Introduction and Sources
“During a happy period of more than fourscore years, the public administration was conducted by the virtue and abilities of Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, and the two Antonines. It is the design of this and of the two succeeding chapters to describe the prosperous condition of their empire, and afterwards, from the death of Marcus Antoninus, to deduce the most important circumstances of its decline and fall, a revolution which will ever be remembered and is still felt by the nations of the earth.”
So Edward Gibbon concluded the first paragraph of his massive The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, referring to a period which he also styled the happiest of mankind’s history. Hadrian was the central figure of these “five good emperors,” the one most responsible for changing the character and nature of the empire. He was also one of the most remarkable and talented individuals Rome ever produced.
The sources for a study of Hadrian are varied. There is no major historian for his reign, such as Tacitus or Livy. The chief literary sources are the biography in the Historia Augusta, the first surviving life in a series intended to continue Suetonius’ Lives of the Caesars.[] Debate about this collection of imperial biographies has been heated and contentious for more than a century. The most convincing view is that which sees the whole as the work of a single author writing in the last years of the fourth century. The information offered ranges from the precisely accurate to the most wildly imaginative.[]
Cassius Dio, who wrote in the decade of the 230s, produced a long history of the empire which has survived, for the Hadrianic period, only in an abbreviated version.[] Fourth century historians, such as Aurelius Victor and Eutropius, occasionally furnish bits of information. Contemporaries or near-contemporaries of Hadrian, such as Arrian, Fronto, Pausanias, and Plutarch, are also useful. Papyri, inscriptions, coins, and legal writings are extremely important. Archaeology in all its aspects contributes mightily to any attempt to probe the character of a man and emperor whose personality and thoughts defy close analysis and understanding.
Early Life and Career
Hadrian was born on January 24, 76. Where he saw the light of day was, even in antiquity, matter for debate. Italica, in Hispania Baetica, was the birthplace of Trajan and was also considered that of Hadrian. But the HA reports that he was born in Rome, and that seems the more likely choice, since it is the more unexpected. The actual place of one’s birth was, however, unimportant, since it was one’s patria which was crucial. Hadrian’s ancestors had come to Spain generations before, from the town of Hadria in Picenum, at the end of the Second Punic War. Italica’s tribus, to which Hadrian belonged, was the Sergia. His father, P. Aelius Afer, had reached the praetorship by the time of his death in 85/86, his mother, Domitia Paulina, came from a distinguished family of Gades, one of the wealthiest cities in the empire. His sister Paulina married Servianus, who played a significant role in Hadrian’s career. Trajan was the father’s cousin; when Afer died, Trajan and P. Acilius Attianus, likewise of Italica, became Hadrian’s guardians.[]
At the age of about ten, Hadrian went to Italica for the first time (or returned, if he had been there earlier in his childhood), where he remained for only a brief time. He then returned to the capital and soon began a rapid rise through the cursus honorum; he was a military tribune of three different legions in consecutive years, a series of appointments which clearly marked him for a military career, and reached the consulate as a suffect at the age of 32, the earliest possible under the principate. At Trajan’s death, he was legate of the province of Syria, with responsibility for the security of the east in the aftermath of Trajan’s Parthian War.
His career as a privatus follows:
decemvir stlitibus iudicandis
sevir turmae equitum Romanorum
praefectus urbi feriarum Latinarum
trib. militum legionis II Adiutricis Piae Fidelis (95, in Pannonia inferior)
trib. militum legionis V Macedonicae (96, in Moesia inferior)
trib. militum legionis XXII Primigeniae Piae Fidelis (97, in Germania superior)
ab actis senatus
tribunus plebis (105)
legatus legionis I Minerviae Piae Fidelis (106, in Germania inferior)
legatus Augusti pro praetore Pannoniae inferioris (107)
consul suffectus (108)
septemvir epulonum (before 112)
sodalis Augustalis (before 112)
archon Athenis (112/13)
legatus Syriae (117)
(Some of these dates are less than secure; important for much of this information is the Athens inscription [Smallwood 109]).
Relationship to Trajan, Marriage, and Adoption
Hadrian’s only male relative after the death of his father was M. Ulpius Traianus, his father’s cousin, hence his own first cousin once removed. Trajan and his wife, Pompeia Plotina, had no children, and were surrogate parents to the child Hadrian. Trajan’s influence in government was steadily increasing, both through his own merits and because of his father’s great services to Vespasian in the civil wars and afterwards.[] When Trajan was adopted by Nerva and designated successor in late 97, Hadrian carried the congratulations of the Moesian legions to him along the Rhine, and was kept there by Trajan to serve in a German legion. In 100, largely at the instance of Plotina, Hadrian married Trajan’s grand-niece Vibia Sabina, ten years his junior. This marriage was not a happy one, although it endured until her death in 136 or 137. There were no children, and it was reported that Sabina performed an abortion upon herself in order not to produce another monster.[] In spite of marital unhappiness, the union was crucial for Hadrian, because it linked him even more closely with the emperor’s family. He got along very well with his mother-in-law Matidia and with the empress, whose favor enhanced his career.
In mid-summer 117, when Trajan was returning from his Parthian campaigns, he fell ill while at Selinus in Cilicia and died on August 8. The following day his adoption of Hadrian was announced by Plotina and Attianus, the praetorian prefect who had earlier been Hadrian’s guardian, with some question whether Trajan had indeed performed the act or whether it was posthumous, thanks to his widow. On August 11, which he considered his dies imperii, the army of Syria hailed its legate, Hadrian, as emperor, which made the senate’s formal acceptance an almost meaningless event. This was an example of the historian Tacitus’ famous dictum that an emperor could be made elsewhere than at Rome.[]
Succession and the Affair of the Four Consulars
Hadrian chose as his official title Imperator Caesar Traianus Hadrianus Augustus (for much of the decade of the 120s, he was simply known as Hadrianus Augustus). He must then have proceeded to Selinus at once from Antioch, to catch up with Attianus, Plotina, and Matidia. He then returned to his province no later than September and stayed there at least into the new year, consolidating his administration. He began the year as cos. II; whether he had been so designated by Trajan is unknown. On January 3, 118, the Arval Brethren met in Rome to offer vows for the well-being of the emperor, which shows that he was not in the capital. In June or July they sacrificed because of the arrival of the emperor who is present at the ceremony. He therefore may have taken as much as eleven months from his accession to return to Rome. He saw to the deification of his predecessor and celebrated games in honor of the consecration. Trajan’s ashes were placed in the base of his column, by special dispensation, since burials were prohibited within the pomerium.
Anticipation of his arrival had been overshadowed by the execution of four men of great importance, who had all held consulates and commands. This action had been ordered by the senate, perhaps at the instigation of the praetorian prefect Attianus. Hadrian always disclaimed responsibilty but his relations with the senate were irrevocably damaged, never really to improve until his death, when the senate hoped to have posthumous revenge. The four men were Cornelius Palma (cos. II 109), who had been with Trajan in the east and had been governor of Syria, Avidius Nigrinus (cos. 110), governor of Dacia, Publilius Celsus (cos. II 113), and Lusius Quietus, a Moorish chieftain (cos. 117), governor of Judaea and one of Trajan’s chief generals. Personal enmity toward Hadrian certainly existed, perhaps because of Hadrian’s move away from Trajan’s policy of expansion, perhaps because of jealousy that Hadrian had been preferred for the succession. Be that as it may, they were all Trajan’s men, and their elimination certainly made Hadrian’s course easier. But the odium thereby raised caused him dismay until the end of his days.[] He was cos. III in 119, which proved to be the last consulship he held. He thereby showed himself to be different from many of predecessors: Augustus held 13, Vespasian 9, Titus 8, Domitian 17, Trajan 6. He was similarly sparing in his acceptance of other titles; he became pater patriae only in 128.
Foreign policy, wars, and travel
In two important passages, Cassius Dio sets the tone for this section:
“Once, when a woman made a request of him as he passed by on a journey, he at first said to her, ‘I haven’t time,’ but afterwards, when she cried out, ‘Cease, then, being emperor,’ he turned about and granted her a hearing.” (69.6.3)
“Hadrian travelled through one province after another, visiting the various regions and cities and inspecting all the garrisons and forts. Some of these he removed to more desirable places, some he abolished, and he also established some new ones. He personally viewed and investigated absolutely everything, not merely the usual appurtenances of camps, such as weapons, engines, trenches, ramparts and palisades, but also the private affairs of every one, both of the men serving in the ranks and of the officers themselves, – their lives, their quarters and their habits, – and he reformed and corrected in many cases practices and arrangements for living that had become too luxurious. He drilled the men for every kind of battle, honouring some and reproving others, and he taught them all what should be done. And in order that they should be benefited by observing him, he everywhere led a rigorous life and either walked or rode on horseback on all occasions, never once at this period setting foot in either a chariot or a four-wheeled vehicle. He covered his head neither in hot weather nor in cold, but alike amid German snows and under scorching Egyptian suns he went about with his head bare. In fine, both by his example and by his precepts he so trained and disciplined the whole military force throughout the entire empire that even to-day the methods then introduced by him are the soldiers’ law of campaigning.” (69.9.1-4; both passages in the translation of E. Cary in the Loeb edition)
These views of Hadrian stem from an historian who lived a century after the emperor’s reign. He appears as a conscientious administrator, an inveterate traveler, and a general deeply concerned for the well-being of his armies, and thus of the empire. There was generally peace throughout its lands, although his principate was not entirely peaceful.
First of all, he had to quash the Jewish uprising which had begun under Trajan and spread throughout the diaspora. Then there were disturbances in Mauretania, Dacia, and in northern Britain. Late in his reign, after deciding to resettle the site of Jerusalem as the city of Aelia Capitolina and build a temple to Jupiter on the site of the Jewish temple, another uprising occurred, more bitter still than its recent predecessor.
Hadrian’s goal as emperor was to establish natural or man-made boundaries for the empire. He had realized that its extent had severely strained the empire’s capacity to maintain and protect it. Consolidation was his policy, not expansion, and this brought him enmity in the early years, when Trajan’s eastern conquests were abandoned (a process already begun by Trajan) and withdrawal from Dacia was contemplated.
Hadrian’s own military experience was extensive. He had served in provinces in the east, along the Danube, and along the Rhine. Soon after his arrival in Rome, he began the lengthy journeys which took him to almost every province. He was absent from Italy from 121 to 125, from 128 to 132, and from 134 to 136. He spent more than half his reign traveling; he displayed a Wanderlust unlike that of any of his predecessors, and sharply contrasting with the practice of his successor, who never left Italy.
Evidence for his precise routes and his goals is often entirely absent. One must frequently infer from what is known, and most lists differ in some details. The following is exemplary:
122 Germania inferior
Britannia (where he began the construction of the
Wall which bears his name)
Gallia Narbonensis (Nemausus)
123 Mauretania (?)
The Euphrates (Melitene)
Egypt (Nile trip; death of Antinous; Alexandria)
131 Libyan desert
His stay in the East these last years was necessitated by the Jewish War. His recurrent visits to Athens stemmed from his devotion to Greek culture and the city itself, which had elected him archon while he was still a private citizen (112). He much preferred the eastern provinces, the Greek lands, to the western ones. After 128/9, he was hailed as Olympios, after 132 as Panhellenios, and also as Panionios. Otherwise, his travels were intended to gain intimate knowledge of people and provinces, of the military in all its aspects, and to help produce a better and securer life for almost all his subjects.
Domestic policy and legal activity
Hadrian was so little in Italy, compared with his time abroad, that his governmental policies at home play a lesser role in consideration of his entire principate. Yet they have significance, because they display the same tendency toward order and consolidation as his external policies. When he arrived in Rome in July 118 to a hostile reception on the part of the senate, because of the death of the four consulars, he devoted attention to matters of significance to the people. He pursued the honors due Trajan, their favorite, examined the financial ledgers of the empire and discovered that there was an enormous sum of uncollectable debts, some 900,000,000 sesterces. He determined to remove these from the accounts and begin his reign with a clean slate. Consequently the records of these debts were publicly burned, an event which, obviously, gained him public favor.[] It was represented in the relief of the plutei Traiani, presently displayed in the Senate house in the Forum.[] He also continued and expanded the practice of the alimenta, whereby state money was lent to individuals who paid interest to their local communities. This money supported the local economy and helped maintain orphans.[] He also ensured that the grain supply upon which Rome depended became more secure with his dramatic building program in Ostia.[]
The most significant legal achievement was the codification of the praetorian and aedilician edicts. This task was assigned to Salvius Julianus, who produced one of the glories of Roman legal science.
Underscoring the importance of Hadrian’s work, Kunkel in his magisterial survey of Roman law indicates, “Edicts were magistral proclamations whose content and scope might be very diverse. . . . At least from the late Republic onwards litigants could, vis-à-vis a magistrate, rely on the contents of the edicts as confidently as on a statute, for magistrates were by lex Cornelia of 67 B.C. strictly bound by their edicts.”[]
These edicts, covering centuries, Julianus brought together into a straightforward and modern document, which became the basis of subsequent praetorian and aedilician activity in the field of law. The Edict has been lost, but many excerpts made by commentators upon it have survived in Justinian’s Code.[]
Many letters and rescripts of Hadrian have survived, which, in their variety, illustrate the almost infinite range of matters which were referred to the emperor. Two important ones may be exemplary. In 121, at the request of Plotina, who was deeply interested in the Epicurean School at Athens, he permits the presidency of the school to be assumed by someone who is not a Roman citizen, thereby increasing the pool of potential candidates substantially.[] Hadrian’s rescript to Minicius Fundanus is crucial for our understanding of the development of Rome’s relations with the Christians. He essentially reiterates Trajan’s response to Pliny (Ep. 10.97). Minicius was governor of Asia in 124/5. Hadrian’s communication replied to a question put to him by Minicius’ predecessor, Serennius Granianus.[]
Literary and artistic achievements
Hadrian was a man of extraordinary talents, certainly one of the most gifted that Rome ever produced. He became a fine public speaker, he was a student of philosophy and other subjects, who could hold his own with the luminaries in their fields, he wrote both an autobiography and poetry, and he was a superb architect. It was in this last area that he left his greatest mark, with several of the empire’s most extraordinary buildings and complexes stemming from his fertile mind. The anonymous author of the Historia Augusta described Hadrian as Fuit enim poematum et litterarum nimium studiosissimus. Arithmeticae, geometriae, picturae peritissimus.[]
He rebuilt Agrippa’s Pantheon into the remarkable building that survives today, reconstructing the accustomed temple facade, with columns and pediment, but attaching it to a drum which was surmounted by a coffered dome. The latter was pierced by an oculus nine meters in diameter, which was the main source of illumination. Height and diameter were identical, 43.3 meters. The dome remained the largest in the world until the twentieth century. As was his custom, he replaced the original inscription of Agrippa on the architrave; seldom did he put his own name on a monument.[]
To complete Trajan’s Forum, which had been planned by Apollodorus on a tremendous scale, he added a large temple dedicated to the deified Trajan and Plotina. He thereby made this forum more similar to its four imperial predecessors, each of which had a temple as its focus.[]
On April 21, 121, the dies natalis of the city of Rome, Hadrian began construction of a temple unique in design and larger than any other ever built by the Romans. Its length of more than 100 meters made it the only Roman addition to the short list of temples built by the Greeks which were at least that long. Even more extraordinary was the interior, within a fully peripteral colonnade. There were two cellae, back to back, with an apse at the end in which were placed the statues of the goddesses Venus and Roma, gigantic statues which, Apollodorus is said to have sneered, would bang their heads if they got up.[] The temple dominated the east end of the Roman forum, built on the heights of the Velia, overwhelming Titus’ Arch and facing the Amphitheatrum Flavium. He thereby linked his own achievements as conqueror of the Jews and great builder with his Flavian predecessors. Unlike Vespasian and Trajan, who built new fora which bore their names, Hadrian was more interested in individual monuments, the novelty and magnitude of which would keep his name alive.[] Late in life, he began construction of a mausoleum, larger than that of Augustus, on the other side of the Tiber and down river from it. It was approached by a new bridge across the river, the Pons Aelius. The mausoleum had not been completed at the time of his death.[]His most imaginative, nay stupendous, architectural achievement was his villa at Tibur, the modern Tivoli, some 30 kilometers ENE of Rome, in the plain at the foot of the Sabine Hills. It covered some 700 acres and contained about 100 buildings, some of which were among the most daring ever attempted in antiquity. Here Hadrian reconstructed, so to speak, many of the places which he had visited in his travels, such as the Canopus of Alexandria and the vale of Tempe.[]
He also left his mark on almost every city and province to which he came. He paid particular attention to Athens, where he completed the great temple of Olympian Zeus, some six centuries after construction had begun, and made it the centerpiece of a new district of the city.
Hadrian’s relationship with philosophers and other scholars was generally fractious. He often scorned their achievements while showing his own superiority. An anecdote about an argument which he had with the eminent philosopher and sophist Favorinus revealed the inequity of such disagreement. Although Favorinus was correct, he gave way to Hadrian, and when rebuked by friends, replied, “You advise me badly, friends, since you do not permit me to believe that he who commands thirty legions is the most learned of all.”[]
Hadrian’s literary taste inclined toward the archaic and the odd. He preferred Cato to Cicero, Ennius to Vergil, Coelius Antipater to Sallust, and disapproved of Homer and Plato as well. Indeed, the epic writer Antimachus of Colophon supplanted Homer in Hadrian’s estimation.[] The biographer Suetonius held office under Hadrian but was discharged in 122 for disrespect to the empress.[] The historian Tacitus, who may have lived into Hadrian’s reign, seems to have found no favor with the emperor.
His best known literary work is the short poem which he is said to have composed shortly before his death. These five lines have caused commentators much interpretative woe.
animula vagula blandula
hospes comesque corporis
quae nunc abibis in loca
pallidula rigida nudula
nec ut soles dabis iocos! (25.9)
“Little soul, wandering and pale, guest and companion of my body, you who will now go off to places pale, stiff, and barren, nor will you make jokes as has been your wont.”[]
Another four lines of verse are preserved by the HA, part of an exchange with the poet Florus. [] Mention is also made of his autobiography, which he had published under someone else’s name.[]
Probably the aspect of Hadrian’s life which is most widely known is his relationship with the handsome youth Antinous. He was a Bithynian, born about 110, whom Hadrian met when the lad was in his mid-teens. He joined Hadrian’s entourage and was with him in Egypt in the fall of 130. During the course of the emperor’s Nile cruise, Antinous drowned. The reason (or reasons) were not known. Conjecture of course abounded. The HA suggests that Antinous offered himself to save Hadrian’s life and that there was a homosexual relationship between them. Tradition also reported that Antinous committed suicide because an oracle had stated that, if he did so, the remaining years of life that he could expect would be transferred to the emperor. There is even the unsensational possibility that the childless emperor, whose relationship with his wife was at best cool, looked upon the attractive young man as the son whom he had never had. Whatever the facts, Hadrian’s grief was extravagant, and he caused the youth to be worshipped as a god throughout the empire and cities in his honor were established in many places. An Antinoopolis rose along the Nile near the spot where he drowned. Many statues of Antinous have survived, which reveal his fleshy and attractive appearance.[]
End of life and problems of succession
When Hadrian returned to Rome in 136 from the east with its great responsibilities of the Jewish War, his health had deteriorated markedly. He was now 60 years old, lonely and despondent. The empress Sabina had died, Antinous was gone, few remained to whom he felt close. He therefore began to contemplate a successor, in order to avoid a situation such as had occurred before his own accession. Then, he was the obvious, indeed the only sensible choice; now, there was no one who, by military distinction or close relationship with him, would stand out. His choice, L. Ceionius Commodus, was surprising, although he was cos. ord. when adopted. Nothing particularly recommended him other than powerful political connections. His health was bad and he had no military experience, his career having been entirely in the civilian arena. Some scholars have suggested that he was Hadrian’s bastard son, but that need not be believed. Nonetheless, his only recommendation was his good looks; his life was frivolous, his tastes luxurious. Hadrian’s choice seems to have been an aberration of judgment.
Commodus died on the first day of the year 138. Hadrian’s next choice, a much happier one, was T. Aurelius Fulvius Boionius Arrius Antoninus known to history as Antoninus Pius. The scion of a distinguished consular family, he had been born near Rome in 86, although his patria was Nemausus in Gallia Narbonensis. Consul in 120, at an early age, he soon thereafter served as one of the four consulares who had jurisdiction of Italy.[] He reached the acme of a senatorial career with his governorship of Asia about 134/5. He was one of the most distinguished men of the age.
Hadrian caused Antoninus to adopt two young men, who were intended to succeed him in the fullness of years. One was the seven-year-old son of Commodus, now named Lucius Aelius Aurelius Commodus, the later Lucius Verus. The other was the seventeen year old Marcus Annius Verus, now Marcus Aelius Aurelius Verus, the later Marcus Aurelius. Upon Antoninus’ death in 161, they succeeded as co-emperors; Hadrian’s foresight was thus rewarded.
Hadrian was at an imperial villa at Baiae, on the Bay of Naples, when he died on July 10, 138. The senate now felt it could repay the emperor for the wrongs done it from the beginning of his reign and undertook to condemn his memory, in other words, damnatio memoriae. But Antoninus fought against this condemnation of his adoptive father and gained deification instead. It is generally thought that it was for this action that he received the name of Pius.[]
Hadrian’s ashes were placed in his mausoleum and he received the customary honors of having been recognized as a divus, which above all recognized that he had ruled constitutionally. A great temple in the Campus Martius was built to his memory in the early 140s, now called the Hadrianeum, one of the largest in Rome. A substantial part survives. The tall stylobate was decorated with alternating reliefs of provinces and victories. In all likelihood, there was a relief of each of the 36 provinces which existed at the time of Hadrian’s death.[]
Hadrian died invisus omnibus, according to the author of the Vita.[] But his deification placed him in the list of “good” emperors, a worthy successor to the optimus princeps Trajan. Hadrian played a significant role both in developing the foreign policies of the empire and in its continuing centralization in administration. Few would disagree that he was one of the most remarkable men Rome ever produced, and that the empire was fortunate to have him as its head. When Aelius Aristides delivered his oration To Rome in 143, he had Hadrian’s empire in mind when he said,
“But there is that which very decidedly deserves as much attention and admiration now as all the rest together. I mean your magnificent citizenship with its grand conception, because there is nothing like it in the records of all mankind. Dividing into two groups all those in your empire – and with this word I have indicated the entire civilized world – you have everywhere appointed to your citizenship, or even to kinship with you, the better part of the world’s talent, courage, and leadership, while the rest yourecognized as a league under your hegemony. Neither sea nor intervening continent are bars to citizenship, nor are Asia and Europe divided in their treatment here. In your empire all paths are open to all. No one worthy of rule or trust remains an alien, but a civil community of the World has been established as a Free Republic under one, the best, ruler and teacher of order; and all come together as into a common civic center, in order to receive each man his due.[]
That being the case, it seems somewhat odd that he is best known to most people, not from Gibbon’s narrative nor from any specific scholarly treatment, but from a work of fiction. This is the quite splendid Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar, which became a best-seller about half a century ago. She presents a Hadrian as he might have been, and, although she commands a wide range of source material, the reader must always be alert to the fact that this Hadrian is not necessarily the historical Hadrian.[]
Scholarly work on the emperor, above all biographies, has been varied in quality. Much the best, as the most recent, is by A.R. Birley, who presents all that is known but underscores how much is conjecture, nay even guesswork. We still do not really know the man. An enigma he was to many while alive, and so he remains for us. Semper in omnibus varius; omnium curiositatum explorator; varius multiplex multiformis: these are descriptions of him from antiquity.[] They are still valid more than 1900 years after the emperor’s death.
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