Please note this is a transcript of an extract from an episode of the HistoryExtra podcast that has been lightly edited for clarity. Listen to the full episode here: Tom Holland on Rome’s golden age
Was Trajan Rome's greatest emperor? The Romans called Trajan the optimus princeps (the best of emperors), and that is how he is commemorated, not just by the Romans, but intriguingly right the way into the Christian period.
The Christians, when they looked back at Trajan, couldn't bear the thought that this great emperor, because he hadn't been converted to Christianity, might have ended up in hell. And so they came up with all kinds of stories to suggest that perhaps he'd got a pass, uniquely, and had made it into heaven.
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My personal take is actually that Trajan is vastly overrated. He wins this great victory in Dacia, but he is essentially encouraged by that to aim at conquests that overstretch Roman resources. And he does what has been disastrous to so many subsequent western leaders: he invades Iraq.
The only real geopolitical rival that the Romans take seriously on their own borders is the Parthian Empire, which is an Iranian Empire, but rules Mesopotamia, as the Greeks called what we now call Iraq. Trajan decides that he's going to knock this out; he's going to conquer Mesopotamia.
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He does this – and he reaches the shores of the Persian Gulf, where he sees a ship sailing away. And he asks: “Where is that ship sailing?” And he's told, “Oh, it's off to India.” And he expresses an Alexander the Great-type lament that he can't follow in Alexander's footsteps and conquer India himself.
Trajan's legacy is not nearly what it seems to be
The truth is that even conquering Mesopotamia has overstretched his resources. Trajan essentially dies amid the implosion of those conquests, and it's left to Hadrian, his successor, to clear up the mess.
There's a point when Trajan is dying, that not only are his recent conquests in Mesopotamia imploding, but there's a massive Judean revolt – that is kind of general across much of the Mediterranean. There seems to have been massive turbulence in Britain, in Mauritania, across the empire. And I think when Trajan dies, there's a very real chance that the whole fabric of the empire is on the point of implosion.
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I think an emperor has to be judged by his legacy – and I think that actually Trajan's legacy is not nearly what it seems to be. The reason that a veil is cast over that by subsequent historians is that Hadrian does his job very well. Hadrian very discreetly clears up the mess – and because Hadrian is Trajan's heir, Hadrian has no stake in blaming Trajan.