Think of the most lauded person you can who isn’t actively a deity. Someone who is pretty unanimously thought of as a moral person and who left a major mark on our world and on Western civilization–but as a ruler, not a philosopher or a religious leader.

You’d be hard-pressed to find someone like that with a better reputation after 1900 years than Trajan, the lucky 13th emperor of Rome.

He was renowned as a builder and a leader, who made more civic improvements to Rome and the empire as a whole than anyone before or since. Trajan was also a military leader who expanded the empire to its greatest extent in history, from the Persian Gulf to Britain. The list goes on; the Senate usually gave emperors titles to comemorate their rule, and for Trajan they simply awarded him Optimus, best. Every subsequent emperor was wished to be felicior Augusto, melior Traiano–as lucky as Augustus and as good as Trajan.

It’s a strange thing, then, that there are almost no surviving sources from his reign: all the relevent books are lost, and all that remains is people writing years or centuries later. Stranger still is the fact that Trajan was also an arch conservative when push came to shove; asked about Christians, he mercifully said that they should be given every opportunity and benefit of the doubt to reclaim paganism. If they still demurred, well, to the lions with them. That little detail bothered medieval and Renaissance theologians so much that they came up with outlandish ways for the centuries-dead emperor to be resurrected, forgiven, and baptized.

But the most interesting detail to me is this: Trajan was never related to any of the emperors that came before him. He was of comparatively humble stock, working his way up from the bottom. His predecessor basically had his arm twisted to adopt Trajan as his heir to retain the support of the army, after all.

It kind of makes one wonder–what sort of man was the “best emperor,” really? The sort of man you’d have a beer with? A standard politician with an unusually astute mind for appearing humble? Or a Pope Francis-like figure who really was humble and able, but whose talents happened to lie in war and the apex of political power rather than religion?

We’ll never know. But Trajan is a fascinating guy all the same.

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