Have you ever looked back on history and thought to yourself: “Wow. Everyone who came before me was a bag of dicks.” I mean, seriously: Most of our world today was shaped by jackholes being jackholes. By all rights, Ghengis Khan, Alexander the Great, Nero, Caligula, Henry VIII, Louis the XVI, were all jerks; hell even JFK was kind of a git. Great man with great ideas, but that doesn’t always mean he was a good person. So does that mean that our world was built on the shoulders of dirtbags and murderers? To some degree. But see, in the wake of every genocidal expansionist tyrant there were a whole slew of folks that just wanted to make THEIR world a better place. And every once in a very great while; we get one of these visionary world-builders in the hot seat for a hot minute until one of their idiot subordinates gets ambitious and has him or her murdered.
(As a brief aside: I never understood why being a world leader seemed all that glamorous. You’re the target for every rival country and interest group in your entire sphere of influence. How is that REMOTELY fun?)
I wanted to tell a story about one of the rare few. I mean a true member of that rare breed of historical figures who wasn’t a right ‘bar-stool’. To this end, I settled on Trajan. Not only does he bear a terrifying resemblance to both Rene Auberjonois and my uncle Milton, but he looks kind of…. Bemused. Now sculptors are supposed to make their subjects look… regal, austere, hell at least SERIOUS. But look at that picture… he looks like he is smirking at me from 1900 years ago… like he knows something I don’t. And frankly, that is probably true.
Trajan was born in mid-September of 53 CE to low-ranking peasants of Spanish/Italian stock in the city of Italica in Hispania Baetica. Trajan climbed to his great heights through the army, and eventually fell into the good graces of a bad emperor, the elderly and unpopular Marcus Cocceius Nerva. The old emperor was childless and when members of the Praetorian Guard revolted against him, he decided it was time to play the game a little harder. He adopted Trajan, and when Nerva died in 98 CE, Trajan took over as Emperor of Rome.
Trajan changed the face of the city of Rome, literally, with public building projects and left his legacy in the areas of Trajan’s Forum, Trajan’s Market, and Trajan’s Column. But more than that, his expansionist plans increased Rome’s borders to the furthest extent they would ever reach: With the annexation of Nabataean Kingdom and the conquest of Dacia, followed by the sacking of Ctesiphon in the Parthian Empire and the annexation of Armenia and Mesopotamia. On the return journey, Trajan died of a stroke in 117 CE. His ashes were buried under Trajan’s Column and he was succeeded by his adopted heir, Hadrian (y’know, of Hadrian’s Wall?).
The Senate named him one of the greatest Emperors of all time. There are rumors that he was homosexual, but honestly, the Romans had a tendency towards omnisexuality (which really just a fancy way of saying they’d stick it in anything so long as there was a pulse) so it is really hard to say. It is documented that he did have sexual congress with several male partners, including his own adoptive heir, Hadrian.
The moral of the story? It really depends on your takeaway. For me, Trajan was one of the good guys. The ultimate badass, who knew his business on the battlefield but also had a firm grasp on politics. Trajan shaped the world, his legacy is still reflected even today, some 1898 years after his death. But nobody is perfect. I hear Trajan cheated at Latrunculi. Jerk.