Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The evidence, or how do we know what we think we know?

Many years ago now (probably 6?) I offered a graduate seminar on Pliny's letters and found that it didn't work terribly well as a graduate seminar--or at least as a seminar for a group of students who ranged from first-fifth year PhD students.  Pliny's Letters are very challenging to read and require a tremendous knowledge of late republican and especially early imperial history to understand.  Most of my graduate students didn't have this historical background.  They struggled to make sense of the less embroidered letters.  There was, finally, some good secondary scholarship to give them as guides but it was before Morello and Gibson's excellent introduction and reader's guide to the collection appeared.  One thing I realized after the seminar was that, in the future, I'd teach only a small selection of the letters, arranged thematically, and deeply grounded in their cultural context.

A few years ago, I taught a graduate seminar on Trajan.  The main Latin texts that we read were Pliny, Book 10 and the Panegyricus, but the primary goal of the seminar was to study Trajan's reign.  A good percentage of our graduate students are archaeologists and this seminar was a. my effort to offer something that would allow them to develop breadth in their sub-field of classics; and b. that would give me a chance to think hard about Trajan's reign and building projects.  A number of good papers came out of the seminar and I learned quite a lot.

Since then, I've been turning over in my mind the idea of a book on Trajan.  Things finally clicked when, in the process of building the online Rome class, I realized that I was especially interested in the transformation of the Roman senate from the Punic Wars to the reign of Constantine in the 4th century; and especially interested in how, at least for a time, Trajan seems to be a figure that offers Roman senators hope for renewed authority and power.

One thing that leapt out to me as a result of the Trajan seminar was the extent to which, for a period of time that is chock full of historiographers and biographers, the reign of Trajan is badly documented.  It's weird, almost as if writers purposely avoided the topic.  There is a rich record of coins, civic and private monuments, and inscriptions.  The Forum of Trajan with its magnificent column is currently undergoing serious excavations that are changing what we thought we knew about its layout and placement of some buildings.  Most of the scholarship on Trajan is done by archaeologists and others with a strong, non-textual orientation.

Apart from a handful of articles on Book 10 of Pliny's Letters; and on the Panegyricus, there is very little work on what we might call "textualized Trajan."  Neither Suetonius nor Tacitus treated Trajan's rule explicitly.  Book 10 of Pliny's Letters has a complicated textual history, and it's unclear exactly how we are to understand it's relationship to Books 1-9 (or, even, when it became attached to Books 1-9).  Trajan is surprisingly absent from Pliny's letters otherwise (I'll say more about this when I talk about Roy Gibsom's article on Book 9 of the letters).  From the fourth century AD, a brief account of Trajan survives as part of Aurelius Victor's Liber de Caesaribus; the Historia Augista begins with the reign of Hadrian but there have been suggestions that it included lost accounts of the reigns of Nerva and Trajan.  Similarly, Ammianus Marcellinus's Res Gestae started with the reign of Trajan, but that section of the text is no longer extant.  Another late 4th century historian, Eutropius, treated Trajan's reign.  What survives for us is Eutropius's abridgment, the Breviarum.  He discusses Trajan's rule briefly in Chapter 8, in the context of the "Good Emperors" and the Severans.  There are other traces of Trajan's reception in the 4th century, particularly in panegyrics and letter collections.

Trajan fared better in the hands of the Imperial Greek writers.  From the Imperial Greek tradition, Appian, another historian living under Trajan, did write at least an account of Trajan's Arabian War.  All but a fragment of this text is lost. The Epitome of Dio Cassius's Roman History includes an abbreviated account of Trajan's reign in Book 68.  Four Kingship Orations from Dio Chrystosom survive.

For a ruler who was given the title Optimus Princeps and was known as one of the greatest Roman emperors by the fourth century, there is surprising silence about his reign from contemporary writers.  What do we think is going on here?  The Augustan poets, for all their protesting, still managed to churn out a large quantity of poetry to celebrate and commemorate Augustus's various achievements.  Why wouldn't Suetonius write a biography of Trajan?  Suetonius seems to have outlived Trajan.  If Trajan was, indeed, such a glorious ruler, a kind of reborn Caesar and Augustus all in one, wouldn't it make sense to conclude his biographies with Trajan?  Pliny's general silence about Trajan in Epistles 1-9 is likewise fascinating.

In the absence of any "Textual Trajan", we are left to talk about Trajan from the buildings he sponsored, the wars he won.  It is very difficult to talk about him as a princeps civilis, at home in Rome, interacting with the senate and people of Rome.  Our eyewitnesses to that side of Trajan decline to say much.  We modern can only wonder why.

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