Who was Emperor Trajan and What Did He Do?

In the nineteen-year reign of Trajan, Rome further dominated its rivals and the empire became larger than it had ever been before. The first emperor born outside Italy, Trajan brought prosperity and peace to Rome and was declared optimus princeps or ‘best ruler’ by the Senate. Here is the remarkable story of the man born Marcus Ulpius Traianus.

History Rulers
3 April 2023

Trajan, emperor of Rome, is one of the only rulers whose stellar reputation has endured for almost two thousand years. He is known as a meticulous and battle-hardened general, a fine administrator and a builder whose achievements can still be seen today.

A loyal servant and skilled politician, Trajan was respected by those who served with him and commanded the loyalty of his troops.

Trajan, Roman emperor, statesman and general, today he is generally regarded as one of the most effective rulers of the ancient Roman world.

Marcus Ulpius Traianus - The Early Years

Marcus Ulpius Traianus (Photo: PHAS via Getty Images)

Trajan was born in 53 AD in Hispania Baetica, on the outskirts of modern-day Seville in Spain.

His father was a Roman senator and army general under the emperor Vespasian. His mother, Marcia, was the sister-in-law of the emperor Titus, the ruler best known for completing the Colosseum. Politics was in his blood.

Not much is known about Trajan’s childhood except that he followed his father as he travelled around the empire.

The Rise to Power

Nerva (Photo: Hulton Archive via Getty Images)

Trajan joined the army and served variously as a tribunus legionis (a tribune, one of six in a legion) and a legatus (a legate, a high-ranking officer equivalent to a general or deputy general) with the Legio VII Gemina.

He was also appointed consul – one of Rome’s most senior positions – in his late thirties, and was then appointed to the position of governor, probably of either Pannonia, modern-day western Hungary, or Germania Superior, parts of western Switzerland and southwestern Germany.

Trajan was very highly regarded. His experiences as a soldier brought him to the attention of Nerva (the incumbent emperor), as well as the army’s senior generals and, importantly, the Senate. In fact he was so highly rated Nerva adopted him and named him as his successor.

Nerva died in 98 after sixteen months on the throne and Emperor Trajan began a remarkable nineteen-year reign.

Trajan - Roman Emperor Caesar Nerva Traianus Augustus

Trajan's Column and Forum (Photo: Eleanor Scriven via Getty Images)

Trajan’s reign can be likened to that of Æthelstan, the first king of England, in that he was an accomplished soldier, a highly regarded statesman, politician and diplomat and a legendary empire builder, literally and metaphorically.

He gave money to support the children of the poorest in Rome, he built roads, aqueducts, bridges, triumphal arches, the harbour at Ostia Antica and public baths.

His most enduring projects include Trajan’s Market on the Via dei Fori Imperiali, Trajan’s Column, built to commemorate his victories in the Dacian Wars (and one of the largest surviving monuments in Rome), and Trajan’s Forum, the largest and most spectacular of Rome’s imperial forums.

The Dacian Wars

Battle between the Dacians and Romans (Photo: powerofforever via Getty Images)

War with Dacia – modern-day Romania and parts of the surrounding Eastern European countries – had started during the reign of Domitian in 85. Domitian had failed to conquer the region and instead ended up agreeing to a treaty of compromise, which included a yearly tribute of gold payable to the Dacians. Both the Senate and the army viewed this as a sign of weakness. Emperor Trajan wanted to succeed where Domitian had failed.

History is unsure whether Trajan’s Dacian campaigns were an act of revenge or to flex his military muscle. In two campaigns (101 – 102 and 105 – 106) Trajan first defeated Dacian king Decebalus, conquered much of western Dacia, and stopped the tribute of gold.

In the second Dacian war, Trajan rejected a peace plea and the Roman army set fire to the Dacian capital city. Rather than suffer the ignominy of capture, Decebalus is believed to have taken his own life – as illustrated on Trajan’s Column.

As for Trajan, Rome welcomed him back with possibly 50,000 prisoners. In 108 or 109, he organised a series of victory games lasting 123 days, involving 10,000 gladiators and tens of thousands of animals. He also came back with huge amounts of silver and gold of which it’s said he gave 650 denarii to almost 300,000 Roman citizens.

Dacia became a province of Rome and provided a home for thousands of Roman settlers. It became known as the ‘Land of the Romans’, or as we know it today, Romania.

Trajan fought other wars, most notably in Parthia – ancient Iran – in 113, although surviving accounts are fragmented so it’s hard to know why he fought there and what his goals were.

It was during this time that the empire expanded further, into Mesopotamia – modern-day Iraq – and down the River Tigris to the Persian Gulf.

Trajan’s empire encompassed land as far north as Scotland, south to North Africa and east to Iraq. It was the largest the Roman Empire had ever been.

Death and Succession

Emperor Trajan Statue (Photo: claudiodivizia via Getty Images)

Emperor Trajan fell ill and died in the city of Selinus, close to the modern-day city of Gazipaşa in southern Turkey in 117.

He was cremated, his ashes were returned to Rome and spread at the foot of his eponymous column.

Just before his passing, Trajan adopted Hadrian and named him as his successor.

Trajan - Rome’s Greatest?

Marcus Ulpius Traianus (Photo: UniversalImagesGroup via Getty Images)

That question is up for great debate and has been deliberated in great detail for almost two thousand years. Whether or not he’s the greatest Roman leader, Trajan is generally accepted to have been an effective, thoughtful and wise man and a strict but fair ruler.

Indeed his reputation was such that in the inauguration ceremonies for emperors that followed, the Senate would offer up a wish – ‘Sis felicior Augusto, melior Traiano.’ Be more fortunate than Augustus, be better than Trajan.’


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