Ancient History & Civilisation

Hadrian: A Retrospective

That joke of his in the baths became famous. Once, he saw a veteran soldier whom he had known during his military service, and the man was rubbing his back and the rest of his body against the wall. So he asked him why he had given himself over to its marbles in order to be rubbed down, and when he heard that he was doing it because he did not have a slave, he gave the man both some slaves and the cost of their maintenance. But on another day, a number of old men started to rub themselves against the wall so as to provoke the emperor’s generosity. But he ordered them to be summoned and then to rub each other down in turn.

Spartianus, Life of Hadrian 17.6–7

The rights of Hadrian’s accession were questionable, but he was quick to undo his predecessor’s mistakes. Trajan’s attempted conquests in the Middle East were abandoned. Then his conquests in eastern Europe were scaled down and reorganized. Hadrian quoted old Cato in support: ‘they must have their freedom because they cannot be protected.’1 At least the remark gave his decision a ‘traditional’ precedent.

More to the point, Hadrian had close personal ties with the prefect of the Praetorian guards, the elderlyAcilius Attianus, who came from the same home town and had been his guardian as a young man. Back in Rome, four senior senators, all of them ex-consuls, were put to death on Attianus’ orders. While the shock subsided it was as well that Hadrian could travel slowly through the Greek East and not return to Rome for several months. On his arrival, he insisted in a speech to the Senate that the four men had not been killed on his orders. In his autobiography, at the end of his life, he stated again that he regretted these four executions. But by now they were a pattern, as was the guards’ involvement, which marked the loss of liberty since the fall of the Republic and the ‘classical’ age of Augustus’ rule.

It was, then, instead of conquering that Hadrian took up touring and inspecting on the Empire-wide journeys with which this book began. From northern Britain to Egypt, he visited his provinces and made himself known to his troops. Nobody who saw or heard him could have missed the differences from his predecessor Trajan. Hadrian chose to have a beard, a short trim one, but it came to be seen as a deliberate sign of his passion for Greek culture. Although beards were the particular fashion of Greek-speaking philosophers, Hadrian himself was not a real intellectual. Unlike Trajan he did have an informed mind but he liked to show it off at intellectuals’ expense. He did not like abstract ideas and reasoning and he had no theoretical views on politics and society: his preferred ‘philosophy’ was the least intellectual Epicureanism. Instead, he had a wide range of learning, and his passion for antiquarian details was supported by his wide travels. He also had a taste for writing poetry and a keen interest in architecture and design. When he tried to interfere with plans of the architect Apollodorus, the master is said to have told him to confine himself to drawing ‘still lives’, not buildings.2 But Hadrian was certainly a ‘man of taste’.

In this taste, the two worlds of this book, the classical Greek and the Roman, came closely together. Hadrian’s love of Greek culture is evident in his patronage, his favours for Greek cities (especially Athens) and his personal romantic life. Trajan’s patronage had already helped Greek-speakers from the East into the Roman Senate, but they tended to be dynasts and men from grandiose local families. The Greek senators in Hadrian’s reign were abler men from educated and lettered Greek families: they were the sort of people he liked. For the city of Athens, Hadrian had enormous respect. Before his accession he had spent a year in the city and served as its senior magistrate; it became the centre of his new Greek synod, the Panhellenion; it received such notable buildings that its town-centre was transformed. As emperor, he approved a new structure for its council, the august Areopagus; wearing Greek dress, he presided over the city’s great theatrical festival, the Dionysia, and he was initiated into the Mysteries.

His love-life was more remarkable than anyruler’s since Alexander the Great. Trajan had had sexual affairs with males, but mostly (it was said) with boys in the army-camp or on his staff: Hadrian, by contrast, had a grand passion which was lived out in the Greek style and involved that un-Roman object, a free-born young man. In Pliny’s former province in north-west Asia, Hadrian encountered the young Antinous and fell madlyin love. Theyhunted together; theytravelled, but in October 130 young Antinous died in Egypt, drowned in the river Nile. For want of evidence the circumstances remain obscure. It is probably only gossip that Antinous had voluntarily killed himself as a votive offering for Hadrian’s own poor health. But the effects of his loss are visible far and wide. Not only did Hadrian found a town near the Nile in his lover’s honour: prominent citizens of this new Antinoopolis enjoyed an array of rare civic privileges and exemptions.3 He encouraged the worship of his dead lover as a ‘new Osiris’, the Egyptian god of rebirth. He promoted worship of Antinous in towns throughout his Empire. Images of him, therefore, have been discovered far beyond Egypt. Whereas Alexander promoted cult of the dead Hephaestion as a hero, Hadrian promoted the dead Antinous as a god, the most positive religious policy of any Roman emperor until the Christians’ dominance.

Hadrian’s love of Greek culture was classicizing because it imitated a classical model but was pursued without the political context of a classical Greek city-state. It also proved to be less flexible. In sculpture, Hadrian’s classicizing taste is still most evident. He favoured statues of white marble, not just for his beloved Antinous, and patronized manysculptors from the big city-centres of Greek western Asia, giving a new prominence to classicism in sculpture at Rome. There was also a rigidityin his cultural tolerance. From Homer onwards, one classical Greek inclination had been to understand foreign non-Greeks as being more like their Greek ‘kinsmen’ than they really were. Even so, the best-known Greek travellers, Herodotus or Alexander the Great, had not been cultural relativists for whom all customs everywhere were equally valid. Herodotus had been disgusted by the alleged prostitution of Babylonian women, Alexander by the Iranians’ very non-Greek habit of exposing their dead to wild birds and dogs: he banned the practice. But for Hadrian, the classicizing Greekling, the boundaries of cultural tolerance were much more tightlydrawn. His classical world-view could not accommodate the Jews.

We still do not have enough evidence to be sure of the origins of his major war against the Jews in Judaea (from 132 to 135). Unlike a truly classical Greek, he was heir to a tradition of anti-Semitism, passed on in literature since its Greek originators in Alexandria, especially since the second century BC. The year of Antinous’ death (130) does show signs of being a turning point in Hadrian’s own behaviour. Ancient sources do connect the major uprising among the Jews with Hadrian’s decision, while in the Near East, to ban circumcision (a classicizing Greekling would find it an offensive habit). He even planned to turn Jerusalem into a classicizing city with pagan temples and to name it Aelia (after himself) Capitolina (after the Romans’ great Jupiter of the Capitol hill). The result was a bitter rebellion, led in Judaea byBar Kochva (‘son of a star’) which cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of Jews during more than three years. From the Jews’ own coins, we learn that the ‘redemption’ and ‘freedom’ of Israel were publicly proclaimed: Bar Kochva was probably seen as a Messiah.4 Hadrian had to send for one of his best generals, all the way from Britain, in order to defeat what was evidently a massive challenge. Only then did he have his way, turning Jerusalem into a pagan city and banning the surviving Jews from entering it. ‘What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?’ the early Christian author Tertullian was soon to ask, challenging the link between classical Greek culture and Christianity.5 For Hadrian, the answer was simple: intolerance, and total destruction.

Like Alexander the Great and his Successors, Hadrian was also a passionate hunter, the sport which he most enjoyed in life. In northwest Asia, he founded a cityto commemorate his killing of a she-bear in the wild; in Egypt, he and darling Antinous killed a lion. At Rome, eight round sculpted reliefs portrayed Hadrian’s great hunting moments on a building which was probably begun as a special hunting-monument.6 But Hadrian was not just being philhellenic: hunting was part of a wider culture which cannot be split into ‘Greek’ or ‘Roman’ elements. It had already been championed by Trajan, another man from that paradise for the sport, Spain. Hadrian would surely have enjoyed it in Italy long before going east. The long days which he spent on it helped to shape his varied unintellectual gifts: his notable endurance on horseback in all weathers and his conspicuous openness to the company of his fellow men.7

These manners linked him commendably to the difficult question of ‘luxury’. As an emperor, Hadrian had the power and the money to gratify almost any personal taste, but nonetheless he cultivated the civility which befitted a ‘good emperor’. In the city of Rome, on his travels and especially in front of his troops, he showed a popular plainness and openness. This accessibility had been a virtue in Greek tradition, but it was as a Roman soldier and traveller and, above all, as a hunter that Hadrian maintained it as his style. He was said to be the ‘most self-proclaimed lover of the plebs’:8 he would receive petitioners while in the bath; he would even bathe with the plebs in the public baths, no doubt in Trajan’s vast new establishment in Rome. In the army-camps, too, he set a personal example of austerity and disdain for comfort. He consumed the cheese, bacon and coarse wine which belonged in a proper soldier’s diet. He avoided soft bedding, restoring standards of military discipline which were still being cited long after him.

In Homer’s poems, our starting point, luxury was admired unreservedlyas the splendour of the heroes’ palaces and the fairytale kings whom wandering Odysseus met. It first became problematic for the earlyGreek aristocrats who feared it as a source of disruptive competition from the seventh century BC onwards. Philosophers then idealized ‘austerity’ against the ‘softness’ of luxurious Asia and its kings, a view which the puritanical Plato supported. After Alexander, nonetheless, the Greek kings, especially those in Egypt, exploited ‘luxury’ as part of their royal image and their fantasy ‘world apart’. There was so much more now worldwide for them to want, acquire and display.

At Rome, these attitudes converged and became one of straightforward disapproval. Opposition to monarchy had been rooted in the Republic and its ruling class from its very origins: royal luxury was out of the question. In the ideal peer group of free senators, ‘luxury’ was morally disreputable and socially disruptive. Together, this heritage persisted after the ending of Cicero’s world and was maintained in the earlyEmpire and its increasingly unclassical culture: it belonged with the emperor’s public image of restoration and moral ‘back-to-basics’. So Hadrian, too, limited expenses on public banquets to the ‘levels prescribed by ancient laws’. But public munificence had not been a bad sort of luxury: Hadrian also gave public beast-shows and days of human blood sports, setting a scale which made even Julius Caesar’s seem limited. To enhance his marginal links with the previous dynasty, he built vast public monuments to family members, including women, and a big Mausoleum in Rome (the modern Castel Sant’ Angelo), outdoing even Augustus. In Trajan’s honour, he even had all the seats in the theatre washed with the most expensive of floral extracts, oil from the saffron-crocus, a gift which would have needed whole hillsides of these flowers to meet the demand. And in later life he withdrew more and more to his enormous villa at Tibur (modern Tivoli), which had no less than three sets of heated baths and a canal named after the notoriously luxurious Canopus, the waterway which ran beside Egypt’s Alexandria. The visible, sprawling ruins of this villa are less than half of its probable extent: the rest still waits to be excavated.

‘Luxury’ had always promoted a gap between practice and public profession. ByHadrian’s reign, it connected with changes in the scope of ‘justice’ and ‘freedom’. In our collection of Roman legal opinions, Hadrian’s own rulings survive identifiably; so does a collection, probably authentic, of the ‘opinions’ which he gave in answer to requests. In the history of Roman law, it is Hadrian who patronized a codification of the long-running edict of the annual praetors and saw that it was published in an agreed form.9 Much of our inscribed record of his reign around the Empire is the record of his judging and deciding petitions and local disputes. In Italy, he even appointed four ex-consuls to judge cases submitted to them. When hearing cases himself, Hadrian was particularly remembered for including specialized experts in law as his advisers.

This body of advice, writings and tribunals may seem very far removed from the giving of justice in the distant world of Homer and Hesiod. In the Roman Empire, judges were literate; textbooks and copies of previous rulings existed; complex distinctions of procedure and civil law under lay what Hadrian decided. Yet in another waythe distance travelled was no longer so very large. As in the Homeric world, justice was being rendered byan individual’s inquisition, which was not subject to the decisions of a jury. This change in the structure of jurisdiction had re-entered the classical world with the rise of King Philip and the age of monarchy. The randomly selected juries of classical democratic Athens were no longer the main type of public adjudication. There was also another telling change. In Hadrian’s reign a frank distinction between the ‘more respectable’ and the ‘more humble’ begins to be stated, for the first time in Roman legal texts.10 The ‘more respectable’ included army-veterans, but also those with the rank (to be paid for) of city-councillor, let alone the Roman knights and senators. The ‘more humble’ extended down to propertyless vagrants and below. For the same crimes, these two social orders were now to be liable to different punishments: there was to be no flogging, no torture for respectable citizens, and no beheading, crucifixion or deportation, either. Previously, protection from these extreme penalties had been linked to possession of Roman citizenship and was founded on that cardinal principle of Roman liberty, the right to ‘call out’ or appeal. Now a ‘humble’ Roman citizen was liable to the most brutal penalties like any one else of low status, as if his citizenship carried no privilege. Respectable persons were protected because they were respectable, whether citizens or not.

Hadrian did not initiate this distinction, but in his reign there began to be explicitly ‘one penalty for the rich, one for the poor’. This development had older roots in Roman practice, and the punishment of lower-class citizens in Cicero’s Rome mayalso have been as savage as it now became. But the distinction was now in writing, and to many Romans (including Pliny) it was not even unjust. For ‘fair justice’, such people thought, was proportional, varying according to the class and worth of the recipient. Homer’s Odysseus, speaking moderately to his fellow nobles and thumping the lower classes with his sceptre, is no longer very far away.

This frank calibration of justice by social status devalued Roman citizenship and went with a change in the scope of freedom. In Homer’s poems, ‘freedom’ had been freedom from enslavement or conquest, individual or collective. In classical Athens, it became the freedom of democracy, the freedom of the male citizens ‘to do whatever they decide’, with accompanying notions of their personal ‘freedom from’ undue influence. In the Roman Republic, founded by ending a monarchy, ‘freedom from’ one-man rule was historically a very strong value, together with the popular notion of a freedom which was ‘freedom from’ harassment by social superiors and the senators’ notions of ‘freedom for’ their senatorial order to say or do what it wanted. Under the emperors’ rule, freedom, as the opposite to slavery, was still prized in Rome’s slave-society, as it had been prized everywhere else in the classical world. But from the years of Augustus’ dominance onwards, only ‘traces’ (as Tacitus stressed) remained of the senators’ particular ‘freedom’, and throughout the Empire, the ‘freedom’ of cities and popular assemblies had become a matter only of degree. Under Hadrian, his beloved Athens was still called a ‘free city’, but it honoured him, the emperor, as an Olympian god. On the Greek island of Lesbos, inscriptions honoured Hadrian as a ‘liberator’ while also paying him divine honours.11 The former ‘freedom’ of Athens and Sparta, so Pliny observed, was now only a ‘shadow’: in general, Roman rule had curbed or abolished democracies and popular rule in the Greek subject-cities. At Rome, meanwhile, the ‘resolutions’ of the Senate had acquired the force of law, because they communicated the emperor’s own considered wish or even, in due course, the very words of his speech. In AD 129 the consuls ‘brought forward a bill, based on a paper of Imperator Caesar Hadrian Augustus, son of Trajan Parthicus, grandson of the deified Nerva, greatest First Citizen, father of the state, on 3 March…’.12 The result passed into our Roman law-books. The ‘First Citizen’, who initiated it, was himself now ‘released from the laws’, a status which was justified (for legal minds) by the law which had set out the Emperor Vespasian’s powers.

‘Liberty’ of speech and decision, as Cicero had known it, was now dead. While in Greece, in his mid-twenties, Hadrian had been one of the manyhearers of a noted teacher, Epictetus.13 Epictetus was himself the ex-slave of a freedman in the emperor’s household: he discoursed on freedom, justice and moderation to large audiences, people who were mostly drawn from the respectable young men of cities in the Greek-speaking world. Epictetus taught the doctrine of Stoic philosophers which had been formulated in the decade after Alexander and was known, too, to Cicero and his contemporaries. For Epictetus, ‘freedom’ was an individual’s reasoned control of his desires and passions. A rich man, torn by fears and wants, was therefore as much, even more, of a ‘slave’ as any slave in the real world. Epictetus’ surviving teachings never even mention his own experience of slavery in his youth. Rather, with first-hand illustrations, he spoke of the court-life around a Roman emperor as ‘futile’ slavery.

In the classical Greek world, the freedom which had belonged with the greatest cultural expression was the freedom of democratic citizens, the political freedom of a male majority which was limited only by decisions to which they themselves consented. In Hadrian’s world, freedom had become only a freedom from bad, cruel emperors or the unpolitical ‘freedom’ of an individual’s control over his desires. From an admired teacher, Epictetus, Hadrian had heard what Pericles or Alexander never heard from theirs, that a public career at the centre of power was a dangerous, disturbing vanityand that its public honours were futile.

As a many-sided man, Hadrian would not have forgotten this view of the world which he dominated. But it was onlyone view, in a mind which entertained so manyothers. At his huge villa at Tibur, Hadrian could walk through monuments named after great places in the classical Greek world: there was a Lyceum and an Academy, places where Socrates, Plato and Aristotle had taught, a Tempe where the Muses had once played, and a Prytaneum, where the free councillors of Greek democracies had typically dined and attended to public business. In the gardens of his villa, Hadrian even had a so-called ‘underworld’, a representation of Hades: it is probably still to be seen in some of the underground tunnels on the site. His own tastes in philosophywere for the Epicurean school, for whom the fear of death was an unwarranted ‘disturbance’ and the tales of an afterlife only fables for the superstitious masses.

From his provinces, Hadrian had already answered requests about the persecution of a most ‘wicked superstition’, the beliefs held by members of the Christian churches. Hadrian’s answers continued to insist that trials must involve individual prosecutors, people who would bring formal charges in public against these Christians. Contrary to the wishes of some leading provincials, he thus insisted that the persecution of Christians must be a formal process, to be publicly pursued with rules. By his judgements, his letters and his edicts, it was Hadrian who now made the laws by which justice was done. As emperor, he was freed from the laws; as an educated man, he was personally free from fears of the underworld. Nonetheless, in a famous poem, he addressed consolatory words to his ‘little soul’, a future wanderer in a chillyand humourless afterlife. Long centuries of change in the scope of justice, freedom and luxury lay behind Hadrian’s outlook from his villa garden. But he had no idea that the Christians, whose harassment he regulated, would then overturn this world by antiquity’s greatest realignment of freedom and justice: the ‘under-world’ would no longer be a garden-designer’s fancy.

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