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A Very Early Denarius of Trajan, minted around 98 AD

Trajan, His Family and his Early Life

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Before one can begin to describe Trajan, one must first have an idea of his personality. Dio Cassius, when discussing Trajan's reign describes Trajan perfectly:

"He was most conspicous for his justice, for his bravery, and for the simplicity of his habits... He did not envy or slay any one, but honoured and exalted all good men without exception, and hence he neither feared nor hated any of them. To slanders he paid very little heed, and he was no slave of anger. He refrained from taking other people's money, and from unjust murders. He expended vast sums on wars and vast sums on works of peace; and while making very many urgently needed repairs to roads and harbours and public buildings, he drained no one's blood in any of these undertakings... He joined others in the chase and in banquets, as well as in their labours and plans and jests... He would enter the houses of citizens, sometimes even without a guard, and enjoy himself there. Education in the strictest sense he lacked, but its substance he both knew and applied. I know, of course, that he was devoted to boys and wine. And if he had ever committed or endured any base or wicked act as the result of these practices, he would have incurred censure. As it was however, he drank all the wine he wanted, yet remained sober. And in his relations with boys he harmed no one."

- Dio Cassius (LXVIII 6:3-7:5)

This was how the Romans described Trajan. The question of how such a man became emperor is an interesting one indeed, and one must start at the beginning. Trajan was 42 when he took the throne, and he hadn't spent the earlier part of his life lounging about in luxury, as did his predecessors.

Trajan's Early Life

Marcus Ulpius Traianius the third was born to Marcus Ulpius Traianius the Second and Marcia on September 18th, around 56 AD, in Hispainia Baetica. Some sources state that Trajan was born around 52 AD, but according to Dio, he was 42 years of age upon taking the throne in 98 AD, placing his birth in 52 AD. While little of known of his mother Marcia, his father was a figure of some importance, being the first Senator in the family. Trajan Senior became in 73 AD the legate of Syria, and later became legate of Asia and held high priesthoods. Trajan became a military tribune in 71 AD, at the apparent age of 15, and later assisted his father in earning the ornamenta triumphalia by assisting in the defeat of a Parthian incursion into Syria in 75 AD. Trajan was given the title of Praetor in 85 AD, and given command of the Legio Gemina VII in Hispainia Tarraconensis. Around this time, Hadrian, Trajan's successor and cousin, became his ward.

Obverse of a Denarius depicting the bust of Domitian

Trajan's quick mobilization against the rebel Antonius Saturninus in 90 AD earned him Domitian's respect.

During the revolt of Antonius Saturninus, around 90 AD, Trajan was called to assist in putting down the rebellion. Though he arrived to late to participate in the battle, Domitian was grateful, and Trajan held his first consulship with Acilius Glabrio (who was later executed for atheism) in 91 AD. After Domitian's assassination, Trajan rose quickly in power, first becoming legate of Germania Superior, and rising ever higher in the estimation of the new emperor, Nerva. Nerva received news of a victory won by Trajan in Paeonia after his humiliation by the Praetorian Guard in 97 AD, and straightaway adopted Trajan and announced it publically. Nerva died towards the beginning of the new year, and Trajan officialy became Emperor without any dissent - despite the fact that he would be the first non-Italian emperor. The question of why Nerva adopted Trajan precisely is one that bears further examination.

Trajan's Family

Before one goes into the story of just how Trajan became emperor, one should consider his family. Spanish in origin, it is very doubtful any Roman would have pointed at them as the potential founders of an imperial dynasty - and, indeed, it was a dynasty. The five emperors, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, Marcus Aurelius and Commodus, were all related by blood as well as adoption. It was under them that Rome would reach its height, and, eventually, begin its long spiral into decline. Trajan's family, not just Trajan, were instrumental in the establishment of this dynasty, and, thus, they should not go without mention.

Obverse of an Aureus depicting Trajan Senior.

Trajan Senior

This is the reverse of an exceptionally rare aureus (RIC II 763) depicting the bare bust of the deified father of Trajan. Trajan Senior was instrumental in the rise of Trajan to the imperatorship - without the opportunities afforded to Trajan because of Trajan Senior's success, it is doubtful he would have risen so high.

Obverse of an Aureus depicting Nerva.


Trajan's adoptive father and his predecessor as emperor, Nerva's role in establishing the Adoptive dynasty should be apparent. IT was his wisdom that appointed Trajan to the throne, and provided a transitionary period between Domitian and Trajan, two very different military rulers. (RIC II 18)

Obverse of an Aureus depicting Hadrian.


Trajan's sucessor and second cousin, after the death of Hadrian's father, Trajan took him in as his ward. Under Trajan he took on adminstrative duties and was well prepared for the tribulations of the imperatorship. It is a direct result of the machinations of Plotina and Hadrian that Trajan's dynasty remained in power. (RIC II 18)

Obverse of an Aureus depicting Plotina.


Trajan's austere and respected wife, Plotina was renowned for her humility, wisdom and dignity. She loved Hadrian as though he was the son she never had, and it is a result of her plotting with Hadrian that he assumed the throne after Trajan's death in Cilicia, and he loved her like a mother. (RIC II 730)

Obverse of a Denarius depicting Marciana.


Marciana was Trajan's sister and was also respected throughout the empire as a woman of great virtue. Her marriage to Patruinius resulted in the birth of Matidia, mother of Sabina and great, great grandmother of Marcus Aurelius. Her children were some of the more important individuals over the next hundred years, and she was a worthy progenitor. (RIC II 743)

Obverse of an Aureus depicting Matidia.


Matidia, daughter of Marcianna, niece of Trajan and mother of Sabina (wife of Hadrian) was as greatly respected as her mother and was the beloved mother-in-law of Hadrian. It is said that Hadrian himself personally delivered an oration at her funeral and dedicated a temple to her memory. (RIC II 758)

This was the first generation of a dynasty that would span 6 emperors including Nerva, and would raise the standards of the Roman people to an unachievable level. Despite the two terms used to refer to halves of this dynasty, Adoptive and Antonine, both are really one entity, and both names are misnomers. There is no real "adoptive" dynasty, as each heir was "in the family," so to speak. And the dynasty was not merely Antonine either. Thus, just as the Julio-Claudian and Flavian dynasties, these five emperors, with the exception of Nerva, can be grouped into a dynasty of their own.

On the above family tree, the interconnection can be seen as far as Hadrian, and if one considers that the second Matidia was the paternal great-grandmother of Marcus Aurelius, the scheme falls into place. And the family was a very close one indeed! Trajan's marriage with Plotina is an example - the two remained, contrary to some rumours, largely faithful until the day of their death. Trajan had his flings with boys and young women, but the idea of divorce was likely never brought up.

Even Pliny, in his Panegyricus, comments on the glory Plotina brought to Trajan. He calls her a perfect example of the "ancient virtues" and comments on the sparcity of her ornaments and the modesty of her attendants. Perhaps the most telling evidence lies within the words Plotina said to the Roman people as she entered the palace. According to Dio, as she was ascending the steps to her new home, she turned to the crowd and said "I enter here as such a woman as I would fain be when I depart." To our knowledge, she lived upto this oath.

This rare aureus (RIC II 232a), minted by Hadrian to deify his adoptive mother and father, depicts the jugate (conjoined) busts of Plotina and Trajan. The two were quite a couple, and as far removed as can be imagined from the turbulent marriages of emperors Rome had experienced before.

Reverse of an Aureus depicting the jugate busts of Trajan and Plotina

Marciana too was equally praised, and Pliny states that "(she) never forgets that she is your (Trajan's) sister and your (Trajan's) own frank sincerity and candour can be clearly recognized in her." Both Marciana and Plotina were offered the title of Augusta on several occasions, but refuses to take it until Trajan accepted the title "Father of the Country" and still did not accept it until 104 or 105 AD. This modesty won them great reknown in the eyes of the Romans, and only served to increase their and Trajan's reputation further.

Reverse of an Aureus depicting the busts of Trajan Sr and Nerva en face.

This rare aureus (RIC II 726) depicts the busts of Trajan and Nerva en face, and commemorates their joint deification. Trajan immediately deified Nerva, and deified Trajan Senior at his decenalia celebration around 115 AD.

Another sign of the closeness of this dynasty of rulers was their loyalty to each other. The very same act that earned Antoninus the epiphet "Pius" was also committed by Hadrian. Each emperor demanded that the prior emperor be deified, no matter what the senate said. This was one of the few instances where any of the "Five Good Emperors" ever disagreed with the Senate.

This rare aureus (RIC II 30) depicts the bust of Trajan deified. Despite Trajan's excellent reign, there was some protest in the Senate about his deification. Hadrian insisted however upon immediate deification - an act that would, upon Hadrian's death, be repeated by Antoninus, earning him the epiphet "Pius."

Obverse of an Aureus depicting the bust of the deified Trajan.

A Note about these Images

The gold coins on these page are all part of the Trier hoard of gold aureii, encompassing over 2700 aureii from a 100 year period. The hoard currently resides in the Rheinisches Landesmuseum Trier in Trier. The images belong to Christian Ziehe, who graciously has allowed me to use them on this page.

Overview | Trajan | His Empire | His Works | His Coinage | Links | Bibliography