Trajan’s Wars: A Series of Unnecessary Conquests?

Under the Emperor Trajan (ruled 98 – 117 AD), the Roman Empire expanded significantly, reaching its greatest territorial extent. Trajan was the first leader in several decades to conquer new territories and establish new Roman provinces.

The Dacian Wars

Trajan’s first principal wars were fought against the Dacians, who inhabited a large territory encompassing much of Central Europe, ranging from the River Danube in the south to Black Sea in the East and encompassing the Carpathian Mountains. Dacia covered modern-day Romania and Moldova as well as parts of Bulgaria, Serbia, Hungary, Poland and Ukraine.

Dacia had defeated Roman armies under the reign of Emperor Domitan (81 – 96 AD) and Trajan wished to subdue what he still considered to be a threat. During the first Dacian War of 101 – 102 AD, Roman armies prevailed, forcing the Dacians, who were led by king Decebalus, to surrender. When Decebalus broke the terms of submission in 105, Trajan would not again be content with surrender. After defeating the Dacians once more, he made their lands a Roman province in 106 AD.

trajan's wars

Relief on Trajan’s column depicting the retreat and suicide of the Dacians.

After suffering his final defeat to the Romans, Decebalus committed suicide.

Trajan’s Column, erected in Rome in 113 AD, commemorates the Dacian Wars, depicting both conflicts in separate reliefs. Made from marble, it stands 35 metres in height, including its pedestal, and features a viewing platform near the top.

The Parthian War

In 113 AD Trajan turned his sights to Parthia (now north-eastern Iran), with which Rome had had previous conflicts, mainly over the control of Armenia. Trajan wished to soundly defeat the Parthians and annex Armenia as a Roman territory. He did exactly this in 114, killing the king of Armenia — a relative of the Parthian King Osroes I — in the process

Trajan also took northern Mesopotamia, annexing it as well, before capturing and sacking the Parthian capital Ctesiphon and then advancing all the way to the Persian Gulf. Yet Trajan’s forces were stretched by these conflicts and a series of Jewish rebellions in Cyprus, Egypt, Libya and Mesopotamia. Rome could not hold onto southern Mesopotamia and withdrew.

Trajan ordered his troops back to Syria and set out to return to Rome by boat, though he would never make it back. Already suffering from circulatory problems due to what he believed was poisoning, Trajan suffered a stroke and became partially paralysed. He died soon after on 9 August 117 AD in Selinus, a Greek city on the south coast of Sicily.

trajan's wars

Trajan in the British Museum. Credit: Muriel Gottrop (Wikimedia Commons)

The Legacy of Trajan’s Conquests

Though a popular ruler, as much for his public building and social welfare programs in Rome as for his military achievements, Trajan’s newly acquired territories did not remain Roman for long. His successor, Hadrian, withdrew from Parthia and Mesopotamia, preferring to maintain the integrity of a slightly smaller, albeit more secure Empire.

Despite his war-like nature, history has generally remembered Trajan in a very positive light, marking him as one of the so-called ‘5 Good Emperors’. The Church considered him ‘virtuous’, including Pope Gregory the Great, who prayed that his soul would not be lost.

Graham is an editor and contributor at Made From History. A London-based writer originally from Washington, DC, he holds a master's degree in Cultural History from Malmö University in Sweden. Graham also contributes environmental news articles to asiancorrespondent.com and latincorrespondent.com.