a.d. 53-117

Roman emperor

Trajan was one of the most popular and competent rulers of the Roman Empire. He and the emperors Nerva, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius are sometimes referred to collectively as the Five Good Emperors. Trajan expanded the territory of the empire, launched an extensive building program in the city of Rome, and extended a system of relief for the poor begun by the emperor Nerva. Trajan’s reign—from A.D. 98 until his death in A.D. 117—was considered a golden age, and he received the title optimus princeps (best of leaders).

Born in Spain, Marcus Ulpius Trajanus (known as Trajan) first gained fame as a military tribune. He served in Syria around A.D. 75 while his father was governor of that province. Rising through the army ranks, he later became the commanding officer of a legion* in Spain. Appointed consulin A.D. 91, Trajan became governor of Upper Germany in A.D. 97. That same year, the emperor Nerva adopted Trajan as his co-ruler and successor. Nerva died in A.D. 98, after ruling only 16 months, and Trajan succeeded him on the imperial* throne.

Trajan was a modest and unassuming ruler. Courteous and friendly with senators, he treated the Roman Senate with great respect. He carefully avoided the policies of earlier emperors—such as confiscating senatorial property—that had soured relations with the Senate.

An able administrator, Trajan pursued several policies that helped the Roman people and contributed to his popularity. He helped abused children, provided relief for the poor, and required candidates for public office to invest money in Italy. Early in his reign, Trajan ordered the construction of many public buildings in Rome. The greatest of these were a new forum, public baths, and a large basilica*. Outside of Rome, he funded the construction of a canal to prevent the Tiber River from flooding, a new harbor at the port of Ostia, and a road that extended the Appian Way across the Italian peninsula to the Adriatic Sea. Trajan’s public works were funded largely by booty* from foreign wars. He also used this wealth to stage lavish public spectacles and games.

Trajan wisely appointed competent officials to help him administer the empire. Pliny the Younger served as governor of Bithynia in Asia Minor, where he helped resolve difficult administrative and financial problems in that region. Trajan demanded that his administrators treat all people under their rule with fairness, justice, and respect.

An experienced military commander, Trajan took personal command of Roman armies during his reign, and launched an aggressive foreign policy. In the early A.D. 100s, he conducted two wars of conquest against the region of Dacia, eventually bringing it into the empire as a province*. He annexed* Arabia in A.D. 106 and incorporated the region of Armenia into the empire in A.D. 114. The following year, he launched a campaign against the Parthians, Rome’s main rival in western Asia. The Romans defeated the Parthians and created the provinces of Mesopotamia and Assyria out of Parthian territory.

* legion main unit of the Roman army, consisting of about 6,000 soldiers

* imperial pertaining to an emperor or empire

* basilica in Roman times, a large rectangular building used as a court of law or public meeting place

* booty riches or property gained through conquest


Large, free-standing columns have been used to commemorate people and events since ancient Greek times. A victory column in Rome, dedicated to Trajan's conquest of Dacia, is one of the most famous examples of this type of monument About 95 feet high, Trajan's Column stands on a 20-foot high pedestal. A spiral staircase inside rises to a balcony at the top of the column. The exterior of the column is carved with 150 scenes of the war and Trajan's victory over the Dacians. These carvings provide historians with valuable information about the clothing, weapons, and techniques of the Roman military.

Trajan’s military successes in western Asia were overshadowed by an uprising of Jews in that region in A.D. 116. Meanwhile, the emperor’s health began to decline, and he decided to return to Rome. He died in Asia Minor while on his way back to Italy. (See also Provinces, Roman; Rome, History of.)

* province overseas area controlled by Rome

* annex to add territory to an existing state

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