The future Emperor Marcus Ulpius Traianus was born in 53 A.D. in the city of Italica in the Roman province of Hispania Baeticia, modern day Spain. Trajan was not of royal blood, but his father was a prominent Senator and successful general in the Roman army. Subsequently, Trajan spent much of his formative years in the military, living and fighting on the fringes of the Roman world from the deserts of Syria to the dark forests of the Rhine River along the German frontier. By the late 90’s A.D. he was a popular and promising military leader, and the Emperor Nerva, who was not popular with the army, was forced to adopt him and name him his heir following a revolt of the Praetorian Guard. In 98 Nerva died and Trajan peacefully ascended to the Roman throne.
The Oxford Classical Dictionary describes Trajan’s conduct as emperor as “restrained and unassuming.” He took pains to respect the Senate as an institution and individual Senators without actually sharing with the legislative body any substantial power. He also, however, kept the Roman plebian class happy with the extension of the food dole, help for orphaned and abandoned children, a massive series of infrastructure projects, and lavish festivals and gladiatorial games. The spoils of Trajan’s Dacian conquest financed much of this largesse, and it was the Dacian campaign by which the emperor is best remembered today.
Trajan’s conquest of Dacia, located north of the Danube in modern-day Romania, was actually completed over two campaigns. Trajan first invaded the region in 101-102 A.D., seeking to counter the growing strength of the Dacian King Decebalus and, perhaps more importantly, win military glory for himself. After a sharp and costly campaign, Decebalus yielded to the might of Rome, agreeing to become a vassal state. Three years later, however, with the Dacians once again growing defiant of Rome and the treaty they had agreed to, Trajan launched a second invasion. This time the Romans did not compromise, fully integrating Dacia into the empire as a province after the Dacian capital was sacked and Decebalus committed suicide.
The war in Dacia was a smashing success for Trajan, and he commemorated the event in grand fashion. The most famous example of this is Trajan’s Column, the 125-foot tall victory column that depicts the Dacian War in a series of reliefs. Trajan also had many coins minted, had the official title of Dacicus added to his name, and threw a festival lasting over one hundred and twenty days to celebrate his victory.
Following his war against the Dacians, Trajan still had one great conquest remaining, his campaign against the Parthians in 115-116 A.D. For the previous century and half Rome had avoided major war with its eastern rival the Parthians. By 114, however, the Parthians were attempting to gain influence in Armenia, the buffer state on the upper Euphrates between the two empires that Rome considered within its own sphere of influence. In response, Trajan landed in Antioch and marched into Armenia to firmly establish it as Roman territory. He then invaded the Parthian heartland of Mesopotamia, and, aided by internal Parthian strife, quickly conquered much of the land between the two rivers. He sacked the Parthian capital at Ctesiphon and reached the Persian Gulf, marking the apex of the Roman Empire in terms of territory controlled. Overextension of military forces and a series of revolts, however, forced Trajan to retreat from Mesopotamia. By the summer of 117, with his health failing, Trajan attempted to return to Italy, but died in August in Selinus, a city in southern Anatolia.
Despite being forced to retreat, Trajan’s campaign against the Parthians was portrayed as another great conquest for the general-emperor. The title Parthicus was added to his name in similar fashion to Dacicus, and many coins were minted to celebrate that “Armenia and Mesopotamia were brought into the power of the Roman People.” In addition, the title Optimus (best) was formally added to Trajan’s titles, reflecting the prosperity and territorial expansion enjoyed by Rome during Trajan’s reign. This is also found in the Senate’s ritual acclamation to later emperors, declaring, “May you be even luckier than Augustus and even better than Trajan.”
John Brian Campbell, “Trajan,” The Oxford Classical Dictionary, (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 2012.