Ancient History & Civilisation

The Emperor

When Hadrian succeeded to the throne of Rome in A.D. 117, the empire had been in being for nearly a century and a half. With superb statesmanship, a profound understanding of precisely what the empire needed, and total dedication to the task of being its ruler, Hadrian took the machinery of government that Augustus had fashioned, by then creaking in many parts, repaired it to fit changed times and new needs, and thereby gave it centuries more of life. Everywhere we turn we see the touch of his hand: in the dispositions of legions on the farthest frontiers, in a codification of the law at Rome, in a revamped imperial bureaucracy, in the thousands of monuments whose remains spangle Europe or the thousands of sculptures that he commissioned and which now fill its museums. The Roman Empire was the longest-lived in history; Augustus created it, but he must share with Hadrian the credit for its longevity.

Hadrian was of Spanish extraction, as was his cousin Trajan, who, being childless, selected him and trained him to be heir to the throne. Spain and France, North Africa, Asia Minor, and other well-developed provinces, were no longer appanages of Italy; they were the parts of which the empire was the sum. It took rulers with roots in Spain to recognize this and adjust policy accordingly. Trajan devoted much care to the administration of the provinces; however, a born soldier, he was happier in a tent than an office and spent a good part of his reign waging war, first in pacifying and annexing what is today Rumania and then in a campaign to conquer Rome’s troublesome eastern neighbors, a bloody three years that brought precious little to show for the cost in men and money.

Hadrian, though Trajan’s equal as a soldier, chose to be a statesman. He pulled the army out of the East, cut Rome’s losses, and concentrated on maintaining peace - which, he was perfectly aware, meant being as military-minded as Trajan had been: “He desired peace rather than war, yet he trained his troops as if war were imminent,” is the way an ancient biographer put it. He gave the army meticulous attention, updating its regulations, allowing the legions to recruit locally and thereby avoid time-consuming shifting of men, insisting on constant and strenuous maneuvers. These he supervised personally whenever he could. We have the text of a speech he delivered on one such occasion in A.D. 128 at the fort of Lambaesis in Algeria - it was carved on stone there - and the emperor’s words reveal that he had the details of everything that went on at his fingertips. When inspecting units, he lived the ordinary legionary’s life, sleeping in the open air, eating army chow, doing a day’s march with full pack. He overhauled the fortifications along the frontier, strengthening the bulwarks that existed and building new ones where needed. The wall he raised in Britain still stands, a mighty rampart that runs seventy-four miles across the waist of the island from the Tyne to the Solway; it protected the Romanized province of Britain from attacks at the hands of savage Scottish tribes. Nothing, however, is without its price. The maintenance of an army primarily for defense, with the troops passing much of their lives around their local base, imperceptibly weakened morale by engendering a defensive mentality and military laxness, particularly under emperors who did not exert themselves as Hadrian did to make the soldiers toe the mark. And recruiting legions from local populations was the first step toward barbarizing the army, leading to the time when Rome would have only non-Romans to count on for protection. All this, however, lay far ahead, beyond any human foresight; Hadrian’s well-conceived arrangements gave the empire peace and security for half a century.

Of Hadrian’s two decades on the throne, one was spent in ceaseless travel about the empire. When Trajan died in southern Asia Minor, en route home from the futile campaign in the East, Hadrian was in Syria. He was not able to get back to Rome until the spring of A.D. 118. Within two years, he had settled matters there sufficiently to embark on his first journey, from which he was not to return for six years. He started with a swing through the West: France, Germany, Britain, Spain, and the part of North Africa opposite Spain. In 123, he left Spain to sail directly to Ephesus in Asia Minor for a tour of the eastern part of his realm. He traveled the length and breadth of Asia Minor, passed by boat through the Aegean islands to visit Athens and make a circuit of Greece, and finally reappeared in Rome toward the end of 126. But the capital did not hold its restless ruler very long. After about a year, he was off again, first for a trip to what is today Tunisia and Algeria and back, and then for another long swing through the East. After revisiting Greece and Asia Minor, he pushed on to Syria, Arabia, and Egypt. This is when he went up the Nile with his entourage to visit Memnon, and the statue was ungracious enough not to talk for him. By 131, he was back in Rome to stay.

Hadrian’s travels were not junkets for play and sightseeing, although he indulged in a good deal of both for relaxation. Wherever he went, he made inquiries, listened attentively, took careful thought, and issued commands. The results ran the gamut from revamping the farm legislation for a large part of North Africa to putting up a new monument over the tomb of Alcibiades. His trail is blazed with an unending series of public works, fortifications for the frontiers, and monuments, temples, buildings, roads, aqueducts, and what not for everywhere else. In Britain, he ordered the famous wall; in France, a new temple at Nîmes; in Spain, repairs to a temple of Augustus at Tarragona and a set of new roads. In the East, he founded several towns, most of them not surprisingly named Hadrianopolis, rebuilt others that had been destroyed by earthquake, put up a temple at Cyzicus that became one of the “marvels of the world,” and had the governor of a province on the Black Sea draw up a report on that body of water, one of the few works of its kind that has survived. In Greece, he was particularly lavish. One town got a new temple, another a colonnade, Corinth a set of baths and an aqueduct, Eleusis - where he was initiated into the mysteries - a bridge. The prizes were reserved for Athens: He built a whole new quarter there, whose entrance arch still stands, put up an enormous quadrilateral colonnade with a library attached to it, and completed a gargantuan temple to Zeus that had been left unfinished for three centuries.

The last years of Hadrian’s life, from 131 to 138, were spent at Rome, with one exception: In 132 and 133, he was in the East watching from closer at hand the army operations involved in putting down a bitter revolt of the Jews. Hadrian was one of Rome’s greatest rulers, but even a great ruler can make mistakes, particularly when dealing with a minority group whose ways are strange and beyond his experience. Jews under Rome’s administration suffered the difficulties that Christians were soon to meet for the same reason: The exclusiveness of their god made them a people apart in a pagan world, where state and religion were inextricably bound together. Neither Jews nor Christians could hail a Roman emperor as a living god, an act that was almost second nature to the inhabitants of the eastern empire, nor worship the spirits of deified dead emperors, which was an officially maintained cult. Hadrian decided to settle the Jewish problem once and for all: He ordered a new pagan city to be built over the site of Jerusalem with a temple to Zeus on the spot where Solomon’s had stood, and he banned circumcision. The inevitable result was the fanatically desperate Bar Kochba revolt, which ended only with the extermination of the rebels. Archaeologists have recently brought to light pathetic evidence of the last survivors; families had fled to remote caves for refuge and, unable to leave since the enemy was all about, starved to death there, men, women, and children. It was three years before Hadrian could again turn his mind to the works of peace, where his true genius lay.

The very years of the revolt saw the launching of one of the monumental acts of his reign: a codification of Roman law, carried out by Salvius Julianus. He thereby not only changed the basic nature of the law - its source was now the emperor and no longer Rome’s judicial officials - but laid the foundation for the magisterial development that was summed up in Justinian’s famous codification and through it became the law of most of Western Europe.

One other great change that Hadrian introduced was in the staffing of the administration. When Augustus founded the empire, he had followed the standard practice of using slaves and freedmen for handling the government’s growing bookkeeping. This eventually led to a topsy-turvy situation in which some of the most powerful state offices were in the hands of ex-slaves, who were able to use their positions to become among the richest and most influential personages in the realm. That these men were the best fitted for the job was beside the point; they were a constant source of irritation, and in the reigns of Claudius and Nero, when their power was at its height, they laid the emperor open to bitter criticism. Hadrian turned over most of the significant offices previously held by freedmen to members of the class of gentry just below the senators, assigning them appropriate titles and salaries. The result was the creation of a formal imperial bureaucracy. Suetonius, for example, held an important clerkship - one of Pliny’s friends had gotten it for him - until Hadrian fired him for not treating the empress with respect.

And Hadrian gets the credit for yet another precedent-setting move - the return of the beard. He let his grow, thereby ending more than five clean-shaven centuries and launching two bearded ones; it was Constantine who reversed the fashion and once again drove Roman gentlemen to the daily session at the barbershop.

Religion was an important part of the apparatus of government, and Hadrian gave it scrupulous attention. His two biggest building projects at Rome were temples, the Temple of Venus and Rome and the Pantheon. He even erected a temple to the divinity of his mother-in-law, about the handsomest gesture any son-in-law has ever made. He took his duties as Pontifex Maximus, titular head of the official Roman cult, with utmost seriousness. He was equally concerned with the religions of the provinces: He restored old sanctuaries, revived old festivals, such as those in honor of Dionysus at Athens, respectfully consulted the Delphic oracle. He had the weakness of his age for astrology; an ancient biographer gravely assures us that he foresaw the day of his own death. By far the most puzzling aspect of Hadrian’s attitude toward religion, however, concerns the boy whose face is one of the best known from the ancient world - Antinoüs.

He was a native of a small town in Bithynia, a province on the south shore of the Black Sea. Hadrian met him when traveling through the area, probably in A.D. 124, during his first journey. The boy, spectacularly good-looking, became the emperor’s favorite page. Hadrian got scant satisfaction from his wife, whom he had married for political reasons and who had turned out to be vain and petulant; she let it be known that she had no intention of ever giving him a child. Moreover, like so many of his contemporaries, he enjoyed homosexual as well as heterosexual relations. Antinoüs was with the entourage when it sailed up the Nile to visit Memnon in 130 and somehow was drowned. Was it an accident? Or a well-maneuvered shove by someone who thought the scandal had to be brought to an end? Or suicide, as some said - Antinoüs, no less superstitious than the next man, sacrificing his own life to forestall a death predicted for the emperor? We do not know. What we do know is that Hadrian went wild with grief and set about commemorating his favorite with monuments worthy of an emperor, even raising him to the ranks of the immortals. He founded a city, Antinoöpolis, near the spot where the drowning occurred. At Mantinea in Greece, which according to tradition had sent out a thousand years earlier the immigrants who founded the boy’s birthplace, he built a temple for Antinoüs’s worship; there was another at Lanuvium, just twenty miles from Rome, and a humble social club there claimed Antinoüs as one of its protectors along with Diana. A mystery cult based on his divinity was founded at Mantinea, as well as a quadrennial festival in his honor. Similar festivals were celebrated at Athens, Eleusis, Argos; they were still being held 200 years later. Even an oracle was established, where priests issued prophecies in the new god’s name. Everywhere statues of him went up - Antinoüs as Hermes, Antinoüs as Apollo, as Osiris, as Ganymede. No less than 500 sculptures of him have survived, twice the number of Hadrian’s; the almost too perfect sensual features are on display in dozens of museums. Hadrian willed him to be a god, and the world of the second century accepted him along with all its other deities.

Hadrian the statesman, soldier, legalist, administrator - all these form but one side of this complex human being. There is also the man who exchanged ripostes with the intellectual luminaries of the age, spent a fortune on a pleasure villa, divinized a mortal - even with a wealth of biographical data, we would find it hard to comprehend him, and as it is, all we have is a skimpy account drawn up by some hack at least a century and a half after its subject’s death. When it comes to dealing with Hadrian’s multifaceted interests, skills, and personality, the author is reduced to spluttering antitheses:

He was an ardent student of poetry and letters, and extremely well versed in mathematics, geometry, painting. He openly vaunted his skill in singing and playing the lyre. In sensual pleasures he went to excess, even composing many a poem about the objects of his passion. Yet he was expert with weapons, profoundly knowledgeable in military affairs, and also knew how to handle gladiator’s arms. He was stern yet gay, affable yet serious, careless yet cautious, grasping yet generous, dissembling yet open-faced, cruel yet merciful - forever changeable in everything.

Hadrian has puzzled far more sophisticated brains than his simple-minded biographer’s. The man who codified Rome’s laws and founded its bureaucracy was at the same time a trained athlete, an excellent horseman with a passion for hunting who not only gleefully slew beasts himself but arranged to have thousands slaughtered in the gladiatorial games he sponsored. The man who fostered the first legislation guaranteeing some degree of humanity in the treatment of slaves sold off so many captives after the Jewish war that the market was glutted, and the site in Gaza where the auctions took place was for centuries afterward known as Hadrian’s Market. The man who knew how to handle gladiatorial arms was equally at home with the sculptor’s chisel, artist’s brush, and architect’s compass and rule. Whatever pictures or statues he turned out have been lost, but the results of his ventures in architecture still stand. At Tivoli, he built the villa to end all villas: Spread over some 180 acres, with a seven-mile circumference, it boasted two theatres, three sets of baths, libraries, endless porticoes - a veritable city with the room and facilities to accommodate thousands. The decor included not only mosaics and murals but statues by the hundreds, chiefly replicas of renowned Greek masterpieces. The site was honeycombed with underground passageways so that the army of hard-working slaves who provided the services stayed discreetly out of view.

The numerous works that Hadrian fostered throughout the empire were all in traditional style and are remarkable more for grandeur, at times grandioseness, than daring innovation. In Rome, he was responsible for at least two important structures besides the Pantheon. One was the huge temple to Venus and Rome that faces the Colosseum; the other was his tomb. It too was traditional in design, being a more elaborate version of Augustus’s, a gigantic drumlike mound sheathed in marble. By the sixth century A.D., it had begun its conversion from mausoleum to fortress, and in the ensuing centuries, it was refashioned to become the impregnable Castel Sant’ Angelo.

If time has spared us some of the products of Hadrian the architect, it has been far less generous with Hadrian the man of letters. The emperor spent long hours amid a coterie of intellectuals of all kinds, particularly the literary lights of the day. As with art, he was not only connoisseur but practitioner, in both prose and verse. We know that he produced an autobiography, but neither it nor any other of his prose works has survived. His biographers quote some of his verse, and if their samples are any indication, Hadrian was poetaster rather than poet. When a friend named Florus sent him this trifle,

Caesar would I never be,

tramping round through Brittany.

hiding out in Germany

bitten by cold in Hungary,

the emperor responded,

Make me not a Florus, please!

tramping round through beaneries,

hiding out in eateries,

bitten by the big fat fleas.

Then, at the very end of his life, the vision through death’s door inspired him to a minor masterpiece.

Disease is no respecter even of an athlete’s body. Hadrian, as he neared his sixties, retired to his villa, but that architectural fairyland, where he no doubt had planned to spend his last years in calm serenity, was the scene of agony. Sickness struck him, and the pain got so intense that he begged a servant, an ex-huntsman, to end it with a dagger and tried to get his doctor to administer poison; a Roman emperor was not allowed the exit of suicide. He grimly carried on the business of state, as clear-headed as ever, and on the last birthday he was to see, January 24, 138, since his wife had made good on her threat and he had no children, he submitted to the Senate the name of his chosen successor, Antoninus Pius. When the heat of summer turned even the chambers of his villa to an inferno, he gathered what scant strength he had left and set off for Baiae. There, on the point of death, he wrote the little poem that has become deservedly famous. It is done in the mocking tone of his light verse, but it mocks no light subject:

Animula vagula, blandula,

hospes comesque corporis,

quae nunc abibis in loca

pallidula, rigida, nudula?

Nec ut soles dabis jocos.

Sweet soulkin, flitting, fair,

my body’s guest and friend,

I wonder where you’ll end.

a ghostlet, stiffened, bare?

You’ll miss your jesting there.

When Hadrian died, things were running so smoothly that the new emperor never once had to leave Italy during his two decades of rule. No disturbance troubled the peace and calm of the land. Antoninus Pius, too, had no children. He confirmed as his successor the man Hadrian had provisionally designated twenty-three years earlier. The choice reveals the keen judgment of both: It was Marcus Aurelius, the philosopher-emperor, who replaced him on the throne.

Then the storm broke - trouble on the eastern borders, a devastating plague brought back from there by the troops, and worst of all, barbarian invasions. Behind the fortifications that Hadrian had so carefully laid out, thousands of tribesmen were seething with unrest under pressures that originated as far away as Mongolia; they spilled over the frontiers, inundating farmland and city. Like Hadrian, Aurelius spent most of his reign far away from Rome; unlike him, his days were devoted to the work of war, not peace, doggedly throwing back the intruders. And unlike all three who preceded him, he had a son, Commodus, whom he carefully trained for the succession. The philosopher-king, whose reign was devoted to selfless performance of harsh duty, had no inkling that he was turning the empire over to someone whose reign would be devoted to selfish satisfaction of vicious tastes. In due time, there was the inevitable assassination, then the nadir, when the throne was auctioned off. Eventually, an able soldier came to the fore, Septimius Severus, who set the empire on its feet and marched the armies to even greater victories than Trajan’s.

On his deathbed, the advice he gave his two sons was, “Stick together, pay the soldiers plenty, and forget about everything else.” The lifestyle that had begun with Augustus and reached its apogee under Hadrian was a thing of the past.

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