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Hadrian's Empire by Danny Danziger and Nicholas Purcell

Book Review by Ursus

Danny Danziger is an award-winning columnist for The Sunday Times, and is the author of eight books. Nicholas Purcell is a Fellow in Ancient History at St. Johnís College, Oxford, and specializes in Roman social, economic and cultural history. The two of them decided to write a social history of the Roman Empire after, as Danziger explains in his introduction, he took an inspiring walk along Hadrian's Wall. "Hadrian's Empire" is an adequate social history on the Roman Empire during the reign of Hadrian.

I am not exactly sure how the two authors collaborated, as the book never explicitly states. But I presume Purcell, the Oxford scholar, provided the primary material in this endeavor while Danziger, the journalist, translated it into a readable format. The result is a book that is grounded in scholarship but is very accessible to the general reader. If not exactly ground breaking in scope, it is nonetheless interesting and informative. Used copies are also currently available at inexpensive prices, which makes this work a low risk investment for your library.

Be advised it is not however an extended biography on Hadrian. The first chapter outlines the rise of Hadrian to power and the general tenor of his reign. The successive chapters mention Hadrian where appropriate, but otherwise concentrate on the empire Hadrian administered. Those wanting a more detailed look at Hadrian the man will have to look elsewhere on the market.

The chapters are structured as follows:

  • 1. The life of Hadrian
  • 2. The city of Rome, with a brief sketch of its history and its (often squalid) living conditions
  • 3. The social and linguistic divides of the empire
  • 4. Education, literacy, medicine and "industrial technology"
  • 5. Entertainment and spectacle
  • 6. The art of travel and its institutions
  • 7. Government, the ruling classes, and law
  • 8. The military
  • 9. The province of Britain and Hadrian's Wall
  • 10. Bathing, clothing, food and drink, and dining etiquette
  • 11. Sex, marriage, child rearing, dying and tombs
  • 12. Roman religion
  • 13. Non-Roman religion
  • 14. Religious policy (especially to Christians)
  • 15. Jews and the revolt in Judea
  • 16. The end of Hadrian's reign, and a brief coda on the end of Rome


  • The authors see Hadrian as a cultured, intelligent emperor. Whether it was his familiarity of Greek culture or his aptitude for architecture, no one could deny Hadrian's accomplishments. Yet the emperor could also be vindictive (having ordered the death of an architect who criticized his plans). Certainly he was eccentric, as his escapades with his infamous boy lover proved.

    The authors see Hadrian's reign as a highpoint for Roman civilization. Prosperity flourished, Greek and Roman cultures mingled to mutual benefit, and the borders of the empire were defined and reinforced. Yet there were also seeds of decline. The Jewish revolt signaled that not everyone could peacefully acclimate to the Pax Romana. The authors see this as the beginning of the end of the mutual cooperation between imperial elites and locals that bound the empire peacefully. The authors also see Roman traditionalism and conservative mentality as stifling innovation which could have breathed new life into the empire.

    Be advised that other than a single, obligatory map of the Roman Empire, there are no additional resources in this book: no glossary, chronology, photographs, or illustrations. Also be advised that if you have already have read much on Roman history and culture, you will not be covering any new material here. This book seems to be aimed at the very general reader who wants a summary of the main cultural items of Roman civilization as it existed in Hadrian's day. In this it succeeds, and I would recommend it on that level to that particular audience.

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    Book Review of Hadrian's Empire - Related Topic: Emperor Hadrian


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