Hadrian (76 - 138 AD)
Emperor: 117 - 138 AD
Publius Aelius Hadrianus was born on January 24, AD 76 likely in Rome but possibly in the same place of Trajan's birth, Italica, Hispania Baetica. Regardless, Hadrian certainly spent much of his youth in Rome where his father, P. Aelius Hadrianus Afer, had served various magistracies including the praetorship. His family, though probably considered obscure and provincial by imperial standards (it had moved from Picenum in Italia to Hispania shortly after the Second Punic War some three centuries prior), was to gain rapid advancement along with the rise of Trajan in political and military significance. Trajan was the cousin to Hadrian's father and with the father's death in about AD 86 Trajan became joint guardian of the young future emperor along with P. Acilius Attianus. As he and his wife Pompeia Plotina had no children of their own, they certainly helped fill a role as surrogate parents, though there was no official adoption.
Hadrian was in Rome as a teenager and with the backing of Trajan, one of Domitian's key legionary commanders, he followed a rapid and customary rise through the cursus honorum. By the age of 20 Hadrian was serving his first of three consecutive military tribunates, perhaps indicating Trajan's desire for his surrogate son to follow his military footsteps. With the assassination of Domitian in AD 96, the accession of Nerva and the adoption of Trajan as his heir (because of his position of importance as a leading general able to quell any threat of a legionary mutiny against the new emperor) Hadrian quickly found himself thrust into the heart of imperial politics. It was Hadrian, while serving his second military tribunate in Moesia, who personally carried the congratulations and loyalty of the Danubian legions to Trajan. Having arrived and affirmed his place of importance in Trajan's court, Hadrian was kept on hand, appointed to a third tribunate of one of Trajan's own legions, Legio XXII Primigenia in Germania Superior.
Within a year of Trajan's adoption as heir to the Roman 'throne', Nerva died (AD 98) and Hadrian's influence in imperial affairs continued to rise along with the new emperor. By AD 100, Pompeia Plotina who remained an influential and driving force in Hadrian's career arranged a marriage with Trajan's grand niece Vibia Sabina. Though Hadrian would remain married until his wife's death in AD 136 or 37 the marriage was one of complete unhappiness. Despite the unpleasant nature of his marital relationship, Hadrian remained close to Pompeia and also to his mother-in-law Matidia (Trajan's niece). Though their favor, and certainly his own merits, Hadrian continued to advanced during Trajan's principate.
He accompanied the emperor as a quaestor on his first campaign in Dacia, commanded a Legion (I Minervia) during the second war (AD 105-6) and held several posts of military importance throughout Trajan's reign. Shortly after Dacia, he was sent to govern Pannonia where a stern hand was needed to discipline Roman troops and to fend off incursions by Sarmartian neighbors. As a reward for exemplary services, Hadrian was awarded his first consulship in AD 108 and continued to serve various official roles over the course of the next several years. According to the questionable ancient source, the Historia Augusta, a steady flow of honors continued to be awarded to Hadrian until his ultimate adoption as Trajan's heir. When Trajan began his campaign against the Parthians (circa AD 114), Hadrian was eventually appointed to a key eastern command. With Hadrian serving as governor of Syria in AD 117 Trajan's failing health forced him to abandon the war, leaving Hadrian in command of the east. While en route to Rome, Trajan's health worsened and he died on August 8 at Selinus in Cilicia.
The circumstances surrounding Hadrian's adoption and ultimate accession have long been clouded in mystery. Though there were clear indications as to Hadrian's favored status as a member of the emperor's inner circle, Trajan never made a public endorsement of him, or any other potential candidate as heir. The highly dubious account recorded in the Historia Augusta even suggests that Trajan purposely did not leave an heir in order to follow the example set by Alexander the Great, leaving the matter either to be decided by the Senate or his various generals. Dio Cassius reported that Trajan's widow Pompeia actually secured Hadrian's adoption, announcing the adoption posthumously through letters signed in her own hand rather than Trajan's. Regardless of the truth of the matter, the choice proved a wise one in that it certainly helped prevent the potential for civil war. Hadrian was announced as Trajan's heir by Pompeia and by the Praetorian Prefect Attianus (the man appointed as joint guardian of the youthful Hadrian along with Trajan) on August 9, AD 117, though the emperor's death was still kept secret from the public. Two days later, on the 11th, when Trajan's death was finally declared, the Syrian legions hailed Hadrian as the new emperor and the matter was reduced to a mere formality awaiting Senatorial approval.
Hadrian traveled immediately to Selinus where he was present for Trajan's cremation and likely confirmed the loyalty of key members of his predecessor's entourage. Rather than immediately travel to Rome, however, Hadrian returned to Syria where he seems to have spent he better part of the next year preparing his administration and settling eastern affairs. Despite the support of his legions and the bulk of the imperial court, there were several potential rivals. Four respected proconsular lieutenants of Trajan were executed shortly after Hadrian's accession, forever marring his relationship with the Senate. Lucius Quietus a Mauretanian general who was largely in charge of suppressing the Jewish revolts that followed the Parthian invasions, Cornelius Palma, another Legate and former governor of Syria, Avidius Nigrinus, governor of Dacia and Publilius Celsus were killed for 'plotting against Hadrian'. Despite the fact that it was the Senate who ordered the executions, it was most likely done at the behest of one of Hadrian's agents. That agent perhaps was Attianus, still serving as praetorian prefect for his former ward. Hadrian, probably to avoid both political and public backlash, forever denied any involvement in the affair whatsoever and proclaimed his innocence publicly, even joining the sentiments of his predecessors Nerva and Trajan who swore to never harm a member of the Senate. However, the continued favor shown to Attianus and lack of any retaliatory response would seem to indicate that despite his 'innocence' he found the executions perfectly acceptable. Had Hadrian simply accepted responsibility, acknowledging personal enmity and jealousy over his succession as reasons for the executions, his strained relationship with the Senate may have been avoided.
Despite the perilous start to his reign, the new emperor, Imperator Caesar Traianus Hadrianus Augustus, would prove to be an effective yet completely different sort of leader. Not only would he immediately give up some of Trajan's territorial gains (another unpopular move with the above mentioned rivals) in order to bring the empire's borders more in line with the Augustan policy of using natural defenses, he would soon embark on an ambitious journey throughout the empire to inspect military dispositions, quell revolts and catalogue the affairs of Rome's provinces.
Hadrian arrived in Rome in the summer of AD 118, nearly a year after his actual succession to Trajan. His predecessor's eastern conquests had facilitated a massive Jewish revolt which required an in kind legionary response. While these revolts were largely quelled while Trajan was still alive, Hadrian was forced to finish the work. As one part of his ultimate resolution of the matter, Hadrian understood the difficulty in controlling the east beyond the Euphrates River and gave up Trajan's recent conquests.
While unpopular, especially to the legions that had brought these territories under Roman control with their blood, the desire to mark natural defensible borders necessitated the policy. In Dacia, however, whether he felt a need to deflect a growing sense of legionary resentment at his eastern withdrawal policy, desired continued economic control of Dacia's important mineral wealth (gold mines) or a combination of both, Hadrian confirmed and upheld Trajan's annexation of the territory.
Hadrian's eventual arrival in Rome was greeted with Senatorial hostility, thanks largely to the executions of four proconsular magistrates. As such, Hadrian focused on measures to increase his popularity with the masses. Numerous honors were voted upon Trajan (though more from the Senate than directly from Hadrian), massive debt was cancelled in an enormously popular public burning of the records, the port at Ostia was expanded to secure additional grain supplies and the alimenta (essentially providing government support to local communities) begun by Nerva and expanded by Trajan was continued. Building and restoration of public works throughout the empire was conducted on an unprecedented scale and Hadrian was an enormous patron of the arts and literature. Perhaps the most important achievement of Hadrian's reign was the reformation of the legal system. Conducted by Salvius Julianus (grandfather to future emperor Didius Julianus), these reforms included regular review of magisterial decrees and edicts ensuring that such measures provided desired and positive effects.
Despite his efforts, some reforms and projects (such as tearing down a theatre built by Trajan on the Campus Martius) were terribly unpopular. His poor relationship and lack of popularity with the senate, coupled with a strong desire to review the Empire's defenses, inspired him to leave the hostile city and explore the provinces first hand. In AD 121, Hadrian left Rome on an extended tour beginning to the north in Gaul. Form there he continued to Germania where the legions were drilled and trained in such a manner as to increase discipline that had grown lax. For centuries Roman armies had been raised only for temporary purposes involving conquest or defense from invaders. It was only during the imperial period that the legions became permanent standing forces that maintained static garrisons. As such, complacency from inactivity was a genuine concern. In addition to personally drilling the men (and performing such training right along with them), defense works were inspected, men of quality promoted and arrangements for military supply and logistics were settled.
From Germania, Hadrian continued north to Britannia where the matter of a defined controllable border was an ultimate concern. Unlike other frontier provinces such as Germania, which used the Danube and Rhine Rivers as natural borders, Britain had no such clearly marked and defensible position. Despite previous efforts to bring the far north under Roman control (under Agricola during the reign of Domitian) the logistical problems of asserting dominance over the scattered highland tribes made such efforts impractical. As northern Britain lacked a naturally defensible position, Hadrian ordered the situation remedied by the building of a massive wall to separate Rome from barbarian. Hadrian's Wall was built by legionaries (contrary to popular opinion, Roman armies rather than slaves had always been responsible for building not only defense works, but roads and sometimes aqueducts) in a massive effort that spanned eight years (AD 122 - 130).
The wall, stretching for 80 miles between modern Carlisle in the west and Newcastle in the east, was between 8 and 10 ft. thick and as high as 15 feet tall. Mile castles were built at 1 mile intervals (hence the name) and were garrisoned by auxilia (numbering approximately 9,000 men at any given time). Though the wall itself was a formidable defensive structure, its ultimate purpose was not truly to serve as a barrier, but as a deterrent to tribal aggression and perhaps more importantly, to act as a funnel forcing trade and civilian traffic through well regulated defensible positions.
From Britain, Hadrian continued south to Hispania and then to Mauretania in Northern Africa, where a revolt of the Moors was suppressed. From the African coastal city of Cyrene Hadrian continued east (which he preferred due its Hellenistic nature) visiting Crete, Syria, Pontus, Bithynia, Asia Minor and circling back through Thracia, Moesia, Dacia, Pannonia, Greece, Athens and Sicily before finally returning to Rome in AD 125. Spending just a few years in Italy, Hadrian was once again consumed by the 'wanderlust' and returned to Athens by AD 129. Hadrian held a fascination for Greek philosophy and culture and as such would visit Athens at least 3 times during his reign. The city too would benefit greatly from the emperor's patronage in the form of numerous building projects and improvements. The 'Greekling' as Hadrian came to be known, next journeyed from Athens back to Asia, then to Pamphylia, Phrygia, Cilicia, Syria, Cappadocia, Pontus, Antioch and Judaea by AD 130.
Hadrian's journey would continue to Egypt, again to Syria, Asia and Athens and eventually back to Rome in AD 132 but it was in Judaea that Hadrian's ambitious plans took a turn for the worse. In most of his provincial visits he was greeted enthusiastically thanks in part to gifts he offered to the populace, coupled with various public works projects. In the home of the Jews, however, there was a natural enmity carried over from the revolts during Trajan's reign and Hadrian paid little heed to the volatility of the region. First, he planned to rebuild Jerusalem (largely razed by Titus in AD 70) in the manner of a Roman city, complete with a temple to Jupiter where the Great Temple of Jerusalem once stood. While this affront to the religious sensibilities of the Jews passed without major incident, it planted the seeds of discontent. Two years later Hadrian, whose Hellenistic sensibilities found several strange Jewish customs to be repulsive, passed a law forbidding the Jewish practice of circumcision. As unrest began to stir, the collapse of the tomb of Solomon in Jerusalem due to Roman construction activity, was the final catalyst to set off wide spread revolt.
The revolt, led by Simon ben Kosiba (or Bar Kochba for 'son of star' indicating that ben Kosiba was considered a messiah), proved to be yet another difficult challenge for the Romans in Judaea. Lasting for 3 years (forcing Hadrian to return and remain in the east from AD 134 - 136), thanks in large part to the Jew's wise policy of avoiding direct large scale engagements with Roman legions, the destruction of the province and loss of life was devastating. According to Cassius Dio, nearly 1,000 Jewish villages and just fewer than 600,000 people were killed in various engagements. The Romans losses too were considerable. Having used at least 3 full legions, numerous auxilia and detachments from several other nearby legions it is assumed (because it disappears from historical records after this point) that at least one legion, XXII Deiotariana, was completely destroyed in the uprising and never reconstituted.
When the Romans were eventually victorious in AD 136, Hadrian's punishment was severe. Dead Jews were left unburied and to rot in the streets for years and many others were sold as slaves. Jewish temples were replaced by Pagan equivalents, Rabbis were imprisoned and executed, it was forbidden to teach Mosaic Law or to own religious scrolls and the people were forbidden even from entering Jerusalem. To drive the point home, the city was even renamed to Aelia Capitolina and Judaea itself to Palestinae. Following the brutal suppressions of both Trajan and Hadrian, the Jews had finally settled under Roman control and would never again rise up against them.
Hadrian and the Arts
In addition to Hadrian's great provincial travels, and corresponding centralization of imperial government, Hadrian was an unrivaled patron of the arts and literature. Despite his extensive military background, certainly stemming from his relationship as a ward of Trajan, Hadrian was a student of Greek philosophy, culture and the arts.
In addition to his studies abroad, he was a writer (his autobiography is unfortunately lost) a poet and an architect of some note. Though criticism garnered from Trajan's famed architect Apollodorus regarding Hadrian's architectural style seemingly resulted in the master engineer's banishment and eventual execution. Hadrian's jealousy and ego in matters of the arts, accompanied by a fractured relationship with the Senate, certainly earned the emperor a legacy of disfavor among the societal elite.
Despite the criticism of Apollodorus and others, Hadrian's interests in architecture left Rome with some of its finest monuments including the completion of Trajan's forum. One masterpiece in particular, the Pantheon (AD 125) originally commissioned by Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa and destroyed by fire circa AD 80, was rebuilt according to Hadrian's specifications. Despite its conversion from Pagan temple to Christian church, it survives architecturally to this day largely as it was built 2 millenia ago and still serves as an operating church. The great dome, the centerpiece of the monument remained the largest in the world until the 20th century and is remarkable for the central circular opening (or oculus) which was representative of the sun and provides the interior's only light.
A new bridge, the Pons Aelius, led to Hadrian's grand mausoleum which was larger than that of even Augustus but was left uncompleted at the time of the emperor's death. Hadrian's wanderlust also inspired temples and construction projects throughout the empire. Athens in particular, the city of which he was most fond, was left with a great temple to Zeus (larger even than the Pantheon in Rome) that marked a boundary for a new city center. His wanderings also inspired Hadrian to recreate various buildings and structures from the provinces he visited. At perhaps his most elaborate and innovative series of architectural constructions, the Villa of Hadrian in modern Tivoli, approximately 100 buildings of various design and cultural influence were symbolic of the empire's far reaching power and Hadrian's love of architecture.
Hadrian was considered an expert in such fields as arithmetic, geometry, painting, music, poetry and literature. While his prowess in these fields may have been challenged by other contemporary 'experts' Hadrian's position of power and overbearing ego subjected these contemporaries to countless criticisms and abuses. Despite his great love and patronage of the arts much, his relationships with leading scholars of the day, like that with Apollodorus the architect, were precarious at best. Suetonius, the author of 'The Twelve Caesar's" was a leading secretary to Hadrian and was afforded access to imperial documents long since lost, before eventually being dismissed for indiscreet behavior with the empress (whom Hadrian had a cold and distant relationship with, perhaps affording reason why Suetonius was not executed).
Teachers of the day were subjected to all manners of ridicule and humiliation, despite greater training or knowledge in many cases, yet he constantly sought them out for discussion, debate and exchanges in poetry and philosophy. According to Aelius Spartianus and the debatable testament presented in the 'Historia Augusta' (which unfortunately is one of the few surviving written accounts of Hadrian) the emperor "bestowed both honors and riches upon all who professed these arts, though he always tormented them with his questions." In some cases, these various teachers and practitioners would be rewarded just prior to being dismissed from service.
Despite Hadrian's confusing behavior, he counted among his personal friends many members of the 'scholarly elite' including the philosophers Epictetus and Heliodorus and was an acquaintance of such authors as the previously mentioned Suetonius and Plutarch (famed for his 'Parallel Lives'). Perhaps the greatest example of these rather strange friendships, and the tolerance shown by Hadrian's so-called friends (as well as being indicative of the ambiguous nature of politics and survival during the Principate in general), again comes from Aelius Spartianus and his account of the philosopher Favorinus:
"And once Favorinus, when he had yielded to Hadrian's criticism of a word which he had used, raised a merry laugh among his friends. For when they reproached him for having done wrong in yielding to Hadrian in the matter of a word used by reputable authors, he replied: "You are urging a wrong course, my friends, when you do not suffer me to regard as the most learned of men the one who has thirty legions."
Antinous and Succession
Many of the details regarding Hadrian's personal life are largely speculative, but one relationship in particular has long been the subject of extraordinary attention. Despite the emperor's close relations to his mother-in-law Matidia (Trajan's niece), his marital arrangement with Matidia's daughter Vibia Sabina is characterized as distant at best.
According to the Historia Augusta Hadrian was well known for various sexual escapades including with married women, which probably did little to endear him to his wife. More scandalous however is the insinuation that the emperor preferred adult men over women (which perhaps oddly enough according to modern sensibilities, was considered less appropriate than maintaining sexual relations with 'boys'). However, there was one young member of Hadrian's imperial court that received particular attention from the emperor and from historians.
Antinous, a handsome Bithynian born about AD 110 (about 34 years Hadrian's junior), had met the emperor at some point in his early to mid teens and certainly joined him on various expeditions throughout the imperial provinces. While traveling the Nile circa AD 130 Antinous died under what appears to have been mysterious circumstances. While Cassius Dio reported that accidental drowning was the cause of death, the Historia Augusta more dramatically suggested that the young man sacrificed himself willingly because various omens implied that his own shortened life would prolong that of Hadrian's.
Regardless of the circumstances, Hadrian's reaction was one of overwhelming grief. While there is the possibility that Antinous was simply a favored protege (this is admittedly unlikely) the extravagant honors heaped upon the dead young man were enormous. Cities in his name were founded, statues were erected all over the empire, and Antinous was worshipped in association with the gods Osiris, Bacchus and others, essentially making him a member of the Roman imperial cult.
Whatever the true circumstances regarding Antinous, when Hadrian eventually returned to Rome for the final time from his wide ranging tour of the Empire (including the debilitating Jewish wars) he was faced with the difficult task of finding an heir. Hadrian was about 60 years old by this time (AD 136) and was facing deteriorating health. Without legitimate children of his own (and by this time his wife had died) adoption was the only choice and Hadrian wanted the succession to be public knowledge rather than a repeat of the mysterious circumstances surrounding his own adoption by Trajan. His first choice, L. Ceionius Commodus, was a young man (though in poor health himself) of considerable political connection but one who lacked military experience or redeeming qualities of any great substance. Perhaps fortunately from a perspective of prosperity, Commodus died before Hadrian (AD 138) did and the search for an heir continued.
Hadrian's next choice, T. Aurelius Fulvius Boionius Arrius Antoninus, who would become known simply as Antoninus, was a man only 10 years Hadrian's junior. Antoninus was not only of a distinguished consular family but had achieved the consulship himself en route to obtaining a position among the aristocratic elite as the governor of Asia Minor. His adoption would prove to be another positive step in the course of the "adoptive emperors" era.
Hadrian took the adoption a step further, however, naming Lucius Aelius Aurelius Commodus (Lucius Verus) and Marcus Annius Verus (Marcus Aurelius) as joint heirs to Antoninus. Perhaps he feared the conspiracy that could grow in the absence of imperial stability or perhaps he was simply trying to ensure the quality administration of the empire, but whatever his reasoning these actions saw to that continued stability for the next 40 - 50 years (arguably ending with the death of Marcus Aurelius in AD 180 or even through the reign of Commodus in AD 193).
With the matter of succession settled in such a way as to continue the era of the "5 Good Emperors" Hadrian died at the age of 62, after a lengthy reign of 21 years, on July 10, 138 AD at his villa in Baiae. With his death, opponents within the Senate saw the opportunity to finally have revenge for various slights and transgressions against them over the course of Hadrian's reign. Attempts to condemn Hadrian's memory (as had been done to Domitian) were foiled by Antoninus as he played the part of honorable adopted son. His diligence in reversing the sentiment against Hadrian and having his adoptive father deified certainly played a role in earning him the name "Pius".
Did you know...
The Library of Hadrian is located on the north side of the Acropolis, immediately north of the Roman Agora. The complex was built by the Roman emperor Hadrian in 131/132 AD.
Did you know...
Modern Jewish historians have come to view the Bar-Kokhba Revolt as being of decisive historic importance. The massive destruction and loss of life occasioned by the revolt has led many scholars to date the beginning of the Jewish diaspora from this date rather than the traditional date of the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD.
Did you know...
Hadrian rebuilt Agrippa's Pantheon into the remarkable building that survives today, reconstructing the accustomed temple facade, with columns and pediment, but attaching it to a drum which was surmounted by a coffered dome.
Did you know...
Hadrian commemorated Antinous in the sky from stars south of Aquila, the Eagle, that had not previously been considered part of any constellation.