Monday, August 07, 2017

The Death of Trajan ~ August 8 ~ His correspondence with Pliny, and his legendary rescue from Hell.

Bust of Trajan from the British Museum.
Conqueror of Dacia. Subduer of Parthia. The Roman Emperor Marcus Ulpius Traianus — or Trajan as he is known to history — died on August 8 in the year AD 117.

By most measures, Trajan was a superior emperor. In his satirical work The Caesars, written in AD 361, the emperor Julian the Apostate puts these words into the mouth of Trajan in defense of his reign and exploits before the gods:
"O Zeus and ye other gods, when I took over the empire it was in a sort of lethargy and much disordered by the tyranny that had long prevailed at home, and by the insolent conduct of the Getae. I alone ventured to attack the tribes beyond the Danube, and I subdued the Getae, the most warlike race that ever existed...Of all the Emperors who came before me I was regarded as the mildest in the treatment of my subjects....Against the Parthians I thought I ought not to employ force until they had put themselves in the wrong, but when they did so I marched against them, undeterred by my age, though the laws would have allowed me to quit the service. Since then the facts are as I have said, do I not deserve to be honored before all the rest, first because I was so mild to my subjects, secondly because more than others I inspired terror in my country's foes, thirdly because I revered your daughter divine Philosophy?"
When Trajanus had finished this speech the gods decided that he excelled all the rest in clemency; and evidently this was a virtue peculiarly pleasing to them.
This summary of Trajan's career is largely accurate. Writing about 120 years after his death, Cassius Dio describes him further, saying:
Trajan was most conspicuous for his justice, for his bravery, and for the simplicity of his habits. He was strong in body, being in his forty-second year when he began to rule, so that in every enterprise he toiled almost as much as the others; and his mental powers were at their highest, so that he had neither the recklessness of youth nor the sluggishness of old age. He didn't envy nor slay anyone, but honored and exalted all good men without exception, and hence he neither feared nor hated any one of them. To slanders he paid very little heed and he was no slave of anger. He refrained equally from the money of others and from unjust murders. He expended vast sums on wars and vast sums on works of peace; and while making very many urgently needed repairs to roads and harbours and public buildings, he drained no one's blood for any of these undertakings. [Cassius Dio, Epitome of Book LXVIII]
Of his triumphant campaign against the Dacians, and his short-lived victory over the Parthians, few details have come down to us from the ancient historians. Most of what we have may be found in Cassius Dio's summary account linked above. Thanks to the works of his contemporary, Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus, or Pliny the Younger, we have some additional knowledge of his character. In a panegyric in praise of Trajan dating to about 111 AD, Pliny lauds the emperor's conquest of the Dacians, saying:
During the preceding reigns the barbarians had become insolent and no longer struggled to gain their liberty but fought to enslave us. But on your accession they were again inspired with fear and a willingness to obey your commands. For they saw that you were a general of the old stamp one of those who had earned their title on fields heaped high with slaughter or on seas resounding with the shouts of victory. The result is that we now accept hostages we do not buy them. Nor do we now make peace on disadvantageous terms in order to keep up the appearance of success. [Pliny's Panegyric in Praise of Trajan]
More famous is the fascinating correspondence between Pliny and Trajan, written about AD 112, wherein Pliny asks for advice in dealing with the sect known as the Christians, and Trajan offers a sage response. Below is Pliny's letter (excerpted), followed by the emperor's response:
Pliny to the Emperor Trajan.
It is my practice, my lord, to refer to you all matters concerning which I am in doubt. For who can better give guidance to my hesitation or inform my ignorance? I have never participated in trials of Christians. I therefore do not know what offenses it is the practice to punish or investigate, and to what extent, ....whether pardon is to be granted for repentance, or, if a man has once been a Christian, it does him no good to have ceased to be one....
In the case of those who were denounced to me as Christians, I have observed the following procedure: I interrogated these as to whether they were Christians; those who confessed I interrogated a second and a third time, threatening them with punishment; those who persisted I ordered executed. For I had no doubt that, whatever the nature of their creed, stubbornness and inflexible obstinacy surely deserve to be punished....

Soon accusations spread...and several incidents occurred. An anonymous document was published containing the names of many persons. Those who denied that they were or had been Christians, when they invoked the gods in words dictated by me, offered prayer with incense and wine to your image, which I had ordered to be brought for this purpose together with statues of the gods, and moreover cursed Christ—none of which those who are really Christians...can be forced to do—these I thought should be discharged. Others named by the informer declared that they were Christians, but then denied it, asserting that they had been but had ceased to be....They all worshipped your image and the statues of the gods, and cursed Christ.

They asserted, however, that the sum and substance of their fault or error had been that they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so. When this was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again to partake of food—but ordinary and innocent food....

I therefore postponed the investigation and hastened to consult you....For the contagion of this superstition has spread not only to the cities but also to the villages and farms....

Trajan to Pliny

You observed proper procedure, my dear Pliny, in sifting the cases of those who had been denounced to you as Christians. For it is not possible to lay down any general rule to serve as a kind of fixed standard. They are not to be sought out; if they are denounced and proved guilty, they are to be punished, with this reservation, that whoever denies that he is a Christian and really proves it—that is, by worshiping our gods—even though he was under suspicion in the past, shall obtain pardon through repentance. But anonymously posted accusations ought to have no place in any prosecution. For this is both a dangerous kind of precedent and out of keeping with the spirit of our age.
[Click here to read Pliny's Letters, 96 (97) in full.] 
Trajan died at age 64 in the year AD 117. Cassius Dio records the circumstances of his death as follows:
Trajan was preparing to make a fresh expedition into Mesopotamia, but, as his malady began to afflict him sorely, he set out, intending to sail to Italy, leaving Publius Aelius Hadrian with the army in Syria....Trajan himself suspected that his sickness was due to poison that had been administered to him; but some state that it was because the blood, which descends every year into the lower parts of the body, was in his case checked in its flow. He had also suffered a stroke, so that a portion of his body was paralyzed, and he was dropsical all over. On coming to Selinus in Cilicia, which we also call Traianopolis, he suddenly expired, after reigning nineteen years, six months and fifteen days. [Cassius Dio, Epitome of Book LXVIII]
Detail from the "capital of justice" at the Palazzo Ducale in Venice, with an
inscription reading: "Emperor Trajan, who gave justice to the widow."
Because of his perceived clemency toward Christians, Trajan was often considered a virtuous pagan. Indeed, according to one story written down in the 9th century by John the Deacon, Trajan, though a pagan, was rescued from Hell. The legend says that while walking through the Forum of Trajan in Rome, Pope Saint Gregory the Great saw an inscription describing how Trajan had given justice to a poor widow. Feeling so moved, the Pope entered Saint Peter's and wept such tears of supplication, that a sign was given him that Trajan's soul had been released from torment, under condition that he never attempt to rescue another pagan from Hell again. This story gained such currency in the Middle Ages that it was included even in Dante's Divine Comedy, though later theologians and historians give the story no credence.

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