Inventing Trajan : the construction of the emperor's image in Book 10 of Pliny the Younger's Letters
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The Roman Emperor Trajan, who ruled the Roman Empire from 98 CE – 117 CE has always been remembered as one of the good Emperors. The few ancient sources that mention Trajan, namely Pliny the Younger and Cassius Dio, compose a glowing portrait of the Emperor when describing his deeds and abilities. Part of the explanation for such a positive portrayal can surely be accounted for by the comparison of Trajan to one of his predecessors Domitian (who ruled from 51 CE – 96 CE). Domitian came to be memorialized as one of the most hated Emperor of the Principate, especially because of his scornful and suspicious attitude towards the Senate and his pillaging of the Roman provinces for the purpose of his own profit. In a time when the empire was expanding and expert diplomatic and strategic capability was necessary for an Emperor to possess, Domitian’s shortcomings were particularly harmful to Rome and her subjects. Thus when Trajan took control, many Romans must have looked to him to continue the improvements initiated by Domitian’s brief successor Nerva and repair the damage done to the empire. Pliny the younger, an influential and wealthy senatorial aristocrat, was one such Roman who looked to the new Emperor with hope and ambition for better times. During Pliny’s tenure as governor of the province of Bithynia and Pontus from roughly 110-112/3 CE, he exchanged many letters with Trajan which were subsequently collected and published as the tenth book of Pliny’s Letters. These letters generally take the form of advice sought by Pliny about the governance of the province, followed by a concise reply from the Emperor directing Pliny’s actions (or, at times, suggesting that Pliny himself choose the best way to proceed). Previous scholarship has primarily addressed the letters as a “self-fashioning text” (cf. Carlos Noreña and Philip Stadter, among others), but generally ignores the very active role Pliny plays in carefully constructing a particular representation of Trajan. Using this correspondence as a platform on which to create an image of the Princeps, Pliny expertly invents a particular portrait of Trajan that portrays the Emperor as a master at senatorial relations and management of the provinces. By allowing Trajan to perform this role, as is evidenced in the letters of Book 10, Pliny creates our most complete and compelling portrayal of this Emperor which serves both Pliny and Trajan’s interests for posterity.