Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Felicior Augusto, Melior Traiano

In his abridged Roman History, the Breviarum, the late fourth century historian Eutropius reports that Trajan was the only emperor to be buried inside the city of Rome (in his magnificent forum) and then observes:

So much respect has been paid to his memory, that, even to our own times, they shout in acclamations to the emperors, "More fortunate than Augustus, better than Trajan!" So much has the fame of his goodness prevailed, that it affords ground for most noble illustration in the hands either of such as flatter, or of such as praise with sincerity.

Huius tantum memoriae delatum est, ut usque ad nostram aetatem non aliter in senatu principibus adclametur, nisi "Felicior Augusto, melior Traiano". Adeo in eo gloria bonitatis obtinuit, ut vel adsentantibus vel vere laudantibus occasionem magnificentissimi praestet exempli. 

As part of the fourth century revitalization of Trajan's memory, it is interesting to see him connected--like a book end to Augustus.  His forum was literally connected to Augustus's, by a passageway, a reminder to visitors that he was to be considered in that tradition.  It's all the more interesting that Suetonius refused to do so.  But also interesting that Augustus is only felix, lucky (a slightly complicated nickname given its associations with Sulla); while Trajan is melior--a nod to his title of Optimus Princeps.  A common theme in Trajan's imagery and other civic works as well as in Pliny's Panegyricus actually seems to be about positioning himself at the start of yet another new era, in which the principate is thoroughly infused with the ideals of the republic (notably, libertas and the supremacy of law). In defining himself, Trajan interacts with the traditions of both Julius Caesar and Augustus, adopting their strengths and eschewing their weaknesses.  

As I read more deeply, I realize that it is impossible to make sense of Trajan's reign without seeing it in the broader context of the late republic, especially Caesar and Augustus.  But also, when 4th century historians came to make sense of Trajan, they repeatedly saw him as an improved, more civil Augustus.  For unlike Augustus, he did not have to ignore the bloody mess and civil war that led to his rise to power.  He could make his name solely on his military achievements and the public works projects that they enabled.

But the other thing that Trajan and Augustus had in common was a recognition that, to succeed, they had to figure out how to keep the senate reasonably satisfied as a body without handing over too much power.  In both cases, they seem to have made gestures towards treating the senate as partners in governance, as friends, despite the power difference.  And, for some time, the senate held out hope that this alliance would result in a return of the senate to the sort of cultural prominence it had held in the 3rd and 2nd century BC.  Yet it was not to be, as the senators under Augustus and Trajan both eventually realized.

This connection between Augustus and Trajan is important. It's one that seems to have been made deliberately by Trajan himself; and one that is amplified by fourth century writers.


  1. But by 98 AD, Julius Caesar had been 142 years in his grave. Only those over 60 had ever been adults under Claudius, and only those over 77 adults under Tiberius. How was the memory of the late Republic of Cato, Cicero, Pompey, and Caesar transmitted to the Senate of Trajan? I think of how 1975, 1958, and 1873 look from today's vantage point...

  2. Good point that there was nobody alive who had actually lived through the events of the late republic or even Augustus's early years. This is partly why Vespasian is finally able to put in place the Lex de Imperio, in which the emperor's powers are grounded in Roman law rather than in the murky passing on of imperium maius from one emperor to the next.

    The Romans were pretty obsessed with memory and especially memories of the past, memories of their ancestors. One of the ways that they kept these stories alive was in epic poetry, like Lucan's poem about the civil war between Pompey and Caesar. But also historical texts, many of which were taught in schools and imitated by students.

    I take your point about how, for modern Americans, even 1975 seems to be the very distant past. But Americans famously have no sense of memory, no interest in cultivating it. As a culture, we've always valued the forward-thinking, innovative outlook over the traditional "how did our ancestors do this." Many of us barely have pics of our grandparents in our houses, whereas the Romans had masks of their ancestors going back many many generations on display in their atria; and they would bring these out for important occasions, like funerals or elections (elite Romans, that is, not everyday Joe Roman!).

    But of course the interesting thing about memory is that it is malleable, it is constantly re-shaped in the narration of it. In a way, that's what interests me in this project: now so much how things actually were but what stories 2nd century Romans told about the late republic; and, likewise, what stories 4th century Romans told about the 2nd century.