BMCR 2023.03.19

Trajan: Rome’s last conqueror

, Trajan: Rome's last conqueror. Barnsley: Greenhill Books, 2022. Pp. 320. ISBN 9781784387075.



Roman imperial biographies have long held an appeal for the public, but Trajan has been the subject of only one full-length biography in English, Julian Bennett’s Trajan: Optimus Princeps (Indiana University Press, 1997). Nicholas Jackson’s Trajan: Rome’s last conqueror presents a timely and up-to-date account of the emperor the Romans styled as optimus princeps. The book is narrated through a chronological sequence of events, beginning with Trajan’s formative years and ending with his death and legacy. It is illustrated with an inset of 16 pages of color photographs and several black and white images of coins and maps within the text. The book offers a thorough and well-researched account of the life and reign of this important emperor and provides a balanced and nuanced view of his accomplishments and shortcomings.

Chapter 1 recounts Trajan’s family background and the political circumstances in the Roman Empire in the second half of the first century CE. The author elucidates how Trajan ultimately owed his imperial position to the wealth and connections of his immediate ancestors, who owned substantial property in the municipium of Italica in the province of Baetica (in modern Andalusia in south Spain) and were well-connected with both local and supra local patrician families. These connections and wealth led to the rise of his father, M. Ulpius Traianus, as one of emperor Vespasian’s most capable generals and staunch supporters, which, through a series of cunning alliances coupled with a dose of good luck, eventually led to Trajan’s own rise to power.

Chapters 2 and 3 deal with Trajan’s formative experiences, his early years in various military posts, his strategic marriage to Pompeia Plotina, and the importance of family relations, including his close relationship with his sister, Marciana, and other female members of the family. These chapters provide the reader with the necessary background to comprehend Trajan’s rise to power, which was partly aided by the military successes of his father in the service of Vespasian and Titus’ wars in the eastern part of the Empire. In chapters 4-5, Jackson recounts how the elder Traianus’ loyalty to the Flavians, further bolstered by the (short) marriage of his aunt Marcia Furnilla to Titus, would prove crucial in later securing Trajan’s rise to prominence as general in the German frontier under Domitian. Following the latter’s assassination and damnatio memoria, Trajan’s military talent and social connections made him the de facto heir to the next emperor, the aged Nerva, whom he succeeded in 98 CE following the latter’s short reign of 16 months.

After providing the background to Trajan’s formative experiences, Chapters 6-10 are concerned primarily with his reign and the Trajanic Age, one of the most prosperous in Roman history. It is these chapters that form the highlight of the book and where Jackson’s knowledge about the Trajanic period truly shines. The narrative conveys a thorough understanding of the major military events in Trajan’s reign – the two Dacian Wars, the Parthian War – as well as the emperor’s dealings with the senate, his loyalty to his family and supporters, and his architectural works in the city of Rome, including his eponymous forum. In these chapters the author’s thorough understanding of military tactics, the topographies of the regions which Trajan and his troops traversed, and the main individuals involved in his inner circle become evident. A particularly useful aspect of these chapters is the listing and defining of various personages associated with the Roman, Dacian, and Parthian forces as well as the number of troops and equipment of each of the nations and tribes involved in the three wars. These chapters are written in such a way as to stand alone, and readers interested in a specific event or time-period in Trajan’s reign – e.g., the two Dacian Wars or the Parthian War – will find the author’s approach to the topics discussed most rewarding.

The last chapter of the book (Chapter 11) details Trajan’s death at Selinus in Cilicia and the mysterious circumstances surrounding the adoption of his successor and former ward, Hadrian. Extant ancient sources suggest that the latter rose to power through the aid of Plotina,[1] who allegedly helped forge adoption papers while Trajan lay dying; the emperor’s death was supposedly concealed from the public for a few days so that enough time would pass for the adoption to be formalized. The death of Trajan’s physician, Phaedimus, a day or two after the emperor’s and the subsequent transfer of his remains to Rome thirteen years later also raises suspicions of a conspiracy. Whatever the truth behind this series of events, Hadrian ascended the imperial throne on August 11, 117 CE and promptly deified Trajan, whose ashes were brought back to Rome and placed at the base of his eponymous column, later to be joined by those of Plotina. This chapter ends with a short section on Trajan’s legacy and his seemingly impeccable reputation in history. The book closes with Edward Gibbon’s famous quotation from The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,[2] which the author regards as indicative of Trajan’s lasting reputation and that of the adoptive dynasty which he helped create.

An often-repeated oversight in Roman imperial biographies is that Trajan was the first Roman emperor to have been born outside Italy; Jackson reiterates this in the book’s blurb as well as in Chapters 1 and 11. In fact, one of Trajan’s predecessors, Claudius, was born in Lugdunum (modern Lyon, France) in 10 BCE. Equally problematic is Jackson’s assertion that Trajan was the first non-Italian emperor; on the basis of a passage in Cassius Dio and epigraphic evidence from Italica in Spain,[3] it has been claimed that at least one branch of his family, the Traii, was of native (i.e., Turdetanian) origin, a fact which has not found scholarly favor. Be that as it may, another branch of his family, the Ulpii, were allegedly of Umbrian stock,[4] and the gens Marcia on his mother’s side apparently had central Italian origins as well.

Another minor issue in this book is the author’s misunderstanding of nomenclature of emperors in the Greek-speaking eastern provinces. Jackson asserts that “Trajan is erroneously described as a ‘king’ by Arrian” (pp. 221). Literary sources and epigraphy indicate that it was not uncommon for Greek-speaking peoples to refer to Roman emperors as βασιλεὺς (king) at this time,[5] and the term was sometimes used interchangeably with αὐτοκράτωρ (emperor) in the Greek East. A further problematic aspect of this book is that the narrative is replete with conjectural scenarios; two indicative examples can be cited here. For example, Jackson recounts the suicide of the defeated Dacian king in the Carpathian Mountains: “Lacking any significant guard or protective force, Decebalus knew his fate and, despite the cries and extended arm of clemency from Maximus approaching on horseback, Decebalus slumped down against a tree and slit his own throat with his falx to join his warriors in the afterlife with Zalmoxis and evade humiliating capture.” (p. 167). He recounts Trajan’s meeting with the uncrowned king of Armenia: “Clearly used to getting his own way, Parthamasiris failed to hold his temper and stormed out of the tent in a fit of rage” (p. 212).  While many such scenarios in the book appear plausible, they are clearly conjectural and meant to add color to the narrative, blurring historical fact and fiction.

Overall, Jackson has produced a convincing and well-written biography of Trajan despite a few flaws and omissions. His narrative provides the reader with a better understanding of the challenges and opportunities that Trajan faced, and how his decisions and actions impacted the course of Roman history. A major strength of the book is the way the author contextualizes the political climate in the late first/early second century CE against the backdrop of the social and political conditions that prevailed in the Roman Empire and Trajan’s role in shaping its military, political, and cultural history. This reviewer particularly appreciates the way Jackson has constructed his narrative without including a plethora of academic references that often take away from the originality of the author’s arguments. Jackson’s book thus constitutes an important contribution to Trajan’s enduring legacy as one of Rome’s greatest emperors and will appeal especially to students and general readers.



[1] Cassius Dio 69.1.

[2] “If a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domition to the accession of Commodus…..”.

[3] Cassius Dio 68.4: “an Iberian, neither an Italian nor an Italiot”; on this topic, see Canto, A. M. (2010). I Traii Betici: novità sulla famiglia e le origini di Traiano. I Traii Betici: novità sulla famiglia e le origini di Traiano, 27-64; contra Bennett, J. (2003). Trajan: optimus princeps. Routledge, 1. For a more nuanced interpretation on the problem of Trajan’s ancestry, see Cortés Copete, J.M. (2016). Casio Dion 68.4 y la Autobiografia de Adriano. Íber, Ítalo e italiota: a la búsqueda de una identidad imperial.

[4] Appian, Iberica, 38; Epitome de Caesaribus 13.1. in addition to being attested in several epigraphic documents from Spain, the nomen Traius (feminine Traia) is also attested independently in Italy, as in e.g., CIL XV 1805 and CIL XI 4686.

[5] Note e.g., Athenaeus VIII. 361.3 who refers to Hadrian as μουσικώτατος βασιλεύς.