He has neither the name recognition nor notoriety of a Nero or Caligula, but Emperor Trajan, dubbed the "best among emperors" by contemporaries, is getting his due in Rome in an engaging exhibit examining his exploits, including his expansion of the ancient Roman Empire to its maximum extent across Europe and northern Africa.
"Trajan, constructing the Empire, creating Europe," opened this week at the ancient Trajan's Markets and runs until Sept. 16, 2018. It is a fascinating exploration of the legacy of the "optimus princeps" (a Latin term to indicate the best among emperors) timed to mark 1,900 years since his death.
The exhibit explores how Trajan, who ruled from 98 to 117 A.D., united peoples across Europe and why the women in his life are sometimes seen as forerunners of U.S. First Ladies.
With an empire stretching from the Irish Sea to the Black Sea and running across northern Africa, another hallmark of his rule was solid administration, including tax collection.
"With Trajan we are beginning to see what we moderns see as bureaucracy," said Mary T. Boatwright, a professor of ancient history in the department of classical studies at Duke University.
In an interview Thursday evening during a visit in Rome in connection with the exhibit's opening, Boatwright noted that the empire's bureaucracy "grows more and more, and that's one reason Rome falls apart" in later centuries.
These days, impatience with bureaucracy and rules administered by the European Union is considered a factor in Britain's vote to leave the EU as well as in the growth of populist movements in other member countries.
But for historians working in Trajan's day or shortly after, the first emperor who wasn't Roman but of Iberian origin, deserved top grades in administration.
He also led bold military offensives that expanded the empire's boundaries, including a bloody conquest of what is now Romania. A frieze, spiraling dizzyingly around the nearly 30-meter (nearly 100 foot) high ancient Trajan's Column -- just down the block from the exhibit -- uses exquisitely detailed, carved illustrations much like comic book frames to recount his legend, with scenes including one showing captives as they begged for mercy. His military campaign netted 50,000 slaves for Rome.
"He was plenty violent in terms of warfare, but not like Caligula or Nero," Boatwright said in a phone interview. "He wasn't a tyrant."
In a delightful break with so many other exhibits, this one lets visitors get up close to the statues and other antiquities. Studying a stone sculpture, one can admire the upswept hair of Plotina, Trajan's wife. Her hairdo, an arrangement of waves coming to a point on her head much like a tiara, was all the rage in the empire, spurring women to adopt similar hairstyles.
Plotina and Trajan's close female relatives, including his sister and niece, engaged in charitable work. Their activities included making loans to landowners so farmland could be developed and revenues used to help support children, prompting some to compare their civic engagement to that of First Ladies in the present age.
The exhibit offers glimpses into Trajan's private life many tourists might never see. On display are some fresco fragments from Trajan's villa at Arcinazzo Romano, in the rugged hills near Subiaco, west of Rome.
A video shows the amazing underground world, deep in the Rome's Aventine Hill, which is believed to be the site of Trajan's home. To gain access, spelunkers open a manhole in a parking lot in a piazza, descend through a narrow tunnel and to find rooms with richly decorated walls, with vaulted ceilings towering some 6 meters (20 feet). Remarkably well-preserved decorations include painted motifs, among them one depicting a bird appearing to snare with its beak a butterfly or some other winged insect.
Many Romans drive right over the spot, without knowing what ancient marvels lie beneath.
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