Trajan or Marcus Ulpius Traianus, was Roman Emperor from 98 to 117 CE. Known as a benevolent ruler, his reign was noted for public projects which benefited the populace such as improving the dilapidated road system, constructing aqueducts, building public baths and extending the port of Ostia. Trajan was also a highly successful general and won three major conflicts against the Dacians and in the East, resulting in the Roman Empire reaching its greatest size up to that date.
After safely escaping the Praetorian Guard mutiny, the ailing Roman Emperor Nerva began to question his own mortality and realized the urgency to name a successor. Without any children of his own, he recognized his only option was to adopt. The choice was not a difficult one. He named Marcus Ulpius Traianus - better known as Trajan - the recently named governor of Upper Germany as his “son.” On January 28, 91 CE Nerva died a natural death and Trajan was quickly named emperor of the Roman Empire by the Senate, the second of those who would become known as the Five Good Emperors.
The new emperor was born on September 18, 53 CE in Italica (Seville) in the Roman province of Hispania, becoming the first emperor born outside of Italy as his family had its origins in northern Italy. He came from a family with a very impressive military reputation. His father, a career soldier also named Marcus Ulpius Traianus, had been governor of both Baetica in Spain and Syria, a commander during the Jewish War of 67 – 68 CE as well as a senator and a consul. Young Trajan entered the army at an early age, serving as a tribune under his father in Spain and commander in the Seventh Legion in northern Spain. Luckily, Trajan’s usefulness was recognized by Domitian, and he was able to avoid the paranoid emperor’s reign of terror. In January of 89 CE the youthful commander marched to the Rhine to help Domitian battle Saturninus, the rebellious governor of Upper Germany; unfortunately, he arrived too late to be of any assistance. Despite this, Domitian showed his appreciation by naming Trajan as praetor (85 CE) and later a consul (91 CE).
Following Domitian’s assassination in 96 CE, the new emperor Nerva appointed the highly respected Trajan as governor of Upper Germany - a rather smart move by the emperor since it gained him the necessary support of the military. Shortly after his appointment in October 97 CE Trajan received a handwritten note from Nerva notifying him of his adoption. Although Trajan did not hurry to Rome, he did think it necessary to solve the controversy surrounding the mutiny by the Praetorian Guards who had wished to punish the assassins of Domitian. Trajan sent for the conspirators, especially Casperius Aelianus - the guard who had engineered the mutiny - to meet him in Upper Germany to receive a special commission. According to historian Cassius Dio, Trajan offered “to employ them for some purpose and then put them out of the way.”
When Nerva died in January of 98 CE, Trajan did not immediately return to Rome. Instead, he inspected the Rhine and Danube frontiers to not only safeguard against the Dacians but also to test the allegiance of many of the legions still loyal to Domitian. Finally, in the summer of 99 CE, he made his entry into Rome on foot where he mingled with both the citizenry and senators. Pliny the Younger (61-112 CE) - a lawyer, author, and governor of Bithynia - often corresponded with Emperor Trajan on a variety of topics. After Nerva’s death and Trajan’s ascension, Pliny wrote one of his many letters to the new emperor, ”May you then, and would through your means, enjoy every prosperity worthy of your reign: to which let me add my wishes, most excellent Emperor, upon a private as well as public account, that your health and spirits may be preserved firm and unbroken.”
Although he maintained an excellent rapport with the Senate, Trajan was still considered an absolute ruler but not to the degree of Domitian or even Nerva. Cassius Dio wrote, “Trajan was most conspicuous for his justice, for his bravery, and for the simplicity of his habits.” As an emperor who was concerned with both good government and the public welfare, he instituted an excellent domestic policy - providing for the children of the poor, restoring the dilapidated road system, as well as building new bridges, aqueducts, public baths, and a modern port at Ostia. Lastly, he continued his predecessor’s policy of undoing much of the harm done by Domitian by freeing prisoners and recalling exiles.
Trajan’s memory remained in Rome for generations to follow, primarily due to two gifts he gave the city - the Forum of Trajan and Trajan’s Column. The Forum of Trajan, financed by the seized Dacian treasury, was dedicated in 112 CE. The population of Rome at the time of Trajan and Nerva had grown to its greatest height, close to one million, and it needed (and people felt they deserved) a new forum, not only a marketplace and shopping center but also a center for politics, commerce and religion. The forum lay between the Quirinal and Capitoline Hills. On either side of the plaza were two semi-circular, six-story buildings, containing great halls and rooms for offices. North of the forum was a new basilica - Basilica Ulpias - that housed law courts. After Trajan’s death, Emperor Hadrian would add a large gateway and a statue of Trajan riding a six-horse chariot. The forum’s architect Apollodorus of Damascus had also designed Trajan’s Bridge across the Danube - the longest arch bridge in the world until its destruction in 275 CE. Unfortunately for the architect, Hadrian would have him exiled and later executed. Trajan’s second gift, Trajan’s Column, was dedicated in 113 CE. At the base of the 100 foot column were a number of friezes depicting his battles against the Dacians. A stairwell took people to a viewing platform at the top, and at the column’s summit stood a statue of Trajan - the statue was later replaced by one of St. Peter.
Like his predecessor, however, Trajan and his wife were childless and, like Nerva, he chose adoption to solve the problem of an heir. He adopted and named his cousin’s son Hadrian as his successor. However, rumors persisted that Hadrian had never been officially adopted. Trajan’s wife Pompeia Plotina supposedly used a ruse - forging documents - to make the adoption official, thus making Hadrian the third of the Five Good Emperors.