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Emperor Hadrian
Emperor Hadrian

Publius Aelius Traianus Hadrianus (January 24, 76-July 10, 138), known as Hadrian in English, was Roman emperor from 117-138, and a member of the gens Aelia. Hadrian was the third of the "Five Good Emperors". However, he was, according to Elizabeth Speller, the first Emperor whose assessment moved beyond the stereotype of good and bad emperors. His reign has a faltering beginning, a glorious middle but a tragic conclusion[1].

Hadrian was born in Italica, Baetica (originally Hispania Ulterior), to a well-established settler family which had originated in Picenum in Italy. He was a distant relative by marriage of his predecessor Trajan. Trajan never officially designated a successor, but, according to his wife, Trajan named Hadrian emperor immediately before his death. However, Trajan's wife was well-disposed toward Hadrian, and he may well have owed his succession to her.


Early life

Hadrian was born in Italica, Baetica, which today is near modern Seville, Spain. He was the son of the prominent Baetican Publius Hadrianus Afer. His mother was Domitia Paulina of Gades. After his father died (probably in 85) Hadrian became the ward of Acilius Attianus and the future Emperor Trajan[2]. Hadrian was schooled in various subjects particular to young aristocrats of the day, and was so fond of learning Greek literature that he was nicknamed Graeculus ("Little Greek").

Hadrian enlisted in the army sometime in the reign of Domitian. His first service was as a tribune of the Legio II Adiutrix. Later, he was to be transferred to the I Minervia in Germany. When Nerva died in 98, Hadrian rushed to inform Trajan personally. He later became legate of a legion in Upper Pannonia and eventually governor of said province. He was also archon in Athens for a brief time, and was elected an Athenian citizen.

Hadrian was active in the wars against the Dacians (as legate of the V Macedonica) and reputedly won awards from Trajan for his successes. Due to an absence of military action in his reign, Hadrian's military skill is not well attested, however his keen interest and knowledge of the army and his demonstrated skill of administration show possible strategic talent.

Hadrian joined Trajan's expedition against Parthia as a legate on Trajan’s staff[3]. Neither during the initial victorious phase, nor during the second phase of the war when rebellion swept Mesopotamia did Hadrian do anything of note. However when the governor of Syria had to be sent to sort out renewed troubles in Dacia, Hadrian was appointed as a replacement, giving him an independent command[4]. By now Trajan was seriously ill and he decided to return to Rome while Hadrian remained in Syria to guard the Roman rear. Trajan only got as far as Selinus before he became too ill to go further. Hadrian, however much he was the obvious successor had still not been adopted as Trajan's heir. As Trajan lay dying, nursed by his wife and supporter of Hadrian, Plotina, he at last adopted Hadrian as heir. Then he died. Allegations that the order of events was the other way round have never quite been resolved[5].

Securing power

Hadrian quickly secured the support of the legions - one potential opponent, Lusius Quietus, was instantly dismissed[6]. The Senate's endorsement followed when possibly falsified papers of adoption from Trajan were presented. Nevertheless, this rumor of a falsified document of adoption carried little weight. The real source of Hadrian's legitimacy arose from the endorsement of the armies of Syria and the Senate ratification. It is speculated that Trajan's wife Plotina forged the papers as historical documents show she was quite fond of Hadrian.

Hadrian did not at first go to Rome. He had his hands tied sorting out the East and supressing the Jewish revolt that had broken out under Trajan--then moving to sort out the Danube frontier. Instead, Attianus, Hadrian's former guardian, was put in charge in Rome. There he "discovered" a plot involving four leading Senators including Lusius Quietus and demanded of the Senate their deaths. There was no question of a trial-- they were hunted down and killed out of hand. Because Hadrian was not in Rome at the time, he was able to claim that Attianus had acted on his own initiative. According to Elizabeth Speller the real reason for their deaths was that they were Trajan's men[7].

Hadrian and the military

Onyx cameo portrait of Hadrian
Onyx cameo portrait of Hadrian

Despite his own excellence as a military administrator, Hadrian's reign was marked by a general lack of major military conflicts. He surrendered Trajan's conquests in Mesopotamia, considering them to be indefensible. There was almost a war with Parthia around 121, but the threat was averted when Hadrian succeeded in negotiating a peace. Hadrian's army crushed a massive Jewish uprising in Judea (132-135) led by Bar Kokhba.

The peace policy was strengthened by the erection of permanent fortifications along the empire's borders (limites, sl. limes). The most famous of these is the massive Hadrian's Wall in Britain, and the Danube and Rhine borders were strengthened with a series of mostly wooden fortifications, forts, outposts and watchtowers, the latter specifically improving communications and local area security. To maintain morale and keep the troops from getting restive, Hadrian established intensive drill routines, and personally inspected the armies. And his coins showed military images almost as often as peaceful ones, Hadrian's policy was peace through strength, even threat[8].

Cultural pursuits and patronage

Castel Sant'Angelo, the ancient Hadrian Mausoleum.
Castel Sant'Angelo, the ancient Hadrian Mausoleum.

Above all Hadrian patronized the arts: Hadrian's Villa at Tibur (Tivoli) was the greatest Roman example of an Alexandrian garden, recreating a sacred landscape, lost now in large part to the despoliation of the ruins by the Cardinal d'Este who had much of the marble removed to build his gardens. In Rome, the Pantheon, Rome built by Agrippa was enriched under Hadrian and took the form in which it remains to this day.

Hadrian was a humanist and deeply Hellenophile in all his tastes. While visiting Greece in 125 he attempted to create a kind of provincial parliament to bind all the semi-autonomous former city states across all Greece and Ionia (in Asia Minor). This parliament, known as the Panhellenion, failed despite spirited efforts to instill cooperation among the Hellenes. Hadrian was especially famous for his love affair with a young Greek boy, Antinous. While touring Egypt, Antinous mysteriously drowned in the Nile in 130. Stricken with grief, Hadrian founded the Egyptian city of Antinopolis. Hadrian drew the whole Empire into his mourning, making Antinous the last new god of antiquity. For the rest of his life, Hadrian commissioned many hundreds (or thousands) of sculptures of Antinous in the manner of a Greek youth.

Hadrian died at his villa in Baiae. He was buried in a mausoleum on the western bank of the Tiber, in Rome, a building later transformed into a fortress, Castel Sant'Angelo.

A fragment from the Roman History of Dio Cassius as translated by Earnest Cary in 1925:

"After Hadrian's death there was erected to him a huge equestrian statue representing him with a four-horse chariot. It was so large that the bulkiest man could walk through the eye of each horse, yet because of the extreme height of the foundation persons passing along on the ground below believe that the horses themselves as well as Hadrian are very small."

Hadrian's travels

Much of Hadrian's reign was spent traveling. Even prior to becoming Emperor, he had travelled abroad with the Roman military, giving him much experience in the matter. More than half his reign was spent outside of Italy. Other emperors often left Rome to simply go to war, returning soon after conflicts concluded. A previous Emperor, Nero, once traveled through Greece and was condemned for his self indulgence. Hadrian, by contrast, traveled as a fundamental part of his governing, and made this clear to the Roman senate and the people. He was able to do this because at Rome he possessed a loyal supporter within the upper echelons of Roman society, a military veteran by the name of Marcius Turbo. Also, there are hints within certain sources that he also employed a secret police force, the frumentarii, to exert control and influence incase anything should go wrong while he journeyed abroad.

Hadrian's visits were marked by handouts which often contained instructions for the construction of new public buildings. Indeed, Hadrian was willful of strengthening the Empire from within through improved infrastructure, as opposed to conquering or annexing perceived enemies. This was often the purpose of his journeys; commissioning new structures and projects and settlements. His almost evangelical belief in Greek culture strengthened his views : like many Emperors before him, Hadrians will was almost always obeyed. His traveling court was large, including administrators and likely architects and builders. The burden on the areas he passed through were sometimes great. While his arrival usually brought some benefits it is possible that those who had to carry the burden were of different class to those who reaped the benefits. For example, huge amounts of provisions were requisitioned during his visit to Egypt, this suggests that the burden on the mainly subsistence farmers must have been intolerable, causing some measure of starvation and hardship.[9]

Hadrian's first tour came in 121 and was initially aimed at covering his back to allow himself the freedom to concern himself with his general cultural aims. He travelled north, towards Germania and inspected the Rhine-Danube frontier, allocating funds to improve the defenses. However it was to the Empire's very frontiers that represented his perhaps most significant visit, hearing of a recent revolt, he headed across the sea to Britannia.

Hadrian's Wall
Hadrian's Wall


Prior to Hadrians arrival in Britain there had been a major revolt in Britannia, spanning roughly two years (119-121). It was here he initiated the building of Hadrian's Wall during 122. The wall was built chiefly to safeguard the frontier province of Britain, by preventing future possible invasions from the northern country of Caledonia (now modern day Scotland). Caledonia was inhabited by tribes collectively known as the Picts. Hadrian realized that the Picts would refuse to adapt to Roman life, that they were essentially barbarians for the time being. He also was aware that although Caledonia was conquerable, the harsh terrain and highlands made the venture a costly and unprofitable one for the Empire at large. Thus, he instead decided on building a wall. Hadrian is perhaps most famous for the construction of this wall which to date bears his name, furthermore its ruins still span many miles today. In many ways it represents Hadrian's will to consolidate and enforce within the Empire, rather than waging wars and conquering without. By the end of 122 he had concluded his visit to Britannia, and from there headed south by sea to Mauretania.

Parthia and Asia Minor

In 123 he arrived in Mauretania where he personally led a campaign against local rebels.[10] However this visit was to be short, as reports came through that the Eastern nation of Parthia was again preparing for war, as a result Hadrian quickly headed eastwards. On his journey east it is known that at some point he visited Cyrene during which he personally made available funds for the training of the young men of well bred families for the Roman military. This might well have been a stop off during his journey East. Cyrene had already benefited from his generosity when he in 119 had provided funds for the rebuilding of public buildings destroyed in the recent Jewish revolt.[11]

When Hadrian arrived on the Euphrates, he characteristically solved the problem through a negotiated settlement with the Parthian king (probably Chosroes). He then proceeded to check the Roman defenses before setting off West along the coast of the Black Sea[12]. He probably spent the winter in Nicomedia, the main city of Bithynia. As Nicomedia had been hit by an earthquake only shortly prior to his stay, Hadrian was generous in providing funds for rebuilding. Indeed, thanks to his generosity he was acclaimed as the chief restorer of the province as a whole. It is more than possible that Hadrian visited Claudiopolis and there espied the beautiful Antinous. Sources say nothing about when Hadrian met Antinous, however, there is one depiction of Antinous that shows him as a young man of 20 or so. As this was shortly before Antinous's drowning in 130 Antinous would more likely have been a youth of 13 or 14.[13] Many historians favor this early date as the time when Antinous left home but it is unlikely that they immediately became lovers. Hadrian's friendships usually burnt themselves out quickly, casting doubt on whether Hadrian would have sustained his passion up to 130. It is possible that Antinuous may have been sent to Rome to be trained as page to serve the Emperor and only gradually did he rise to the status of imperial favorite. [14]

After meeting Antinuous, Hadrian traveled through Anatolia. The route he took is uncertain. Various incidents are described such as his founding of a city within Mysia, Hadrianutherae, after a successful boar hunt. (The building of the city was probably little more than a mere whim - lowly populated wooden areas such as the location of the new city were already ripe for development). Some historians dispute whether Hadrian did infact commission the city's construction at all. At about this time, plans to build a temple in Asia minor were written up. The new temple would be dedicated to Trajan and Hadrian and built with dazzling white marble.[15]


Temple of Zeus in Athens
Temple of Zeus in Athens

The climax of this tour was indeed the destination that the helenophile Hadrian must all along have had in mind, Greece. He arrived in the autumn of 124 in time to participate in the Eleusinian Mysteries. By tradition at one stage in the ceremony the initiates were supposed to carry arms but this was waived to avoid any risk to the emperor among them. At the Athenians request he conducted a revision of their constitution - among other things a new phylae (tribe) was added bearing his name.[16]

During the winter he toured the Peloponese. His exact route is uncertain, however there are some tell tale signs such as reports of Pausanias of temples built by Hadrian and the statue built of him by the grateful citizens of Epidaurus as thanks to their "restorer". He was especially generous to Mantinea which supports the theory that Antinous was infact already Hadrian's lover because of the strong link between Mantinea and Antinous's home in Bithynia. [17]

By March of 125 Hadrian had reached Athens presiding over the festival of Dionysia. The building program that Hadrian initiated was substantial. Various rulers had done work on building a temple to Olympian Zeus - it was Hadrian who ensured that the job would be finished. He also initiated the construction of several public buildings on his own whim and even organized the building of an aqueduct.[18]

Return to Italy

The Pantheon: rebuilt by Hadrian
The Pantheon: rebuilt by Hadrian

On his return to Italy, Hadrian made a detour to Sicily. Coins celebrate him as the restorer of the island though there is no record of what he did to earn this acolade. [19]

Back in Rome he was able to see for himself the completed work of rebuilding the Pantheon. Also completed by then was Hadrian's villa nearby at Tibur - a pleasant retreat by the Sabine Hills for when Rome got too much for him. At the beginning of March 127 Hadran set off for a tour of Italy. Once again it is mainly by records of his hand outs that allows us to reconstruct his route rather than the historical records. For instance, in that year he restored the Picentine earth goddess Cupra in the town of Cupra Maritima. Less welcome then such largesse was his decicion to divide Italy into 4 regions under imperial legates with consular rank. To in effect be reduced the status or mere provinces did not go down well and this inovation did not long outlive Hadrian.[20]

It was around now that Hadrian first fell sick but this is described so cryptically that all we really know is that it was serious[21]. Whatever the illness was, it did not stop him from setting off in the spring of 128 to visit Africa. His arrival began with the good omen of rain ending a drought. Along with his usual role as benefactor and restorer he found time to inspect the troops and his speech to the troops survives to this day.[22]

Hadrian returned to Italy in the summer of 128 but his stay was brief before setting off on a tour that would last three years[23]. That tour was to be the most significant not to say fateful of his reign.

Greece and Asia

In September of 128 Hadrian again attended the Eleusian mysteries. This time his visit to Greece seems to have concentrated on Athens and Sparta - the two ancient rivals for dominance of Greece. Hadrian had played with the idea of focusing his Greek revival round Amphictyonic League based in Delphi but he by now had decided on something far grander. His new Panhellenion was going to be a council that would bring together Greek cities wherever they might be found. The meeting place was to the new temple to Zeus in Athens. Having set in motion the preparations - deciding whose claim to be a Greek city was genuine would in itself take time - Hadrian set off for Ephesus. [24]


  1. ^  Following Hadrian: Elizabeth Speller pp 61-62
  2. ^  Beloved And God: Royston Lambert pp 31,32
  3. ^  Hadrian the Restless Emperor:Anthony Birley p68
  4. ^  Anthony Birley p75
  5. ^  Elizabeth Speller p26
  6. ^  Royston Lambert
  7. ^  Elizabeth Speller
  8. ^  Elizabeth Speller p69
  9. ^  Elizabeth Speller pp74-81
  10. ^  Royston Lambert pp41-42
  11. ^  Anthony Birley pp151-2
  12. ^  Anthony Birley pp153-5
  13. ^  Anthony Birley pp157-8
  14. ^  Royston Lambert pp60-61
  15. ^  Anthony Birley pp164-167
  16. ^  Anthony Birley pp175-7
  17. ^  Anthony Birley pp177-180
  18. ^  Anthony Birley pp182-4
  19. ^  Anthony Birley pp 189-90
  20. ^  Anthony Birley pp 191-200
  21. ^  Royston Lambert p71
  22. ^  Royston Lambert p71-72
  23. ^  Anthony Birley pp 213-214
  24. ^  Anthony Birley pp 215-20

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Preceded by:
Roman Emperor
Succeeded by:
Antoninus Pius
Preceded by:
Five Good Emperors
Succeeded by:
Antoninus Pius
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