Weekend Reading: Jen Ebberler: Inventing Trajan: The Evidence, or How Do We Know What We Think We Know?
...It's weird, almost as if writers purposely avoided the topic. There is a rich record of coins, civic and private monuments, and inscriptions.... Most of the scholarship on Trajan is done by archaeologists and others with a strong, non-textual orientation.... Neither Suetonius nor Tacitus treated Trajan's rule explicitly. Book 10 of Pliny's Letters has a complicated textual history, and it's unclear exactly how we are to understand its relationship to Books 1-9 (or, even, when it became attached to Books 1-9). Trajan is surprisingly absent from Pliny's letters otherwise....
From the fourth century AD, a brief account of Trajan survives as part of Aurelius Victor's Liber de Caesaribus; the Historia Augista begins with the reign of Hadrian but there have been suggestions that it included lost accounts of the reigns of Nerva and Trajan. Similarly, Ammianus Marcellinus's Res Gestae started with the reign of Trajan, but that section of the text is no longer extant. Another late 4th century historian, Eutropius, treated Trajan's reign. What survives for us is Eutropius's abridgment, the Breviarum. He discusses Trajan's rule briefly in Chapter 8, in the context of the 'Good Emperors' and the Severans. There are other traces of Trajan's reception in the 4th century, particularly in panegyrics and letter collections.
Trajan fared better in the hands of the Imperial Greek writers. From the Imperial Greek tradition, Appian, another historian living under Trajan, did write at least an account of Trajan's Arabian War. All but a fragment of this text is lost. The Epitome of Dio Cassius's Roman History includes an abbreviated account of Trajan's reign in Book 68. Four Kingship Orations from Dio Chrystosom survive.
For a ruler who was given the title Optimus Princeps and was known as one of the greatest Roman emperors by the fourth century, there is surprising silence about his reign from contemporary writers. What do we think is going on here? The Augustan poets, for all their protesting, still managed to churn out a large quantity of poetry to celebrate and commemorate Augustus's various achievements. Why wouldn't Suetonius write a biography of Trajan? Suetonius seems to have outlived Trajan. If Trajan was, indeed, such a glorious ruler, a kind of reborn Caesar and Augustus all in one, wouldn't it make sense to conclude his biographies with Trajan? Pliny's general silence about Trajan in Epistles 1-9 is likewise fascinating.
In the absence of any 'Textual Trajan', we are left to talk about Trajan from the buildings he sponsored, the wars he won. It is very difficult to talk about him as a princeps civilis, at home in Rome, interacting with the senate and people of Rome. Our eyewitnesses to that side of Trajan decline to say much. We modern can only wonder why.