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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CAROLUS: And we are back here with our coverage of New Year’s Rockin’ Eve 214, coming to you live from the festivities at the Flavian Ampitheater just before the ball drops on 213.

THOMASIUS: That’s right, Carolus Magnus, and the party below is intense. The vomitoriums are at full capacity as the patrician class seeks to clear room in their stomachs for more decadent feasting, and the Rosa Colosseum Parade is moving through the ampitheater in review before our glorious patron, the Emperor Caracalla.

CAROLUS: This program is being recorded live on clay, papyrus, and slate (simulcast in Greek and Aramaic where available) for syndication on NBR, Networkum Broadcastum Romanum.

THOMASIUS: Yes, NBR subscribers can expect to hear this program in six to eight months–but remember, subscribers to our sponsor Harness High Speed Horsenet get their data at the blazing fast speed of six to eight weeks!

CAROLUS: HHSH: Moving at the Speed of a Flung Pilum™. Okay, we have only six turns of the water-clock until midnight and the beginning of 214. I see that the Marching Trojans Drum and Fife Band has taken the stage in front of the emperor and has begun their routine.

THOMASIUS: The Marching Trojans being from where again, Carolus Magnus?

CAROLUS: Why, Troy IX in Asia Minor, naturally. The parade programmers did take some care to keep them separate from the Marching Hoplites of the Sparta and Lacedaemonia Consolidated School District, you’ll note. And…what’s that? Yes, the emperor is giving a hand signal! Can you see what it is, Thomasius Felix?

THOMASIUS: It’s a thumbs down, Carolus Magnus. Yes, a thumbs down. The Marching Trojans have managed to upset the Emperor Caracalla with their song and dance number devoted to his brother Geta, slain on the emperor’s orders not long ago and currently being chipped out of all official monuments. They are being led away to scourging and execution on the Gemonian Stairs.

CAROLUS: To be fair, Thomasius Felix, I don’t think news of Geta’s death and damnatio memoriae had reached Troy by the time the Marching Trojans set out.

THOMASIUS: All the more reason to subscribe to Harness High Speed Horsenet, Carolus Magnus.

CAROLUS: Right you are, Thomasius Felix. It looks like the emperor is getting ready to throw the switch and drop the ball.

THOMASIUS: Our readers at home should know that the New Year’s Rockin’ Eve 214 ball is made out of authentic quartzite quarried in Cisalpine Gaul, clad in copper mirrors in an iron framework made by artisans in Hispania Citerior, and burning with two hundred oil torches from Aegyptus.

CAROLUS: Yes, and at the push of that lever, the ball will descend a greased pole onto a pile of Emperor Caracalla’s prostrate enemies, setting ablaze those who it doesn’t crush outright.

THOMASIUS: This is it! Count down with me!

CAROLUS & THOMASIUS: Decem, novem, octō, septem, sex, quinque, quattuor, tria, duo, unum! Felix sit annus novus!

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From a series of clay tablets found in the ruins of a sacked and burned Roman settlement in northern Dacia.

As the local prefect, it was my civic duty to preserve the veneration of the gods and the deified Imperial luminaries. Ordinarily, the emergence of a local cult would have been of no concern, but devotees of this “Iotherne” claimed that their goddess had subsumed our deified ancestors to gain their knowledge and prowess, and that she would soon arrive to purge Rome from the borders of the land.

This led her followers to begin stockpiling weapons and desecrating temples, in addition to making them a direct threat to the hegemony of the empire. I’ve made preparations to have my men enter the nearby settlements and detain or execute anyone who venerates an idol of Iotherne that we have captured. I expect the operation to proceed smoothly, and

Text ends here abruptly

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.

It might seem an odd thing that Maryann Steinman was the last heir to the long-dead city of Iram of the Pillars, but as is so often the case what seems odd at first appears less so on further examination.

Iram of the Pillars had been the key oasis that made travel across the vast Rub’ al Khali desert possible. But as more trade came and went, the water table had fallen and the spring collapsed in 190 AD, leaving the vast and unforgiving desert with no water to sustain travel. The royal family and all those who could do so fled north to Parthian Ctesiphon, for they had long been vassals of the king there. Shortly thereafter, Emperor Severus of Rome had sacked the city. The king of Iram and all his sons died in the defense of the city, with his daughter carried off to Rome in chains.

Purchased by a wealthy family, she was eventually emancipated and married into a powerful family of freedmen and Christian converts. They ran afoul of the later emperor Diocletian, who ordered the family wiped out in 305 AD. Only a single child survived the massacre, hidden by family friends and eventually smuggled to Gaul, where he raised a small family in an isolated village. In time, the village came to be part of France, but during the Great War it was totally razed; those that survived suffered terribly from dysentery and typhus. In the end, the entire town perished–save one man, Marcel Durand, who had left for Paris and later emigrated to New York City.

Before perishing in a typhoid outbreak, Durand managed to conceive a child, to the scandal of many, with one Gloria Feldman in the Bronx. Marrying George Steinman provided some stability for the child, who grew to father one child of his own before a heart attack felled him: Maryann.

A long path, yes, and one beset by the tragedies great and small which determine the fate of all peoples. But it led, inexorably, to Maryann.