what is now Iraq. This caused an explosion. Not only were the merchants incensed, but now the vast Jewish population of Mesopotamia began to stir. Trajan’s father had been a general in the Roman army that had swarmed through the gates of Jerusalem and put the Temple to the torch in 70 CE. The Jews had not forgotten. Indeed, the Jewish kings of Adiabene had sent aid to the Jewish rebels in Galilee during the Jewish War, and many Jewish rebels had fled the destruction of Jerusalem and settled in Parthian Iraq. Now, Trajan, by conquering so much of the East, had actually reunited the Jews and spurred them to desperate action.
The trouble can be said to have begun a year earlier, in 115 CE. In the years after the destruction of the Temple the Jews had not only been exiles, but had been subject to degrading tax, the fiscus Judaicus. Now, with Trajan and a large portion of the Roman army deployed in Iraq, Jewish resentment boiled over. The man who started it, Andreas Lukuas, began it as a local rebellion against the Greek population of Cyrenaica (now in Libya), but the rebellion soon spread. Andreas proclaimed himself to be the Messiah, and declared himself king of the Jews. One Roman source claims that the outraged Jews massacred 220,000 Greeks and Romans in Cyrenaica alone. This is clearly an exaggeration, but it speaks of the level of fear that this rebellion caused. Nor was Cyrenaica the end of it. The Jews stormed east out of the desert into Egypt, killing and burning. They reached Thebes, some 600 miles upriver, and then moved north disrupting the all important grain trade that kept the hungry masses of Rome fed. Alexandria at this time had a population of some 150,000 Jews, and now rioting swept this huge community as Lukuas pushed north. If the Jews of Egypt and the East somehow contrived this between them it shows a level of strategic insight worthy of Sandhurst or West Point, for now the Jewish rebels had their hand on the economic windpipe of Rome. If the grain trade could be halted for long enough there would be bread riots in the streets of Rome.
The Romans reacted ruthlessly. Trajan sent one of his top generals, Q. Marcius Turbo to Alexandria to force the Jews to their knees. It took him and Trajan’s hard-charging cavalry commander, Lusius Quietus, until the summer of 117 to crush the rebellion in Egypt and Cyrenaica, just when Trajan could have used them in Iraq.
In 117 a new Jewish rebellion broke out, this time on Cyprus. Led by a man named Artemion, who also pronounced himself to be the Messiah and king of the Jews, the Jews again went on a rampage. Contemporary accounts say that the Jews killed 240,000 people, 15% of the population, with 20,000 gentiles being massacred in Salamis in one day. This again is exaggerated, but it is suggestive of the violence of the rebellion. The best indicator of the fear the rebellion engendered is that in the wake of the rebellion, the Romans expelled all Jews from Cyprus, and no Jews were allowed back for the next thousand years.
Meanwhile Trajan found rebellion flaring behind his back. Seleucia, the main commercial center of central Iraq, located just west of the Tigris opposite Ctesiphon, revolted, as did Nisibis, which had a substantial Jewish population dating back to the Assyrian deportation of the upper class of northern Israel in 722 BCE. The revolt spread across southern Mesopotamia. At the same time the Parthians were regrouping. Prince Mithradates, brother of Khusrau I took the lead in leading resistance along the middle Euphrates. The Parthians counter attacked in Armenia and over the Tigris into Adiabene. The governor of the newly established province of Mesopotamia was defeated and killed. At this point Abgar VII of Osroene chose to rebel, realizing that the Romans would be harder taskmasters than disorganized Parthia. Even Palmyra rebelled, seeing that Roman rule of Mesopotamia would mean the end of the Palmyrenes’ role as middlemen.
Trajan fought to hold on. The Romans took and sacked Edessa. Abgar VII either fell defending his city or disappeared afterwards. Two legions captured and burnt Seleucia. The Parthians could harass the Romans, but their lack of coordination kept them from taking full advantage of the Romans’ troubles. Prince Mithradates died in a fall from a horse, leaving his son Prince Sanatruk to carry on the struggle. Khusrau I then sent his own son Prince Parthamaspates with an army to help Sanatruk. But the two princes quarreled, and Parthamaspates decided the Romans offered a better deal. He met secretly with Trajan, turned on Sanatruk, and defeated him. This gave Trajan an ally, albeit a weak one. Calling an assembly of notables at Ctesiphon, Trajan proclaimed Parthamaspates shahanshah of Parthia.
Trajan probably knew this was ridiculous. Parthamaspates, whatever his royal lineage, was from the start clearly Trajan’s man. By putting Parthamaspates on the throne Trajan automatically deprived him of any real legitimacy. But Trajan now had few options. Even a weak ally was better than nothing. The Parthians, disorganized as they were, kept up the pressure in Adaiabene, while Armenia slid into chaos. The flaw in Trajan’s grand scheme now becomes clear. Parthian weakness tempted Trajan into trying to grab Armenia and Mesopotamia cheaply, and in this he nearly succeeded, but the Parthians, beaten, humiliated, and divided, nonetheless could continue to retreat east, into their rugged Iranian homeland. All Trajan did was extend his supply lines and lengthen the frontier the Romans had to defend. Like Napoleon, or the Germans on the Eastern Front in the Second World War, gaining territory accomplished nothing as long as they could not strike a knockout blow.
As this article is being written (mid-2006), the United States is embroiled in an ongoing struggle in Iraq. One must be cautious in drawing historical parallels, but it is fair to observe that, in any age, it is one thing to invade a country and bring down the government. It is another to try to hold onto a country when a substantial portion of the populace is hostile, even if the invaders intentions are good. And it is still another thing to build a functioning government, especially if the people in the newly conquered country have few things holding them together besides force. Finally, it can be much more difficult politically to pull out than it is to go in, even if the advantages available at the start have evaporated.
The Parthians had cut the route from Babylon to Nisibis in the north. The Arab city state of Hatra, consecrated to the Sun God, was the key to that route. Trajan, now working to keep open his lines of communication and hold on to what he had gained in the north, came up from Babylon and laid siege to Hatra. Sanatruk, now calling himself zakkaya, "the conquering", continued to harass the Romans. Hatra was particularly strong because it was surrounded by desert, where an invading force could not live off the land. Flies, dust, and heat tormented the Romans.
Late in 116 CE, Trajan fell ill. Now sixty three, he was exhausted by the continuous campaigning of the past three years, and began to worsen rapidly. Trajan abandoned the fruitless siege of Hatra and returned to Antioch. The Jewish revolts were in full swing at home. There was a rebellion in Mauretania (in what is today Morocco), while on the Danube the Jazyges and their Iranian-speaking kin the Roxolani, were threatening the Romans hard won position. And in Parthia his client Parthamaspates faced a rebellion by his own people.
En route home by sea from Antioch, Trajans health finally failed him. Pulling into the port of Selinus in Cilicia (mod. Gazipasha, Turkey) Trajan, proclaimed Hadrian his successor, and then died. It was August 9th, 117 CE. At least Hadrian claimed that Trajan made him his successor. Hadrian, conveniently close in Antioch, proclaimed himself emperor on August 11th. But Hadrian was a logical successor, and there is no reason to suspect foul play.
Hadrian wasted no time in backing away from Trajan’s policy of expansion. By autumn he had pulled the Romans out of Armenia and Mesopotamia. Parthamsapates, Trajan’s appointee as shah, did not last long. Fleeing to the Romans, Hadrian made him king of the newly restored kingdom of Osroene. Hadrian also pulled the Romans back behind the Wall that bears his name in northern England. It was a wise policy. The days of easy conquests that paid a quick return in gold and silver were done. Hadrian instead devoted himself to consolidating what had been gained. This did not sit well with all of Trajan’s paladins; and Hadrian took the precaution of purging potential rivals in the Roman army’s high command. A. Cornelius Palma, former commander in the East, C. Avidius Nigrinus, governor of Dacia, and Lusius Quietus, scourge of the Dacians, Parthians and Jews, and recently made governor of Judaea, all died by the sword. Rome had a new master.
Trajan’s most lasting memorial may be the nation of Romania. When the Romans overran Dacia, they brought in large numbers of Latin-speaking Roman colonists, and also moved to suppress any sense of Dacian nationality. Though written records are very sparse, and the Roman province of Dacia was overrun by nomadic tribes in the third century, the Latin tongue lived on north of the Danube. Eventually the language evolved into Romanian, and formed the basis of an independent Romanian state in the 19th century.
Trajan gave Rome a long period of stability after the troubled years of Domitian’s assassination. By proving himself an able ruler, he enshrined Nerva’s expedient of passing on the throne to an adopted, appointed successor, who could thereby be trained for the job. Hadrian proved a good choice, and he in turn appointed his successor. This chain of competent leaders, who became known as the Five Good Emperors, only came to an end when Marcus Aurelius abandoned the adoptive system and left the throne to his incompetent son, Commodus in 180 CE.
Perhaps the worst criticisms of Trajan lie, not in what he did, but what he had the power to do, and did not do. He attained stunning military victories, which provided Rome with substantial short term gains. But he failed to resolve Rome’s two fundamental strategic problems: its long, exposed northern frontier and its vulnerable frontier with Parthia. He eliminated Dacia as a rival, and weakened the Parthians, but he left Rome with even longer borders to defend on both flanks. Trajan refurbished the imperial system, and by virtue of his provincial origins, made it acceptable for non-Italians to rise to the position of emperor. But he did nothing to reform the empire’s predatory economic and social system. While he executed two respected Christian leaders, the movement, with its repudiation of pagan Roman society and its value system, continued to spread. The rise of Christianity is an index of the growing numbers of people in Roman society who had no stake in the system. And while Trajan was able to suppress the Jewish rebels, he could not assimilate them into pagan Roman society, or reach a real accommodation with them. It would take one more bitter, desperate rebellion, in Hadrian’s reign, to put an end to Jewish resistance.
By the standards of his own culture, Trajan was a good ruler. He did what a Roman emperor was expected to do – to conquer, to maintain order, to pacify and contain the poor, to keep the system working. For this, Trajan rates highly as an emperor, especially when we compare him to the ephemeral incompetents that came after the Five Good Emperors, or to the likes of Nero and Caligula. But if he stands tall, it is in large part because he had the fortune to come in at the height of the empire. By the 3rd century, newer, stronger, and better organized tribes of Germanic and Asian nomads would make Rome’s overextended northern frontier untenable, while in the East the Parthians would be overthrown and supplanted by a new, fiercely nationalistic Iranian dynasty, the Sassanids. Together, these challenges would strain Rome’s resources to the breaking point, and ultimately bring about the collapse of the imperial system Trajan came to epitomize.
A Note About Sources
For as powerful a man as Trajan was, the sources available for his life are maddeningly few. The single best source of Trajan’s life is Dio Cassius’ History. Dio Cassius was a Romanized Greek, born some fifty years after Trajan’s death. While historians have been able to glean much from Trajan’s laws, coinage, monuments (particularly Trajan’s Column) and other sources, we still lack a coherent narrative either for the Dacian campaign or the war with Parthia. Dio Cassius gives anecdotes and considerable useful information, but much of these campaigns have had to be pieced together using goodly chunks of conjecture in places. The bottom line is that there is much of Trajan’s life that we would like to know more of. That said, I have done my best to try to tell the story of Trajan’s career as clearly and accurately as possible. I hope you find it useful. - T.N.
Questions about this article can be directed to the author at firstname.lastname@example.org
Bennett, Julian: Trajan: Optimus Princeps, A Life and Times. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, IN (1997).
Dio Cassius: History.