Trajan in Literature and Legend

According to a medieval legend, Trajan, a Roman emperor, briefly returned to life long after he had died and became a Christian. Dante incorporated this legend in his famous epic poem.


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    In the third part of “The Divine Comedy,” Dante visits paradise. He places the earth in the center of his system of celestial geography. Ten concentric spheres surround our terrestrial habitation. Each successive sphere has a greater radius. The sphere closest to the earth is the heaven of the moon. Further out is the heaven of the planet Mercury. Then come the heavens of Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and the fixed stars. (Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto had not yet been discovered in Dante’s lifetime.)  The last two heavens are the primum mobile and the empyrean.

     As Dante ascends from one heaven to another, he encounters various souls who trusted in their Savior and consequently entered into eternal joy and bliss.

     In the sixth heaven, the heaven of Jupiter, the sparkling souls arranged themselves in such a way that they formed the outline of an imperial eagle. All these souls were God-fearing rulers who died in faith. To Dante’s surprise, the pagan emperor Trajan was present among them.

     According to a story current in the Middle Ages, Pope Gregory I, who lived about 500 years after Trajan, was impressed with the emperor’s thoughtful efforts on behalf of a widow. Trajan had important work to do. He was journeying to a distant land, and would not return for quite a while. As he was leaving, a widow begged him to procure justice for her murdered son. Trajan heeded the widow’s plea.

      It grieved Gregory that Trajan had never embraced Christianity. He prayed for Trajan, and the emperor enjoyed a brief resurrection from the dead. During this brief respite from the bonds of death, he became a Christian and subsequently went to heaven.

     In real life, Trajan ruled over the Roman Empire from 98 to 117 A.D. Christianity had been a religio illicita, an illegal religion, since the days of  the Nero, and Christians had suffered active persecution during the recent reign of Domitian. From Trajan’s correspondence with Pliny the Younger, it appears that the antichristian posture of Roman law continued during Trajan’s reign, but the emperor did not encourage active persecution.

     Needless to say, the medieval story is anecdotal. If Trajan really did become a Christian, it would have happened before he died in 117 A.D.

     It would make many people happy if Trajan were enjoying the gift of eternal life, but in the absence of documentary proof, any assertion to this effect is wishful thinking. Only the just but merciful Lord knows for certain.


“Paradiso” from “The Divine Comedy” by Dante Alighieri; translated by Allen Mandelbaum

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  1. Posted March 12, 2011 at 5:08 am

    so was the emperor saved in the story of dante? or in some other work?

  2. Posted March 13, 2011 at 4:31 am

    I read it in the “Divine Comedy” of Dante, but as I understand it, the story was originally told in a vita (biography) of Gregory the Great. I have never read or even seen this latter work.

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