Publius Aelius Hadrianus (76 - 138 A.D.): Imperator Caesar Traianus Hadrianus Augustus, Pontifex Maximus.
Roman emperor, 117–138 AD.
The crowd of admirers, courtiers and soldiers had finally quit the banquet hall. The emperor himself had saluted or clasped the shoulders of the each of the musicians as he had left, earlier on, such was his benevolent mood and popular disposition. Yet still, the party ground on with ever another song, ever another flagon of wine. Favorinus sat sullen at the end of the head table, now sufficently drunk to grow reflective on the evening though it had not yet ended. His toast speech to the good emperor's travels had been very well thought of, it seemed, as he blearily reached for his cup. His oration had sounded like a finely wrought bell, neither too long, nor too loud, he reflected as he rubbed his weary eyes and looked over his scribbled notes.
Hometown & lineage:
'Hadrian himself said as much', he whispered to no one, draining the last of his fair share. Regius, the swine (where had he disappeared to?) had dared mock him afterwards, for conceding Hadrian's point about the Pinakes. The emperor had just interjected in the middle of his toast, correcting his pronounciation. He'd felt his face flush suddenly, as the whole audience looked on, and he apologized profusely before continuing. Hadrian bid him go on, graciously, adding he'd meant nothing by it. Too much wine, Favorius brooded, cursing himself. Greek was never my strongest tongue...
Still, he grinned as he arose while the servants began to clear the room, he'd recovered with his nod to the crowd, just before he'd concluded the speech: "You can never persuade me, good friends, that the commander of thirty legions is not the best-qualified critic in the world!"
~ from Aelius Spartianus's Life of Hadrian , 117-138 CE.
Born 24 January AD 76, at Italica in Baetica (south-west of Spain, now known as Andalusia). Hadrian’s hometown’s full name was 'Colonia Victrix Italicensis', founded in 205 BCE, after the Roman seizure of Spain from the Carthaginians. It became a home for veterans of that war and Hadrian' s ancestors were among the first settlers. Hadrian’s father served as colonial 'praetor' (judge) and also won the rank 'Afer' in a minor military campaign in Africa. Hadrian’s grandfather had been a member of the Roman senate and had married Emperor Trajan's aunt, Ulpia.
As the son of Publius Aclius Hadrianus Afer and Domitia Paulina of Gades (Cadiz), Hadrian remained very clearly a Latinized 'colonial' far from the twin seats of culture and power. Simply put, he was not exactly emperor material in the minds of the 'capitol' Roman elite. When Hadrian's father died in 85AD, when his son was ten years old, he was sent to Rome to complete his education. For the first time exposed to a rich environment of learning and books, he developed his life-long passion for the Greek culture- until he died he would swear 'what is said best is said in Greek'. Music, poetry, painting, sculpture and architecture - all became arts to which he would later apply himself. However, he also kindled his physical discipline, as a swimmer, horseman and hunter. Under the patronage & care of Publius Acilius Attianus (a Roman equestrian) and the emperor Trajan himself, Hadrian finished his initial education and was prepared to make his way in the world.
His first position of patronage once he finished his schooling, at age 17, was as a commercial judge in Rome. While providing him a steady salary, connections and exposure to the city, the clerkship did little for his youthful sense of adventure. So, against the wishes of his elders, he asked for and received a commission in the Roman army. He acted in the capacity of tribune - so that military logistics, frontier defense & local peacekeeping in upper Eastern Europe provided his first exposure to the problems of imperialism which were to mark his entire career. He stayed in the Pontus region until Trajan became emperor, who promptly had him transferred back to Rome to serve in the administration. Soon after his return in 100AD, after several years in the hinterland, Hadrian mitigated some question of his standing by marring Vibia Sabina, Trajan niece's daughter. Some ethnicity-obsessed senators and equestrians still made much of his heritage, but the marriage did seem to assuage the social discomfort of many in his social circle.
After the wedding, his career path seem to open up and he occupied varied posts simply looking to broaden his governmental experience - staff officer, legionary commander and praetor. In the first Dacian war, he served as quaestor, while in the second Dacian war soon after, he commanded the First Legion 'Minervia'. Once he returned to Rome he was promoted to praetor in 106, and the next year he was appointed governor of Lower Pannonia, and then consul in AD 108. After several years of relative quiet, however, he was shifted to Syria where he acted as governor during the Parthian War. His success in the pursuance of Trajan’s border offensives (through Hadrian himself found them inadvisable) led to his consulship in 117AD.
Ascent to Emperor:
However, on the 8th of August that year, everything in Roman political and military culture changed abruptly. Emperor Trajan died in camp in Cilcia, a port town of Armenia, while on campaign, though all news of his passing was suppressed for three full days. When the announcement was finally delivered in Rome, it was also announced that Trajan had adopted Hadrian as his son just before fading away. The historical account of this succession is unclear - Dio Cassius tells us the aptly named empress Plotina kept Trajan's death a secret for several days as her letters were rushed to the senate declaring Hadrian the new heir. These letters were carrying her own signature, not that of emperor Trajan - as he’d been 'too ill to write'. However, Trajan was a long family friend, and had been born, raised and even served in the same places as the young Hadrian. Vanity and the notion of legacy may have led him to the appointment of one very much like himself. Hadrian has also been operating in nearby Roman Syria for several years, and was uniquely experienced to continue the Eastern Question of the empire’s frontier policy.
Regardless of motives or machinations, many in the capital were immediately skeptical, and Hadrian suddenly inherited, along with his Empire, many enemies in the senate and the army. Overnight, Hadrian became a Caesar (Hadriano Traiano Caesari) and immediately proclaimed Trajan's deification. In 118AD, while still in negotiation with the Parthians, Hadrian was informed of a plotted coup, meant to topple him in Rome. He quickly concluded a political settlement with the tribal leaders in Bithynia. Hastily returning to the capital, he found four ex-consuls had been executed, Lusius Quietius and Gaius Avidius Nigrinus being the two most notable. Though he denied any involvement, even going so far as swearing a public oath that he was not responsible, many accused his agents of cutting the ringleaders down as a precaution.
Hadrian realized his favors and future lay with the army and he launched an exhaustive inspection to help solidify his troops' loyalty and bolster morale. Even as Emperor he marched on foot and in armour with the troops, first and foremost he considered himself a soldier. Between 121 and 132AD, he toured the empire meeting military commanders and the rulers of each frontier. For sheer wanderlust alone, Hadrian ranks among the greatest of history’s travelers. No other emperor ever saw so much of his own empire. From Spain to the province of Pontus on the Black Sea‡ in modern day Turkey, from Britannia to the Sahara desert in Libya, he rode in endless investigation of Rome's true terminus. 1
The specific domestic needs of the people in each province, and patronage public works in order to win their support, also became major initiatives. Coins were minted for each province glorifying their achievements, and he carefully incorporated himself in all the local affairs of state. In Germania he built great earthwork fortifications (known as limes) and in 121-2 AD, while visiting Britannia, he commissioned a wall to run the entire length of the province's northern frontier, from the mouth of the River Tyne to the Solway Firth (vallum Hadriani) . Roman Britannia had been engaged in constant warfare during the governorship of Pompeius Falco, with various Pict & Celt barbarian tribes (in possible collusion with local rebels). Hadrian’s Wall was to stand as a tribute to what Rome could raise from the earth, a sort of monolithic message of resolve, while also putting local idlers to work and put bread on the tables.
These provincial stratagems underline that Hadrian, though he greatly respected his mentor Trajan, had a wholly different understanding of Roman rule and military might, particularly in the northern frontiers. He wished the natives to be pacified and Romanized, rather than suppressed or provoked, as he’d been born a provincial himself, descended from colonist outlanders. He believed given the opportunity, any hard-working people would embrace and respect Rome, if it in turn respected them. Here is how he reacted to the plea of one prole along the road:
"Once, when a poor 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." (Cassius Dio, 69.6.3, written 230 AD)
Hadrian's tenure over Germania, Gaul and Roman Britannia was notable mainly for its lack of military conflict, though the emperor was acutely aware of the danger which lay in his soldiers’ idleness. Hadrian instituted a continuous regime of physical training, restriction of leave and destruction of 'pleasure villages', i.e. brothels, anywhere near the border garrisons or frontier settlements.* Nonetheless, bandit raids and minor skirmishes was the extent of the conflict along the northern lines: and for almost a decade of travel his monthly dispatches back to the Senate and people of Rome were always tersely concluded,
'If you and your children are well, all is right. The army and I are fine.'
He similarly ordered the abandoning of aggressive territorial policy in Asia, he withdrew to the boundary of the Euphrates. He abandoned Armenia, Mesopotamia, and Assyria, which Trajan had hoped to acquire permanently by the conquest of the Parthians, and confined his efforts to developing the Province of Arabia. The exception, however, was Judea, where ruthlessness was felt the only answer to increasing Jewish and Christian sectarian violence. 2 His Latinizing policy here sparked fierce protest, especially when he excluded the Jews from Jerusalem. The violence and resentment between the fierce Roman Army and the more apocalyptic Jewish militants was simply too deep for compromise from either side. 3 The first Jewish revolt, in 71 AD under Titus, had gutted the city, leaving it little more than a Roman garrison. In 132 A.D., Hadrian’s legions quashed the insurrection of Simon Bar-Cochba (Son of the Stars), which ended in a mountain standoff and provoked the zealot soldiers of the movement into mass suicide. The ensuing war (the Second Jewish revolt, 132––135) was even bloodier than the first. The site of the ruined Temple at Jerusalem was renamed Jerusalem Colonia Aelia Capitolina and dedicated to Jupiter.
Last days :
A final irony is that Hadrian has become better known in our own century, not through his own works or any historical scholarly treatment, but from fiction, Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar, a best-seller in the early 1960s, which presents a 'possible' Hadrian. Edward Gibbon used H. in the first chapter of his massive The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, to refer to the central part of Rome’s Golden Age before its collapse. However, when Hadrian returned at last to Rome in 136 from the east, his health had deteriorated badly and his reforms had made him deeply unpopular with the ruling classes.
He was now 60 years old, lonely and despondent. The empress Sabina had died, Antinous was gone, few remained to whom he felt close. His final days were bleak for himself and the empire - civil strife, corruption and religious dissent were blossoming. Meanwhile, he had no heir from his estranged Sabina.4 He became gravely ill and spent extended periods in severe convulsions - writhing in pain and barely able to commit his last orders and messages to the written word. A fever soon reduced him to a agonizing delirium. His famed self-control began to break as melancholy overcame composure. As he sought escape with poison or blade, his nurses had to spy constantly on his deathbed to keep dangerous items from his grasp. Finally, he convinced a barbarian servant by name of Mastor to kill him, but the young boy’s hand shook and quailed. Despairing, Hadrian left government in the hands of Antoninus Pius, dying soon afterwards at the pleasure resort of Baiae on 10 July AD 138.
His last known written words,
Animula vagula blandula
hospes comesque corporis
quae nunc abibis in loca
pallidula rigida nudula
nec ut soles dabis iocos
Wandering star, quiet one,
guest and fellow of the body,
Now you sink into a place
pallid and frigid and bare,
Never again as playful as you were. 5
‡He built up the old Thracian colony Uscudama into the flourishing city of Adrianople. A description of the Pontic coasts was written at Hadrian's request by his legate, the historian Flavius Arrianus of Nicomedia, in his "Periplus". See K. HOEBER, “Hardian”, The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume VII.
1 Regarding domestic policy : now given that Hadrian left the capital for long periods on his tours, a trustworthy, reliable administration was vital to his rule. Until then, the civil administration was comprised mainly of those freed under manumission. Their corruption was notorious, though, so Hadrian enshrined a completely new Civil Service of full citizens drawn from the educated of Rome, Italy, and all provinces. Officials who received decent living wages for the first time. A Privy Council was established for the codification of law, so that all valid legislation was at last available in written form to the public. The right of amendment was removed from nameless officials then, and restricted to the Senate and the Emperor. See S. Perowine's Hadrian (1987), M. T. Boatwright's Hadrian and the City of Rome (1989), as well as
The equestrian officials of Trajan and Hadrian :
their careers ; with some notes on Hadrian's reforms by
Raymond Henry Lacey (London : Princeton University Press, 1917).
* From Dio Cassius, H.'s Legacy: "Hadrian traveled 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...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, honoring some and reproving others, and he taught them all what should be done. And in order that they should be benefitted 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." (69.9.1-4; Dio Cassius, trans. E. Cary, Loeb ed.)
2 Regarding the Christians : During H.’s reign, Christianity was still a peripheral force, at best, so he tended to treat the matter as an unfortunate, regional superstition which had infected an otherwise peaceful and productive class of people. He advised a governor in Asia Minor: “Neither shall the innocent be troubled, nor shall slanderous informers have an occasion of enriching themselves. If our subjects in the provinces have proofs for their proceedings against the Christians, so that an ordinary court may be held, I am not opposed to them doing so. But I do not permit them thereby to rely only on idle talk. Because it is much more just that you, if anyone wants to bring action against the Christians, legally investigate what they are accused of. Therefore, if someone proves that the said people do something illegal, then you will punish them according to their offence; on the other side, by Hercules, you shall take care to proceed with severe punishment, according to his atrocious behavior, against him who somehow brings action against Christians only to slander them.' See A commentary on the Vita Hadriani in the Historia Augusta by Herbert W. Benario.(1980), Hadrian by Stewart Perowne.(London : Hodder and Stoughton, 1960) and G. Ferdinand’s The Emperor Hadrian; a picture of the Graeco-Roman world in his time, tr. by Mary E. Robinson (London, The Macmillan co., 1898).
3 Regarding Operational Blowback in the Ancient World: During the 2nd c. BC, Rome had shrewdly supported the Jewish uprising against the Greek king of Syria by supplying chariots, weapons and silver to the rebellion leaders. However, the Greeks were no sooner ejected than the first conquest of Jerusalem by Pompeius (63 BC) began, and the state became an occupied territory of Rome. The Jews had been openly hostile against a Hellenistic lifestyle ( though even they adopted the koinéé, the Greek dialect of the ancient Eastern Mediterranean). The Romans were even less delicate than the Greeks in Judaea itself. Riots led to the first revolt in 66, which ended in the fall of Jerusalem in 70. When Hadrian arrived sixty years later, the rubble was still there, but he was determined to bring the Jews into the Roman ‘Commonwealth’. It had worked in Britannia, Germania and the Pontus - he felt he would make it work in Jerusalem, even if it killed him, before the region fell into anarchy. Another revolt in Judaea that broke out in 131, and ended with the forced removal of all Jews from their country, in order to stop the spiraling violence and force social integration. See Toynbee, J.M.C., The Hadrianic School (Cambridge, 1934) or
A study of Hadrian's administrative and social
policies by M.J. Taylor (University of Oxford, 1982)
4 Regarding 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 apparently toppled overboard while drunk, and drowned in raging spring flood waters. However, other sources report Antinous actually committed suicide after an oracle had stated, should he die, the remaining years would be transferred to the emperor. Others whispered the empress had dispatched an assassin. Whatever the facts of the case, Hadrian's grief was markedly extravagant. See Birley, A.R., Hadrian, The Restless Emperor (London, 1997).
5 See as well ‘Letters and speeches of the Emperor Hadrian’ by Paul J. Alexander in Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, v. 49, 1938, pp. 141-177, The life and principate of the Emperor Hadrian : A.D.
76-138 by Bernard W. Henderson
(London : Methuen, 1923)