Sep 182018

Today is the birthday (53 CE) of the Roman emperor, Trajan, emperor from 98 to 117. The Senate officially declared  Trajan as “optimus princeps” and he is remembered as a successful soldier-emperor who presided over the greatest military expansion in Roman history, leading the empire to attain its maximum territorial extent by the time of his death. He is also known for his philanthropic rule, overseeing extensive public building programs and implementing social welfare policies, which led later historians to call him the second of the Five Good Emperors who presided over an era of peace and prosperity in the Mediterranean world.

Trajan, birth name Marcus Ulpius Traianus, was born in the Roman province of Hispania Baetica (in what is now Andalusia in modern Spain), in the city of Italica (now in the municipal area of Santiponce, in the outskirts of Seville). Trajan’s non-patrician family was of Italian and Iberian origin. Trajan rose to prominence during the reign of emperor Domitian. Serving as a legatus legionis in Hispania Tarraconensis, in 89 Trajan supported Domitian against a revolt on the Rhine led by Antonius Saturninus. In September 96, Domitian was succeeded by Marcus Cocceius Nerva, an old and childless senator who proved to be unpopular with the army . After a brief and tumultuous year in power, culminating in a revolt by members of the Praetorian Guard, Nerva was compelled to adopt the more popular Trajan as his heir and successor. He died on 27th January 98 and was succeeded by his adopted son without incident.

You can read about Trajan’s illustrious reign in numerous places. Here I’d like to talk a little about the nature of history itself. How do we know that Trajan’s reign was so successful, and why has his name and legacy endured intact for so long? As an emperor, Trajan’s reputation has endured, and he is one of the few Roman rulers whose reputation has survived, mostly undamaged, for nineteen centuries. This is largely due to the fact that primary sources are so rare.

Every new emperor after Trajan was honored by the Senate with the wish felicior Augusto, melior Traiano (that he be “luckier than Augustus and better than Trajan”). Among medieval Christian theologians, Trajan was considered a virtuous pagan. In the Renaissance, Machiavelli, speaking on the advantages of adoptive succession over heredity, mentioned the five successive good emperors “from Nerva to Marcus” – a trope out of which the 18th-century historian Edward Gibbon popularized the notion of the Five Good Emperors, of whom Trajan was the second.

An extant continuous account of Trajan’s reign does not exist in ancient sources. An account of the Dacian Wars, the Commentarii de bellis Dacicis, written by Trajan himself or a ghostwriter and modeled after Caesar’s Commentarii de Bello Gallico, is lost with the exception of one sentence. Only fragments remain of the Getiká, a book by Trajan’s personal physician Titos Statilios Kriton. Likewise, the Parthiká, a 17-volume account of the Parthian Wars written by Arrian. Book 68 in Cassius Dio’s Roman History, which survives mostly as Byzantine abridgments and epitomes, is the main source for the political history of Trajan’s rule. Besides this, Pliny the Younger’s Panegyricus and Dio of Prusa’s orations are the best surviving contemporary sources. Both are adulatory perorations, typical of the late Roman era, that describe an idealized monarch and an equally idealized view of Trajan’s rule, and concern themselves more with ideology than with actual fact. The 10th volume of Pliny’s letters contains his correspondence with Trajan, which deals with various aspects of imperial Roman government, but this correspondence is neither intimate nor candid: it is an exchange of official mail, in which Pliny’s stance borders on the servile. It is certain that much of the text of the letters that appear in this collection over Trajan’s signature was written and/or edited by Trajan’s Imperial secretary. Therefore, discussion of Trajan and his rule in modern history cannot avoid speculation, as well as recourse to non-literary sources such as archaeology and epigraphy. In short, we know very little about Trajan’s rule except what remains as physical evidence, which is plentiful.

Walk around the area of Trajan’s forum in Rome nowadays and you will see abundant evidence of Trajan’s massive building projects in Rome. Who wouldn’t be impressed, and think he was a great emperor? Museums in the area are also vast, with massive collections of sculptures and other artefacts accompanied by fawning descriptions. But what is the truth concerning his reign? What do we actually know about living conditions at the time? Very little. We know, for example, that he did not persecute Christians in the same ways as Diocletian and Nero, but he was not easy on them. He left them in peace as long as they were quiet about their activities. But he had explicit orders to execute any Christians who were discovered and publicly refused to recant. This state of affairs would have been normal for an emperor whose ancestors had been deified and whose authority rested on a state religion that Christianity called into question.

Lauded rulers in history come and go in their assessment, but Trajan’s reputation has survived almost undiminished for nearly nineteen centuries probably because so little is known about him from contemporary accounts. Ancient sources on Trajan’s personality and accomplishments are unanimously positive. Pliny the Younger, for example, celebrates Trajan in his panegyric as a wise and just emperor and a moral man. But, apart from being something of a today, what was Pliny’s definition of “wise and just”? Didn’t execute too many people? Killed only his enemies? Made life great for rich Romans, and who cares about the people he conquered? Cassius Dio added that he always remained dignified and fair. A 3rd century Emperor, Decius, even received from the Senate the name Trajan as a decoration. After the setbacks of the 3rd century, Trajan, together with Augustus, became in the later Roman Empire the paragon of the most positive traits of the Imperial order. As already mentioned, at the inauguration of later Roman Emperors, the Senate would say the phrase Felicior Augusto, melior Traiano.  Be better than Trajan eh? The Christianizing of Rome resulted in further embellishment of his legend: it was commonly said in medieval times that Pope Gregory I, through divine intercession, resurrected Trajan from the dead and baptized him into the Christian faith. An account of this features in the Golden Legend.

Some theologians such as Thomas Aquinas discussed Trajan as an example of a virtuous pagan. In the Divine Comedy, Dante, following this legend, sees the spirit of Trajan in the Heaven of Jupiter with other historical and legendary figures noted for their justice. Also, a mural of Trajan stopping to provide justice for a poor widow is present in the first terrace of Purgatory as a lesson to those who are purged for being proud.

I noticed that the inner bank of the curve…
Was of white marble, and so decorated
With carvings that not only Polycletus
But nature herself would there be put to shame…

There was recorded the high glory
Of that ruler of Rome whose worth
Moved Gregory to his great victory;

I mean by this the Emperor Trajan;
And at his bridle a poor widow
Whose attitude bespoke tears and grief…

The wretched woman, in the midst of all this,
Seemed to be saying: ‘Lord, avenge my son,
Who is dead, so that my heart is broken..’

So he said: ‘Now be comforted, for I must
Carry out my duty before I go on:
Justice requires it and pity holds me back.’

He also features in Piers Plowman. An episode referred to as the justice of Trajan was reflected in several art works.

In the 18th-century, king Charles III of Spain commissioned Anton Raphael Mengs to paint The Triumph of Trajan on the ceiling of the banquet hall of the Royal Palace of Madrid – considered among the best works of this artist.

It was only in the 18th century that this legacy began to be contested, when Edward Gibbon expressed doubts about the militarized character of Trajan’s reign in contrast to the “moderate” practices of his immediate successors. Mommsen adopted a divided stance towards Trajan in his posthumously published lectures, even speaking about his “vainglory.” Mommsen also speaks of Trajan’s “insatiable, unlimited lust for conquest”. Although Mommsen had no liking for Trajan’s successor, Hadrian, who, in his estimation had “a repellent manner, and a venomous, envious and malicious nature,” he admitted that Hadrian, in renouncing Trajan’s conquests, was “doing what the situation clearly required.” There is the crux of the matter. Trajan’s expansive conquests enriched him and Rome at the expense of the conquered, both in terms of money and blood.

It was exactly this military character of Trajan’s reign that attracted his early 20th-century biographer, the Italian Fascist historian Roberto Paribeni, who in his 1927 two-volume biography Optimus Princeps described Trajan’s reign as the acme of the Roman principate, which he saw as Italy’s patrimony. Following in Paribeni’s footsteps, the German historian Alfred Heuss saw in Trajan “the accomplished human embodiment of the imperial title” (die ideale Verkörperung des humanen Kaiserbegriffs). Trajan’s first English-language biography by Julian Bennett is also a positive one in that it assumes that Trajan was an active policy-maker concerned with the management of the empire as a whole – something his reviewer, Lendon, considers an anachronistic outlook that sees in the Roman emperor a kind of modern administrator.

During the 1980s, the Romanian historian Eugen Cizek took a more nuanced view as he described the changes in the personal ideology of Trajan’s reign, stressing the fact that it became ever more autocratic and militarized, especially after 112 and towards the Parthian War (as “only an universal monarch, a kosmocrator, could dictate his law to the East”). The biography by the German historian Karl Strobel stresses the continuity between Domitian’s and Trajan’s reigns, saying that Trajan’s rule followed the same autocratic and sacred character as Domitian’s, culminating in a failed Parthian adventure intended as the crown of his personal achievement. It is in modern French historiography that Trajan’s reputation becomes most markedly deflated: Paul Petit writes about Trajan’s portraits as a “lowbrow boor with a taste for booze and boys.” For Paul Veyne, what is to be retained from Trajan’s “stylish” qualities was that he was the last Roman emperor to think of the empire as a purely Italian and Rome-centered hegemony of conquest. In contrast, his successor Hadrian stressed the notion of the empire as ecumenical and of the emperor as universal benefactor and not kosmocrator.

As a civilian administrator, Trajan is best known for his extensive public building program, which reshaped the city of Rome and left numerous enduring landmarks such as Trajan’s Forum, Trajan’s Market and Trajan’s Column. Early in his reign, he annexed the Nabataean Kingdom, creating the province of Arabia Petraea. His conquest of Dacia enriched the empire greatly, as the new province possessed many valuable gold mines.

Trajan’s war against the Parthian Empire ended with the sack of the capital Ctesiphon and the annexation of Armenia and Mesopotamia. His campaigns expanded the Roman Empire to its greatest territorial extent. In late 117, while sailing back to Rome, Trajan fell ill and died of a stroke in the city of Selinus. He was deified by the Senate and his ashes were laid to rest under Trajan’s Column. He was succeeded by his adopted son Hadrian.

An anachronistic recipe seems fitting for today’s celebration of Trajan, given that historical accounts of him are inevitably colored by the times in which historians live. Seville, near Trajan’s birthplace, is noted for its numerous tapas bars, and so any tapas recipe would fit the bill. I’m a big fan of pork cheek, braised in sweet Spanish wine. Pork cheek is a cut you are going to have to hunt for if you do not live in the Mediterranean region. It is really tasty and lean, but requires long, slow cooking.

Carrillada de Cerdo


1 kg pork cheeks
1 onion, peeled and chopped
6 shallots, peeled and sliced
1 green apple, peeled, cored and chopped
2 carrots, peeled and diced
1 chile, chopped
2 cloves garlic, peeled
2 cups sweet red wine
24 small potatoes
1 bay leaf
2 tbs honey
½ tsp dried thyme
1 tbsp chopped fresh parsley
salt and pepper
2 tbsp flour
⅓ cup extra virgin olive oil
3 cups beef or chicken stock


Crush the garlic in a mortar and pestle and add in the thyme, honey, parsley and a tablespoon of water. Work the mixture until you have a well mixed paste. Dry the cheeks with paper towels and coat them with the paste. Season with salt and pepper to taste, and let them rest for at least an hour at room temperature. Before cooking, lightly sprinkle flour over the cheeks.

Heat the olive oil in a heavy skillet over high heat, and quickly sear the cheeks on all sides in batches. Transfer the oil used to sear the meat into a large, heavy pot. Add a little more oil if necessary to completely cover the bottom by about 1 cm. Heat over low heat and sauté the onions, chile, shallots and carrots for 15 minutes or until golden brown. Add the pork cheeks and the 2 cups of wine. Add the bay leaf and allow the liquid to reduce 50% over medium heat, stirring regularly to prevent sticking. Add the stock and cook over a low heat for about 2 hours, or until the cheeks are completely tender. Twenty minutes before serving, add the potatoes and apple to the pot.

Serve with crusty bread.

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