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Hadrian and the Limits of Empire

The emperor Hadrian presided over the Roman empire at its height, defined its borders and was one of the most cultured rulers of the ancient world.

President Bush’s failure to impose his imperial vision on Iraq and the rest of the Middle East may come to be seen as one of the great turning points in history. He would have been wise to have studied and learned lessons from the experiences in the region of two Roman emperors, Trajan and Hadrian, over 2,000 years ago.

Trajan – Marcus Ulpius Traianus – was one of Rome’s great warmongers. Elevated in AD 98 at the age of 45 after a successful army career, his response to military challenge was invariably pre-emptive aggression. The rich and powerful kingdom of Dacia (what is now north-west Romania) was subjugated in two major wars early in his reign. This victory is celebrated on the column still standing north of the Roman Forum. Aggression, it seemed, paid dividends.

So, while Dacia was comprehensively plundered, ethnically cleansed and resettled with Roman colonists, Trajan’s legions pushed further East. The territory of the Nabataean Arabs – including the ‘rose-red’ caravan city of Petra – was annexed in 108. With a spreading network of Roman roads, forts and legions along the west bank of the Euphrates, the rival Parthian empire, centred on modern Iraq and Iran, grew restive. War broke out, as so often before, over control of the mountain kingdom of Armenia. Alarmed by military build-up, in 113 the Parthian king, Osroes I, invaded Armenia and replaced the pro-Roman ruler with his own nephew. In turn, Trajan with eight legions invaded Armenia the following year. His success there was so quick and easy that his mind turned to a much wider campaign of conquest in the East. 

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