August 8, 2016, by Will Leveritt
On this day in AD 117, the Roman emperor Trajan died
Text by Mike Welbourn
Image by Sarah Jordan
Trajan became emperor in 98 and seems to have been keen to win military glory; earlier in his reign he had mounted two successful wars against the Dacians (a tribe living in the area of modern day Romania) and their king Decebalus.The first took place between 101 and 102, the second between 105 and 106. At the end of the latter conflict Trajan annexed Dacia and turned it into a Roman province.
By defeating the Dacians Trajan had expanded Roman power, brought great wealth into the state coffers (Dacia had exploitable gold and silver mines), some of which he used to build the famous Forum of Trajan in Rome, and had won military renown for himself.
But his ambitions did not, it seems end there. In 113 he undertook the invasion of the Parthian Empire, Rome’s great eastern rival.
The Greek historian and senator Cassius Dio tells us that the ostensible reason for the campaign was that the Parthians had unilaterally placed upon the throne of Armenia an unacceptable candidate, Axidares.
At this time Armenia was a client and buffer state between the two empires and it had been established under Nero that while the throne of Armenia was in the gift of the Parthians, the Romans were to be consulted so that candidates were acceptable to both great powers.
This had not been done in the case of Axidares and Trajan used this as his pretext for invasion. For Dio, Trajan’s real motive was the winning of yet more territory and personal glory.
Trajan began with an invasion of Armenia itself. It seems the Parthian king Osroes I had taken steps to avoid a war by deposing Axidares and replacing him with his brother Parthamasiris.
At the city of Elegeia Trajan met with Parthamasiris, who offered obeisance and fully expected to be formally re-crowned as king of Armenia by Trajan. But having secured the kingdom, Trajan forced the former king into exile and turned Armenia into a Roman province.
In 115 came the invasion of Parthian territory. The campaign seems to have been relatively easy; the Parthian Empire was at the time weakened by internal unrest and Trajan swept through northern Mesopotamia capturing many cities, often without a fight. In the aftermath of these successes he established the Roman province of Mesopotamia.
In 116 Trajan undertook the conquest of the rest of Mesopotamia, moving south and eventually reaching the Tigris river. He crossed it and captured the Parthian capital, Ctesiphon. For this feat he earned the honorific title Parthicus (‘conqueror of the Parthians’) and the right to celebrate an unlimited number of triumphs.
Trajan had thus accomplished what no previous emperor had, and the Roman Empire stood at its greatest extent.
But he had little time to enjoy his great success: returning to the city of Babylon he was told that almost all the territories he had so recently conquered had exploded into open rebellion.
He sent his generals to attempt to recapture some cities, and managed to take back Nisibis and Edessa. The city of Seleucia was recaptured and then sacked and burned but Trajan seems to have realized that direct Roman rule had to be curtailed if not abandoned.
His stop-gap solution was to depose Osroes I and replace him with a Parthian puppet king, one Parthamaspates.
Trajan returned north to attempt to secure his newly minted provinces of Armenia and Mesopotamia. The Jewish communities of the conquered territory also turned to revolt at this time.
It seems, however, that Trajan viewed all of these difficulties as mere setbacks, and fully intended to attempt a second invasion of Parthian territory in 117. But early in that year his health took a serious turn for the worse and he decided to return to Italy.
It was during this return journey that he stopped at the city of Selinus in the province of Cilicia (a southern region of modern day Turkey) where his condition grew worse. He died there around the 8 August, 117 aged 60.
He lived just long enough to see Parthamaspates deposed by the Parthians. In addition, the territory still under Roman rule at his death was soon abandoned by his successor, Hadrian, who sought to rationalize and consolidate the borders of the empire.
Thus Trajan’s great campaign came ultimately to naught.