Monday, March 23, 2015

Inventing Trajan: An Experiment in Book-Writing

Wreathed Trajan on obverse,; on reverse, seated Pax holding olive branch with kneeling Dacian, Optimus Princeps inscribed around edge (issued c. 103-111 CE)
This blog is a scholarly experiment, and an experiment that can only happen in the long-form that a blog supports.  In brief, I want this blog to be the space where I can work through ideas and arguments for a book project on Trajan, the Senate and Republicanism. In particular, I'm interested in how emperor-senate relations are preserved in the textual and material record from Caesar to Trajan; and, in the case of Trajan, interested in picking apart why Trajan becomes memorialized as not just one of the "good emperors" but the best emperor (Optimus Princeps)--and to what extent that construction of Trajan is actually dependent on Pliny the Younger's "scripts" for Trajan.  

In the course of writing my book on Augustine's letters, I realized that, once I had the arguments worked out, the scholarship under my belt, I could write a final version of the manuscript very quickly.  What took all the time was the repeated efforts to work out the arguments, to figure out what evidence I was going to include and why.  I was also helped, repeatedly, by presenting parts of the book's arguments as invited lectures.  This blog is my effort to combine the processes of working out ideas and, hopefully, benefiting from the expertise of the crowd.  Am I worried that my genius ideas will be "stolen"?  No.  I mean, sure, it could happen.  But, truthfully, we all put our work out there in various forms of completion all the time.  It's part of our responsibility as a member of an academic community.  In my own case, my academic community is based primarily elsewhere from where I work and teach.  As well, my fragile health makes it challenging to keep up a constant agenda of conferences where I might get helpful feedback.  Hence, a blog.

Over the past year or so, as I have been building a completely online version of my Introduction to Ancient Rome course, I've also been thinking about my next classics monograph: the "promotion to full" book.  For some time now, I've known that I wanted to write about Trajan's Rome and the role of the Younger Pliny in "Inventing Trajan."  I find Trajan a fascinating figure--a kind of blank screen onto which, in the absence of any evidence, everyone has felt free to project their own, benign view of the emperor-soldier, the anti-Domitian.  I am quite sure that there was a lot of wishful thinking at work.  

Under Vespasian, the law had been brought back to Rome--and it was even possible to pretend that emperors were subject to the law if the emperor went along with the role-play.  Domitian refused to play along and made sure that the Senate knew exactly where they stood in relation to him.  Nerva, who was indebted to the praetorian guard for his power (as was Trajan), did not live long enough for the Senate to attempt to reform their relationship with the princeps.  Trajan, who had been adopted by Nerva rather against his will and with the praetorian guard threatening a revolt, offered the Roman Senate a chance to reclaim some of the lost status.  For this to happen, though, Trajan needed to be willing to play his part.

What we have left from Trajan's Rome, I'd argue, are some of these efforts to script a role for Trajan in which he operates as the collegial (even if more powerful) partner of the senate.  Under such conditions, a range of republican values can once again flourish, albeit in slightly modified terms: libertas, pietas, clementia.  Because Trajan died on campaign in 117 and never reached a point of openly coming into conflict with the senate, it is easy to believe that he was a willing partner.  But who knows.  Nero provides an interesting counter-point.  Senca's De Clementia, like Pliny's Panegyricus, is essentially the effort of a senator to advise a princeps on how to carry out his duties, including how to construct a mutually beneficial relationship with the senate.  Imagine if Nero had died young, before the Great Fire in 64 that finally destroyed his relationship with the senate.  What a different sense of Nero we might have.  Instead, senatorial historians preserve a caricature of Nero for us that, while entertaining, is certainly far from reality.  

Oddly, contemporary historians and biographers stayed away from writing about Trajan.  Ammianus Marcellinus, who was writing his Res Gestae near the end of the 4th century CE, was the first to write a history of Trajan's reign--a history that does not survive for us.  It's not surprising that Ammianus would finally write about Trajan--he was picking up where Tacitus left off with his Histories, for one thing.  As well, Trajan experienced a resurgence of popularity in the 4th century.  One of the tasks of this book will be to outline our evidence for the reception of Trajan in the 4th century; and then offer some arguments for why this happened.  Briefly, it goes back to the view that Trajan was remembered as an emperor who worked cooperatively with the senate and did more than any other emperor to give senators dignity (in the most Roman sense of the term).

In the posts that follow, I'll raise various interpretive issues that I find interesting or relevant; I'll try to work through important secondary literature.  I'll do a lot of thinking out loud (or through my fingers!).  Please engage with questions, corrections, comments.


  1. Replies
    1. Thanks! I'm hoping this will prove to be a helpful way to organize notes, produce more polished prose earlier in process, and also get useful engagement from readers.

  2. I am looking forward to seeing how your experiment plays out—particularly because this is the logical extension of the lively discussion that happens on Twitter. It will be interesting to see how the comments come in—Adam Kotsko has recently complained that people tend to respond to his posts on Twitter instead of in the comments section (

    The project itself sounds interesting. One of my colleagues here at the University of Missouri, Eric Thienes, is currently completing a dissertation project on the memory of Trajan in late Roman history. I’ll be sure to pass along your blog to him.

    1. This comment from Joshua Nudell (since Blogger does not retroactively update names and won't simply use the default name attached to the Google account).

    2. I'd love to hear more about your colleague's diss project. The memory of Trajan in late antiquity is fascinating. I remember reviewing a volume of Arethusa (I think) that was a collection of essays on Pliny in late antiquity--but lots of Trajan in there. As a late antique historian, I'm def going to do a little bit on that front, but prob just as a conclusion to the project.

      Yeah, the idea for this definitely came from being active on Twitter and benefiting enormously from that interaction. I did a lot of work on digital teaching/learning, have a blog, and that has been a great way to create a community and get helpful feedback. I love the idea that our intellectual communities are no longer bounded by the walls of our individual universities.

      And yes, totally true that people tend to respond to posts on Twitter, via email, etc. One thing I will do, though, is update posts with useful feedback I get from people elsewhere than the comments. My idea is that, in addition to encouraging dialogue, this will be a useful way to organize reading notes and keep a record of all those random thoughts and connections that pop up when one reads an article. I'm optimistic.

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