Written by: Marian Vermeulen
Tibur (modern day Tivoli) stands on a naturally defensible hilltop in the lush central region of Italy. It is therefore unsurprising that the area is among the oldest sites of human settlement in the Italian peninsula. Activity there dates back to around 1300 B.C.. During Etruscan domination of Italy, Tibur was a Sabine city. It was conquered by Rome in 338 B.C., but Rome did not grant it citizenship until 90 B.C.. It became a popular resort for Rome’s elite, a pleasant countryside escape after the stuffy, smelly streets of Rome. It boasted ornate villas belonging to many famous individuals, including Maecenas, Augustus, and the poet Horace.
By far its most famous villa, however, is the stunning residence of Emperor Hadrian. It consists of almost 120 hectares of sprawling building complexes with themes and styles from around the world. Around 128 A.D., Hadrian made the spectacular villa his primary residence. Today, almost forty hectares of Emperor Hadrian’s splendid villa is available to visit. It is a testament to the vision of Hadrian, a man enraptured by travel and foreign cultures and fascinated by architecture. For anyone visiting Italy, Hadrian’s Villa is a worthy inclusion on an itinerary.
A Devoted Heir
In early spring of 138 A.D., Titus Aelius Hadrianus Antoninus, a middle-aged senator of high honor and virtue, held vigil by the bedside of the ailing Emperor Hadrian. The sickly emperor had adopted Antoninus as his official son and heir. All understood that he was essentially a placeholder. He was to ensure succession of Hadrian’s favorite, a boy who would become the great philosopher Emperor, Marcus Aurelius. Yet despite the utilitarian nature of his position, Antonius seems to have developed familial loyalty and affection for Hadrian. Romans took adoption and family ties very seriously. As he found himself unable to find any relief from wracking pain, Hadrian became unpredictable and angry. He begged and threatened his servants to provide him the means to commit suicide.
When the distraught servants sent word to Antoninus, he immediately left Rome and went to Hadrian’s side. With tearful entreaties, he pleaded with his new father not to do himself any harm. Antoninus spent the next several months alternating his time between running the affairs of the Empire and attending to Hadrian. Hadrian still experienced moments of excruciating pain and a desire for death. He even commanded a doctor to poison him once, but rather than acquiesce, the unhappy doctor committed suicide himself. Eventually Hadrian seems to have regretted his actions and to have abandoned his attempts. He wrote to Antoninus in reassurance, apologizing for the distress he had caused him.
Alone at the End
Hadrian’s wife had died recently, though the two had never been close. His truest love had been a beautiful young man named Antinous. Sadly, the youth had drowned in the Nile while he and Hadrian had explored Egypt, leaving the emperor heartbroken. Hadrian erected a shrine to Antinous at his villa, and numerous statues of his lover still populate the massive residence. He loved his adopted father Trajan’s wife as his own mother, and held a deep affection for his mother-in-law. Both women had already passed. At the end of his life, dying slowly and in pain, the most powerful man in the world was almost alone. His only remaining solace was Antoninus, who cared for Hadrian until the bitter end. The emperor finally passed away on July 10th of 138 A.D., in his seaside villa at Baiae.
Antoninus soon proved that his devotion was not a sham or an attempt to keep favor with the emperor. Hadrian had a fractious relationship with the Roman Senate, and Antoninus quickly found himself in contention with them too. True to their dislike for the former emperor, they initially refused to deify him. Antoninus threatened to resign his position and throw the Empire into chaos if they didn’t honor his adopted father. He also followed through on all his promises to Hadrian. He adopted young Marcus Annius Verus, later to become Marcus Aurelius, and Lucius Commodus as his joint heirs. For his exemplary character, Antoninus was eventually given the nickname, Pius.
What to See Here
Few places in the world are able to capture the extravagant and monumental extremes of Roman luxury like Tivoli. The area is simply bursting with magnificent sites. The most famous is without doubt Hadrian’s Villa, built in the first couple of decades of the second century AD. By 128 AD, it seems the 250-acre villa complex had become Hadrian’s official residence, connected to the capital via an efficient postal network and able to accommodate any number of emissaries or guests an emperor might have to entertain. Much of the villa remains unexcavated, but what is visible is truly magnificent. The remains of the Island Villa capture what was most likely the most beautiful pat of the emperor’s grand design, while the vast complex of baths, fountains, statues and even a theatre pay testament to the imperial scale of the project.
As well as Hadrian’s Villa, Tivoli is also home to the Temple of Vesta. Idyllically situated atop the ancient acropolis in Tivoli’s countryside, this circular temple dates to the first century BC. As is visible from an inscription on the temple’s architrave, one Lucius Gellius is to be credited either for constructing or restoring the temple. In its near vicinity lies another rectangular temple, often attributed to the Tiburtine Sibyl, while just outside the boundary of the ancient city lie the ruins of the expansive Sanctuary of Hercules the Winner (dating from the second century BC) and Temple of the Tosse (probably dating to the fourth century AD).
- Cassius Dio, Roman History
- Historia Augusta, The Life of Hadrian
- Pliny the Younger, The Letters of the Younger Pliny
- Sextus Aurelius Victor, Epitome De Caesaribus