The death of Trajan and his succession

Did Trajan ever prepare for the future and plan his succession?

  • Pim Wissink - Faculty of Law
  • Else Huis in 't Veld - Faculty of Medicine
  • Marlinde Koops - Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences

This Wiki is part of the series The Column of Trajan. Other parts of this series are:

Details and surroundings Functions of the Column throughout history The column of Trajan as a funerary monument The column of Trajan as a triumphal monument

After the details and surroundings of the Column of Trajan have been put into perspective, it is important to look at the time of Trajan's death and succession, as that happened in the period shortly after the column was constructed. Trajan died in 117 AD and was succeeded by his supposedly adopted son Hadrian[1]. The series of events in this time period can help determine whether the column was deliberately set up to function as a funeral monument or that it was originally a triumphal monument. The events show that it is likely that Trajan was not yet concerned with his succession and his remembrance by the following generations by the time the column was built.

1. The story
2. Hadrian adopted?
3. Sources

The story

The Column of Trajan was finished in 113 AD[2]. Four years later, in the spring of 117, Trajan suffered a stroke on an expedition in Parthia and the following illness forced him to return to Rome. In august of the same year he died, while still on route to Rome[1]. Shortly before that, he had given Hadrian, one of his most trusted generals, command of the eastern armies. Following Trajan’s death, Hadrian declared himself emperor. After his return to Rome, he requested the Senate to lay Trajan’s ashes in his column, which the Senate agreed to[1]. A gold urn containing Trajan's ashes was lain in the chamber inside the pedestal before the year ended.

Trajan[4] Hadrian[5]

This event is very intriguing in itself. It was tradition to bury the dead outside the city walls, where amongst others the Mausoleum of Augustus was located. In this mausoleum many emperors that preceded Trajan were buried. However, due to Hadrian’s request, Trajan was buried in the pomerium (the area of the fora), which was a great honor, only reserved for deified emperors and even then it was not always allowed[1]. Hadrian himself built a new mausoleum, which is now known as Castel Sant’Angelo, where he and the emperors after him were buried. This makes Trajan's burial place an exception to the rule and one wonders why.

Hadrian adopted?

As far as is known, Trajan had planned his succession. He had no heir and he seemed to be considering multiple candidates as his successor. There are scholars who believe Trajan favored Neratius Priscus to succeed him[3], but Trajan undertook no action to ensure him as his successor. It is generally believed that Trajan never took the time to adopt an heir and guide him to his future position as emperor. However, all his actions gave free way for Hadrian to claim the throne. When he fell ill, he appointed Hadrian to command the armies of the east, which were at the borders of the empire. This gave Hadrian a strong position within the empire as he ruled over most of the armies. Around the time that Trajan died, Hadrian somehow produced documents to announce his adoption by Trajan (it is not clear whether it was shortly before or after Trajan's death)[1]. His claimed adoption by Trajan and his command over the eastern armies gave him good grounds to proclaim himself emperor following Trajan’s death.


  1. Julian Bennett, Trajan optimus princeps, Routledge (December 23, 2000) , p 202 - 204
  2. Wikipedia page concerning Trajan's column (As accessed on the 26th of August, 2015)
  3. Duncan Campbell, The Rise of Imperial Rome AD 14-193, Osprey publishing, 2013, page 59
  4. Imperial bronze coins of Trajan (as accessed on 27th of August, 2015)
  5. Wikipedia page on Hadrian's buste (as accessed on 27th of August, 2015)