Friday, March 27, 2015

K.H. Waters, Traianus Domitiani Continuator

Statue of Domitian as Imperator, Vatican Museum

Contemporary historians, biographers, epistolographers et al. depict the transition from the Flavian dynasty, with the assassination of Domitian, to the "Good Emperors", which truly began with Trajan, as marked by a sharp break in tradition.  Trajan is regularly characterized as the inverse of an evil, tyrannical Domitian.  In truth, as Waters' article highlights, Trajan ruled very much in the tradition of Domitian.  While it's true that he bestowed some favors on individual senators and made more of an effort to leave the consulship (really, an entirely honorific office) open for senators, Trajan still acted to consolidate the authority of the princeps, increasing its autocracy and decreasing even the marginally advisory role of the senate.  For all the talk, all the projections on Trajan by Pliny and others, all the hopeful expressions that he would restore liberty and banish tyranny, he seems to have quietly continued to advance Domitian's policies.  The difference?  He did it quietly, and he was careful to do it in ways that were less confrontational, more respectful of the senate's sense of prerogative. 

The move towards autocracy started fully with Julius Caesar and never really ended.  Those emperors who dismissed the senate as a body and were openly dismissal of its status (e.g. Nero, Tiberius, and Domitian) reaped the rewards of their disdain.  They are portrayed as insane, tyrannical, incompetent, and worse by their contemporaries.  As it happened, the writers were senators and, as we know, writers tend to get in the last word!

As Waters notes, by the time of Trajan, "the senate itself was now of little importance as an organ.  Pliny complained bitterly about the triviality of its agenda under Domitian, but his own evidence for the subsequet period does little to assure us of the gravity of matters now entrusted to its wisdom" (387).  Waters also observes that there was tremendous continuity in the main players of the governments of Domitian and Trajan.  This is seen to further support Trajan's general interest in continuing policies started by Domitian; and a general disinterest in stirring the post.  Waters (399) likewise observes that the evidence supports the view that Trajan treated Domitian's decisions as valid legal precedents. He also seems to have continued Domitian's general military policies, particularly with the Dacians.  In the East we see perhaps a bit more innovation from Trajan: he is more aggressive where Domitian was inclined to peace (400-401).

This makes a lot of sense, especially since Domitian enjoyed the support of the military.  The senate deeply disliked Domitian, and Suetonius relates their delight at the news of his assassination; but his assassination was not politically motivated, so far as we can tell.  And he seems to have been reasonably popular with the Roman people.  The senate could control the transmission of Domitian's memoria, via written historical and biographical accounts as well as their issuance of a decree of damnatio memoriae.  But they couldn't re-shape the immediate reality in Rome.  Indeed, upon the death of Domitian we see no widescale effort to undo his expansive building projects or to otherwise re-form them by Trajan (403).  This is somewhat unusual if we think of Vespasian's actions after the assassination of Nero; and, much later, Constantine's appropriation of Maxentius's building projects in Rome.

That Trajan made few changes, apart from expending more effort to avoid directly hostile attacks on the honors of senators, makes perfect sense in this environment.  The other tactic that Trajan used, as Augustus and others before him had done, was to select certain senators to receive special honors.  So, while the senate as a body remained utterly devoid of influence on imperial policy, it was possible for individual senators to benefit as amici imperatoris, so to speak.

Waters highlights the extent to which, since the Sullan proscriptions and the devastating civil wars of the late republic (and again in 68-69 CE), the membership of the senate had been diluted and depleted.  Trajan apparently continued to add members to the senate rather aggressively.  According to Waters, the available data suggests that up to 40% of Trajan's new senators were provincials from newly-Romanized provinces of the Greek East (392).  I agree with Waters that the absence of any comment on this policy is rather surprising.  But it may also be that such actions by Trajan finally convinced some of the initially optimistic senators like Pliny and Tacitus that, in essence, they had another Domitian on their hands, but with the benefit that he spend large swaths of time outside of Rome on campaign.  Their silence may well be the silence that accompanies tyranny rather than the silent approbation.  Trajan was certainly far more savvy than Domitian in his dealings with the senate and in his willingness to remain more quiet about his assumption of offices.  He understood that he did not need the constitutional powers of the offices and so was willing to leave them to the senate, for the most part.

Waters also notes that Trajan's coinage is similar to that of Domitian--and not at all like the coinage that appeared in the interregnum of Nerva (which featured such legends as libertas publica, roma renascens, fortuna, concordia).  Under Trajan, the coin types tend towards abstractions: virtus, salus, fortuna, aeternitas.  He also followed Domitian in being represented in the guise of Hercules or with the attributes of Hercules.  And, finally, Trajan allowed himself to be assimilated to Rome's highest deity--Jupiter Optimus Maximus (note too the echo of Optimus Princeps).  Trajan avoided issuing any coins commemorating Divus Nerva until after the death and deification of his biological father in 113 CE.  After this point, he was keen to emphasize his divine lineage and also to deify other members of his family upon their death.

Waters makes a compelling case for viewing Trajan as a continuator of Domitian's political legacy.  Certainly, Trajan was far more skilled than Domitian at handling the senate at Rome.  He also spent less time in Rome, which may have eased tensions.  But it's remarkable that he emerged as the Optimus Princeps and was memorialized as an emperor who worked productively with the senate for the good of the empire.  In reality, he was every bit the autocrat Domitian was; and the evidence often cited for his revival of senatorial authority and powers seems to be wishful thinking from senators in the early days of Trajan's rule, at a time when experienced senators likely believed that they might be able to sway this novice emperor from a rather undistinguished provincial family.


  1. So. I'm no classicist, but I do read Brad Delong's blog, and so here I am. I have some questions, which, if answered, might drive me to buy your book on Amazon.

    i) The Roman Empire seems oddly truncated at the edges. There is little evidence of a commercial fishery in the British Isles, of the medieval Alpwirtschaft in the high Alps, of trans-Saharan trade, of silver mining in Saxony. In fiscal-military terms, southern Iraq, one of the most taxable regions of the Ancient World is left out of the Empire. (With one notable exception...)

    It seems reasonable to assume, especially as silver and (trans-Saharan) gold mining are two of the unexplained omissions, that some matters of markets, money and coinage are at least partially at issue here, and that any explanation will come back around to the city of Rome's privileged tax status, and any role that the Senatorial nobility might have played there.

    (ii) I was not aware of the historical lacunae around Trajan (but hasn't it been claimed that Hadrian had Trajan's designated successor set aside?) but I am aware of two significant historiographic absences that might bear here. First, we know very little of Alexander the Great that was not written in Trajan's time. Numerous earlier sources have disappeared. Second, genealogists, crazy lot that they are, have been trying for many years to prove "descent from antiquity," a link between living (originally medieval) genealogies and Roman. There is an information gap, and it is very, very strange. Why can't we can't link the Claudians to the Merovingians, or discover the identity of Pope Gregory the Great's senatorial family?

    The first is perhaps only incidentally to do with Trajan. Or perhaps not. Perhaps our received view of Alexander is conditional on the retreat from Trajan's Iraqi conquests.

    The second is even more of a strain, since as I understand it from reading about the Prosopography of the Later Roman Empire project, the gap opens up in the Third Century Crisis. Constantine claims to be descended from Claudius Gothicus (and Diocletian's biographers, such as they are, make very heavy weather of the identity of his family's senatorial patron, hint hint, wink wink, nudge nudge, extended Monty Python reference, etc).

    It seems to me, just intuitively, that Constantine and Diocletian should be insiders, not outsiders, that we face camouflage drawn over family ties which for some reason need to be obscured.

    What's to be disguised? My guess: a "frontier general--senatorial family" nexus that's all about tax evasion, particularly along the Pannonian frontier, a fairly obvious origin for overland livestock trade towards Rome. If a general sends, and a senator receives, cattle which are fattened up on suburban Roman feedlots --perhaps with "dole" corn, at least mill residue, which seems to be an issue-- and the general and the senator are the same person, or at least cousins or half-brothers, then there is very definitely something worth hiding.

  2. Lots of interesting comments and questions here! I'll try to offer my thoughts on some of the main ones. The question of genealogy is a big one, much discussed by late antiquity scholars (which is my area of specialty). One of the amazing things in the 4th century is how we have all these recently appointed senators (or even emperors) who come from frontier families of no particular distinction--not unlike Trajan--but who want to claim an antiquity. This tension has existed in Roman culture since the very earliest days of the Republic but especially after the Punic Wars when suddenly people could get elected to office (and hence become senators) through their accomplishments rather than merely through their family connections. But what happens in the 4th century is far more extreme. It's a topic I need to read more about.

    You are also right about Rome's activities at the margins of its Empire. So this is just me speculating/guessing: but from the time of Pompey's conquests in the 1st century BC, Rome was generally more interested in collecting taxes from the Eastern provinces, much less interested in exploiting the natural resources. They did their silver mining, for instance, in the western provinces (esp Spain). I'm not entirely sure why this is but suspect that part of it was the problem of setting up reliable supply lines that far away from Rome. When Rome does need to find a new area to tap for natural resources, it ends up being Dacia. A major reason for Trajan's success: the enormous wealth in the form of natural resources that he is able to give to Rome.

    The succession of Hadrian is a fascinating mystery. The historians tell different stories; what does seem clear is that Trajan did not name anyone as his successor, even though Hadrian was a trusted lieutenant. I find that a bit weird, not sure what is going on. Maybe he was afraid of assassination if he named a successor? But why not name one in his will?

    There is a definite connection between Trajan and a renewal of interest in the activities of Alexander the Great (I had a grad student who wrote a paper about this a few years ago). It's interesting to think about this happening at the same time that Trajan seems to be devoting a lot of his attention to the East. One thing I am realizing early in this project is that Trajan, like Constantine, recognized the value of having a strong presence and connection to the Eastern Empire. I need to do more work on this. I can imagine that it left the senators at Rome ambivalent (by the time of Constantine, they were no longer ambivalent because the tetrarchy had already shown them that an emperor could abandon Rome entirely, for his entire rule). The connection of Trajan to Alexander strikes me as very important; as well, it will be important to have a good sense of how Trajan constructed a presence in the Eastern Empire, through coins, monuments, even representatives from the senate like Pliny.