Beyond the Boundaries of Fantasia: An ancient imagining of the future of leadership

Getting to Know You

Working for the Optimus Princeps

Getting to know you,

Putting it my way,

But nicely,

You are precisely,

My cup of tea"--Oscar Hammerstein

The ability to influence those with power may itself be seen as a kind of leadership. Good advice at just the right moment, sympathetic and encouraging friendship, forceful rhetoric, tactful protest, eloquent praise, or clever seduction are all ways in which those without formal authority can sway the decisions of those with it. See "Socrates' Last Stand" and "I'm Every Woman."

In AD 98, Marcus Ulpius Traianus, more commonly known as Trajan, became the emperor of Rome (explore his famous Column in "Spirits in the Material World"). He was the third emperor in as many years: Domitian, who ruled the Empire for fifteen years, was assassinated by court officials in AD 96. Sources from Trajan’s reign describe Domitian as depraved monster and a greedy tyrant, under whose rule men of the best quality were fearful for their lives and free speech could result in execution (in contrast, Tacitus asserts at the beginning of his Histories that under Trajan, “we [Romans? the senatorial class?] may feel what we wish and may say what we feel”). Immediately after Domitian’s death the praetorian guard acclaimed the elderly and esteemed statesman Nerva the new emperor. Nerva adopted Trajan in AD 97, and in doing so, marked him as his heir apparent. When Nerva died of natural causes in AD 98, Rome, especially its most elite citizens, was ready for a period of stable rule.

Born in Spain circa AD 53, Trajan had a long and distinguished military career before his accession. He served in several high-ranking posts in Syria and Spain. He both supported and was supported by Domitian: first, in AD 89 he put down a revolt in the Rhineland led by a Roman governor, Antonius Saturninus, and then in AD 91 Domitian honored him with the post of consul ordinarius, even though, at age 32, Trajan was barely over the minimum legal age for the office. Despite these seemingly strong ties to the hated Domitian, Trajan was nevertheless the man the new emperor Nerva turned to as a partner and successor in the empire.

Trajan was not the only man in the Roman Empire whose military and political career developed under Domitian, yet gained even more power in the years following Domitian’s death. In fact, several of Domitian’s most vociferous critics – who, of course, only voiced their criticisms well after Domitian was safely dead – navigated successful career paths under the tyrant’s rule, and then were promoted to positions of power under Nerva and Trajan. One example is Pliny the Younger, who steadily rose through the political ranks under Domitian, attaining the posts of quaestor, praetor, tribune, and prefect of the military treasury all before AD 96. Yet in his letters, published after Domitian’s death, Pliny makes every effort to display his discomfiture with Domitian’s rule and to proclaim his own distance from the prior dynasty. In his Panegyricus, a speech in thanksgiving and praise of the emperor Trajan given in AD 100, he constructs a picture of Domitian as a belua, or beast, gluttonous, avaricious, and bloodthirsty, who hated any person possessing a shred of decency. Trajan, of course, is the exact opposite: good in every way, a man who survived the darkest days with the rest of us [senatorial Romans], who kept his virtue untarnished, indeed, the Optimus Princeps (“best number-one guy”).

But what could Pliny have really known about Trajan as a ruler in AD 100, when Trajan himself had only be in Rome for a few months? Was such praise of Trajan premature, preemptive, or a projection of an elite fantasy onto a new, blank canvas of an emperor?

In this module, you will consider how elites position themselves in relation to a new ruler:

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