Ancient History & Civilisation


In AD 76, the seventh year of Vespasian’s rule, Publius Aelius Hadrianus was born in Rome. Although he had no connection to the Flavian dynasty under whose rule he entered the world, just over forty years later Hadrian would become the fourteenth emperor of Rome. He would at that time also become the first emperor in its history to sport a beard. It was close-cropped and carefully trimmed, but unmistakably a beard. Although he was said to have grown it in order to hide the blemishes on his face, Hadrian’s beard would become a defining symbol of his age. In microcosmic form it described another revolution – another key transformation in the long life of the Roman empire. It epitomized, as we shall see, the age of the ‘good emperors’, the high point of the Roman commonwealth, the age of peace that lasted, with the exception of one period of crisis, for over 140 years. The seeds of the shift that heralded this ‘golden age’ were sown in the reign of Hadrian’s predecessor – his beardless cousin Trajan.


Pliny the Younger, a senator and provincial governor who corresponded regularly with the emperor, described Trajan as of ‘splendid bearing, tall stature’ with a ‘fine head and noble countenance’. Even that head’s receding hairline only enhanced ‘his look of majesty’.1 It was a portrait that fitted the image. Trajan was of the old school. He was an exceptional and heroic military commander, an imperator, holder of the supreme military authority with which emperors ruled the known world. Indeed, on his accession inAD98 Trajan had a lot to live up to. His father had distinguished himself under Vespasian and Titus as commander of the tenth legion in the Jewish Revolt and had gone on to become governor of the strategically important province of Syria. Appropriately, the way in which Trajan chose to live up to his father’s achievements was old-fashioned Roman expansion and conquest. The ripe territory that would be plucked and fall within his grasp was the kingdom of Dacia.

Located in eastern Europe, north of the river Danube, Dacia possessed every ingredient that made it magnetically attractive to the steely embrace of the pax Romana. It was an independent kingdom ruled by Decebalus, though Rome of course interpreted that independence as a threat. It was sophisticated and wealthy, thanks to its productive gold and silver mines, which were eyed enviously from afar. Finally, it had made an elementary mistake in offering Rome a case for war. During the reign of Domitian, the last of the Flavian emperors, Decebalus had shown barefaced cheek in crossing the Danube and attacking Roman territory. In the brief war that resulted two Roman commanders had been killed, and Domitian eventually concluded a dishonourable, unsatisfactory peace. Trajan now sought to rectify that. Rome wanted revenge, the exaction of ‘justice’, the requiting of what was its due.

Between 101 and 106 Trajan launched two wars against the Dacians. When he set out he had no military successes of his own to date; by the time he returned that was no longer the case. The war he waged was the greatest act of aggression since Claudius’s conquest of Britain. No one, however, would guess how utterly ferocious these campaigns would be. In an already crowded field, their unstinting brutality was rarely equalled in all Roman history. They far exceeded the ‘regime change’ goal of toppling Decebalus. The Dacian wars were devoted to nothing less than genocide – the eradication of an ancient ‘barbarian’ culture, the installation of proper, loyal and civilized colonies of Roman citizens, and the plunder of the region’s riches for the betterment of the empire. The complete story is pithily told in Dacia’s modern name: Romania.

Only the Romans could celebrate the ‘victory’ with such extravagance, pride and magnificence. The wealth garnered by Trajan from the war was ploughed into a new harbour at Ostia, the port of Rome. Here was space for concrete moorings and ramps, warehouses and wharves, administrative offices for the provinces (each endowed perhaps with a fitting mosaic to describe the nature or origin of the produce it dispatched), and the wholesale fish, wine and oil markets. The seating capacity of the ancient Circus Maximus was once again expanded, this time to hold 150,000 people. In the heart of the city a magnificent Roman shopping centre went into construction. The expansive marbled piazza was designed to house the rows of temporary stalls, and enclosing it were elegant semicircular tiers of shops and offices terraced into the hillside. This was not, however, the most eye-catching monument to the victory over Dacia.

Trajan’s Column, still standing in Rome today, is 30 metres (100 feet) high, made from twenty massive blocks of Carrara marble and is carved with a long, upwardly spiralling series of 155 scenes illustrating the Dacian campaign. The attention to detail is exquisite; almost no set piece is overlooked. Here Trajan addresses his troops, there the soldiers sacrifice a boar, a ram and a bull to purify themselves before battle. Elsewhere the army ships its supplies and builds a fort, and in many other scenes the soldiers pelt their enemy with ballistas fired from their artillery engines and bury their swords deep into Dacian bodies. The Romans are methodical; the Dacians – such as the messenger who appears to fall off his horse – ramshackle. It’s a macabre celebration of genocide, but also a highly useful historical document. It reveals the sheer scale, organization and ambition lying behind a Roman military conquest. Inside the column there is further skilled craftsmanship to admire: a spiral staircase winds its way to the top and the chamber at its base would later become the conqueror of Dacia’s tomb.

Before Trajan died, however, he had one more ambitious military campaign in him, one more figure to measure up to. Having quite spectacularly outstripped the career of his father, he now wanted to emulate none other than Alexander the Great. To do that he turned his gaze east. The territory of the rich Parthian state stretched from Turkey and the border of Roman Syria all the way across Iraq (Mesopotamia) and into Iran and Afghanistan. A war against Rome’s great nemesis would thus take Trajan too on a road of conquest in the direction of the limit Alexander reached: India. The excuse justifying war was a familiar one. The Parthian ruler was interfering once again in Armenia, the buffer-state-cum-client-kingdom loyal to Rome. The balance of power on Rome’s eastern frontier was again in jeopardy. Action was urgently required.

In 114 Trajan and his army marched east. The king of Armenia quickly capitulated, and his kingdom soon became a Roman province; so too did northern Mesopotamia, the land en route to a Roman foray into Media (the north of modern Iran). By 116 Trajan was again expanding Roman control and breaking new ground. In that year he reached the westernmost nook of the Persian Gulf, stopped at the shore and stared out to sea. He was looking towards the iconic land he had thus far only imagined. Were he a younger man, he said despondently, he would have followed Alexander’s footsteps to India.2Now, exhausted by two years of campaigning in the unforgiving heat of the Arabian deserts, he had to concede that the Greek conqueror was the greater man. Nonetheless, there were extraordinary achievements to note. In his dispatches back to the Senate in Rome the long list of incomprehensibly named peoples whom he had conquered en route was translating into the prospect of an unprecedented glut of triumphs in the metropolis. Trajan, however, would not live to celebrate even one of them.

The collapse of Trajan’s achievements happened even faster than their accomplishment. The further east he had ventured, the more exposed and difficult to retain became those places he had already subdued. In 117 Trajan fell ill. His entourage and a column of soldiers made a sombre, mournful retreat back to Italy. By August the supine emperor had reached Selinus on the coast of southern Turkey. There he suffered a stroke and died. He was in his early seventies and left behind no children. He did, however, leave an heir.

That, at least, was the story circulated immediately by those at Trajan’s bedside – his wife Plotina and his niece Matidia – the ink of their signatures still wet on the official document specifying the succession. Trajan’s adopted son and nominated successor, they announced, was the then Roman governor of Syria. That man was by turns Trajan’s cousin, a close companion of Plotina, and the husband of Matidia’s daughter Sabina.


When the army recognized Trajan’s nominee and hailed him emperor, Hadrian’s claim to the throne was, if not exactly impeccable and unrivalled, certainly solid. Just to make sure, however, a pragmatic safety measure was required. Although Hadrian denied any involvement to the end of his days, four men in Rome – all influential, able senators and ex-consuls – were murdered within days of the announcement of the new emperor’s accession. A story went around that they had been plotting to overthrow Hadrian; according to Dio, however, it was the threat which their wealth and influence posed that was their real undoing.3 Hadrian’s inauguration took place in the Syrian capital of Antioch on 11 August 117.

With his position secured as supreme leader of the vast Roman world, Hadrian took his time journeying from the province of Syria to the capital of what was now his empire. The man who travelled in imperial splendour was fifty-one years old, tall and cut a novel figure for an emperor. Like Trajan, Hadrian’s family background was highly unusual. He came not from Rome or even Italy, but from an old, moneyed Italian family who lived in southern Spain near Seville. His ancestors were Roman colonists who had settled there during the Roman conquest of Spain at the turn of the third and second centuries BC. They had invested their money in agriculture and the local silver mines, and the fortunes they made set them up as the bedrock of the wealthy local Roman élite. Hadrian’s parochial origins were evident in his voice. When he spoke Latin he did so with a heavy provincial accent, a fact of which he was embarrassed. As Trajan’s speech-maker earlier in his career, he had been laughed at whenever he uttered a word. There was also the matter of his beard.

Trajan, the first ‘Spanish’ emperor, was a classic martial hero. As a result, like Julius Caesar, Augustus and all the Roman emperors before him, he was close-shaved, and his hair, combed forward, was a neatly cropped cap. Hadrian’s hair, by contrast, was soft and wavy – a more casual style than that of his predecessors. But it was his facial hair that suggested a clean break with the past regime. Some might have thought it suggested a lack of discipline, the mark of a poor soldier, but that was not the case. In Dacia he had excelled as a commander and had twice been decorated with the highest military honours. He was at ease in conversation and mixing with fellow soldiers of all ranks. His relaxed, open manner was a quality he would carry into his rule, though it was said that this disguised ‘a harsh, jealous, libidinous temperament’.4 Even as emperor he continued to enjoy a military diet of cheese and bacon, he disliked soft mattresses and had an impressive ability to drink copious amounts of alcohol, a talent he had honed on campaign in Trajan’s inner circle.

Still, the beard would come to say something different about this man’s complex character and the new direction in which he would take the Roman empire. It hinted not at Roman war and conquest, but the culture, the learning and the reflective, intellectual life of the ancient Greeks. Hadrian’s aristocratic education paved the way for the passions of his life. He wrote poetry, and he was proud of his skill in playing the lyre and the flute, but above all he enjoyed geometry and sculpture. As a young man, Hadrian had studied in Athens and earned the nickname ‘Little Greek’. Like Nero, however, he would take his Hellenistic interests way beyond the standard considered acceptable for an educated Roman aristocrat, let alone a future emperor.

His drive to excel and his inquisitive mind made him, for example, an accomplished, experimenting architect. The building of a temple to Venus would be the very first mark he would make on the city, the first imprint of his reign. He drew up the plans himself. When Apollodorus, the most famous architect of the day, criticized the proportions of the columns on the drafts that, in deference, the emperor had sent to him for approval, the quick-tempered, unforgiving Hadrian promptly had him killed. The criticism did not deter him; rather, it drove him on. The most innovative building that he sponsored was the Pantheon in Rome, an ambitious rebuilding of the structure first erected by Agrippa in the reign of the emperor Augustus. The idea of a temple dedicated not just to one god but to all the gods of the Roman empire was a thoroughly Roman piece of one-upmanship. That same spirit was reflected in the building’s spectacular architecture too, made possible by the Roman invention of concrete. This liberated Hadrian, allowing him to break new ground and experiment with new, non-classical forms. In overseeing the creation of the temple’s dome – even greater than that of St Peter’s in the Vatican – he outstripped the founding father of the Roman empire. Even today the Pantheon is the most complete of the buildings of ancient Rome to survive. As we shall see, the empire at large was also to benefit from Hadrian’s inventive love of architecture.

In his personal life Hadrian lived too as if in imitation of the ancient Greeks. Sexual norms in the ancient world were not the same as our own. For example, there was a strong Greek tradition that a relationship between an older man and a boy on the threshold of manhood was acceptable (the peak of attractiveness was considered to be the moment when the down appeared on a young man’s cheek). By contrast, a homosexual relationship between men of equal age and status was not deemed acceptable. The philhellenic Hadrian took the Greek role of the older lover to heart. During his years in Trajan’s inner circle, Hadrian was known to be passionately fond of the young men who made up the junior staff in the imperial entourage. Later, in the seventh year of his own rule, Hadrian was travelling with his wife Sabina in Turkey when he met the young, good-looking Antinous. The emperor was smitten. Antinous joined his entourage and for the next seven years, much to the embarrassment of many Romans, never left his lover’s side. (The sex was not the problem; it was rather the fact that the emperor seemed so completely devoted to the young man.) Although thirty years his junior, Antinous shared Hadrian’s Hellenic loves; they debated in the Museum of Alexandria, and while there together, they visited the tombs of Alexander the Great and Pompey the Great.

In fact, the world over which Hadrian was supreme ruler was largely Greek. The culture of the Romans had grown partly out of ancient Greek culture, partly as a reflection of Greek culture and partly in opposition to Greek culture. In ancient literature there could have been no Aeneid by Virgil without the epic Odyssey and Iliad by Homer. Without the Stoic school of philosophy, the philosophical works of Cicero and Seneca would have lacked their inspiration. Without Epicurus (Hadrian’s favourite philosopher) there would have been no Lucretius. Indeed, half the Roman world (the eastern half) spoke Greek, not Latin, as their first language. Now a different kind of man was in charge of this Greek-Roman empire. He was a successful commander, a soldier’s soldier and highly popular with the army. He had legitimacy, an undisputed claim to the throne, and he took his Hellenistic leanings seriously. Indeed he had an obsessive desire to be the best. Under this man’s rule the old idea that war and conquest alone shaped the Roman world was unceremoniously dumped.

The start of the change was apparent at the very beginning of his reign. Hadrian abandoned Trajan’s eastern campaigns. Their failure had discredited the policy of Roman expansion, and the change in direction fitted harmoniously with the mood of the Senate. The priority now was not conquest, but staying within the existing frontiers and reinforcing them. In 121 Hadrian set out from Italy and went to the Rhine frontier. Its strategic importance was reflected in the large number of legions manning it – eight in Germany alone. After arriving on this northern border, Hadrian spent the rest of the year ensuring that the Roman forts, ramparts and watchtowers were strengthened, and that the legions on this and the Danube frontier were drilled to a high standard of military discipline. A determination for the same strategy to be deployed in the empire’s most northerly frontier next took Hadrian to Britain in 122. While there it is possible that he initiated the construction of the impressive Pons Aelius, the Roman bridge named after him, which straddled the broad estuary at Newcastle. On the northern side of the river he stood at the site of the future World Heritage landmark, the great symbol of Roman containment that bears his name today.


The sheer scale and ambition of Hadrian’s vision still staggers. Running 118 kilometres (70 miles) across country, from the North Sea to the Irish Sea, the frontier wall he authorized took ten years to build. Its construction was supervised by the new governor of Roman Britain, Aulus Platorius Nepos. Although just under two-thirds of the wall was made of stone, the last (easternmost) third was originally made of turf and timber. The proportions were as bold as its length. The stone section was 3 metres (10 feet) thick and 4.2 metres (14 feet) high; the turf section matched the stone part for height, but was 6 metres (20 feet) thick. About twenty paces to the north of the wall, and running parallel with it, was a V-shaped ditch 8 metres (26 feet) wide and 3 metres (10 feet) deep. On top of the wall itself was a walkway defended by a crenellated parapet. A Roman soldier walking it would have come across a towered, fortified gateway every Roman mile (approximately 1.5 kilometres), and in between, at every third of that mile (0.5 kilometres) an observation turret. Servicing the wall, as well as forming part of it, were sixteen forts.

One historical summary of Hadrian’s rule says simply that the wall divided ‘the Romans and the Barbarians’.5 Touring the wall today, it’s tempting to see it as a powerful, entirely defensive structure against an amorphous barbaric enemy. That, however, was not Hadrian’s intention, as recent historians have emphasized. A comparison with another Roman feat of engineering is revealing. Hadrian’s predecessor Trajan had dammed the river Danube and then built a spectacular bridge across its broad expanse. This became his neat little stepping stone into Dacia. (In the east he even intended to build – but never did – a canal between the Tigris and the Euphrates of Mesopotamia in order to ferry his fleet between the rivers.) Like Julius Caesar’s bridge across the Rhine, Trajan’s structure in Dacia imposed Roman will on the landscape to make it serve the empire. In the methodical, stately language of architecture and engineering, it loudly proclaimed Roman power.

Hadrian’s Wall should perhaps be seen more accurately as his attempt to bellow a similar message of his and Rome’s power.6 Other evidence too suggests that it is misleading to regard the wall as a purely defensive structure. It could, for example, be deployed aggressively; as well as being a sophisticated and powerful bulwark, the wall could also be a starting point for northward attacks and forays. The wall was not just a barrier but a road too, an important line of communication connecting it with a wider network of roads and stopping-off points that scored the breadth of the Roman empire. The administration and domination of the Roman world depended on such lines of communication. As further evidence countering the impression of Hadrian’s Wall as a final frontier, there existed under Hadrian many examples of working Roman forts further north of the wall. At the time of the wall’s construction, the Roman army was on relatively peaceful terms with the native Britons on either side of it. The peoples to the north and south were not easily distinguished as ‘barbarian’ or ‘Roman’; as in many frontier regions today, they were much more culturally mixed than those terms suggest. The idea of defence, then, was only one aspect of a project that was in fact proud, versatile and dynamic.

The wall increased Roman power in one way above all. It gave the garrisons stationed on it the power of observation. From this stemmed the power of controlling who entered or left the commonwealth of the Roman world, the ability to monitor who traded in it, spoke its language and wore its dress, and the means of regulating who paid its taxes and how that tax was spent. In short it emphasized Roman mastery of their world. Only later, in a less prosperous, more unstable time in the future, would the wall shift in significance, as walls have done throughout history. Only then would it become a symbol of containment, a hermetic seal, the vestigial outpost of a once-vibrant entity.

Although the wall is, then, symbolic of the new direction in which Hadrian would take the empire, this was not a simple about-turn. It was erected not in the spirit of vulnerability or retraction, but quite the opposite.


What kind of prospering worldwide empire, then, did Hadrian’s Wall enclose at its northernmost point? A thumbnail sketch of the empire at peace might begin with the soldiers inhabiting the barracks close to the wall. The Latin accents and second languages that would have been heard paint a picture of extraordinary fluidity. The soldiers came not only from Britain, but from Belgium, Spain, Gaul and Dacia. Stationed at Arbeia (the fort at present-day South Shields) there was even a naval auxiliary unit from Mesopotamia.7The beautifully sculpted tombstone of Regina, the British wife of a man called Barates, tells an equally fascinating story. It shows how this man, possibly a soldier or camp follower, came all the way from Palmyra in Syria, fell in love with his female slave from Hertfordshire, freed her and settled down to married life in Britain. His valedictory inscription to his dead wife is written in Aramaic, his native tongue. The name of one Arterius Nepos is similarly revealing. It crops up in records in both Armenia and Egypt, before finding its way to northern Britain.

The theme of fluidity is important. The Roman armies on the frontiers were not fixed garrisons. Locally, and from province to province, the legions and the auxiliary units were recruited and deployed with great flexibility; they were constantly on the move. The visibility and presence that this mobility gave them was the key factor in the Roman army successfully controlling an area far larger than it was possible to garrison.

At one fort near the wall, Vindolanda, an unprecedented discovery was made in the 1970s and 1980s – a haul of several hundred wooden writing tablets all found at the one site. Many record administrative matters, such as financial accounts and requests for leave. Others make for more entertaining reading. For example, there is an affectionate invitation to a birthday party from one garrison commander’s wife to another, and a soldier’s receipt of fresh supplies of socks, sandals and underwear to keep out the winter chills. These letters would have reached the forts from the wider empire through the imperial postal service. Coursing along a network of roads some 90,000 kilometres (56,000 miles) long and connecting Carlisle to Aswan, the letters reached Hadrian’s Wall courtesy of the cursus publicus (the postal service for official Roman business). Replies were dispersed in exactly the same way. The postmen who collected and delivered these letters stayed at inns en route, and the roads they travelled on were designed for easy drainage and marked by milestones.

The correspondence filtering into the channels of the imperial post also reveal how Hadrian’s empire was run. It is extraordinary to think that any one of the empire’s 70 million Roman citizens could in theory appeal to the emperor for help. He was the final arbiter. It’s no less surprising that citizens could expect a response. As we shall see, emperors such as Hadrian liked to cultivate an ideology of accessibility. The reality of course was very different. The sheer numbers of petitions and requests for imperial favour from this or that community, for adjudication in a matter of law for this or that individual is salutary. Exact figures are not known, but in this period of Rome’s golden age the governor of Egypt is said by one source to have fielded an extraordinary 1208 petitions in a single day. One can only imagine how many the emperor Hadrian in Rome received.

Clearly, in order to process all the petitions, the emperor and his provincial governors relied on a huge bureaucracy of administrative advisers with wide, albeit circumscribed, areas of responsibility. The preserved correspondence between the Roman governor of Bithynia-Pontus, Pliny the Younger, and Trajan reflect the vitality of that relationship and where those limits of accountability lay. Pliny’s letters to Trajan and others are works of world literature. There was, however, no space for creative flourishes in the bulk of functional, administrative correspondence. In one letter Pliny complains that one of the chores of being a public servant was having to write a vast amount of ‘highly illiterate letters’.8

Although one might imagine the Roman emperor, governor or commander perfunctorily signing off the replies to the mass of mundane requests that either they or their subordinates had dealt with, one thing is certain. The replies and the resolution of the problems presented – be it a dispute over land, a question of divorce or the matter of citizenship – would transform the lives of the petitioners. The successful running of the empire and the happiness of its citizens thus depended on delegation on a massive scale.

How could the Roman emperor, the Roman governor or the Roman commander be sure that decent, deserving people were appointed to posts in the imperial administration and were able to discharge their duties effectively? As the wooden tablets found at Vindolanda reveal, the imperial post also delivered the all-important letters of recommendation. Among them one can read the advocacy by one friend to another of the virtues and qualities of yet another friend. Such references were vital in selecting people to play a part in the pyramids of bureaucratic administration. In short, what your friends said about you established your reputation and trustworthiness. The logic of this system was simple and effective. The more people wanted to protect their reputation, the less likely they were to recommend a bad egg and thus jeopardize their own standing in the future.

In the hands of administrators appointed by this highly personal Roman system of hiring, most issues were dealt with locally. Only when a matter became a crisis did it come to the attention and decision of the emperor. Beyond this basic prescription for government, Hadrian had also found another way of bringing his rule closer to the citizens of his empire. Under his reign, the presence and visibility of the emperor were stronger than under his predecessors for one simple reason: he liked to travel.

Hadrian spent no less than half of his twenty-one-year rule abroad. Between 121 and 125 his travels took him from his wall in northern Britain to southern Spain, North Africa, Syria, the Black Sea and Asia Minor. Later, the period 128–32 saw him in Greece, Judaea and Egypt. Whether in York, Seville, Carthage, Luxor, Palmyra, Trabzon or Ephesus, Hadrian was always within the bounds of one political state, where Greek and Latin were the commonly spoken languages and over which he was the supreme ruler. He travelled always with his wife Sabina, and their imperial cavalcade of friends, baggage-carriers, guards, slaves and secretaries stayed in the palace of the local governor or of a prominent figure from the local élite. Sometimes, in a carefully planned and executed itinerary, the imperial community set up a camp of royal tents en route.

Accordingly, and in contrast to Nero who left Italy only once (for Greece), Hadrian was seen by and interacted with more of his subjects than most Roman emperors. This contributed to his popularity and the image of an accessible, approachable emperor. One anecdote reveals how that visibility mattered. An old woman was said to have spotted the emperor’s entourage passing along a road. Sidling up, she tried to detain Hadrian and put a question to him. The wheels of the imperial train, however, did not brake and the woman was left mouthing her words into thin air. Not one to be cowed, she caught up with Hadrian and told him that if he did not have time to stop and hear her request, he did not have time to be emperor at all. Hadrian duly stopped and listened. His standing and popularity, like that of all the emperors at the high point of empire, depended on public opinion. But being highly ‘visible’ did not in everyone’s eyes make a ‘good emperor’. To be away from Rome for so long was also the neglectful characteristic of ‘bad emperors’.

On Hadrian’s travels, the heritage city of Athens, that ancient centre of learning, was of course his favourite destination, and here he made three visits. ‘In almost every city he constructed some building and gave public games,’ says one account of his rule.9The building programme in Athens alone testifies to his favour and philhellenism. He endowed the city with a grand library, a brand new forum and a glorious marble gate. The ancient heart of the city was thus redesigned and made Roman, but Hadrian’s fingerprints made an indelible mark in other ways too. The most famous sanctuary, for example, was to Zeus, the greatest of the Greek gods, and the equivalent of the Roman god Jupiter. This temple had been started at the very beginning of the classical period in the sixth century BC; in AD 132 it was completed and dedicated in person by the man whose rule bookends that age. The achievements of the two cultures, one ancient, the other of the imperial present, were fused and celebrated as one.

The classical temples, buildings and monuments he inaugurated (not just in Athens, but in places as far apart as Smyrna in modern Turkey and his family’s town of Italica in Spain) were branded with the emperor’s name and an inscription. In response, the leading town councillors of the imperial cities that Hadrian had endowed repaid the compliment with the erection of statues, shrines and busts of the emperor. They were to be found in houses, temples and marketplaces. In his beloved Athens there was a statue of Hadrian erected in the Theatre of Dionysus. Even in those places that fell outside Hadrian’s favour, the leading citizens honoured the cult of the emperor god. It was a way of demonstrating their loyalty, improving the standing of their community in the emperor’s eyes, and putting the emperor under an obligation to help them. Through these symbols of the imperial cult the high profile of the emperor was sustained, even in places where his fondness for travelling did not take him. The same can also be said of the coins, stamped with the emperor’s image, that changed hands across the breadth of his empire.


Hadrian’s Wall, then, encompassed at a northerly point an empire not just of common currency, but of common languages and a classical Greek-Roman civilization. Inside its boundaries the Romans spoke Latin and Greek; outside was the ‘bar-barbar’ of the barbarians. (The Greeks had long ago given this name to those outside their civilization because of the incomprehensible sounds they made, and the Romans had followed suit.) The 270,773 adult citizen males of Rome in 234 BC, the era of the first great revolution in Roman history with which this book started, had boomed in Hadrian’s time to a staggering figure 320 times greater. With short life expectancy and low population growth, the life of the empire depended on new blood and the critical willingness of the Roman state to absorb new peoples.

In Britain, for example, Tacitus painted a jaundiced picture of how his father-in-law Agricola had ‘Romanized’ the sons of the British élite. Under his energetic governorship, Britons had, he said, learnt to speak the language of the Romans, to adopt the toga ‘frequently’ and had become seduced by the Roman ‘vices’ of bathing, relaxing under colonnades and attending dinner parties. The Roman culture was in fact nothing more than slavery by another name, said Tacitus. The new ‘civilization’ had a price tag.10 By contrast in the east ‘Romanization’ was really ‘Hellenization’: men from the eastern élites used their education and the legacy of Greek philosophy, oratory, letters and art to win political power in Rome. That Greek-Roman civilization belied, however, a world of barbaric cruelty and harsh contrasts.

The civilized, cultured Hadrian, for example, was also an avid hunter. His taste for the ancient aristocratic sport was translated into popular form in the spectacular, bloody games he held during his reign. On the occasion of his birthday in January 119, the Romans celebrated by witnessing the killing of a hundred lions and a hundred lionesses. At the high point of the empire the bar for thrilling audiences at Roman games was always being raised in an unending cycle of one-upmanship. The peg holes marking where the bar rested were set to a sliding scale of exotic wild animals provided for metropolitan amusement from the extremely varied geography of Rome’s provinces.

Lions and tigers, for example, came from Syria and the Roman east, wild boars from Germany and Gaul, bulls from Greece, horses from Spain, camels and rhinos, leopards, wild asses, giraffes and gazelles from North Africa. Trajan had a fondness for crocodiles from Egypt, and once flooded the Colosseum so that gladiators could do battle with them. There was no end of opportunities for such extravaganzas: under Hadrian, the Roman empire enjoyed more holidays than at any other time in its history. At the end of his birthday games there was a final flourish to the bloodthirsty spectacle: in the theatre and the Circus Maximus he organized a lottery. Hopeful men and women went home clutching their tickets in the shape of small wooden balls.11

Other stark contrasts of the time were of a much more sobering nature. Hadrian’s prosperous, peaceful empire was, above all, one of extremes of inequality. For example, slaves significantly outnumbered citizens, and this simple fact made the latter nervous. If slaves could organize, they could become a powerful collective force. Another fault line was property. The massive polity primarily served and protected the interests of landowners rather than the peasants who worked the land. While the rich few exploited the well-worn trade routes of the Mediterranean and wowed their friends at dinner parties with a menu of peacock from Arabia, the majority of the poor lived meagrely on what could be produced locally. The rights of citizens too set apart the haves from the have-nots; those without Roman citizenship could earn it, but for most that meant a lifetime of military service in the Roman army.

The empire might have enjoyed a long period of peace, but it remained a dangerous, precarious world too. Away from the big cities and local town councils many areas of life were unpoliced and unpoliceable. The mechanics of Roman justice did not help. The system favoured those with money; redress was produced mainly for advantaged people who had the ability, time and resources to pursue their case. This reality found its way into the Roman code of law. Under Hadrian a disturbing two-tier justice system now began to develop, which distinguished between two kinds of people. The legal punishments of, for example, flogging, torture, beheading, crucifixion and deportation were reserved only for the propertyless ‘humble’ citizens; more ‘respectable’ army veterans, town councillors, knights and senators were, by contrast, protected from the sharp edge of Roman law.12 This divide would become only more acute with time.

In other ways too the golden age of Hadrian’s empire had by no means shaken off the rigorous social hierarchy characteristic of the old Roman republic of two hundred years earlier. Despite the homogeneity of language spoken across it, the majority of the Roman world was illiterate. While many had the necessary knowledge for handling army records or an artisan’s business accounts, and city dwellers evidently had sufficient understanding to write graffiti and find it amusing, the ability of the minority to write and communicate fluently in the empire’s currency of letters gave them a significant advantage over others. However, a closer inspection of the social hierarchy offers surprises. The wealthy élite prided themselves on their private libraries. To cultivate them, slaves were often required to copy texts and act as secretaries. As a result, the unfree were sometimes far more educated and skilled than the millions of poor but free Roman citizens. Cicero’s secretary Tiro was one such person; he became a close friend of the Roman senator, held an influential position in his house and was eventually freed. Under Hadrian, some 150 years later, there were many more wealthy ‘Ciceros’ – not new men from the Italian provinces of Rome, but from her empire-wide territories. Each would have had a small coterie of well-educated ‘Tiros’.

The end of Hadrian’s reign was marked by sadness. While travelling with Antinous in Egypt in 130, his young lover drowned in the Nile in a mysterious boating accident. To assuage his grief, Hadrian marked the death of the love of his life by founding a city there called Antinoöpolis and by announcing the young man’s deification. Henceforth Antinous was worshipped as a god across the empire. Hadrian’s travels came to an end in 132. Thereafter he retired to his sumptuous new villa complex at Tivoli, 25 kilometres (15 miles) outside Rome. It was a fitting place to see out his reign. Exquisitely, playfully, artistically its layout forms a grandiose map of the places he had visited in his life. Here there were some buildings called the Academy, after Plato’s philosophy school in Athens; there one might while away the hours at a place called Canopus, a sanctuary in Alexandria. The religious afterlife, which fascinated Hadrian, was represented too in places that he named after the domains of the underworld: the ‘Elysian Fields’ and ‘Hades’. In addition, the complex boasted a Greek theatre, a colonnade, some baths, a lavishly endowed private library and a fish pond that housed colourful and novel specimans from across the empire. No expense had been spared in its construction, and this at least 100-hectare (250-acre) retreat had taken as long to complete as his wall in Britain.

The rich and complex golden age enjoyed by the empire girded by that wall continued long after Hadrian’s death in 138. Under the emperor Antoninus Pius there was further peace and stability, but in the rule of Marcus Aurelius, another bearded philosopher-emperor, the pax Romana was thrown into jeopardy by waves of German invaders. Aurelius’s story is full of bitter irony: the man of peace found that in order to save his empire, he had to be almost continuously at war with barbarian armies attacking from the north. The succession of his son Commodus, an indigent, flighty emperor more interested in games and gladiators than Roman security, only saw his father’s success in the German wars collapse. In 193 the dynasty founded by Rome’s first African emperor, Septimius Severus, ensured that Hadrian’s golden age was revived once again. But it was not enough to halt an inevitable slide into decline. By the middle of the third century AD Rome was catapulted into a new period of total crisis and near collapse.

To pull the empire back from the brink, the man responsible for Rome’s next great revolution needed, above all, martial prowess and the assured ability to command armies. With his rise to power, one fashion among emperors died abruptly. Beards were out. The clean-cut, close-shaven soldier-emperor was back in style.

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