Emperor Trajan: History, Reign, Accomplishments, & Notable Military Campaigns

Known as one of Rome’s greatest emperors, Trajan reigned for close to two decades, from 98 AD to 117 AD.

Emperor Trajan: Fast Facts

Born: Marcus Ulpius Traianus

Reign: 98- 117 AD

Dynasty: Nerva-Antonine

Predecessor: Nerva

Successor: Hadrian

Born: September 18, 53 AD

Place of birth: Italica, Hispania

Died: August 8, 117 AD

Place of death: Selinus, Cilicia

Spouse: Pompeia Plotina

Parents: Marcus Ulpius Trajanus and Marcia


Unlike many of his predecessors, Emperor Marcus Ulpius Trajanus (popularly known as Trajan), was the first Roman Emperor to be born outside of Italy. His succession of Emperor Nerva also made him one of the first rulers to gain power outside of a ruling bloodline.

Trajan’s rise to power was much-needed, as the Roman Empire was in the process of settling into a peaceful era following a somewhat turbulent period. Nerva’s reign, although it had been short, brought some stability, but it was Trajan that turned the once-failing empire into a leading powerhouse.

He embarked on many military campaigns that expanded the control and influence of the Roman Empire. His reign is praised for being one that brought immense amounts of prosperity and growth to the empire. It was during Trajan’s reign that Rome reached its largest expanse in history. For example, in his early reign, he successfully brought the kingdom of Dacia into the Roman Empire. Dacia, located in today’s Romania, was a very rich territory as a result of its numerous gold mines.

Who was Trajan? And how did he expand the Roman Empire?

Below, World History Edu takes an in-depth look into the early years, military career, reign, and accomplishments of this Roman emperor.

Early Years of Trajan: Birth, Childhood & Military Career

Trajan was born in Italica (located in modern-day Seville, Spain). Unlike most emperors before him, it’s likely that Trajan and his family did not have a strong Italian lineage and historians like Cassius Dio believe that he was the first non-Italian emperor.

However, that assertion might not be entirely true. His hometown, Italica, had been founded by Roman general Scipio Africanus around the time of Trajan’s birth and was filled with other Roman settlers. Additionally, Trajan’s parents were from central Italy: his father, Marcus Ulpius Trajanus, was from Umbria and his mother, Marcia, from the Sabine Region.

Both his parents had some prominence in Roman social circles. Marcia was the sister-in-law to the former Emperor Titus, and Marcus was senator who also served under Emperor Flavius Vespasian in the military during the Flavian Dynasty . Much of Trajan’s childhood remains unknown; however, it is likely that he spent his early years in Italica before moving to Rome when he was around nine years old.

Like many other former Roman emperors, Trajan’s career started in the military, he gallantly served in Germany and Pannonia. He also served in Syria and later in Rhine, where he attempted to help Emperor Domitian to fight against Saturnius, the governor of Upper Germany. Although he was late to fight in the battle, Domitian rewarded his dedication by making him praetor.

READ MORE: Top 10 Most Influential Roman Generals

In 91 AD, he was appointed consul despite his relatively younger age. But this appointment could have been due to his father’s influence and prominence during the Flavian Dynasty. It could have also been due to his allegiance to Domitian.

He later married Pompeia Plotina but they had no children. According to Cassius Dio, Trajan was a homosexual. It wasn’t totally uncommon, as most noble Roman men were bisexuals. It is believed that some of his male lovers included Emperor Nerva, who ruled directly before Trajan.

Rise to Power

Following his father’s footsteps, Trajan joined the Roman army. And due to his assiduous nature, he climbed up the military ranks quickly. He fought valiantly in a number of places, including in the east and Syria. Statue of Trajan, posing in military garb, in front of the Amphitheater of Colonia Ulpia Traiana in the Xanten Archaeological Park

Trajan’s rise to power began with the events that unfolded during the reigns of his predecessors, Domitian and Nerva.

Domitian was regarded as a cruel, paranoid, and ineffective ruler despite the achievements of his father and brother, Emperors Vespasian and Titus, respectively. His death brought the Flavian Dynasty to an end and also brought change to the rules regarding succession. It also introduced the era of the Five Good Emperors.

Nerva was not a direct descendant or relative of Domitian when he was elected by the Senate to rule. He had been a long time servant of Rome, occupying public offices in the capacity of consul. Despite bringing an end to the tyrannical rule Domitian had led, the Emperor Nerva encountered major challenges, especially with the Roman army officers. Domitian had previously bought their loyalty by raising their pay and they were prepared to avenge his death.

Why did Nerva adopt Trajan as his son and heir?

After being held captive in a mutiny led by the Praetorian Guard, Nerva strongly considered abdicating and also realized the importance of having a successor. He had no children and so he turned to adoption.

Nerva had no issue finding someone to adopt and turned his eyes to Trajan, who at the time, was the governor of Upper Germany.

When Nerva died in 98 AD, the Senate declared Trajan as the next emperor, making him the second of the Five Good Emperors.

At one point, he was the commander of an entire Roman legion. After his military career, he went into politics and got elected to the position of praetor and later consul. Before becoming emperor, he served as governor of Upper Germany. It was around this time that he adopted by Emperor Nerva and proclaimed Nerva’s heir. The young army general was very popular among military figures in the empire.

The Second of the Five Good Emperors

When Trajan received word of Nerva’s death in 98 AD, he decided to bide his time before heading back to Rome. He did this for two main reasons; to ensure that the empire was safe from the Dacians, and second, to determine which military officers were still loyal to Domitian even in his death.

After spending a year away, Trajan arrived in Rome, choosing to enter on foot and interacting with the locals and nobles. But his arrival wasn’t entirely welcome because the relationship between the Senate and emperors had soured, especially since Domitian’s reign.

One of Trajan’s first tasks was to repair the damaged relationship. He did this by demonstrating his reluctance to accept the power that came with being emperor, and he did so successfully, letting them see that he recognized his power came from the Senate and nowhere else. Trajan also publicly tasked the Senate to watch over the Roman Empire along with him.

Perhaps it was all a ploy to get the Senate on his side. Trajan’s machinations did work. But the power that Trajan had, in comparison to that of the Senate’s, was significantly different. He was an absolute ruler, however, he didn’t abuse his position like Domitian. Instead, he used his power to improve the Empire and also reversed much of the damage Domitian had caused.

Accomplishments of Trajan

Trajan was a successful emperor, one that brought prosperity to the Empire and strengthened its power. Here are some of his accomplishments:

Military Campaigns

Trajan also waged a very successful campaign against the Parthian Empire in the East. He was able to pry off two large provinces from the Parthians, including Armenia. Trajan helped Rome reach its greatest territorial extent in history. Image – Denarius of Trajan, minted in Rome in 101–102 AD.

With an extensive military career, Trajan was very passionate about the art of war. While in power, he led three major wars, with the first two being against the Dacians and the last occurring at the Empire’s eastern frontier.

His history with the Dacians and its ruler, King Decebalus, began during Domitian’s rulership, but it proved unsuccessful at the time.

It was therefore not surprising that he quickly marched his army to wage war against Dacia. In 88 AD, during the First Battle of Tapae, Trajan and the Roman army were defeated. In 101 AD, he received the opportunity to avenge his defeat, eventually defeating them in the Second Battle of Tapae. The two parties entered peace negotiations and King Decebalus was forced to give up sections of his land.

But Decebalus was not prepared to live up to his agreement, and in 105 AD, the Dacians and Romans went to war again. Similar to the previous encounter, the Romans were too powerful, as Trajan’s men stormed into Sarmizegethusa, the capital of Dacia, and seized its treasury, which he used to build the Forum of Trajan back home. Fearing his eventual capture, Decebalus killed himself and the Romans displayed his severed head back in Rome.

The Roman Empire conquered and absorbed Dacia, with many of its people displaced. Later, many other Romans settled in the region and called it the “Land of the Romans”, which is known as modern-day Romania.

Rome reaches its greatest territorial extent in history

Rome remained mostly peaceful after its victory over the Dacians. However, it did not last for long and in 114 AD, the Empire’s eastern frontier was compromised. War broke out after a Parthian ascended the throne in Armenia. At that time, Armenia was a Roman buffer state and this ascension threatened its power in the region. Quite certainly, Trajan did not intend to sit idly and watch that happen.

The growing war caused Trajan to depart Rome not knowing that he wouldn’t return. He was initially successful and, through his strategic leadership, Armenia become a province under Rome. But he continued his campaign against Parthia and annexed major areas like Mesopotamia and Ctesiphon, with the latter being an important city of the Parthians.

By conquering those lands, the Roman Empire expanded to its greatest territorial extent in history. At its peak, the empire’s boundaries stretched from Scotland all the way to the Caspian Sea.

His extensive amount of time in the army paid huge dividends when he became emperor. The emperor, who was sometimes described as a “soldier-emperor”, was tactically adept and used his skills to stretch the boundaries of the empire, which reached its greatest territorial extent in history.

Trajan’s public building programs

Perhaps, his most famous building project was the Trajan Forum which was built in Rome. The Trajan Bridge built over the Danube River remained the longest arch bridge in the world for more than a millennium. Image: Reconstruction view of the Trajan’s Column

Emperor Trajan was famed as a prolific builder of public infrastructure. Cognizance of just how important infrastructure could transform an empire’s economy, the emperor invested heavily into roads, aqueducts, canals and bridges, among others.

Trajan is praised for building two major structures during his reign – the Forum of Trajan and Trajan’s Column. The forum was designed and constructed by Apollodorus of Damascus. It served as the main center for all of Rome’s legal affairs. It was also used to display artifacts that had been seized from wars. Trajan’s Column was built in 113 AD to celebrate the emperor’s victory over Dacia.

And to this day, Trajan’s column remains intact, standing tall in the city of Rome. The column was built by the emperor to celebrate his victory over the kingdom of Dacia.

Apollodorus also constructed Trajan’s Bridge over the Danube River, and until 275 AD, it remained the longest arch bridge worldwide.

READ MORE: Everything that you need to know about Pax Romana

How did Trajan die?

But the Mesopotamians refused to go down without a fight. They led a rebellion in 117 AD where Trajan was nearly killed by an arrow. This event sparked several other rebellions from Cyrenaica to Cyprus. At the same time, the Empire’s northern frontier was also being threatened and Trajan was forced to leave and head back to Rome. However, he died upon his return after falling ill. It is said that he died of stroke. The emperor was cremated and his ashes buried in a chamber beneath Trajan’s Column.


Trajan's successor

Trajan died in Cilicia in 117 AD. The emperor had taken ill during one of his military campaigns in the East. Upon his death, he was succeeded by his adopted son and heir, Hadrian.

Much like his predecessor, Trajan was also childless. As a result, he resorted to adoption to find someone to succeed him. Earlier in his life, he had become the co-guardian of his cousin’s children, Hadrian and Paulina. Trajan reportedly adopted Hadrian and named him his heir.

However, it is also likely that Hadrian had never been adopted by the emperor and that his wife, Pompeia, had falsified those documents that named Hadrian as Trajan’s successor. In spite of the rumors, Hadrian’s election as heir was not contested, and upon Trajan’s death, he rose to become emperor.

“Be luckier than Augustus and better than Trajan”

Unlike some of his predecessors who had acrimonious relationship with the Roman Senate, Trajan was in fact liked by Rome lawmakers. The senate coined the saying “be luckier than Augustus and better than Trajan” as a way of wishing newly crowned emperors a successful reign.

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