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Exhibition Highlights and Historical Background Notes
Courtesy of British Museum
26 October 2008


Trajan (Marcus Ulpius Traianus, about AD 53 - 117), was born at Italica near Seville in south-west modern Spain, and was the first non-Italian emperor, reflecting the political and economic shifts taking place within the Roman empire. His father had risen to prominence as a military commander and politician under the emperor Vespasian (AD 69 - 79). Trajan followed him into a successful military career and was adopted by the elderly, childless emperor Nerva. He became ruler in AD 98.

Under Trajan the empire reached its greatest extent, with the conquests of Mesopotamia (modern Iraq), and Dacia (modern Romania). The latter was celebrated on Trajan's Column in Rome, which carries the history of the two Dacian wars in a 200 metre long frieze spiralling up the shaft. The column was only one element of an immense complex of forum, basilica (law-court), libraries, shops, and housing built with the proceeds of his conquests. Trajan, however, was not only a very capable commander, but was also renowned for his fairness, good government and wisdom. Elements of these are preserved in his correspondence with the younger Pliny, one of his ablest provincial governors, notably on the subject of early Christian communities. This reputation endured for centuries, and it is this perceived piety which earned Trajan, rather than Augustus, Hadrian or Constantine, a place in the Paradiso of Dante Alighieri (1265 - 1321).

Marble bust of Trajan
Roman, made in Italy about AD 108-117

© Trustees of the British Museum

The marle bust, one of many issued to commemorate the emperor Trajan's Decennalia (tenth anniversary of his accession - he reigned AD 98 - 117), shows him in the style of a Hellenistic ruler, with his upper body bared and his head slightly turned.

Trajan and Plotina did not have any children. In AD 85 Trajan became guardian of the future emperor Hadrian, son of his cousin. There are indications that Trajan may have groomed Hadrian as his potential heir. He guided Hadrian's career and agreed to a marriage with his great-niece, Sabina. But Hadrian was never confirmed with the title of Caesar, so it was never publicly clear that he was the intended successor. In fact, Trajan frequently pronounced that a number of men were capable of ruling the empire. Only on his deathbed did Trajan adopt Hadrian as his heir and successor. The letter of adoption was signed by Plotina, leading to rumours she may have manipulated the succession.

Cameo with double portrait of the emperor Trajan and his wife Plotina carved from a three-layered sardonyx, a type of precious stone. AD 105 -115
© Trustees of the British Museum

The maker of this cameo has created a powerful mix of naturalistic and idealised features in his depiction of the imperial couple. Many of the best gem cutters came from the Greek parts of the Roman Empire and luxury objects of this kind were circulated among the elite.

Culturekiosque readers should note that the above images are from the excellent and lavishly illustrated book Hadrian: Empire & Conflict that accompanies the current exhibition. It is the work of Thorsten Opper, curator in the Department of Greek and Roman Antiquities at the British Museum. Highly recommended and astonishing value for money.

Hadrian: Empire & Conflict
By Thorsten Opper

Hardcover: 224 pages
Harvard University Press (September 2008)
ISBN-10: 0674030958
ISBN-13: 978-0674030954

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