Coins of Marcus Ulpius Nerva Traianus [Trajan]

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Of all of the Roman emperors, I am most intrigued by Trajan and Hadrian. I selected Trajan as a focus of my Roman collection for several reasons: 1. He takes a great portrait. The celators seem to have hit their peak in this era with magnificently realistic engravings; 2. Trajan's coinage has great variety and is relatively inexpensive except for the sestertii; 3. Compared to many of the other megalamaniacs who ruled Rome, he is one noble guy. Trajan was the son of Ulpius Traianus a Senator, Consul, and Governor of Asia and Syria. He was born on September 18th in 53 CE. His family originated in Tudor in Umbria, but his ancestors migrated to Italica, Spain where he was born. He would eventually become the first non-italian emperor of Rome. Trajan's mother was Marcia and He had a sister, Ulpia Marciana, whose granddaughter married Hadrian. Trajan married Pompeia Plotina. Coins of Trajan's family members are available, but scarce. While his father was governing in Syria, Trajan gained a tribuneship, his first position of major power.
Trajan advanced rapidly in the military obtaining the position of Legate over the VII Gemini Legion in Hispania Tarraconensis. In 89, during the rebellion of L. Antonius Saturninus, Domitian sent for him. Trajan arrived in Rome shortly after the revolt had been quelled. Two years later, he was granted a consulship, and then in 96, became governor of Germania Superior. One year later, in 97, the emperor Nerva was threatened with revolt by several of his Praetorian Guard. Several of the commanding Praetorians mutinied against him, and humiliated him. In a sly political move to negate the threat, Nerva adopted the popular Trajan. Trajan's reputation as a good commander among the troops gave Nerva a peaceful final year. During the year 98, Trajan was in Colonia Agrippinensis, now Cologne. One night, as the story goes, he had a dream that an old man in imperial garb, with a crown on his head, pressed the seal of a signet ring on first the left side of his neck, then the right side. This old man personified the Senate. Soon after this vision, his young relative Hadrianus, a commander in his army, informed him of Nerva's death and Trajan's imminent succesion. Trajan, who was gifted with an acute political acumen as well as military genius, immediately penned a letter to the Senate vowing that he would never kill nor disenfranchise a good man.
His second move as emperor was to send for the Praetorians and Casperius Aelianus who had been involved in the plot against Nerva. They expected a promotion, but when they arrived, Trajan ordered their deaths. The way Trajan inaugurated the new leader of the Praetorian guard gave some insight into his character. As he presented the traditional sword to the new commander [probably Attius Suburanus], he pronounced "Take this sword, in order that, if I rule well, you may use it for me, but if ill, against me." Trajan then walked back to Rome, in the manner of a private citizen. He greeted the Senate, then strolled into the palace, entering it as if it was just another house. This began a great age for Rome- the reign of Optimus Princeps, Emperor Trajan, 98-117 AD. Trajan succeeded not only in military affairs, but also in politics. In his oath of office he swore that he would not execute a senator except when the Senate itself ordered it, and only after a fair trial. His humility and respect for the senate prevented the political tug of war that had resulted in bloodbaths among previous emperors. He kept the Senate informed of his decisions, and, was one of the few rulers of Rome that had a good relationship with the Senate from the beginning of his career.
Other things he did for Rome included the lowering of taxes, increasing the congiarium-that is, the free distribution of food, and implementing the alimenta, a subsidy to the poor [it is interesting to note that a similar welfare program had been instituted in China by the emperor Wang Mang only 80 years prior.]. The Senate and the people had such affection for Trajan that he often traveled throughout the city without a bodyguard. The senate named him Optimus Princeps, in much the same way Octavian has been declared "Augustus" [This title appears frequently on his coins.].
In his later years, Trajan worked to expand the empire even more. He led a successful campaign against Dacia with is celebrated on his coins and In 114 he invaded Armenia. His armies carved a path through Mesopotamia to the Parthian capitol of Ctesiphon in 115 and declared Mesopotamia part of the Empire. Not long afterwards Mesopotamia revolted. He eventually surpressed the uprising, but at high cost. At the siege of Hatra, Trajan grew ill and never fully recovered. Next, Jews in Cyprus, Egypt, and Judaea rebelled. Trajan's armies suppressed these as well, and Trajan finally departed from the East in 117. In Cilicia (in modern Turkey), he died of a stroke. Trajan had adopted his relative Hadrian who was raised to emperor upon his death.

A guide for dating Trajan's coins is presented here.

Go to Roman denarii of Trajan

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The Emperor With Many Faces

Many of the coins of Trajan feature a marvelous heroic and realistic bust. However, when Trajan was raised to emperor the mints were faced with a quandry as they had no official portraits to copy for their engraving. Trajan complicated the issue by staying on the frontier with his troops a full year before returning to Rome. Thus, many of the early coins minted during his first consulship [COS II, 97-99 CE] bear images that were the best guesses of the celators. Often the images have a distinctive Nerva look.

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