It is not within the scope or ability of any single historian to claim that he or she has achieved a perfect portrayal of some event of the past. No matter how complete the gathering of evidence, there is a certain degree of judgement involved in deciding what to include in one’s narrative. This is a simple fact of writing history, and when one speaks of the writing of ancient history, these questions of subjectivity are compounded by a frequent lack of evidence. The lives of some figures of antiquity (e.g. Augustus) are extensively chronicled and documented. Most are not chronicled at all. Many lie somewhere between these extremes. Hadrian the emperor falls into this latter category. Of the primary sources treating the life of Hadrian there are but two significant extant works: the Vita Hadriani as found in the Historia Augusta (HA), and Dio Cassius; they are not wholly trusted. In modern times, the portrait of Hadrian has evolved as epigraphic, papyrological, and numismatic evidence has come to light. From the time of Gibbon to modern day, Hadrian has received many treatments varying in both size and tone. The story of his history reflects how the writing of history has evolved over a period of two centuries; it also casts in relief the effects the “ceaseless researches of science” have had on the writing of ancient history.[] This paper will not attempt to summarize or recapitulate the events of Hadrian’s life, but it will mention certain events in order to illustrate the tone or character of how Hadrian is represented in a given work of history.
Edward Gibbon completed the first volume of his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (Decline) in 1776. Hadrian does not take a significant part in his narrative, but he is an important part of the preliminary circumstances that Gibbon establishes in the first two chapters prior to discussing the decline of the empire.[] Wrote Gibbon:
“If a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus.”[]
This is high praise indeed. Hadrian was emperor during 21 years of that happy period. Gibbon also calls the time from Nerva to Marcus Aurelius “a happy period of more than fourscore years,” during which the administration of the empire was in capable hands.[] He elaborates: “Notwithstanding the propensity of mankind to exalt the past, and to depreciate the present, the tranquil and prosperous state of the empire was warmly felt, and honestly confessed, by the provincials as well as the Romans.”[] Gibbon describes Hadrian as capable of the harshest and most generous conduct, moderate in comparison to Trajan,, a soldier, a scholar, a statesman, and a worker of peace.[] He speaks admiringly of Hadrian’s conduct with the military of condescending to instruct the inexperienced soldiers.[] With respect to Hadrian’s abandonment of Parthia, Armenia, and Mesopotamia, Gibbon ascribes this tactic to Hadrian’s respect for Augustus’ will.[] Hadrian is one of the Emperors who ruled over an empire “united by laws and adorned by arts.”[] He describes an empire unified by government, peace, public works, and art. He speaks favorably of Hadrian’s legislation regarding the treatment of slaves.[] Of the progress of the empire under Hadrian, Gibbon has no doubt, as evidenced in the following summary: He encouraged the arts, reformed the laws, asserted military discipline, and visited all the provinces in person. His vast and active genius was equally suited to the most enlarged views and minute details of civil policy.[] But in assessing Hadrian’s character, Gibbon describes it as “various and doubtful,” and he continues: “The ruling passions of his soul were curiosity and vanity… Hadrian was, by turns, an excellent prince, a ridiculous sophist, and a jealous tyrant. The general tenor of his conduct deserved praise for its equity and moderation.”[] Gibbon criticizes both the beginning and end of Hadrian’s reign, periods marred by cruelty and murder, but he praises Hadrian’s choice of a successor.[] Thus, Gibbon offers a seminal view of Hadrian.
Gibbon’s Hadrian is thus a study in contradiction–remarkably effective as a statesman, distastefully inconstant as a man. Furthermore, though Gibbon praises Hadrian’s rule, he adds a few caveats to his commentary. Gibbon observes that a love of letters that emerged in Rome at the time of Hadrian fostered peace but also encouraged a debasement of sentiment, enervation of courage, and depressing of talent.[] He also laments the inability (or indisposition) of any of the Emperors of this golden age to restore the political institutions that might protect the empire from imperial abuses. He writes: “The ideal restraints of the senate and the laws might serve to display the virtues, but could never correct the vices, of the emperor.”[] Indeed, Gibbon argues that while only the political institution of the principate could make possible such excellence as he observes in Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus, and M. Aurelius, likewise only the principate could allow such tremendous vice as was exhibited in Caligula, Nero, Commodus, and others.’[] Such is the assessment Gibbon offers of Hadrian’s times and Hadrian’s principate.
How the times in which the author lived affected his conclusions is a matter that has been widely discussed. Decline is not only a classic of ancient history, it is a classic of late 18th century English literature. The first volume, published in 1776, came just in time for the rebellion of the American colonies. It coincided with the publication of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations and it still stands among the great literature of the enlightenment. When Gibbon comments on the enervating effects of peace and academic pursuits, he must see the parallel between his times and the “happy period” from Nerva to M. Aurelius. Likewise, the challenges inherent in the administration of the growing English Empire (and its looming troubles across the Atlantic) may well have increased Gibbon’s appreciation for the achievements of Hadrian and his colleagues, who succeeded in maintaining such a far-flung and internally colorful dominion.
Upon reading Gibbon it becomes immediately apparent that Gibbon’s sources are predominantly literary–such was the state of scholarship at that time–and Gibbon’s broad generalizations about Hadrian reflect the broad generalizations of the ancient sources. Gibbon could not verify, for example, the HA’s reports on Hadrian’s travels. Subsequent archaeological discoveries (highway markers, inscriptions on buildings, coins announcing the Emperor’s visit) go far in bearing out at least this part of the narrative of the Vita Hadriani. Gibbon worked with what was at his disposal. In Decline, he does not attempt to explain the contradictions in Hadrian’s character, nor does he doubt or speculate on their existence. With regards to the accuracy of the ancient sources, Gibbon says that their content “is perfectly agreeable to historic truth.”[] His narrative indicates that trust.
Though by no means extensive, Gibbon’s treatment of Hadrian is important insofar as it set forth a proposition that must be addressed by subsequent historians, namely, that Hadrian was a part of a golden age, a contributor to a most happy period in human history, and a possessor of a paradoxical character. These are the clay pigeons that Gibbon fires before subsequent chroniclers of Hadrian.
In the decades following the publication of Gibbon’s masterpiece, Roman history enjoyed somewhat of a revolution, and Theodor Mommsen stood at the forefront. Mommsen was the first to effectively combine the mastery of the tradition of literary history and the archaeological skills of a great epigraphist. Unfortunately, Mommsen never wrote the logical continuation of his vastly important History of Rome, though a manuscript of this greatly anticipated book may have been burnt in a fire. Thus, until recently, Mommsen’s feelings regarding the history of Rome from Octavian onwards were largely matters for speculation. However, in 1980 Alexander Demandt found in a bookshop in Nürnberg lecture notes from a Mommsen class on imperial Rome and Demandt and his wife edited the notes and published them in book form in 1990.[] It is important to recognize that this is not a book written by Mommsen and that there is a distinction between what one says in an academic setting and what one publishes for the use and utility of the public. That said, the “book,” aptly titled A History of Rome under the Emperors (Emperors), is a tremendous discovery, a tremendous asset, and a treasure, because it offers great insight into the opinions of a man who is the great Roman historiographer of the modern era. In tracing the development of the Hadrian in modern history one must recognize the value of consulting the opinions of a man who dominated the academic scene for a half century, and whose work remains important today–no small feat.
The period of Roman History from Vespasian to Diocletian is treated in the second of the three principal parts of Emperors. Mommsen remarks–not without humor–that the evidence documenting the history of this period is scarce. He says that the extant literary sources (here he directly refers to the Historia Augusta) are “well versed in narrating about the panem et circenses,” and not useful for much else, but he adds, “it is not proper for a workman to complain about his tools.”[] From these comments, the character of Mommsen’s approach seems very distinct from that of Decline. Mommsen almost immediately casts aside the literary evidence which was the bones of Gibson’s narrative. He takes a different approach. The lectures outline a topical, not chronological, approach. This is divided into five sections: Domestic Politics 1, Wars in the West, Wars on the Danube, Wars in the East, and Domestic Politics 2. Each section treats the relevant subject matter more or less chronologically. It seems that Mommsen had a high opinion of Gibbon’s work and did not wish to compete with it, in which case, the structure of his approach wholly divorces his lectures from Gibbon.[] In his topical approach., Mommsen goes far towards offering an understanding of the period in question and Hadrian as well–in spite of his reluctance to deal with individual figures. Though he by and large avoids the philosophical musings and colorful characterizations that comprise Gibbon’s Decline, Mommsen does not hesitate to make bold statements.
There are several comments that lucidly illustrate the logic behind Mommsen’s approach and his feelings regarding the period from Vespasian to Diocletian. In the introduction of the lectures, Mommsen describes this era rather frankly. He comments:
“The history of foreign affairs lapsed entirely; noteworthy events in the usual sense of the term hardly occurred at all until the time of Diocletian and Constantine. Nothing of note occurred, no great wars were fought; .. . , the world was stable and conservative. Throughout the work of the centuries the vision of Caesar, Augustus and Tiberius, the three great, creative Emperors, was put into practice with some consistency, although often at a dilatory pace. Consequently, our account can no longer proceed chronologically.”[]
Thus, the reason for the topical approach is simple expedience; there is not enough to fill a chronological narrative. Mommsen’s lack of appreciation for this period is further illustrated when, concluding this group of lectures, Mommsen says:
“Only an exceptionally small number of important men can be recorded from Vespasian to Diocletian, with the possible exception of Hadrian and Aurelian, although we know very little about the latter. Otherwise all the Emperors were ineffectual and dreadfully mediocre, exerting the barest modicum of personal influence on the course of history.”[]
These words offer very little in the way of interpretation. Mommsen makes himself quite clear– he is quite unimpressed with this array of figures.[] It is particularly remarkable that Mommsen, a great admirer of Caesar, would deem to call Trajan ineffectual and mediocre, and raise Hadrian above his predecessor.
There is, in the course of the discussion on wars in the east, a brief description of Trajan that reads as follows: “Trajan was the most military emperor Rome ever had. He was aroused by the distant memory of Alexander and the fairy-tale like attraction of the distant east. He wanted war, and when someone wants war, he will find a reason to make war.”[] This is not a generous view of Trajan’s conquests or character, and it is important to note because of the contrast of Hadrian. Whereas some historians have called into question Hadrian’s precipitous abandonment of Trajan’s Parthian lands, Mommsen calls Trajan’s plans for the east “vainglorious” and “unfeasible;”[] Hadrian’s policy was called for by “reason and necessity.”[] Apparently, Mommsen approves of Hadrian’s first significant acts as emperor, and he strongly disapproves of Trajan. Mommsen provides several clues as to the cause for his (conditional) approval of Hadrian. He comments that Hadrian offered a respite from the overall trend of debasing the currency.[] The importance of this fact becomes clearer when Mommsen asserts, “the history of the decline and fall in the financial sphere, the history of economic ruin and bankruptcy, ultimately proved to be the chief cause of the political ruin of the principate.”[] Clearly, Mommsen approved of Hadrian’s monetary policies, while disapproving of his predecessors’ and successors’, and, in his opinion, monetary policy had far-reaching consequences. Hadrian does not distinguish himself with regards to tax policy, though this may be more good than bad. Likewise, Hadrian did not reduce the 30 standing legions established under Trajan,[] he did not increase the imperial possessions,[] nor did he significantly increase the dole.[] In these matters Hadrian simply falls into a line of unremarkable consistency. Mommsen is a bit livelier when discussing Hadrian’s political and administrative reforms. In fact, he goes so far as to call Hadrian “the great reformer.”[] He speaks positively of the delegation of authority in financial affairs, of taking important matters of state out of the hands of Greek freedmen and giving the responsibility to instituted officials. Mommsen also approves of the regulation of the consilium, creating a permanent position and salary.[] When Mommsen discusses the bureaucratic reforms of Hadrian, of his “farming out” of the emperor’s duties to regular and appointed offices, he reserves judgement. He does not tell his audience whether or not he approves of the measures, and his tone betrays nothing of his underlying opinions.[] There is no indication that Mommsen disapproves. Mommsen also ascribes to Hadrian the change from senatorial to imperial status of provinces requiring a permanent military garrison.[] For the most part, Mommsen’s commentary bears out his initial feelings of disinterest, but he does deem to share his opinion regarding Hadrian’s character. He comments: “By and large, Hadrian was not a pleasant character; he possessed a repellant manner and a venomous, envious, and malicious nature which cruelly avenged itself on him.”[] Mommsen seems to take very literally the HA’s statement that Hadrian died invisis omnibus.[] There is little else to indicate Mommsen’s opinion of Hadrian the man. He holds Hadrian the statesman in high regard; this is fleshed out by the above-mentioned analyses. Like Gibbon, however, Mommsen does not appreciate Hadrian’s character, though unlike Gibbon, Hadrian’s character (nor that of anyone else of this period) is of little importance to his examination of this time in history.
Mommsen — far more than Gibbon — had access to a great array of archaeological evidence. His tremendous intellect allowed him to understand this evidence in a broader context than most simple archaeologists. Mommsen extensively discusses subjects that Gibbon barely mentions in passing. The emergence of newly discovered numismatic evidence (in the case of currency debasement), inscriptions (chronicling different legislation–political, financial, administrative) and ruins (tracing Hadrian’s building program) are some examples of the greater freedom that archaeology gives to Mommsen’s narrative. Unfortunately, because it is a compendium of lecture notes, Emperors does not offer any of Mommsen’s own textual commentary, notes, appendices, or bibliography, all of which would inevitably have accompanied a book, had he deigned to write it. Notwithstanding this lack, the variety of Mommsen’s sources is strongly implied by the vast increase in information provided regarding the aforementioned subjects–financial, administrative, or military. Mommsen’s reputation precedes him, and the vast majority of the information he provides is still valid. Thus, he is greatly liberated from the ancient literary sources, and his is a far more complete picture than was Gibbon’s. In spite of this discrepancy in scope and tone, both Mommsen and Gibbon are led to a similar conclusion with respect to Hadrian. Though, in accordance with his literary leanings, Gibbon makes more of this than does Mommsen, both seem to believe that Hadrian was an effective and capable statesman, but a distasteful person.[]
Mommsen’s opinion of Hadrian is indicative of his opinion of the entire period, though Hadrian (as was cited before) is held in higher esteem as an administrator than are his colleagues. The conclusion of this body of lectures illustrates Mommsen’s sentiment; it reads as follows:”The picture which has unfolded before you in these lectures is not a pleasant one; not one of the actors has really been able to arouse any lasting interest and it is, indeed, appropriate to ask whether it is even a good idea to set one’s shovel to such rubble.” He continues: “History, however, is not a toy, but a serious matter, and the history of that period, in particular, is of the greatest importance for the immediate present.”[] This offers some clue as to how Mommsen’s own political world of 1883 (i.e. Bismarck and the rise of the Gennan state) might have influenced his views on these Emperors. It is generally accepted that the admiration Mommsen expresses for Caesar in his History of Rome correlates with his desire at that time for a strong leader who would unite the German states. Many have speculated that Mommsen’s subsequent disillusionment with the actual fulfillment of that desire–in the personae of Bismarck and Wilhelm, respectively–caused him to shy away from a treatment of Imperial Rome. At the time of these lectures, Mommsen was a member of the Reichstag, and one can assume that he was all the more jaded because of it.[] In this light, Mommsen’s reference to the immediate importance of the history of the middle Empire may be a veiled criticism of his own times, a mediocre counterpart to his mediocre present. Just as he was as disenchanted by the end of Roman constitutional politics due to the rise of the principate, he was frustrated by Germany’s federal constitution.[] This may offer a partial explanation as to why Mommsen refers so acerbically to a period so extolled by Gibbon, whom Mommsen admired.
One of Mommsen’s contemporaries, Ferdinand Gregorovius, wrote a treatment of Hadrian titled The Emperor Hadrian (Hadrian) around the same time as Mommsen’s lectures.[] Hadrian is a largely literary work, and in the introduction to the English translation published in 1898 Henry Pelham laments the author’s weakness in handling political history and Roman administration.[] Though the influence of this work is questionable, it is significant insofar as it is the very first modern biography of Hadrian. Gregorovius is in the vein of Gibbon, not Mommsen, and while he mentions the new documentary evidence produced by the “ceaseless researches of science,”[] he is either unwilling or incapable of employing it to any great extent in his narrative. He works primarily off of the ancient sources. One can venture to say that the introduction by Henry Pelham in the 1898 English translation is more valuable than Gregorovius’ text. It is unlikely that a man such as Gregorovius would have undertaken to write a biography of Hadrian if he did not have a high opinion of Hadrian from the first. Hadrian is the emperor who comes closest to uniting the two main influences of the Roman Empire–Roman and Greek.[] Gregorovius assesses Hadrian’s reign in the following fashion: “He ruled the empire like a noble Roman, with prudence and strength. He enjoyed life with the joy of the ancients. He travelled through the world, and found it worth the trouble. He ‘restored’ it, and established it with a new beauty.”[] He defends Hadrian’s decision to abandon Trajan’s conquests and his establishment of the limites around the empire. Hadrian acted on a desire to establish the “inner life” of the empire.[] Gregorovius goes so far as to assert that Hadrian “accomplished the apotheosis of antiquity.”[] In this way, Hadrian is accorded higher praise from Gregorovius than from anyone before or since. Gregorovius makes little of Hadrian’s relationship with the youth Antinous.[] While the HA derisively describes Hadrian crying like a woman after his companion’s death,[] Gregorovius compares Hadrian’s grief with that of Achilles mourning over Patroclus, or Alexander weeping beside the funeral pile of Hephaestion.[] This is indicative of the strong Hellenic sympathies evidenced throughout the work. Indeed, these Hellenic sympathies may explain the disproportionate attention that Gregorovius gives to Hadrian’s humanistic endeavors; only in discussing the end of Hadrian’s life does he deign to condemn or censure Hadrian’s actions: “As an older man, Hadrian assumes some of the characteristics of Timon of Athens. He hates and ruins his probably innocent friends together with his false friends, while he truly loves none.”[] Again, the author makes a Hellenic comparison, though in this case it is less apologetic. Though he does not outright defend the dying Hadrian, Gregorovius attempts to dilute the impression of Hadrian’s crimes[] he writes:”The despot was latent in every Roman emperor, and there were traces of it in Hadrian’s features. If only by force of contrast to the fine spirit of humanity by which he had been actuated throughout his life, these bloody sentences have left a deep impression on the memory of the world.”[]
Thus, Gregorovius asserts that it is only because Hadrian was so good that historians recall his lapses in judgement. The obvious sway that the author’s sympathies hold over his reasoning is instructive. Hadrian was a very hellenistic Emperor, and this has no small significance to a historian with hellenistic sympathies.
Henry Pelham’s introduction has quite a different tone altogether. There is little evidence of the Hellenist in Pelham’s words, and he presents some startlingly bold statements, which, given the brief space allotted, he is entirely unable to adequately defend. He criticizes Gregorovius for not providing “some account of the master idea which shaped Hadrian’s policy, and gave unity to a career and a character full of apparent inconsistencies.”[] He criticizes the contemporary tendency to view Hadrian as a restless wanderer, aimless in his travels.[] Pelham asserts: “For Hadrian’s policy was not the result of a scholar’s love of peace, or of cosmopolitan tastes, or even of mere restlessness. It was directed by one dominant idea, the influence of which is everywhere traceable. This master idea was, to use a modern expression, the imperial idea (Reichsidee)–the conception of the empire, as a single well-compacted state, internally homogeneous, and standing out in clear relief against surrounding barbarism. The realization of this conception was the object for which Hadrian laboured.”[] It is impossible to miss the relevance of these words to the circumstances of Pelham’s time. In 1898, the sun did not set on the British Empire. British foreign policy was by that time non-expansionary; instead, its aim was to hold what it had and keep it stable. Pelham’s words are most interesting in this light. Pelham elevates Hadrian above both Trajan and Marcus Aurelius, he considers him to be the best statesman of his time, and more instrumental in shaping the policy of the empire.[] He says: “Between the time of Augustus and that of Diocletian there was no Emperor who so correctly appreciated the needs of the Empire, or who carried into practice with equal consistency a deliberate and comprehensive policy.”[] Though Pelham mentions the inconsistencies in Hadrian’s character (see above), he does not address them directly; he focuses instead on Hadrian the statesman, a man responsible for effecting the idea of a single Roman state, for reforming the principate, for stabilizing the Empire.[] Pelham concerns himself with the whole, not the individual, and this emerges in his search for a unifying motivation that drove Hadrian’s actions. The Victorian age, a time when stability of Empire was so important and individual morality was of secondary significance, exercised an unmistakable influence over the view of Hadrian espoused by Pelham.
It was not until after the Great War that a scholarly treatment of Hadrian was written by an English-speaking scholar: B.W. Henderson’s Life and Principate of the Emperor Hadrian (Life), published in 1923. Anthony Birley describes Ltfe as “the last serious attempt” (prior to his own, of course) at a biography of Hadrian.[] It is a thorough treatment; he addresses Hadrian the statesman in a most complimentary manner, while largely setting aside the paradoxes of Hadrian’s character. By the time of the writing of Life the most salient issues surrounding Hadrian’s life had been firmly established in the mind of academia, and the book reflects this change. Henderson devotes much attention to the questions of Hadrian’s adoption, the conspiracy of the four consulars, his relationship with Antinous, and the circumstances surrounding Hadrian’s death. However, in the light of modern scholarship and compared to his far more accomplished predecessors, with the possible exception of the insight that it offers into the state of inter-war scholarship, Henderson’s book is hardly worth reading today. Perhaps Henderson’s methods of argumentation constitute the most interesting feature of Life, for they reflect a marked anti-German sentiment. This anti-German bent has an unfortunate influence on the tone and character of the book. One is hard pressed to tell whether Henderson takes a view because he believes it to be true, or because he cannot bring himself to agree with a German.
Henderson’s opinion of Hadrian becomes evident when he enumerates the emperor’s lasting contributions to Roman history, and his comments also illustrate Henderson’s place in the modern line of historians: “This personal control of all things, military and civil, and the well nigh unbroken peace which he secured to a war-weary Roman world constitute Hadrian’s chief claims to fame as Emperor. . . . his work for Rome is plain and stands clear to this day. It is Imperial structure, strong, rebuilt, foursquare; one of security, of sure defence, of ordered life and regulated peace.” He continues, in direct reference to Henry Pelham’s aforementioned statement: “Little is gained by fastening upon the Emperor far-reaching ideas of imperial absolutism or of cosmopolitan comprehensiveness. Even terms such as consolidation, Imperial homogeneity, the Reichsdee, leave us critical and cold.”[] As Pelham wrote at the height of the British Empire, Henderson wrote in the aftermath of one of the nadirs of European civilization. The book is dedicated to Henderson’s brother, killed in action on the western front in 1916. How much this affected his opinions regarding Hadrian’s aims is only speculation, but the tone of his words betrays a certain prejudice. Henderson surely did not hold the same idyllic view of Empire as Pelham, yet he too takes a very positive view of Hadrian; he praises Hadrian’s statesmanship to the heavens. He seems to hearken back to Gibbon when he acknowledges, “In truth it was a golden age.”[]
The golden age of Hadrian’s reign began rather uneasily. Edward Gibbon only obliquely mentions the conspiracy of the four consulars in Decline.[] Henderson deals with this event rather handily–he avoids it altogether. He calls “quite hopelessly vague” the evidence describing the conspiracy and Hadrian’s involvement, and mentions that Hadrian never denied that a plot existed. He concludes by warning against making “violent and hasty judgements.” Most conspicuous is Henderson’s failure to acknowledge that the legacy of the conspiracy had a negative effect on the first years of Hadrian’s reign. Instead of discussing the implications of these events, he chooses to discuss the unfairness of Hadrian’s reputation for cruelty. He cites Hadrian’s evident guiltlessness in the conspiracy of the four consulars, the twenty intervening years of mercy and kindness, and he goes so far as to call the executions of Fuscus and Servianus “supposed.”[] Later, Henderson concedes that the executions did indeed occur, and even goes so far as to implicate Hadrian (but not without first blaming Hadrian’s bad hea1th).[] The duplicity involved in Henderson’s earlier statement is mystifying. After concluding his sadly biased discussion of the conspiracy, Henderson ventures onto surer ground. He, like Mommsen, Gibbon, et al., does not disparage Hadrian’s abandonment of Trajan’s conquests. The people were weary of war; peace had come at last.[] Writes Henderson, “it was very wise to abandon what could not be kept.”[] Henderson offers some new insight regarding Hadrian’s finance reforms, praising his non-debasing monetary policy, his conservative tax-policy, citing the “desperate” state of Rome’s finances at the time of Trajan’s death, and Hadrian’s diligent approach to reforming Imperial finances and restoring stability.[] Henderson argues that the remission of public debts in AD 118 was not done for popularity’s sake, but out of necessity.[] He is mildly critical when discussing the imperial bureaucracy established by Hadrian. Henderson almost uniformly praises Hadrian’s political and military reforms. He emphasizes the legislation that underscores Hadrian’s humanity and his compassion, his love for little children, his moderate treatment of slaves. The author asks, “Saeculum aureum, temporum felicitas, what was it but his work?” Thus is the tone of Life’s approach to Hadrian’s work as a statesman; his travels are equally admired.[] Indeed, in all these areas, the author seems sure of his material, not so when he turns his attention to Hadrian’s philhellenism. Henderson offers the following commentary: “The sentimental lack-lustre philhellenism of the age of Hadrian was soft and effeminate as the object of its adoration. It was not Greek literature nor Greek art which should save the Roman soul alive in the brutal struggles with barbarism which threatened it. Philhellenism may lay a flattering unction to the languid mind in any age when the battle for existence seems suspended and civilization over-ripe. . . .Yet life, mere non-contentious living, ran smoothly and happily in Athens as in many another city of decaying Greece. Why criticize and disparage it? Why should not Hadrian, Emperor of Rome, flatter and delight the Greek with gifts and games and shows, as some father, pleased with giving toys to a grateful child? The metaphor has one defect. The boy will grow to manhood And be his father’s defence and stay.”[] Henderson, unlike Gregorovius, has no high opinion of Greek civilization. He censures Hadrian not for loving all things Greek, but for failing to see the consequences of his affection. In the most controversial philhellenic question, that of Antinous, Henderson is uncomfortably quiet. In many ways, Henderson seems to feel obliged–but largely unwilling–to even discuss the matter. Granted, Antinous does not constitute a binding requirement upon historians, but if one does undertake to do so, it is best to be complete and honest; Henderson is neither; instead, he is curiously mute.[] In concluding his narrative, Henderson summarizes Hadrian’s character with a mildly concessive tone: “Clear insight, common sense, a dislike for pose and for affectation, a shrewd humorous appreciation for the littleness of things, a taste for magnificence in building, for literature and the fine arts, a love of travel and a sense of duty–these are not heroic, not worshipful qualities in a ruler; but they do no small harm and at times some good.”[]
This is Henderson’s assessment of Hadrian the man. It is, in part, an apology for Hadrian’s foibles — “they do no small harm.” He discounts the specter of hatred and loathing that surrounded Hadrian at the time of his death. The final acts of Hadrian’s life (e.g. the execution of Servianus and Fuscus) are undoubtedly worthy of criticism. Henderson sympathizes with Hadrian. He characterizes the broader rumors of Hadrian’s cruelty as “the work of terror and court gossip.”[] This underscores one of the central problems of Henderson’s work: he contradicts himself. He claims that there was no hostile relationship between Hadrian and the senate, that there is no record or proof that the senate harbored any dislike for the Emperor. He supports this assertion by citing the general absence of plots against Hadrian’s life and his ability to leave Rome for such extended periods, yet remain secure in his position.[] He then goes on to explain that the myth surrounding Hadrian’s inconstant and unreliable character is in fact a falsehood, composed by “senatorial tradition.”[] One cannot have one’s cake and eat it too. If the senate did not dislike Hadrian, why did a negative senatorial tradition grow up around him? The author does not provide any explanation for this apparent contradiction.
Henderson weakens his narrative through self-contradiction, but–even more damaging to his work–he also quite vocally and shamelessly derides German scholarship. Whether or not this is due to the events of the First World War is impossible to know, but Henderson’s tone certainly justifies some effort at explanation. He rarely cites in the body of the text the name of an author with whom he disagrees, but instead he cites his nationality. For example, in defending the legitimacy of Hadrian’s adoption, Henderson introduces an opposing viewpoint, writing: “There follows a German’s sinister interpretation.”[] When he discusses Hadrian at Athens, referring to the interpretation of a passage in Pausanias, he writes: “A curious and unattractive theory has been based by a German upon this passage.”[] Other examples abound, each portraying a similar tone and sentiment.[] In the cases in which Henderson agrees with a “German” scholar, he does not deign to use this apparent epithet in the text; in his discussion of the conspiracy of the four consulars, he simply refers to “some” people who express an opinion he happens to approve. When one glances at the footnote, “some” are, specifically, Mommsen,, Schiller, and Dürr.[] There are also further examples of this throughout the text, too numerous to cite. Perhaps the finest indication of the effects of Henderson’s anti-German bias on his reasoning comes in the discussion of Hadrian’s finance reforms. He comments: “Even a German murmurs that under Hadrian Ordnung replaced Freiheit.”[] One can hear the scorn in his voice as the words left his mouth on their way to the page and imagine that it was with great difficulty that he wrote anything German at all. The condescension and bias evident in this comment is appalling. He mentions nationality almost exclusively in association with Germans, and almost entirely in a pejorative sense. It is as if the word “German” serves to automatically weaken or discredit a given viewpoint. This surely is not mature scholarship. Putting aside the personal issues that may (or may not) have led to the author’s marked prejudice, one cannot help but recognize the possibility that his feelings affected his approach to the Emperor Hadrian. At the time of the writing of Life, in spite of the First World War, Gennan scholarship was the great juggernaut on the academic scene. To what degree was the shaping of the author’s opinions affected by his anti-German prejudice? It is difficult to be sure. Does he take a position for the sake of standing in opposition to the Germans? Probably not, since he agrees with German scholars on many important issues. One should hope that Henderson, as a responsible scholar, did not allow nationalism to color the formulation of his arguments. Unfortunately, that sentiment appears so often in his commentary that it casts doubt onto the process of research and reasoning which he employed, consequently, it renders his arguments much less valuable than what they otherwise might have been. Henderson is an enthusiastic supporter of Hadrian, and he offers significant evidence to support his positions. To what avail?
Thankfully, several scholars have undertaken far more responsible treatments of Hadrian during the past three-quarters of a century. Albino Garzetti’s From Tiberius to the Antonines (Tiberius) presents a somewhat thorough picture of Hadrian. Originally published in Italian in 1960, the book rather conveniently divides the long period between Henderson’s Life and the release (in 1997) of Anthony Birley’s Hadrian: the Restless Emperor. It also offers an Italian perspective (no Hendersonian derision implied). Unlike previous works, one sees in Garzetti the massive bibliography and commentary that reflects the tremendous growth in available information. His conclusions are clearly set forth, and he avoids any hint of external bias. Of Hadrian’s succession, Garzetti writes: “It was fortunate for the Empire that Trajan’s activity was continued and developed by his successor on just the same basic lines and crowned in a manner that was in complete conformity with its premises. Hadrian came at the right moment. He was the man best fitted at that particular point to consolidate into a system the innumerable impulses received from Trajan’s dynamism.”[] This comment recapitulates the argument presented by Pelham years earlier, namely, that Hadrian was driven by a vision of consolidation, by the hope for establishing an Imperial system. It also reflects a reform of the view of Hadrian as a peaceful, humanistic foil to the war-mongering militaristic Trajan. Garzetti implies that this view is out of date and that it is generally accepted that Hadrian was a logical continuation to Trajan.[]
Garzetti traces the development of Hadrian’s imperial system through a series of military, political, and administrative reforms. Unlike Henderson, who apologizes for Hadrian’s bureaucratic reforms (in light of the later explosion of the bureaucracy), Garzetti presents a wholly positive assessment of Imperial administration under Hadrian.[] He writes: “The work of government carried out by Hadrian was truly imposing. At the vertex of the system, now perfectly organized, he acted, stimulated and controlled with a degree of adherence to the rhythm of ordinary, everyday public life never before achieved.” The author does not emphasize any particular aspect of Hadrian’s program, instead he chronicles its understated effectiveness. Hadrian’s military reforms were not “showy,” rather what set him apart was an “intensive and detailed participation in everything.” His legislative reforms are described as “moderate,” assuring “the order, prosperity, and security of civil life.” Garzetti calls the perpetuum edictum the “legal masterpiece” of Hadrian’s age. Overall, he emphasizes the enduring nature of Hadrian’s changes.[]
Garzetti seems only mildly interested in Hadrian’s character, and the relevant issues of his adoption, the conspiracy of the four consulars, his relationship with Antinous, and his death are but briefly treated. Garzetti does not entertain any doubts about Hadrian’s adoption.[] In the matter of the conspiracy of the four consulars, he allots the bulk of the blame to Attianus, but he asserts that Hadrian was never fully reconciled with the aristocracy as a result.[] The events surrounding Antinous’ death, particularly Hadrian’s actions in the aftermath, are “disconcerting.”[] Like Henderson, Garzetti believed that the “terror” surrounding Hadrian’s final years was exaggerated due to senatorial tradition.[] Other comments shed light on Garzetti’s opinion of Hadrian’s character: he admires Hadrian’s moderation in dealing with the Christians;[] he describes Hadrian as “fickle and changeable only insofar as the public is.”[] However, the author acknowledges: “Nevertheless the figure of Hadrian remains difficult to understand completely in its acknowledged complexity and variety.”[] Again, the historical Hadrian is an effective statesman, but an enigmatic character. In Garzetti’s work much of the details of Hadrian’s administration are more focused and therefore the evaluation of Hadrian the administrator is more complete than that seen in previous works. Hadrian’s personality is as vague as ever.
The most recent significant work on Hadrian — Anthony Birley’s already-mentioned Hadrian: The Restless Emperor — isby far the most comprehensive treatment yet. In the preface, Birley offers an explanation for the writing of the work: “The great increase in information– mainly inscriptions and papyri–has made a new synthesis overdue.” Notwithstanding the apparent need for an update, the author does not hesitate to acknowledge his personal interest in the Emperor. His father. Eric Birley, dedicated much of his life’s work to Hadrian’s wall. Anthony Birley was brought up near the wall, his house was built of stones from the Roman fort at Vindolanda.[] Given these circumstances, one may expect to find an air of sentimentality in Birley’s work, but these expectations find no fulfillment in the text. As the title may indicate, the book is exact in its discussion of Hadrian’s journeys and other activities as Emperor; it fills in many gaps. However, many of the old problems of chronicling Hadrian’s life persist.
The emergence of archaeological evidence has significantly augmented the knowledge of Hadrian’s travels. Consider what Garzetti wrote on this subject: “Unfortunately, only the most miserable scraps of information have been preserved about this interesting activity.”[] The 37 intervening years have produced much more than “miserable scraps,” and Birley’s book is a testament to this fact. Because the Emperor’s travels were so well documented in antiquity–on coins, on mile posts, on buildings–the history of Hadrian’s travels has been immensely aided by archaeology. By way of example: Birley’s discussion of Hadrian’s activities in Greece is greatly illuminated by J.H. Oliver’s work Greek Constitutions of Early Roman Emperors from Inscriptions and Papyri.[] This work is employed to characterize Greek diplomatic activities, to
place Hadrian at Lake Copias at a certain time, to reveal certain decisions Hadrian made regarding the administration of Delphi during a visit to Greece, to document the construction of a certain road and attest to Hadrian’s presence during its construction.[] The use of Oliver’s work is indicative of the effects of this evidence on the narrative as a whole. Other examples abound. Birley mentions that the Oxyrhynchus papyri contain evidence of preparations to receive a visit from Hadrian. He cites several relatively new sources in his description of Hadrian’s travels and activities in Britain.[] Birley presents a picture of Hadrian’s travels that surpasses all previous efforts in detail and completeness. Clearly, not all of the new evidence applies to Hadrian’s travels. Some of it serves to complement the extant records of other areas of his administration and life. For example, an inscription on the recently discovered tombstone of Hadrian’s physician verifies a story found in the HA. Birley also cites recent work done that casts doubt on Hadrian’s alleged execution of the architect Apollodorus. Curiously, the findings in both these cases have contradicted long-held opinions.[] Birley also cites recent work in economic history indicating that Hadrian’s tax remissions came at a time of economic difficulty, therefore they had an economic justification in addition to the obvious political reasons.[] These are but a few select cases; there is much more. The body of evidence is significant, and it continues to grow. It is worth mentioning one device that Birley employs to great effect, though this does not involve new evidence, rather it consists of a new use of already existing material. Borrowing from Ronald Syme’s Tacitus (1958), Birley relates some passages of Tacitus’ Annals to events of Hadrian’s life, implying that Tacitus was commenting on not only the figures explicitly named in his writing, but also Hadrian, who was Emperor during the ancient historian’s later years. The result is quite convincing.[] Birley effectively synthesizes the tremendous amount of evidence at hand, the result is a thorough treatment of Hadrian’s travels and a more developed view of other aspects of his rule. Yet in spite of the increase in the corpus of evidence, Birley writes: “Hadrian is a real challenge. He was already a baffling figure to his contemporaries. . . . There were several competing personalities inside Hadrian.”[] In concluding the work, he says: “Hadrian’s character was baffling and contradictory. . . . As for Hadrian’s beliefs, here too one is on uncertain ground.”[] The man was “pleasant to meet” and “uncomfortable to know.”[]
While Birley treads new ground in his treatment of Hadrian’s travels, he also addresses the issues that occupied his predecessor’s work. As with previous treatments, Birley stands in admiration of Hadrian’s reforms. The Emperor is characterized as a capable commander, statesman, administrator, and politician.[] Unfortunately, it appears that very little evidence has appeared to clear the air surrounding the more controversial episodes of Hadrian’s life. Birley nimbly works through the same questions that seem to have such bearing on the perception of Hadrian’s character–Hadrian’s adoption, his defensive policy, the conspiracy of the four consulars, his relationship with Antinous, his behavior immediately prior to his death.[] While Birley’s conclusions are sound, he is dissatisfied with the net result. He is left with little sense of the man. He writes, first quoting Den Boer: “Those who endeavour to reconstruct Hadrian’s religion directly from his own statements, scant as they are, arrive at diametrically opposite ‘~ His initiation at Eleusis–and the cistophorus coin with the legend ren(atus), “reborn”, which was issued soon after he entered the higher grade–might speak for some kind of mysticism. His adventure with the Egyptian wonderworker Pachrates, the death of Antinous and its aftermath, and the strange coin issue depicting him as a twenty-year old, point in an even more disturbing direction.”[]
It is evident that Hadrian exerts the same disconcerting influence over modern day historians as he exerted over his contemporaries; Birley is no exception. He recognizes Hadrian’s profound unpopularity at the time of his death. He also acknowledges the scorn of Hadrian’s successors and chroniclers, who seem to be thoroughly disgusted by Hadrian’s character, but nonetheless respected his deeds as a ruler. In concluding, Birley comments that the final portrait of Hadrian is not positive (as recorded for posterity by Tertullian, Julian the Apostate, and Dio), but he also calls Hadrian the most visible Emperor in Rome’s history.[] The tone of these final remarks is (appropriately) paradoxical, and Birley seems to draw a line dividing the two Hadrians whom centuries of historians have known-the man and the statesman. The author subtly points to the discrepancy between Hadrian’s two legacies, and he offers no explanation. On the whole, it seems clear that Birley considers Hadrian’s acts and influence as a leader to be far more significant than anything relating to his character. Certainly, the former receives more attention than the latter.[] Nevertheless, the contradiction is vexing, and as Gibbon set it forth some two centuries ago, it has yet to be — indeed, may never be — explained or reconciled.
The collected work on Hadrian is an illustrative chronicle of the evolution of his historical portrait, of the development of ancient historiography in the modern era, and indeed of the process by which history is written. Though many details have expanded upon the pioneering narrative of Edward Gibbon, his assessment of Hadrian obtains even today. (This probably says more about the ancient sources than it does about Gibbon.) From Gibbon to Birley, Hadrian is consistently praised as a statesman, albeit in varying degrees, while his character is questioned and never convincingly vindicated, so as to bring it into accordance with his actions. He remains unexplained, the same paradox to modern historians that he was to his peers. In tracing Hadrian’s journey through the hands of these various men it also becomes apparent that all historians are somewhat influenced by their surroundings and their environment, and as a historian is influenced, so is his or her work. This is exhibited most conspicuously in Mommsen and Henderson, and in differing degrees in the writings of all of the above-discussed historians. This demonstrates the importance of understanding not only the subject, but also the source–a fact no historian will deny. Hadrian’s history will continue to evolve as the body of evidence continues to grow. But even if new evidence suddenly stopped appearing, so long as a historian approached Hadrian with a pen in his hand and an idea in his head, Hadrian’s portrait would not — could not — be static.
Birley, Anthony. Hadrian: The Restless Emperor. London: Routledge, 1997.
Garzetti, Albino. From Tiberius to the Antonines. Translated by J. R. Foster. London: Methuen and Co., 1974.
Gibbon, Edward. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, vol. 1. Edited and with an introduction by J. B. Bury. New York: The Heritage Press, 1946.
Gregorovius, Ferdinand. The Emperor Hadrian: A Picture of the Greco-Roman World in his Time. Translated by Mary E. Robinson with an introduction by Henry Peiham. London: Macmillan and Co., 1898.
Henderson, Bernard W. The Life and Principate of the Emperor Hadrian. London: Methuen and Co., 1923.
Mommsen, Theodor. A History of Rome Under the Emperors. German edition by Barbara and Alexander Demandt. Translated by Clare Krojzl. Edited, with the addition of a new chapter, by Thomas Wiedemann. London: Routledge, 1996.
Pelham, Henry. Introduction to The Emperor Hadrian, by Ferdinand Gregorovius. London: Macmillan and Co., 1898.
Wiedemann, Thomas. Additional chapter to A History of Rome Under the Emperors, by Theodor Mommsen. London: Routledge, 1996.
[] Theodor Mommsen, A History of Rome Under the Emperors, German edition by Barbara and Alexander Demandt, trans. Clare Krojzl, ed., with the addition of a new chapter, by Thomas Wiedemann (London: Routledge, 1996), 13.
[] Mommsen, 205. With respect to Mommsen’s failure to write a history of Rome under the Emperors, this statement has interesting implications. One may venture to say that (particularly in light of the following quotation) Mommsen simply was not interested in chronicling this period. The subject matter did not strike his fancy. If this is the case, if those were his feelings, one can hardly fault his decision.
[] Mommsen’s dismay presents a striking foil to Gibbon’s almost euphoric approval. Mommsen readily casts aside the men whom Gibbon credited as responsible for the happiest periods in human history.
[] Subsequent historians have made much of Hadrian’s creation of an imperial bureaucracy, contending that it eventually ruined the office and contributed to the fall of the empire. Of the negative effects of excessive bureaucracy there is little doubt, but to blame Hadrian for its explosion decades after his death is a stretch of the imagination, since all indications are that the offices Hadrian established were very much needed. This logic is akin to punishing a man who gives bread to a malnourished youth, and the youth proceeds to gorge himself to death.
[] Though it is not within the scope of this paper to discuss Hadrian’s predecessors and successors in any great detail, it is worth mentioning the significant difference between Gibbon’s and Mommsen’s view of the Emperors from Nerva to M. Aurelius. They do nothing to commend themselves to Mommsen, whereas according to Gibbon, they erect the pinnacle from which the Roman Empire falls. The very purpose of Gibbon’s discussion of these men is to contrast the initial apex with the ultimate nadir. Mommsen rejects this idea outright. Also see the discussion on Mommsen’s external influences.
[] Henry Pelham, introduction to The Emperor Hadrian, by Ferdinand Gregorovius (London: Macmillan and Co., 1898), xvi. Perhaps Pelham did not notice that Gregorovius does not acknowledge said “inconsistencies.”
[] Henderson 58-59. Unfortunately the notes do not include the source of this information, but it is in agreement with what Mommsen had said some 40 years earlier–that Hadrian exercised a responsible and wise financial policy. One can assume that archaeological evidence provides the bulk of this argument.
[] ibid. 60. Anthony Birley later takes a more balanced and more plausible view that it was both expedient and necessary to grant the remission. At least Henderson is not far off the mark. (see discussion of Birley below) f
[] Birley, 283, 297. However, the changes are opposite in their implications; one bodes well for Hadrian, the other does not. They are a step towards a more correct history, but they do little in the way of revealing Hadrian’s character.
[] Birley, 300, 306. In conjunction with this statement, the author cites a letter written in the fifth century by Synesius. The letter does not speak of Hadrian, instead it comments on the remoteness of the Emperor and the effect this remoteness has on the spirits of his subjects.
[] Birley discusses all of these issues with a certain degree of reserve. His approach is, in a way, antithetical to that of Henderson. Where Henderson makes bold assertions, often in contradiction to his own statements, Birley’s conclusions are sheltered behind conditional language, frequently in spite of an endless stream of evidence supporting them. Much is implied, but he hesitates to be explicit in matters that are not conclusively documented. Certainly, his omission of alternative interpretations is a strong indicator of where he stands. This is more a matter of style than substance, and in substance, Birley stands alone among the modern treatments of Hadrian. History cannot, by definition, be objective. It seems that stripping a narrative of personal commentary for the sake of objectivity is disingenuous. Even without explicitly stated conclusions, the process by which one decides what information to include in or leave out of a given work is quite subjective.