Pictures from Roman Life and Story - Alfred J. Church

A Just Emperor



"Gregory," says his biographer, John the Deacon, "walking through the Forum of Trajan, a place which that Prince had adorned with very noble buildings, recollected how this Trajan had, by his just dealing, comforted the soul of a certain widow. As he was hastening with all speed to the war—so the story runs—a widow cried out to him with tears, 'My innocent son has been murdered, and that since you came to be Emperor. I beseech you, seeing that you cannot bring him to life, to avenge his death.' 'I will do so to the utmost,' said he, 'if I return safe from the war.' 'But,' said the widow, 'if you should fall in battle who will do me justice?' He answered, 'My successor.' Said the widow, 'what will it profit thee if another do this good deed?' 'Verily nothing,' he answered. 'Then,' said she, 'is it not better for thee, thyself, to do me justice and gain thy reward, therefore, than to pass this on to another?' Thereupon Trajan dismounted; nor did he depart till he had tried the cause of the widow, and done full justice therein. Gregory, therefore, remembering how righteous this said Trajan had been, came to the great Church of St. Peter, and there wept so sore for the errors of this most merciful prince that, on the following night, there came to him this answer: "Thou hast been heard for Trajan, but take care that thou pray not for any other pagan soul."

The good John is somewhat troubled in mind by this story. Did not Gregory himself say that the children of God may not pray for unbelievers and wicked men that have departed this life? His doubts drive him into sophistry. Gregory, he says, did not pray but wept only, and we know that God hears the unspoken desire of his servants. Nor is it said that Trajan's soul was removed to Paradise. That, he thinks, would be incredible. It may have remained in hell, but so as not to feel the torments thereof. So far John the Deacon. Dante is not so disturbed by the story. He boldly places the Emperor in the sixth heaven among the spirits of the just made perfect.

My readers will agree with me that such speculations do not concern us: for us the interest of the story lies in its testimony to the lasting impression made by Trajan's government on his own and succeeding generations. He was regarded as emphatically the just  Emperor.

M. Ulpius Trajanus came from an Italian family, which had been settled some time in Spain. His father had been Consul and Governor of the Province of Asia; he himself was a successful soldier, who had been rewarded with the Consulship, with the government of a province in Spain, and subsequently with the command of the legions that guarded the frontier of the Lower Rhine. He was discharging the duties of this post when he received the news that Nerva, who two years before had been raised to the throne, vacated by the assassination of Domitian, had associated him in the Empire. He made no haste to enter on his new power. He remained on the frontier for a year, completing its defence by establishing colonies and military posts, and commencing the gigantic work which is still known as "Trajan's Wall."

Towards the latter end of 98 he returned to Rome. The modesty with which he bore himself made the most favourable impression on his new subjects. Nerva had been now dead several months, and Trajan was therefore sole ruler, but his self-restraint and moderation were admirable. The Senate desired to greet him with the flattering title of "Father of the Country," borne by previous Emperors. He declined to receive it till it had been deserved. He entered the city on foot, and without an escort, conspicuous only, says the younger Pliny, by his stately height. All Rome rushed out to see the new ruler. The buildings were crowded, almost to danger, with spectators; not a place where even the most precarious foothold could be gained was empty. The streets were so full that only the narrowest track was left for the Emperor. And as all came to see, so all were charmed with what they saw. The Senators were greeted with the kiss of an equal. The knights were astonished and delighted by the wonderful memory which, without the usual help, could recall their names. The commonalty were allowed to throng about him as closely as they would. When he entered the palace he did so with as little pretension as a private citizen who goes into his own house. The general satisfaction was complete when it was seen that the new ruler's wife was as humble as himself. There had been Empresses who had been more haughty than their husbands. Such had been the Agrippina, who domineered over the feeble Claudius. Plotina was evidently not one of these. At the head of the staircase in the palace Trajan turned to the multitude of spectators and cried: "I enter this house with the same equanimity with which I hope to quit it, should fate so demand." The nobles who had felt so cruelly the suspicious rage of Domitian were reassured by Trajan's oath that he would respect the life of a senator. The turbulent soldiery of the capital were overawed by his firmness.

New emperors had been accustomed to buy their favour by a handsome present. Trajan did not abolish the custom; but he reduced the gift by a half, and the Praetorians received his bounty without a murmur. Yet he was content to demand their loyalty for only so long as he should deserve it. The Prefect of the camp was accustomed to wear a poignard, which he received from the emperor, as a symbol of his power. As Trajan handed it to him, he said. "Use this for me while I do well; use it against me if I do ill."

The new Emperor was keenly alive to the wants of his people. Italy, nominally the mistress of the world, had been growing weaker and weaker, its population diminishing, its land going out of cultivation. Trajan tried to grapple with both evils. Both, it is true, were of a kind with which it was difficult to deal. But the latter may have been in some degree touched by the improvement and extension of communications to which the emperor devoted much care and expenditure. And if he could not altogether remedy it, he could at least provide against its most dangerous effects. A long spell of adverse winds might bring a population which depended for its food on the corn-fields of Egypt and Mauretania to the verge of famine. Trajan built large granaries which were to contain not less than seven years' supply of corn. The growth of population he sought to encourage by establishing foundations for the nurture of poor and orphan children. The poverty of the Italian population, among whom free labour was largely displaced by that of slaves, had encouraged a hideous system of infanticide. Trajan sought to put it down by what may be called a 'bounty' on children, and probably met with some success, as his foundation continued to exist for more than a century, when it was confiscated by Pertinax.

While the poor were thus assisted, the owners of property obtained some relief in the matter of taxation. An impost which seems to have been regarded as especially onerous was the vicesima  or twentieth, a tax on succession of five per cent. To us indeed, accustomed to a legacy duty of double the amount, when property descends to a stranger, this impost does not seem remarkably grievous, but Trajan gained great credit by the remission which he made in this direction. All persons succeeding to an inheritance were relieved altogether if they were related, within sufficiently near degrees, to the testator. Where the property left was small, it was in all cases exempt.

The zeal with which Trajan provided for the amusements of his subjects aroused their gratitude, we may believe, still more than his wise provision for their welfare. To us they do not seem so admirable. It is with nothing less than horror that we read how in the great shows which he exhibited after his Dacian triumph, five thousand pairs of gladiators fought in the arena. On the same occasion the farces which, probably on account of their license, he had suppressed at the beginning of his reign, were again permitted. The extraordinary industry with which Trajan carried on the administration of public affairs is sufficiently illustrated by his correspondence with Pliny, of which specimens have been given. If the Emperor did as much for other provinces as he did for Bithynia, performing the functions of a Minister of Justice, a Home Secretary, and a President of Board of Works, and we know not of what officials besides, his capacity for business must have been almost supernatural. We wonder whether he still carried it on when he was absent with the army, as he was for a considerable part of his reign. Anyhow the sound sense which he invariably displays in his answers, is worthy of all admiration.

But it is as a judge that Trajan chiefly interests us. We wish that we knew more of his work in this capacity. That the general impression of his justice was strong enough to give rise to a legend that is without a fellow in Christian literature, has been already said. For the rest we must be content with the picture that Pliny has given us of the way in which the Emperor administered justice at his sea-side residence of Centum Cellæ, now Civita Vecchia. "I have lately," he writes, "derived the greatest pleasure from having been summoned by our Emperor to act as his assessor at Centum Cellæ. What, indeed, could be more delightful than to have that close view, for which retirement gives an opportunity, of the justice, the dignity, the courtesy of our prince. There were many causes tried, and they were such as to give by their variety an admirable proof of the excellence of the judge."

A wealthy Ephesian was attacked by the professional informers, probably on some charge of treason. He was promptly acquitted. An offending wife was next tried. She was found guilty, though her husband had condoned her offence, and was mulcted of the third part of her dowry and banished to an island. Another case was a somewhat complicated affair of a will which was said to be partly forged. One of they Emperor's freedmen was involved in it, and some of the plaintiffs were disposed, on that account, to let the case fall through. Trajan would suffer nothing of the kind. "He is no Polycletus," he said, "and I no Nero." On this the plaintiffs were peremptorily ordered to proceed.

Of the merits and the issue of the case we know nothing. "You see," says Pliny, after giving some details about the causes tried, "how honourable, how strict, was the employment of our days. The relaxation that followed them was most delightful. We were daily invited to dinner. The entertainment was most modest, considering that it was an Emperor's table. Sometimes we heard recitations, and sometimes the night was spent in most delightful discourse. On the last day, when we were leaving, Caesar, so careful is his kindness, sent us all presents."

There is, I know, a dark side to Trajan's character. Perhaps we may set aside the grievous charges which Dio Cassius, a pessimistic writer, brings against his morality. Pliny speaks most emphatically of the purity of his life, and Pliny, though a courtier, would not, I think, have condescended to lie. But that Trajan was a persecutor cannot be doubted. Nero had made the Christians the screen of his own crimes, and Domitian, when his frantic jealousy drove him to destroy his cousin, Flavius Clemens, had made the accused man's religion his pretext. But Trajan, the vigorous, justice-loving Emperor, was the first to institute a formal persecution of the Christian faith.

It was always so; the vigorous Emperors showed themselves actively hostile to what the weak and the profligate indolently tolerated. They saw, and rightly saw, that the Empire and this new doctrine could not stand together; and we can hardly blame them if they chose the side to which all their convictions inclined them. Trajan, whatever his ignorance, and, it may be, his faults, remains a noble figure, a strong ruler, whose aim was justice. It was the significant formula, repeated after his time, to every new successor to the throne of the Caesars: "May you be more fortunate than Augustus, and better than Trajan!"