Ancient History & Civilisation


Regime Change, Home and Away

Then Trajan came down to the very Ocean and when he learned about its nature and saw a boat sailing to India, he said, ‘I would certainly have crossed to the Indians as well, if I was still a young man.’ For he started to think about the Indians, and to bless Alexander… He used to say that he had gone even further than Alexander and he wrote this to the Senate, though he could not even retain what had been subdued. Among much else, he was granted triumphs for as many nations as he wished: because of the number which he kept on writing about to them, the senators were unable to understand some of them or even name them properly.

Cassius Dio, on Trajan in Mesopotamia,
Epitome of his Histories 68.29

‘Your only relaxation’, Plinyassured the Emperor Trajan in his speech as consul, ‘is to range through forests, beat out wild animals from their lairs, scale immense mountain ridges and set foot on awesome rocks.’1 With Trajan, the man from Spain, hunting returned as the active sport of an ancient ruler. ‘For him, the sweat of catching and finding is equal’: unlike ‘hunters’ in the Roman arena, Trajan went after free-range prey, a passion which was shared by his successor Hadrian. For the events of Trajan’s reign bring us, at last, to Hadrian’s own times and to stories which he knew much better than we can. When Trajan took power, Hadrian was aged twenty-two.

Trajan (ruling 98–117) was styled the ‘most excellent’, but to us, as to Hadrian, he presents a mixed picture. On the one hand, he showed civility, or moderation, in his dealings with the Senate and the upper class. Sound judgement also shows in many of his answers to Pliny’s fussing letters from his province. On the other hand, there was a decided intemperance. Trajan drank heavily (he even took to beer): Hadrian admits in his autobiography how he, too, had to drink heavily with Trajan on campaign. Like Hadrian, Trajan was conspicuously keen on sex with young men. They included actors and the young son of an Eastern dynast who danced for him by the Euphrates and was teased about his gold earrings. The major legacies of Trajan’s reign were two vast military invasions and the most massive building projects in Rome. The buildings endured for centuries (Trajan’s Column is still a landmark in Rome), but the invasions proved more difficult. Their most positive effect (fostered byHadrian) was to discredit Roman attempts at military expansion for another fifty years.

Trajan’s wars have a decidedly modern ring to them. Rome was the dominant military superpower and anydefeats of her were temporary setbacks, always duly avenged. Trajan himself was a Roman ‘natural’ for aggression. He was a military man, but unlike his father he had yet to win a significant victory. The groundwork for one was probably laid during his first eighteen months and then, from spring 101 to December 102, Trajan took a huge army in to Dacia in eastern Europe (in part, modern Romania). In the mid-50sBC, Julius Caesar had toyed with suppressing the Dacian ‘threat’. Trajan now made the long-planned suppression a reality. There was a previous Roman defeat to avenge here (under Domitian), and as Trajan advanced, the Dacians had no option but to send him an ultimatum. As a sign of their uncouthness, they sent ‘long-haired’ envoys; their barbarian allies even sent an enormous mushroom, inscribed with a message in Latin. In the course of their advance, the Romans built a huge bridge over the Danube, so strong that its pillars are still standing. Many lives were then lost until the most prominent Dacian king, Decebalus, agreed to surrender all his siege-equipment and weapons of destruction, to demolish his forts and not to shelter deserters from Rome. In return, Rome would help him with subsidies.

Inevitably, reports then came that Decebalus was rebuilding his forts and luring military experts over from the Roman sector. In June 105 Trajan attacked yet again, with about 100,000 men and the aim of annexation. Eventually Decebalus killed himself, and his corpse was decapitated in the Roman camp.2 A wide expanse of Dacia became a Roman province for the first time.

As so often, conquest was the prime source of growth for an ancient economy. Dacia produced vast quantities of slaves and spoils and gave access to metals including new gold-mines. Back in Rome, the recent economic weakness was reversed (the Roman coinage had just been debased) and so Trajan could afford to build in style. Within Rome, therefore, his reign is the summation of the despotism of a ‘First Citizen’. Although Hadrian would add big temples to Rome, neither he nor his immediate successors built any more secular buildings. From Trajan onwards, the job had been done: rulers could now travel for years outside the city of Rome without needing to ‘benefit’ its people in this particular way.

Since Vespasian’s coup, the senatorial class had acquiesced in the emperors’ legality: ‘you bid us be free’, as Pliny told Trajan. Lawyers did not question the limits on this ‘freedom’ or the right, historically, by which the emperors’ ‘bidding’ was being exercised. There were reasons for this significant silence. In Italy, nobody was being ‘imposed on’ to pay new taxes or conscripted to fight wars. Taxation and conscription are the acts by which rulers do most to raise questions of their subjects’ rights and liberties. Neither occurred in this period in imperial Rome.

Instead, the eternal city wore prominent marks of its subservience: it had grown to be punctuated by so many dynastic buildings, by temples to deified members of Vespasian’s dynasty and by the emperors’ personal forums, each of them built since Julius Caesar’s own. Trajan’s wife, sister, niece and great-niece would all be commemorated at Rome; there was the predictable concern to adjust Roman opinion to a new ‘dynasty’. The imperial women’s elaborate new hairstyles certainly made them unmistakable. Trajan’s sister Marciana favoured tight spiralling curls in rows leading to a big nest of hair at the back of the head. These time-consuming styles even required wire frames underneath as supports. In more durable materials, coins and inscribed titles, buildings and posthumous cults were deployed to publicize a family image. Remains of them are the ancient ruins which are nowadays the most conspicuous in the city of Rome’s centre. But once again the ‘other Rome’, the people both ‘sordid’ and ‘well connected’, were not unwilling spectators of this public programme. There were proven ingredients for winning their support: the food-supply, blood sports and (when possible) baths. Trajan excelled in all three, the summation of the process which we have followed from Augustus onwards. He was rightly looked back on as the ruler whose ‘popularity with the people nobody has excelled and few have equalled’.

Fortunately, he had an architectural genius to hand, the Greek-speaking Apollodorus of Damascus. Like Sinan, the great architect of the Ottoman Turks, Apollodorus had been a military engineer: it was he who had designed the big Danube bridge. On the coast near Rome, an improved harbour was built to cater for the safety of the city’s imported grain, but in Rome itself, the wonder was Trajan’s Forum. It was enough to take a visitor’s breath awayeven three centuries later. The Forum took some of its proportions from Vespasian’s temple of Peace. Like that temple, it included two library spaces (one libraryfor Greek, one for Latin, in the Roman fashion) but Trajan’s two libraries were much bigger, holding some 20,000 scrolls in all. There were fine colonnades with sculpted Dacian prisoners; there was a big statue of Trajan on horseback; above all, there was a massive hall in which to dispense justice. The form of these halls, or basilicas, would later influence the first big Christian churches.

At the far end stood Trajan’s Column whose sculpted panels (155 in all) are our most vivid evidence of the Roman armyin action. Their subject is the Dacian campaign. They show Roman troops laying bridges over rivers, deploying siege-machinery (the frames of the catapults were changed from wood to metal under Trajan) and attacking Dacian women who were themselves torturing Dacian prisoners. At the top, much-discussed scenes show men, women and children on the move with their animals. Are they Roman settlers arriving in the new province or (more probably) Dacians being expelled? Either way, the scene is one of new-style ‘direct rule’ by Rome.

Trajan also commissioned a near by market, one of modern Rome’s most conspicuous ruins: its brilliant use of changing levels is also due to Apollodorus’ genius. After a fire on the Esquiline, he paid the overdue last rites to what remained there of Nero’s preposterous Golden House and built an enormous set of public baths on top of its remaining West Wing, burying Nero’s array of dining-rooms and concrete dome under a building of public utility. It was a good, popular move, and in 109 his ‘blood sports’ to celebrate the Dacian conquests were on an unsurpassed scale. Yet he was still not content. In the Near East, Rome’s direct rule had already been extended to the Red Sea by the annexation (in 106) of Petra and its accompanying ‘Arabian’ (Nabataean) kingdom in modern Jordan. In 113, a year after his Forum’s opening, Trajan set off eastwards, accompanied by Hadrian, to settle the one elusive old score in this sector: a conquest of Rome’s Parthian neighbours, at least along the river Euphrates. They halted at Antioch in north Syria and up on the Jebel Aqra, the great pagan mountain of the gods which towers above the city, Trajan dedicated spoils from Dacia in the hope of winning divine favour for the coming campaign.3

‘Regime change’ was now to be extended to the Near East. In 114 Trajan invaded Armenia with a huge army and refused to accept a climb-down byits ruling prince. This poor fellow had been appointed by the Parthian king, but without the usual Roman approval. When he sought it, Trajan took over Armenia as a province instead. To protect it, he then headed south and invaded Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) in another extension of ‘direct rule’. He crossed the river Euphrates, imposed ‘regime change’ on the local princes and even crossed the river Tigris. Babylon was taken and Trajan then travelled down and captured the Parthian capital of Ctesiphon. It seemed an amazing success. The people of Mesopotamia, the historian Sallust had written (c. 40 BC), are ‘unbridled in sexual lust, in both sexes’: Trajan sampled one sex, at least (the male).4 He also sailed victoriously on the river Euphrates in a boat whose sails displayed his name in gold letters. It was the peak of Roman conquest in the East, making Mark Antony’s failures and Nero’s hesitations seem paltry by comparison.

In antiquity, historians credited Trajan with a nostalgia for Alexander the Great and even with thoughts of conquest as far as India. Perhaps Trajan really did wish to visit the house in Babylon where Alexander had died and to pay sacrifice in it: who would not? However, Trajan was over sixty, and he was certainly no Alexander. The chronologyof his three-year campaign in Mesopotamia is a keyto his intentions, but it has often been misunderstood.5 After the first year’s successes in Armenia, he had gone back to his base at Antioch for winter 114/5 and was lucky to survive a shattering earthquake there. In 115 he had his year of conquest through territory which is now Iraq. After taking Ctesiphon, he wrote tactfullyback to the Senate for approval, just as he had asked for their approval in settling Dacia. He had had enough, he said, and the solution was now to put a client king on Ctesiphon’s throne: ‘this country’ (our Iraq) ‘is so immeasurably vast and separated from Rome by such an incalculable distance that we cannot administer it.’ By early 116, the Senate received his letter and had time to write back from Rome and agree. There was no ‘Alexander-mania’ in these plans.

However, Trajan’s entire conquests then blew up around him. In spring 116 the trouble began with the Jews. Their revolts spread from Libya (Cyrene) through Cyprus and Egypt, encouraged by fellow Jews who were fleeing from the conquered Parthian sector. The Near East was thrown into revolt. Armenia was attacked and had to be partly given away and Trajan’s Mesopotamian conquests rose in rebellion. In 116 Trajan spent a hot summer there besieging the stronglywalled city of Hatra. He was lucky that the defendants just missed his conspicuous grey head as he rode past without a helmet. To cap it all, Dacia broke into war again.

These upheavals cost thousands of lives, especially in the large Jewish population on Cyprus and the yet bigger Jewish communities in Egypt. There was even a glimpse of the end of the world. Down in southern Mesopotamia, war among the ‘angels of the north’ was seen at this time in a vision byone Elchasai, evidentlya Christian member of a strict Baptist community.6 Elchasai’s concerns were very different to Trajan’s. What he saw was a vision of an angel and a (female) HolySpirit who were promising one last forgiveness of sins to Christian sinners: this ‘sin’, to a pagan outsider, would have seemed like a condition created by their foolish Christian faith. Then the world as Trajan knew it would end. Elchasai wrote up his vision in a book which survived to inspire another Christian visionaryin this region more than a century later, Mani. Mani’s post-Christian ‘Gospel of Light’ survived for many centuries and was called Manichaeism by its many enemies.

There was to be no such second chance for Trajan. He left Hadrian with the armies in Syria and in 117 withdrew westwards. In early August he was declared ill, and he died in Cilicia on the southern coast of Turkey, aged sixty-two. It was a potentially chaotic moment, with so many rebellions still in progress around him. Who was to succeed him? Hadrian was nearby and, as he had been named consul already for the following year, he was a natural choice. But had he yet been chosen formally? On 9 August Hadrian could claim receipt of documents in Syria which conveniently ‘proved’ his adoption. On 11 August news then came to him, even more conveniently, that Trajan was dead. Later historians wrote of Trajan’s sickness and described symptoms which suggest a heart attack. But there were other strong possibilities. On 12 August Trajan’s intimate palace-secretary Phaedimus died too, the man who had once been Trajan’s official ‘taster’ of foods and his personal butler. Only after many years were Phaedimus’ ashes conveyed back to Rome: had there been a wish not to draw too much attention to the emperor’s taster’s death? Later in the century, the senatorial historian Dio was told firmly by his father that Hadrian had never been adopted by Trajan at all, that his death had been concealed for a while by those close to him and that the letter informing the Senate of Hadrian’s ‘adoption’ was actuallysigned by Trajan’s wife, Plotina. Was the cause of death sickness, or was Trajan poisoned along with Phaedimus the butler? Scandal later alleged that Hadrian had bribed Trajan’s freedmen and had had sex with his boy-favourites in the hope of assuring his own succession. What we do know is that Hadrian promptly withdrew from Trajan’s ‘conquests’ in Mesopotamia.

The truth of his predecessor’s death remains buried with Hadrian. It is an ironic silence because the distinction of this period is not military but historical: it saw two Latin accounts of the imperial past, both of which are classics for our understanding of the Roman emperors. One of them is also a work of genius which sets freedom, luxury and justice among its prominent themes. Significantly, neither of their authors risked writing the history of Trajan’s reign itself.

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