Filling the Center, Fighting the Power Void: Choosing Trajan as a Successor

Abstract

Throughout history, transitions of power have been fraught with paranoia, last-minute twists of fate, conspiratorial attempts, and even violence. Roman history provides a fountain of examples: Galba, Otho, and Vitellius in A.D. 68–69 took turns occupying the throne, only to later face horrific deaths from the military that had helped their ascension. Their spontaneous promotion was the result of a political horror vacui (fear of emptiness), an instinctual social need to fill a void of power, which according to sociologists is bound to unleash a vortex of civil unrest. Strong emotions and desperate needs for instant gratification both placed these leaders on the throne and prematurely ended their reign.

With such history behind him, the childless emperor Nerva (ruled A.D. 96–98) was wise enough to realize that, without timely filling of that vacuum with a strong center, the cycle of violence would reoccur after his death, or even sooner. As a result, he adopted Trajan, who was both an experienced warrior, an able politician, and an aristocrat with imperial family ties who—at least in appearance—provided a nostalgic sense of the Republic, was a generous donor to the plebeians, and a stern leader of soldiers. By choosing him, Nerva not only filled a vacuous center but also accomplished a form of social harmony. Students will be asked to analyze how Trajan obtained public support and mobilized an alignment of the social ranks. They will also consider how, in the world of modern business, leaders often manage to transit power from one to another in a manner in which all the strata of an enterprise could feel validated.

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