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Trajan: Optimus Princeps (Roman Imperial Biographies)
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36 of 37 people found the following review helpful
on May 31, 2001
Julian Bennett's biography of Trajan goes into great detail of how the early Principate worked. Trajan's famliy's rise to power is discussed in the first few chapters. Also, the reign of the tyrant Domitian is given a good overview.
Certainly Trajan is one of the most admired rulers of the early Empire. His exploits in Dacia and Parthia are the stuff of legend. Fortunately Julian Bennett gives these campaigns full attention, but goes well beyond that to look at the workings of the Imperial government. Be warned this book is not for the novice in Roman History. The financial policies of the Empire are discussed in detail, such how the Princeps would determine how much gold and silver to put into coins. Also well documented is how the Provinces, both 'Senatorial' and 'Imperial', were governed and how the Legions higher command structures were handled, what today we would call 'corp' or 'army' command level.
If you are looking for just a history of the Dacian and Parthian wars you probably won't like the detail given the more 'mundane' aspects of Roman Imperial Government. However, if you are familiar with Roman history and want to see how the Principate worked on a more detailed and personal level this book is with out a doubt on of the best.
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18 of 19 people found the following review helpful
on June 26, 1999
The achievement of Julian Bennett cannot be overestimated. His book, the first in English, is the major source for information about Trajan. The author is long-winded at times and I found his brief examination of the evolution of the principate unnecessary but, overall, this is a book not to be missed.
Mr. Bennett's presenation of Domitian was not entirely convincing for me. He seems to accept many of the bad stories about the emperor but also mentions that his reputation was blackened during Trajan's reign. However, a good comparison is made between the two emperors in the final chapter. Trajan was a lot like Domitian in his approach to power.
I would have liked more about Nerva in the book and Trajan's relationship to his adoptive father. For me, there seems to be some friction between them. Was there a reason Trajan did not issue commemorative coins for Nerva's deification?
Mr. Bennett gives an excellent examination of Trajan's coinage and provides a perspective from an archaelogical point of view. He covers every aspect of Trajan's career. This is not lite reading but, for the most part, is absorbing and thought-provoking.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
TOP 500 REVIEWERon May 14, 2012
Reviewers have tended to either complain about or praise this book for what it is: a very well down academic book, which is thoroughly and comprehensively researched to the extent that, if you are no particular "fan" of Trajan or the Roman Empire, you might find this book "too difficult and boring" or "detailed beyond readability". I can understand that some, on both Amazon.uk and Amazon.com might have felt a bit upset by Julian Bennett's descriptions "ad nauseam" of each little feature on Trajan's column, for instance. Having said that, it is rather unfair to blame a book for being exactly what it is portrayed to be, and an author for having delivered exactly what he was expected to deliver: a top-class piece of scholarship that exhibits all the features - good or bad - that generally go with such books.

Among the "good" are the quality of the author's research, the fact that he leaves no stone unturned, the trouble he takes in explaining in detail the various aspects of Trajan's reign. This was exactly what I was expecting to find, coming from someone like Julian Bennett. On the "bad" side, well, the items to list here are more or less the other side of the coin, when seen from the general reader's point of view. Masses of references and annexes make up one-third of the book as you often find in a thoroughly researched academic study. The book is indeed difficult to read for someone that has no special interest in Trajan or the Roman Empire. Although well written, the small printing does not help ni this respect. As another reviewer mentioned, this is definitely NOT a book for "bed-side reading". It is NOT a bestseller and has never been intended as one. It is a very good piece of scholarship and, as this same reviewer mentioned almost ten years ago, it is very much and still "the" biography of Trajan.

There is, however, much more to it than that. The core theme of the whole book is related to its title. Ever since his reign and even during his reign, Trajan has been portrayed - and was very careful to have himself portrayed - in the best possible light. In a way, he is and "anti-Nero", and quite deliberatly sought to be seen that way or, perhaps even more accuratly, he is the "anti-Domitian", the last of the Flavian emperors who had reigned from AD 81 to AD 96, just before Nerva, who lasted only 18 months, and Trajan, who replaced the old Nerva. Trajan has in fact alwas been seen as the "Optimus Princeps" (the best of emperors) during his reign, during the rest of the Roman Empire, during the Middle Ages, and even afterwards (including by Gibbon, for instance) up to very recently. The main interest of Bennett's book is that it is, to my knowledge at least, the first attempt to assess to what extent this excellent reputation in all respects and all areas was really deserved, and how much it owed to Trajan's political skills and those of his numerous and talented supporters. In other words: how much was real and how much was the result of a carefully constructed public image, or what we would call "positive spin" nowadays?

There is no simple answer to that question, and this is another reason for this book to be complex. The author has to examine all of the materials in detail, whether written or archeological, and compare, contrast and assess for each of the main topics of the reign and each of what the Romans saw as the "traditional Roman virtues" that Trajan was supposed to embodie so perfectly. It seems that, as with all good "spin", elements of truth were mixed up with - say - claims that were much less accurate. Bennett makes a good case when showing, for instance, that Trajan was just as much of an autocrat than Domitian had been, and he could also be just as ruthless. In his recent book on Nerva, Grainger has also shown that Trajan's military deeds were superficially impressive but strategically costly, at best, and that Domitian's plans may have been sounder. In other terms, appearances counted a lot in Imperial politics, possibly as much as they count nowadays, and this, to a large extent, explains the differences in treatment of Domitian and Trajan. However, it was not only spin. The reign did have some solid achievements to show, and it is this mix between reality and propaganda which ensured Trajan's posterity, making him into the "best of emperors" in more senses than one, although, for instance, his Parthian wars were not an overwhelming success and would almost end in disaster just after his death.

It is for this that Bennett's book is worth five stars even if, in some cases, I did feel that he could have gone further and been a bit more critical of his "hero".
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10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on March 21, 2002
While a rather dry read at times, this book is simply unmatched in scope when it comes to describing the reign of Trajan from his rise to power to his death. The author does an excellent job at fine details such as with his discriptions of Hadrians campaigns and the financial situation of Rome.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on March 22, 2012
As I say in my Amazon's Home page I'm a history buff and Rome's history from the Republic to the late Empire exceedingly interest me. I enjoy well researched historical novels as McCullough's series "Masters of Rome" or classic texts as Suetonius' "The Twelve Caesars" and Plutarch's "Lives".

Looking for more novels about the subject I found Posteguillo's excellent novel "Los Asesinos del Emperador" ("The Murders of the Emperor") a story focused on Emperor Trajan (only in Spanish by the time being).
Next I searched for more structured information and found "Trajan Optimus Princeps" (1997) presented by specialist as Routledge.
Julian Bennett, the author, is a British Archeologist.

This is a good little bio about Trajan, a bit "dry" if I may say. It is not a text for starters; the target reader is someone that has some knowledge about ancient Rome and wants to read more about this Emperor or this period in general.

The author examines every major issue about the Emperor. The first three chapters describe the background of the Empire, its ruling class and the Ulpian family.
Chapters 4 to 13 describe minutely Trajan's career and the closing two chapters give an evaluation of his government.

It was very interesting for me and I suppose it will be so for many readers, how the author illustrates the method used by archeologists to establish facts and dates when little written evidence exists.

This book in spite of its dryness is very readable nevertheless.

Reviewed by Max Yofre.
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7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on September 19, 2002
This is an excellent book on the life and times of the emperor Trajan. Though this book is not recommended for those uninitiated in imperial roman history, for those who are the attention to detail will be appreciated. Furthermore, Bennett acknowledges the lack of specific information relating especially to the early life of the emperor but uses his vast yet detailed knowledge of history, politics, society, etc.. to synthesize any necessary sequence of events and give the reader an excellent perspective of the empire at its apogee.
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4 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on June 17, 1998
Bennett did a great work, of a scarce materiel gives us an inside and comprehensive overview of the life -and times- of one of the better roman emperors. Definitevely I recommend it.
Neron. Mexico.
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on December 20, 2014
Julian Bennett's biography is well written with a good balance of scholarship and courageous educated opinions. Given the remarkable incompleteness of source material, Bennett is able to walk us through the life of Trajan with an admirable mixture of readable storyline and academic accuracy. Unlike other historian's, Bennett is not afraid to put together a "best guess" on the early life of Trajan. I felt that the later years of Trajan and the relationship with Hadrian were not explained clear enough to warrant a 5th star, but overall an excellent book.
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12 of 25 people found the following review helpful
on September 20, 1998
There is no excuse I can imagine for what Bennett has done here: he's made Trajan BORING. He's taken a life that's so sparsely documented and yet so temptingly exotic and grand, and he's shot it, stuffed it, and mounted it on a dusty back shelf in some dim-lit basement. This may be fine scholarship (in fact, to give the book its due, it IS fine scholarship), but it does no good service either to the non-specialist reader or to Trajan himself, who still awaits the biography he deserves.
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14 of 34 people found the following review helpful
This is the run-of-the-mill booktype on Ancient History that the English speaking academia produces. Mr. Bennett is obvious in love with his hero Trajan, and has painstakingly amassed all relevant materials (textual, archaeological, numismatic, etc.) in order to somehow produce a continuous account of his reign. However, onece we are done with that, what remains for us modern readers who do not love Trajan for his own sake? Nothing much, I fear, as there is not a definite issue (e.g. Trajan's policies of imperial expansion, or his _alimenta_ schemes) to which the author should offer a solution taking Trajan as a model case. As Moses Finley said in his last book, this "say everything you know about" approach only leaves the reader with an idea of wasted intellectual acumen, and begs the issue of the actual relevance of knowledge on the subject. Unfortunately,the book is throughly reasearched, but fails to be actually intersting.
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