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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During the Crisis of the Third Century, when 25 emperors ruled in a span of 50 years, the only qualifications for the purple seemed to be legions and the money to pay them. Such was the case with Caesar Marcus Aurelius Illyrius Augustus, better known to his contemporaries as simply Illyrius, who ruled the Empire from 280-283.

Illyrius came to power in the typical way, by bribing Emperor Probus’ men to assassinate him. A cavalry commander, he was from a long line of Dalmatian nobility who claimed ancestry from the mythical Illyrius spoken of in the myths.

As such, Illyrius began an ambitious program to emulate his idol, Augustus, by simultaneously consolidating power and burnishing the facade of a constitutional ruler advised by the Senate. Senators saw their number and pay increased; coins showed Illyrius in simple Senaate robes, and thousands were put to death for the new crime of seditionem imperium against the princeps.

The most curious thing about Illyrius was his fate: despite being arguably no better or no worse than his predecessors, when he was assassinated by Carus in August 283 the Senate took the unprecedented step of declaring that it was the Emperor Probus who had been killed, implying that he had reigned uninterrupted. This particularly insidious form of damnatio memoriae ensured that Illyrius was left off most lists of Emperors even to this day.

When Carus died of a lightning strike less than a year into his reign, some felt it divine retribution.

Early in the Ashikaga shogunate, a samurai known as Sōtan who had performed exceptionally well in the recent civil wars was summoned from his daimyo’s side to the Imperial court at Kyoto. Sōtan had fought furiously against Emperor Daigo’s forces during the Kemmu Restoration, and personally thought it odd that he would be summoned by that same emperor’s son, now a powerless young figurehead under the rule of the shogun. But, bound by duty, he went anyway.

Sōtan was not allowed to view the Chrysanthemum Throne, but was instead received in an antechamber and given a letter with the Imperial seal, along with a small lacquered box sealed with pitch. The Emperor wrote that, shortly before his father Emperor Daigo’s death, he had given the box to his son with the warning that it contained a “wayze,” a word which neither the new Emperor nor Sōtan knew. Whatever the “wayze” was, it had been found by the Hōjō clan during their rule and reclaimed by Daigo when he attempted to return power to the Emperor.

Sōtan found himself cleverly retained by Daigo’s son: having been commanded by his daimyo, who must have thought the mission a trifling one, to do as the Emperor bid, he was duty-bound to carry out the mission. The Emperor had turned one of his father’s fiercest adversaries into an ally.

His mission? Destroy the “wayze” by any means necessary–short of opening it.