Trajan's Justice


Hans Sebald Beham ( German, 1500 - 1550 )

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General Description

This small engraving presents a legendary episode in the life of the ancient Roman emperor Trajan. As recounted by Cassius Dio (155–235 BCE), Trajan was stopped on his way to battle by a widow demanding justice for her small son, who was carelessly slain by the emperor’s son. Trajan, seen here on a horse extending his hand to the grieving woman, offered his own son to take the place of her dead child. An example of compassion and empathy shown by a ruler toward his citizens, the narrative held great appeal to leaders in the following centuries. The 16th-century German style of the figures in the image contrast with the classical Roman plaque at the top, bringing the story up-to-date while reminding the viewer of its ancient past. The artist cleverly disrupts the separation of content from illustration, however, as the pointed tips of Trajan’s spear and that of his flag bearer break through the text panel and highlight the illusion of three-dimensional space.