Episode 25 – Otto the Great versus Trajan

Today’s episode pits the Holy Roman Emperor, Otto I, also known to history as Otto the Great versus the Roman Emperor who ruled over his empire at its apex, Trajan.

Otto the Great

Born on November 23, 912, to Henry the Fowler, the Duke of Saxony and the king of East Francia, and Matilda of Ringelheim, Otto was the eldest male of five children. His mother was venerated and canonized in both the Eastern Orthodox Church as well as the Roman Catholic Church.

Matilda was Henry’s second wife. His first gave birth to Otto’s half-brother Thankmar. Otto’s mother gave birth to four other children, Bruno, Henry, Gerberga, and Hedwig. Hedwig was to give birth to Hugh Capet, the future king of France. The Capet’s would rule France from 987 until 1328.

When Henry became the King of East Francia and Duke of Franconia with the death of his father Conrad I, there was a bit of a scuffle between other claimants. One of the reasons was that Henry was a Saxon and not a Frank, the traditional ruler. He would, as seemingly was always the case during these times, win fealty from the others with wins in many battles.

Here is where we have another break with tradition. The Carolingian tradition was to split the kingdom amongst the male children. Henry decided otherwise and named Otto, his sole heir. This was to bring a bit of anonymity from Thankmar, Otto’s half-brother as well as his full brother Henry.

When the elder Henry died in 936, cracks in the family unity began to show. By that time, most of the Germanic people were unified. This was not to last very long. Otto though, would not allow the work that his father did go to waste. He laid waste to the dukes in the area who opposed his rule. Some were killed, others say that it would be in their interest to give way to Otto as he was a brilliant military leader.

Starting in 941, Otto decided to consolidate more power in his hands. At the time, the dukes of the area, now known as Germany, were consulted before any decisions were made. Otto would have none of that and began to make sweeping changes to things, especially the way dynastic succession was determined. His father believed in the more democratic manner of governance while Otto believed in an authoritarian method of rule.

The way he accomplished his control over “his lands” was to richly award those who sided with him and punish those who opposed him. Contrary to many who believed in harsh punishment, Otto favored the threat of an extreme sentence, but with the promise of leniency if they swore allegiance to him and his authority. This plan of action was to be his winning gambit. Now, having said that, there were many rebellions by the peasant class. Those were dealt with swiftly and with a deadly outcome.

Another way to gain loyalty and allies was through marriage and relationships with the churches. Note that I used a multiple when talking about the Christian church. At the time, there was talk of a schism between the Orthodox Church based in Constantinople and the Roman Catholic Church based in Rome. The Byzantines in Constantinople were the powerhouse in the world during Otto’s time, but the church in Rome, had a large number of followers, especially in the lands ruled by Otto. One of his sons, William, became the Archbishop of Mainz. Otto’s daughter, Liutgarde, became the Duchess of Lorraine, starting the Salian dynasty, who ruled the Holy Roman Empire from 1027 until 1125.  Otto II, his youngest son, would become the Holy Roman Emperor from 973-980. His death, at the age of 28, would evoke a political crisis in the empire.

Otto focused his relationships with the Byzantine’s, especially with their leader, Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus. There were also a number of military threats all around the region he controlled, but Otto was able to handle them all. This “cuddling up” with the Orthodox following Romans, began to alienate him from the Catholics along with his invasions of Italy. Otto deftly handled the tensions and was able to work his way out of a tough situation.

Then came the civil war with his son, Liudolf, the Duke of Swabia. What precipitated the conflict was the death of Liudolf’s mother, Eadgyth of England in 946, Otto’s first wife and the marriage of dear old dad to his second wife, Adelaide of Italy in 951. Liudolf wanted Italy for himself. He initially was victorious on the battlefield against those sent by Otto, but he died in 957 of fever. 

In 962, Otto was named the Holy Roman Emperor, something revived by our friend Charlemagne in 800, who we will meet in episode 79 when he faces off against Ramses II. He was a natural to ascend to the throne as he was the great-great-great grandson of Louis I, also known as Louis the Pious, the son of Charlemagne. 

After his ascension, Otto began to have problems with the Papacy. He basically had to lay siege to Italy and eventually placed himself personally in Rome. Otto forced the church to accept his man, Leo VIII to become Pope, ousting Benedict V.

In Byzantium, they began to view Otto as a significant threat. Their current emperor, Nikephoros Phokas believed himself the rightful ruler of Italy and not Otto. Phokas though was overthrown and murdered by the new Byzantine Emperor, John Tzimiskes. Negotiations between the two sides began afterward with a deal agreed upon whereas Theophanu, niece of Tzumiskes, marrying the Holy Roman Emperor’s son, the future Otto II in 972. 

The following year, 973, returning to his beloved Germany, Otto became seriously ill, dying on May 7th, as the most powerful man in all of Europe, the first, since Charlemagne, over a hundred years earlier. His plan of succession to Otto II went without a hitch. That is an excellent testament to the man known as Otto the Great, as few powerful and influential men like him succeeded in handing over power to a child as well as he did.

Now for our putting it into perspective segment. 

During Otto’s reign, the Lighthouse of Alexandria, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World is damaged by an earthquake, Olga of Kiev, ruler of Kievan Rus, converts to Orthodoxy, the Song Dynasty is established in China where it would rule for over 300 years, and cloves, ginger, and black pepper are first made available at a market in Mainz which signifies trade between the Christian and Muslim world. 

The Emperor Trajan

The Roman Emperor Trajan ruled over his empire when it was at its apex in size and power. Born on September 18, 53 AD, in what is now Spain as Marcus Ulpius Traianus to a noblewoman and a Roman senator.  His father, who had the same name, had a very distinguished military and civil career. He was the governor of Syria, commanded the Tenth Legion ‘Fretensis’ during the Jewish War of 67-68. The Senior Traianus was both governor of the Spanish province of Baetcia and western Asia Minor.

Of course, having such a successful father didn’t hurt the young man. After campaigning with him in the 70’s, the future emperor would be given his own Legion, the 7th Gemina, based out of northern Spain. He would help the then Emperor Domitian, quell a rebellion which put him in the ruler’s favor. This could have been very bad for his career as Domitian would be assassinated in 96 because many were worn out by the four years of terror that had engulfed Rome. The reason why this had little to no effect was that Domitian was well-liked by the army.

When Nerva was called upon to replace the fallen Emperor, he was already an old man by ancient Roman standards. He was 66 and had come from the administrative side of Rome, not from the military. Rome was in a frenzy of destruction and retribution. Statues and paintings of Domitian were being destroyed, and his informers and some aides were executed. Things were quickly getting out of control, and Nerva was unable to do anything about it.

The Pretorian Guard was in open revolt, not against Nerva, but against a few of Domitian’s supporters who were still alive. There are two stories about what happened then. The first one is that Nerva decided to adopt the popular General Trajan and the second is that it was forced on him by the military. I’m going with the later. It is said that the future Emperor Hadrian was the one who told Trajan of his adoption as he was off as the appointed governor of Upper Germany. 

When Nerva died on January 28, 98, you would think that Trajan would head off speedily towards Rome. Well, he didn’t. As a matter of fact, he took his sweet old time, touring the Danube frontier as it was one of the most unstable regions in the empire. He was assured that his place in Rome was safe as he had many allies there, likely old friends of his father’s as well as his own buddies.

He finally made it during the summer of 99, he did so to a triumphant parade. Unlike some of his predecessors, he entered the city on foot, mingled with the people, shaking hands with the senators. This brilliant show of humility was a way of building a consensus, though graciousness and adherence to traditions. While feigning sharing the rule over Rome with the Senate, he in no way gave away any of his power. Trajan was emperor, but he wanted good relations with those around him lest they get rid of him like they did Caligula, Nero and just a few years earlier, Domitian.

In his early years as emperor, Trajan gave money to the people, helped the poor, began an ambitious building campaign and held lots of games. This made him immensely popular, but he wasn’t flawless. While his wife was often times by his side, Trajan did fancy his young boys. What we do know of this, is that he did treat the young children well, never harming them. He was also not a heavy drinker, if at all, which would prevent him from making bad judgments.

While a master politician, what set Trajan apart was his excellent generalship. Rome was, of course, a warring nation. It needed conquest, with the riches that it brought, along with slaves that would fuel its economy. Trajan would set out during his 19-year reign, to fight in three major wars, the first two against the powerful enemy to the east, Dacia.

Dacia is an ancient land mostly north of the Danube River, with the Black Sea to its east. The Carpathian Mountains dissect the country. It was also a rich land that the Romans lusted after. Between 101 AD and 106, Trajan led his men against the Dacian army, destroying their capital Sarmizegethusa, hunting down their king Decebalus, who committed suicide to avert capture. After the victory, it was celebrated with the construction of Trajan’s Column which still exists today. 

The wealth that was captured from Dacia was immense. To celebrate the win, as written about in the book Chronicle of the Roman Emperors by Chris Scarre, “On returning from the Dacian War, Trajan celebrated another triumph and mounted an extravagant series of public games, in which 10,000 gladiators fought and 11,000 animals killed. He also devoted some of the vast booty he had won to public works, including a new harbor of Ostia, the port of Rome, and the construction of his own Forum and Market.” Can you feel the hustle and bustle of the city, how the people must have felt euphoric, well almost everyone, not the slaves and the gladiators?

Between 107 to 113, Rome was generally at peace. By this time, Rome was a dominant power in the world. So much so that an ambassador from India came to Trajan’s court. By 110, Rome had over 47,000 miles or 75,000 kilometers of roads built. But there was trouble brewing in the east from an old enemy of Rome, Parthia

While still a mighty empire, Parthia was in decline, but they were always causing trouble for Rome by placing handpicked rulers in places like Armenia, which was a buffer kingdom between Rome and Parthia. Trajan could not have this so, in 114, he set off to teach his enemy a lesson. And a lesson he would give them.

Over the next three years, Trajan led armies would crush the Parthians, conquering all of Mesopotamia, including the Parthian capital of Ctesiphon. This would be the apex of the Roman Empire. Towards the end of the campaign, in 117, Trajan fell ill. He would come down with a mysterious circulatory disorder which Trajan believed was caused by poisoning. Whatever the cause, he died on August 8, 117 in what is now southern Turkey. He was 63 years old.

Before we move on, I want to talk about the succession of Hadrian. It is said that on his deathbed, Trajan had adopted Hadrian which made him his natural successor. Problem is, the paperwork which was sent to the Senate, was signed by his wife, Plotina. There is a doubt that Trajan had ever spoken about the adoption and that his wife planned it to protect herself in the future.

What Hadrian did while heading back to Rome was to give up much of the land Trajan had just conquered all the way back to 102.

Now on to our putting it into perspective segment.

During Trajan’s reign, Tacitus completes his work, Germania, lions became extinct in the Balkans, the Gospel of John was written, the Christian Church declares itself to be universal or Catholic, and Pope Sixtus I becomes the seventh pope.

Now on to our scoring of these two great leaders of the world, Otto the Great and Emperor Trajan. 

The first 15 points go to the one with the longest reign. Otto began his time as the ruler of his people in 962, ending in 973 for a total of 11 years. Trajan, as we know, ruled for 19. Fifteen points to the Roman and 12 for the German.

Next up is the 20 points for how they affected the rest of the world in their time. This one is a tough one to score. While, yes, the Roman Empire by now was massive and its effect was felt all the way to India, the growing Holy Roman Empire was no slouch either. Otto profoundly influenced the dominant Roman Catholic Church as well as send off daughter’s and sons to marry other royal houses. He did also start the Ottonian dynasty which would last 105 years. Trajan stabilized Rome after the disaster of Domitian and heralded the era of the Five Good Emperors, which would last for 84 years until the death of Marcus Aurelius who we will see in Episode 36.

After some serious internal debate, I’m giving Trajan 20 points and Otto 18.

Next up is the lasting effect on world history. To the German peoples, they would pick Otto, of course. For most of the other parts of the world, Trajan would be the man. Partly because he was the ruler of the largest empire in the world at the time, Trajan is better known and influential. He was also a very adept leader and brought stability to his empire. Otto helped create a sense of a Germanic people and began the Holy Roman Empire, something that would last for 1,000 years, longer than the Roman Empire it was named after. It wasn’t until Napoleon that Otto’s country was dissolved. For these reasons, I’m giving both men the full 25 points.

We’re now down to the big prize of forty points for how they affected their country for the better. This one is another toss-up. Start a country that lasts for a thousand years, or stabilize and grow the empire to its largest extent? Which one do you give greater credence to? Again, I’m torn. The tipping point to me is something that has been suggested by other historians, if Trajan had not stepped in and made things right, with the backing of both the Senate and the army, Rome may have fallen into yet another civil war which could have torn the Empire apart. For this reason, I’m giving Trajan the full forty points with Otto receiving 37.

The final score is Otto the Great, 92, Emperor Trajan, 100. Which means, the Roman leader heads to the second round to face, the winner between Marcus Aurelius, the last of the Five Good Roman Emperors and the 10th Ottoman Sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent.

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Mark Schauss has been podcasting for over 8 years. His Russian Rulers History was a top history podcast for 7 1/2 years. Discover his new entry into the podcast world.



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