Ancient History & Civilisation

Hadrian and the Classical World

The following was [resolved]… by the council and people of the citizens of Thyatira: to inscribe this decree on a stone stele and to place it on the Acropolis (at Athens)so that it may [be] evident to all the Greeks how much Thyatira has received from the greatest of kings since… he (Hadrian) benefited all the Greeks in common when he summoned, as a gift to one and all, a council from among them to the most brilliant city of Athens, the Benefactress… and when, on his proposal, the [Romans] approved [this] most venerable Panhellenion [by decree] of the Senate and individually he [gave] the tribes and the cities a share in this most honourable Council

Inscribed decree, c.AD 119/20,
found at Athens, concerning Hadrian’s Panhellenion

The ‘classical world’ is the world of the ancient Greeks and Romans, some forty lifetimes before our own but still able to challenge us by a humanity shared with ours. The word ‘classical’ is itself of ancient origin: it derives from the Latin word classicus which referred to recruits of the ‘first class’, the heavy infantry in the Roman army. The ‘classical’, then, is ‘first class’, though it is no longer heavily armoured. The Greeks and Romans did borrow from many other cultures, Iranian, Levantine, Egyptian or Jewish among others. Their story connects at times with these parallel stories, but it is their own art and literature, thought, philosophy and political life which are correctly regarded as ‘first class’ in their world and ours.

In this world’s long history, two periods and places came to be seen as particularly classical: Athens in the fifth- and fourth-century BC was one, while the other was Rome from the first century BC to AD 14, the world of Julius Caesar and then Augustus, the first Roman emperor. The ancients themselves shared this perspective. By the time of Alexander the Great they already recognized, as we still do, that particular dramatists at Athens in the fifth century BC had written ‘classic’ plays. In the Hellenistic age (c. 330–30BC) artists and architects adopted a classicizing style which looked back to the classical arts of the fifth century. Then Rome, in the late first century BC, became a centre of classicizing art and taste, while classical Greek, especially Athenian Greek, was exalted as good taste against ‘Eastern’ excesses of style. Subsequent Roman emperors endorsed this classical taste and as time passed, added another ‘classic’ age: the era of the Emperor Augustus, their Empire’s founding figure.

My history of the classical world begins from a pre-classical classic, the epic poet Homer whom the ancients, like all modern readers, acknowledge as simply in a class of his own. His poems are the first written Greek literature to survive. From then onwards, I shall explore how classical Greece of the fifth and fourth centuries BC evolved and what it stood for, up to four hundred years after Homer’s (probable) date (c. 730 BC). I then turn to Rome and the emergence of its own classical age, from Julius Caesar to Augustus (c. 50 BC to AD 14). My history ends with the reign of Hadrian, the Roman emperor from AD 117 to 138, just before the first surviving use of the term ‘classics’ to describe the best authors: it is attested in the conversation of Fronto, tutor to the children of Hadrian’s successor in Rome.1

But why choose to stop with Hadrian? One reason is that ‘classical literature’ ends in his reign, just as it began with Homer: in Latin, the satirical poet Juvenal is its last widely recognized representative. But this reason is rather arbitrary, formed by a canon which is hard for those to share who read forward into later authors and who approach the writers of the fourth and fifth centuries AD with an open mind. A more relevant reason is that Hadrian himself was the emperor with the most evident classicizing tastes. They are seen in his plans for the city of Athens and in many of the buildings which he patronized, and in aspects of his personal style. He himself looked back self-consciously on a classical world, although by his lifetime what we call the ‘Roman world’ had been pacified and greatly extended. Hadrian is a landmark, too, because he is the one emperor who acquired a first-hand view of this world, one we would dearly like to share. In the 120s and early 130s he set out on several grand tours of an Empire which extended from Britain to the Red Sea. He spent time in Athens, its classical centre. He travelled by ship and on horseback, a seasoned rider in his mid-forties who revelled in local opportunities for hunting. He went far afield to lands under Roman rule which no ‘classical’ Athenian had ever visited. We are unusually able to follow his progress because we have the specially commissioned coins which were struck to commemorate his journeys. Even in unclassical places, they are vivid witnesses to Hadrian and his contemporaries’ sense of an admired classical past.2

These coins show a personified image of each province of Hadrian’s Roman Empire, whether or not it had had a classical age. They show unclassical Germany as a bare-breasted female warrior and unclassical Spain as a lady reclining on the ground: she holds a large olive-branch, symbol of Spain’s excellent olive oil, with a rabbit beside her, Spanish rabbits being notoriously prolific. Most of Spain and all of Germany had been unknown to Greeks in the first classical age, but the fine pictures on these coins connect them to classical taste because they portray them in an elegant classicizing style. Behind Hadrian’s taste and the ‘Hadrianic School’ of artists who designed these images lies a classical world which they themselves were acknowledging. It was based on the classical art of the Greeks four or five hundred years earlier, examples of which could be admired conveniently by Romans because previous Romans had plundered them and brought them back to their own homes and cities.

These grand tours to Greece or Egypt, the west coast of Asia or Sicily and Libya gave Hadrian the chance of a global, classical overview. He stopped at so many of the great sites of its past, but he was particularly respectful of Athens. He regarded it as a ‘free’ city and made it the spectacular beneficiary of his gifts, one of which was a grand ‘library’, with a hundred pillars of rare marble. He completed its enormous temple to the Olympian god Zeus which had been begun six centuries earlier but never finished. It was surely Hadrian who encouraged the new venture of an all-Greek synod, or Panhellenion, excelling even the classical Athenian statesman Pericles.3 From all over the Greek world, delegates were to meet in Athens, and were to hold a great festival of the arts and athletics every four years. Past Athenians had been credited with Panhellenic projects, but this one was to be incomparably grand.

Those who idealize the past tend not to understand it: restoration kills it with kindness. Hadrian certainly shared the traditional pleasures of past Greek aristocrats and kings. He loved hunting as they had; he loved his horse, the gallant Borysthenes whom he honoured with verses on his death in southern Gaul;4 above all, he loved the young male Antinous, a spectacular instance of ‘Greek love’. When Antinous died prematurely, Hadrian built a new city in his honour in Egypt and encouraged his cult as a god throughout his Empire. Not even Alexander the Great had done quite so much for his lifelong male love, Hephaestion. Like Hadrian’s distinctive beard, these elements of Hadrian’s life were rooted in previous Greek culture. But he could never be a classical Greek himself, because so much around him had changed since the Athens of the great classics, let alone since the pre-classical Homer.

The most audible change was the spread of language. Almost a thousand years earlier, in Homer’s youth, Greek had been only a spoken language without an alphabet, and was only used by people from Greece and the Aegean. Latin, too, had been only a spoken language, at home in a small part of Italy, Latium, around Rome. But Hadrian spoke and read both languages, although his family traced back on both sides to southern Spain and his father’s estates lay just to the north of modern Seville, miles from Athens and Latium. Hadrian’s ancestors had settled in Spain as Latin-speaking Italians, rewarded for service in the Roman army nearly three hundred years before his birth. Of Latin-speaking descent, Hadrian was not ‘Spanish’ in any cultural sense. He himself had been brought up in Rome and favoured the archaic style of Latin prose. Like other educated Romans, he also spoke Greek: he was even known as a ‘Greekling’ because his passion for Greek literature was so strong. So far from being Spanish, Hadrian was proof of the common classicizing culture which now bound together the emperor’s educated class. It was based on the classical homelands of the Greek and Latin language but it extended way beyond their boundaries. As Homer never could, Hadrian could pass through Syria or Egypt speaking Greek and he could also travel far away into Britain, speaking Latin.

His classicizing mind surveyed a world of quite a different scale to Homer’s. In the first classical age, Athens, at its height, had contained perhaps 300,000 residents in its Attic territory, including slaves. By Hadrian’s day, the Roman Empire is estimated (no more) to have had a population of about 60 million, extending from Scotland to Spain, from Spain to Armenia. No other empire, before or since, has ruled this great span of territory, but, on our modern scale, its total population was no greater than modern Britain’s. It was concentrated in patches, maybe as many as 8 million in Egypt,5 where the river Nile and the grain harvest supported such a density, and at least a million, perhaps, in the mega-city of Rome which was also fed and supported by Egypt’s harvests and its exported grain. Outside these two points, whole swathes of Hadrian’s Empire were very thinly populated by our standards. Nonetheless, they required, in every province, detachments of the Roman army to keep the peace. Hadrian favoured many cities on his travels, but he also had to rule large areas which only had villages, not classicizing towns at all. Where necessary, he ordered large stretches of walling to regulate peoples beyond the Empire, a most unclassical project. The most famous is Hadrian’s Wall, in northern Britain, running from Wallsend near Newcastle westwards to Bowness. A massive barrier, it was ten feet thick and fourteen feet high, partly faced in stone with ‘intercastles’ every mile, two signalling turrets between them and a ditch on the north side, ten feet deep and thirty feet wide. There were other ‘Hadrian’s walls’ too, though nowadays they are less famous. In north Africa, beyond the Aures mountains of modern Tunisia, Hadrian approved stretches of walling and ditching which were to control contacts with the nomadic peoples of the desert along a frontier of some 150 miles. In north-west Europe, in upper Germany, he well understood the danger: here, he ‘shut off the barbarians by tall stakes fixed deeply into the ground and fastened together like a palisade’.6

Global walling had never been part of the classical past. In the age of Athens’ greatness, let alone of Homer’s, there had never been a single ruler like Hadrian, an emperor, nor a standing army, like Rome’s, of some 500,000 soldiers throughout the Empire. In the classical age of Rome, the mid-first century BC, there had not yet been an emperor or standing army, either. Hadrian was heir to historical changes which had transformed Roman history. Hadrian respected the classical Greek and Roman past and, wherever he went, he visited great relics of it, but did he understand the context in which it had once belonged, how it had evolved and how his own role as emperor had come about?

Certainly, Hadrian was famous for a love of ‘curiosities’ and an exploration of them.7 On his travels, he climbed volcanic Etna in Sicily and other conspicuous mountains; he consulted ancient oracles of the gods; he visited the tourist wonders of long-dead ancient Egypt. With a tourist’s mind, he was also a cultural magpie who stored and imitated what he saw. Back in Italy, near Tivoli, he built himself an enormous, straggling villa whose features alluded explicitly to great cultural monuments of the ancient Greek past. Hadrian’s villa was a vast theme-park which included buildings evocative of Alexandria and classical Athens.8

At this villa, after his beloved Antinous’ death, he turned to writing his own autobiography. Almost nothing of it survives, but we can guess that it would have combined affectionate tributes to his male lover with a furtherance of his own urbane self-image. Hadrian was interested by philosophy and perhaps, in an Epicurean manner, he would have consoled himself against the fear of death.9 What he would not have done was to analyse the historical changes behind all that he had seen on his travels, from Homer to classical Athens, from Alexander the Great’s great Alexandria to the former splendours of Carthage (a city which he renamed Hadrianopolis after himself). Hadrian took the first emperor, Augustus, as his role-model, but he never seems to have wondered how Augustus’ one-man rule had imposed itself on Rome after more than four hundred years of highly prized liberty.

This book aims to answer these questions for Hadrian and the many who are heirs to his sort of engagement, who travel in the classical world, who look at classical sites and who like to acknowledge that a ‘classical age’ existed, even among the competing claimsof ever more cultures around the world. It is a choice of highlights and it has least to say on subjects which would have concerned Hadrian least: the range of Greek kingdoms after Alexander the Great and, above all, the years of the Roman Republic between its sack of Carthage (146 BC) and the reforms of the dictator Sulla (81/0 BC). By contrast, the Athens of Pericles and Socrates and the Rome of Caesar and Augustus claim the limelight, as ‘classical’ points in the past to which Hadrian attached himself.

Historians in Hadrian’s own Empire were not unaware of the changes since these eras. Some of them tried to explain them, and their answers did not simply list military victories and members of Rome’s imperial family. Part of the story of the classical world is the invention and development of history-writing itself. Nowadays, historians try to apply sophisticated theories to the understanding of these changes, economics and sociology, geography and ecology, theories of class and gender, the power of symbols or demographic models for populations and their age groups. In antiquity, these theories of ours were not explicit, or did not even exist. Instead, historians had favourite themes of their own, of which three were particularly prominent: freedom, justice and luxury. Our modern theories can deepen these ancient explanatory themes, but they do not entirely supplant them. I have chosen to emphasize these three because they were in the minds of the actors at the time and a part of the way in which events were seen, even when they do not suffice for our understanding of historical change.

Each of them is a flexible concept whose scope varies. Freedom, for us, entails choice and, for many people nowadays, implies autonomy or a power of independent decision. ‘Autonomy’ is a word invented by the ancient Greeks, but for them it had a clear political context: it began as the word for a community’s self-government, a protected degree of freedom in the face of an outside power which was strong enough to infringe it. Its first surviving application to an individual is to a woman, Antigone, in drama.10Freedom, too, was a political value, but it was sharpened everywhere by its opposite status, slavery. From Homer onwards, communities valued freedom in the face of enemies who would otherwise enslave them. Within a community, freedom then became a value of political constitutions: alternatives were denounced as ‘slavery’. Above all, freedom was the prized status of individuals, marking them off from slaves who were to be bought and sold. But, outside slavery, in what did an individual’s freedom consist? Did it require freedom of speech or freedom to worship whatever gods one chose? Was it the freedom to live as one pleased, or simply a freedom from interference? When did ‘liberty’ become wicked ‘licence’? These questions had all been discussed by the time of Hadrian, who was hailed both as a liberator and as a god by Greeks among his subjects.

The concept of justice had been no less contested. It was claimed by rulers, including Hadrian, and even in the age of Homer it was ascribed to idealized ‘just’ communities. Did the gods care for it or was the hard truth that justice was not a value which shaped their dealings with mortals? What was justice, philosophers had long wondered; was it ‘giving each his due’ or was it receiving one’s deserts, perhaps because of behaviour in a previous life? Was equality just, and if so, what sort of equality? The ‘same for one and all’ or a ‘proportional equality’, which varied according to each person’s riches or social class?11 What system guaranteed it, one of laws applied by juries of randomly chosen citizens or one of laws applied and created by a single judge, a governor perhaps or the emperor himself? Much of Hadrian’s own energy was spent on judging and answering petitions, the process through which we know him best. His answers to cities and subjects in his Empire sometimes survive where recipients inscribed them on stone.12Others of his rulings survive in Latin collections of legal opinions. There is even a separate collection of Hadrian’s own ‘opinions’ which were his answers to petitioners and were preserved as school exercises for translation into Greek.13 In the classical Greek age, no Pericles or Demosthenes had answered petitions or given responses with the force of law.

Like justice and freedom, luxury was a term with a very flexible history. Where exactly does luxury begin? According to the novelist Edith Wharton, luxury is the acquisition of something which one does not need, but where do ‘needs’ end? For the fashion-designer Coco Chanel, luxury was a more positive value, whose opposite, she used to say, is not poverty, but vulgarity; in her view, ‘luxury is not showy’. Certainly, it invites double standards. Throughout history, from Homer to Hadrian, laws were passed to limit it and thinkers saw it as soft or corrupting or even as socially subversive. But the range of luxury and the demands for it went on multiplying despite the voices attacking it. Around luxury we can write a history of cultural change, enhanced by archaeology which gives us proofs of its extent, whether the bits of blue lapis lazuli imported in the pre-Homeric world (by origin, all from north-east Afghanistan) or rubies in the Near East imported after Alexander (they are shown, by analysis, to have come ultimately from unknown Burma).

By the time of the classicizing Hadrian, the political freedoms of the past classical age had diminished. Justice, to our eyes, had become much less fair, but luxuries, from foods to furnishings, had proliferated. How did these changes occur and how, if at all, do they interrelate? Their setting had been intensely political, as the context of power and political rights changed tumultuously across the generations, to a degree which sets this era apart from the centuries of monarchy or oligarchy in so much subsequent history. If this era is studied thematically, through chapters on ‘sex’ or ‘armies’ or ‘the city-state’, it is reduced to a false, static unity and ‘culture’ is detached from its formative context, the contested, changing relations of power. So this history follows the threads of a changing story, within which its three main themes have a changing resonance. Sometimes it is a history of great decisions, taken by (male) individuals but always in a setting of thousands of individual lives. Some of these lives, off the ‘grand narrative’, are known to us from words which people inscribed on durable materials, the lives of victorious athletes or fond owners of named racehorses, the lady in Alexander the Great’s home town who had a curse written out against her hoped-for lover and his preferred Thetima (‘may he marry nobody except me’), or the sad owner of a piglet which had trotted by his chariot all the way down the road to Thessalonica, only to be run over at Edessa and killed in an accident at the crossroads.14 Scores of these individuals surface yearly in newly studied Greek and Latin inscriptions whose surviving fragments stretch scholars’ skills, but whose contents enhance the diversity of the ancient world. From Homer to Hadrian, our knowledge of the classical world is not standing still, and this book is an attempt to follow its highways as Hadrian, its great global traveller, never did.

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