The Day the Empire Came

Carefully coasting up past Flamborough Head, on beyond the reed marshes at the mouth of the River Tees and other familiar sea-marks, the Classis Britannica, the British fleet, brought the Empire north. Based at Boulogne, and with depots at Dover, Chester and other ports, the British fleet was impressive. About 7,000 men were under the command of its trierarchs, the sea-captains, and by the AD 120s more than fifty ships were in active service. Most of these were biremes, what the Romans knew as liburnae after the Adriatic pirates who first built and developed them. Fast, sleek and manoeuvrable, these ships sliced through the water and, when the wind billowed their single square sail and their banks of oarsmen bent their backs, they could make good headway. Each beak had a large and menacing eye painted on either side; the effect was shark-like.

When watchers on the headland at Tynemouth looked south and scanned the horizon some time in the summer of 122, they will have made out many coloured sails and brightly painted hulls glinting in the sunshine. But one ship dwarfed all the others. Pushed forward by a purple sail with the imperial inscription picked out in gold lettering at its top, a trireme surged through the waves. Evidence for the existence of only one trireme in the British fleet has come to light. On a relief discovered at Boulogne, the Radians is recorded. Perhaps it was this ship, The Gleamer, which made its stately way up the North Sea coast.

In its belly three banks of oarsmen on each side pulled hard to the commands of the Pausarius, the cox who called all the different speeds. To keep all in time, the Pitulus pounded a wooden block with a mallet, and his stroke-oarsmen on the benches beside him set the rhythm. On deck the Trierarch looked anxiously at the approaching river-mouth. Like most estuaries, the Tyne’s could be treacherous, sandbars shifting with the tides, silt washed down with seasonal spates. As the great trireme glided nearer, theProretamade his way forward to a station in the prow. Leaning over and searching the surface of the water for telltale ripples and eddies around hidden obstructions or shallows, he called instructions back to the Gubernator and his men on the steering oar.

Immense care was taken, no pains spared to make the entrance into the Tyne uneventful, comfortable and impressive. The Gleamer carried the world’s most precious cargo – the world’s most important man. Publius Aelius Hadrianus had become Emperor of Rome in AD 117, the adopted successor of Trajan. He inherited a vast domain stretching from the Tigris to the Tyne. His professional standing army numbered thirty legions, almost 200,000 highly trained men in a state of constant readiness. The Roman Empire seemed to contemporaries invincible – even eternal. In fact it lasted from 753 BC when Rome was founded to 1453 when New Rome, or Constantinople, fell to the Turks and the last Emperor was killed as he plunged into the street-fighting. Unparalleled in history, the mighty Empire endured for 2,206 years. And Hadrian was one of its most powerful emperors, his reign falling in the middle of what historians have labelled Rome’s Golden Age, the period between AD 96 and the death of Marcus Aurelius in 180. The Proreta craning his neck over the prow of The Gleamer will never have dared take his eyes off the water.

Although its remains have disappeared under the modern town, it is likely that there was a depot of the Classis Britannica at South Shields. So, when the imperial trireme trimmed its purple sail and the Pausarius called for his oarsmen to hold steady, it may be that a local pilot sailed out to advise the Trierarch on the state of the tides. Passage upriver would be much easier and much faster with an indrawn tide running against the current.

The Tyne looked different 2,000 years ago. The banks of the river were not built up and lined with wharves and walls as they are now, and the flow was not canalised except at Gateshead where the gorge forced it into a natural channel. Reedbeds, mudflats such as Jarrow Slake, oxbows and river-islands made navigation more difficult, and the last thing the fleet commanders wanted was the inconvenience and humiliation of running aground as the Emperor looked on.


Julius Caesar’s pivotal role in establishing the Empire and its emperors has been remembered by imitation. The imperial titles of Kaiser and Tsar are corruptions of his name. Irony was at work. In Latin ‘Caesar’ means ‘hairy’, but Julius was famously bald. His name was also attached to the first of many imperial dynasties.

The Julio-Claudians were:

Augustus 31 BC–AD 14

Tiberius AD 14–37

Caligula 37–41

Claudius 41–54

Nero 54–68

In the chaos after Nero’s suicide came the Year of the Four Emperors:

Galba 68–69

Otho 69

Vitellius 69

And then the brief interlude of the Flavians:

Vespasian 69–79

Titus 79–81

Domitian 81–96

After Domitian’s assassination there followed a continuous succession of successful emperors. It must be highly significant that this was not a dynasty of sons following fathers but a series of adoptions of competent soldiers and senators with proven abilities. And Nerva was also the last Italian emperor in this sequence:

Nerva 96–98

Trajan 98–117

Hadrian 117–138

Antoninus Pius 138–161

Marcus Aurelius 161–180

And then the sequence was broken when Commodus, 180–192, inherited the throne from his father and was ultimately removed.

Others were watching too. From the fort at Newcastle a screen of cavalry units will have patrolled both banks of the river. Although the Romans had been on the Tyne for more than forty years, no chances would have been taken. And since prestige and the power of show always played a central part in Roman politics, native princes may have been encouraged to watch as the Classis Britannica brought Publius Aelius Hadrianus, the greatest prince of all, to his most northerly frontier.


Publius Aelius Hadrianus’ family came from southern Spain and they were amongst the earliest provincials to be admitted to the Senate. Fascinated by Greek culture from boyhood, Hadrian was known as ‘Graeculus’ and he also became a passionate huntsman. On the death of his father, the boy became the ward of a family cousin, Trajan (also from southern Spain), and in 97 Hadrian was sent directly into the centre of power when he was despatched to congratulate his patron on being adopted as the successor of the Emperor Nerva. As with modern politics, nothing propinks like propinquity. In Dacia, now Romania, he fought a famous campaign with Trajan. When the Emperor led the legions east to confront the Persians, Hadrian was by his side once more. Timely positioning was everything and, as Governor of Syria at the time Trajan died in the neighbouring province of Cilicia, Hadrian was on hand in 117 when his chance finally came.

The quays at Newcastle were almost certainly his destination. Two years before, 3,000 men disembarked there from transports which had brought them from the legions stationed on the Lower Rhine. They arrived as reinforcements for a campaign against the northern British kings and their warbands. During the journey up the Tyne, one legionary, the unfortunate Junius Dubitatus, dropped his shield into the river. His centurion will certainly have beaten him for such carelessness and probably docked his pay for the cost of a replacement. Buried deep in the murky silt of the Tyne, the wooden shield rotted but its metal boss, the umbo, survived and was dredged up 2,000 years after Junius lost it. Nearby, another, much smaller, circular piece of metal was pulled out of the river. A Roman coin, a sestertius, shows a trireme with the Emperor Hadrian enthroned under a canopy in the stern. He is flanked by two standards, what seem to be an imperial eagle and a legionary standard. Mounted in the prow is a wind-god, an addition which strongly suggests the erection of a symbol of thanks for the successful completion of a sea voyage. This interpretation is supported by the inscription on the sestertius. It reads: For the good fortune of the Emperor, three times Consul, Father of his Country.Much more comfortable travelling overland, Romans were very superstitious sailors, especially outside the placid Mediterranean, and the good fortune may represent more thanks for a safe deliverance. The coin was almost certainly struck as a commemorative issue.

Hadrian arrived at the Newcastle quays some time before 17 July 122. By that date Platorius Nepos is recorded as the new provincial Governor of Britannia. His immediate previous posting had been to Germania Inferior, the Lower Rhine, and the outpost of the Empire visited by Hadrian before his journey to Britain. As The Gleamer hove to in the Gateshead Gorge, it is very likely that Nepos and Hadrian both stood on its deck.


Without the inflow of cold water through the Strait of Gibraltar, the Mediterranean would evaporate. Its feeder-rivers and water from the Black Sea are insufficient to maintain its levels. The strong current through the Strait created an anti-clockwise series of ancient trade-routes. Carried on the Atlantic inflow, ships were driven along the North African coast, up to the Syrian shores and Cyprus and on into the Aegean. Mediterranean winds were seasonal and generally predictable. But the Bora, the Scirocco and especially the Mistral could be stormy; the Gulf of Lion is so named because the Mistral could roar like a lion. So it was not bad weather which made the Romans anxious about crossing the English Channel or the North Sea, what they called ‘the Ocean’. Unfamiliarity, a fear of currents which might drag them, literally, into the middle of nowhere (the open sea – very different from the comforting enclosure of the Mediterranean) and the much more extreme rise and fall of tides – these conditions were what worried the trierarchs. The Classis Britannica almost certainly depended from the outset on local pilots and local knowledge.

Many others accompanied the Emperor to the Tyne. Wherever Hadrian went – and he travelled the length and breadth of the Roman world – the apparatus of state followed. To all practical intents the place that became Newcastle, and not Rome, was the imperial capital in the summer of 122. Detachments of the VI Legion, the Victrix, sailed up the river but they were not the only soldiers in Hadrian’s retinue, nor the most important. First formally recruited by the Emperor Augustus, the Praetorians were the personal imperial bodyguards, an elite drawn from all of the regular army’s legions. Politically very powerful, they had dragged the cowering Claudius from behind a curtain after Caligula’s assassination and made him emperor, much against his will. And in 193 their commanders auctioned the throne to Didius Julianus for a vast sum.

To protect Hadrian and the imperial court, the Prefect of the Praetorian Guard, Septicius Clarus, brought a substantial force, and he himself would have been a weighty figure, widely feared – not least by the Emperor, as matters turned out. A great historian also sailed up the Tyne, although sadly he did not record the journey. Suetonius Tranquillus was Hadrian’s chief civil servant, variously described as Secretary or Director of Chancery. All of the important administrative machinery of running a vast empire of thirty-six provinces implies a great government department packed into the liburnae following the imperial trireme: clerks, accountants, messengers and more clerks.

Much of the flummery and panoply of the imperial court had to be left behind in Rome’s palaces and forums. The northern frontier was no setting for elaborate ceremony or set-piece ritual. But the courtiers came. If he had any sense, each emperor brought influential senators with him on his travels. Not only did he need witnesses to attest to his prowess in leading the army and dealing with barbarians, he also wanted to neutralise intrigue and opposition back in Rome. Near-contemporary records of arrangements made for their provisioning and accommodation show hundreds, perhaps more than a thousand people, in the imperial entourage. When Claudius had sailed to Britannia to join the invading army in AD 43, he had had a large contingent of important senators in his retinue and, although they are not named, influential aristocrats would certainly have travelled with Hadrian in 122.

Ever watchful, the Emperor realised that intelligence-gathering was a key to survival and success. In the past the Praetorian Guard had acted as spies and enforcers when the court was in Rome, but Hadrian needed something more reliable and with an Empire-wide reach. The frumentarii were tax collectors in the provinces, taking much of their revenue in corn, frumentum in Latin. As travelling officials they were well placed to compile information and make regular reports. Letters carried by the imperial postal service were often intercepted, and one in which the wife of a provincial official wrote to her husband chiding him for idleness became famous. When the official appeared before the Emperor requesting leave, Hadrian refused, saying that the man was too lazy to deserve it.What!? he is said to have blurted out, Has my wife been complaining to you too?

The sinister hand of the frumentarii almost certainly caused an eruption in the imperial court in 122, probably in Britain. Hadrian:

replaced Septicius Clarus, Prefect of the Guard, and Suetonius Tranquillus, Director of the Chancery, and many others, because they had at that time, in their relations with his wife, Sabina, behaved with greater familiarity than the etiquette of the court required.

Why? The reason given sounds like a polite euphemism, or a pretext. If the Praetorians and the Chancery had been plotting with the Empress, then surely heads would have rolled. Suetonius and Clarus certainly survived, as did the Empress Sabina. Perhaps they had simply become too powerful. Perhaps the frumentarii had heard what modern security services call chatter, and the Emperor acted quickly to forestall it developing into anything more. Dealing with the Praetorians in particular demanded delicacy. But this curious incident is clear in at least one respect: Hadrian could be ruthless, decisive and dangerous to know – just like most Roman emperors.

At the outset of his reign there was trouble. At Vindolanda, an inscription has been found which tells of war in Britain. Rebellion and war crackled in other provinces, and Trajan’s conquests appeared to overstretch resources. Perhaps the notion of limiting the Empire was bruited about early. To stop opposition and the threat of insurrection in their tracks, Hadrian took decisively brutal action. Four consulars, soldiers of the highest aristocratic standard who had held the consulship under Trajan, were murdered in the early months of the new regime. Avidius Nigrinus, Lusius Quietus, Cornelius Palma and Publilius Celsus may not have been guilty of treason – more likely they disagreed with the new policy of retrenchment – but Hadrian did not hesitate.

This early purge stained the new Emperor’s reputation profoundly, He was hated by the senatorial elite throughout his reign, and the resulting atmosphere may have been an important factor in Hadrian’s extended tour of all the provinces of the Empire. In eleven years he visited all thirty-six and must have been the most recognised Roman emperor in history.

Beyond the atmosphere of mistrust that swirled around Rome and also around his close political circle, Hadrian sometimes revealed a more relaxed, informal and even playful side. Annaeus Florus was a poet, teacher and historian who lived at the city of Tarraco (Tarragona) in Spain. Also having significant Spanish connections (he was born in the Iberian city of Italica and was said to speak Latin with a strong Spanish accent), the Emperor appears to have known the poet and while Hadrian was in Britain the two men exchanged a remarkable but, sadly, very brief correspondence. Here are Anthony Birley’s translations of two short poems, Florus’ first, with the missing third line improvised and added here:

I don’t want to be Caesar, please

Tramping around the British, weak at the knees

[Or lurking with the Germans amongst all those trees]

Or in the Scythian forests to freeze

The references seem to follow Hadrian’s first journey along the northern frontiers in reverse order. Scythia was his first destination and an ancient name for the area around the outfall of the Danube into the Black Sea. Then he travelled to Germany and the Rhine frontier, and finally to Britain. Fortunately for Florus, Hadrian was amused and sent back a witty reply:

I don’t want to be Florus, please,

To tramp around pubs, into bars to squeeze,

To lurk about eating pies and peas,

To get myself infested with fleas.


Hadrian fancied himself as an architect, but when he attempted to offer an opinion at a meeting between Trajan and his chief architect, Apollodorus, the latter told him to mind his own business. It turned out to be an ill-advised remark, for when Hadrian at last became emperor, Apollodorus was banished and perhaps worse. Concerned that the imperial mausoleum built for Augustus was full, Hadrian commissioned a new one for himself and his successors. He is said to have had more than a hand in the design. As centuries passed and Rome declined, it looked increasingly as though the mausoleum stood on a vulnerable site, on the west bank of the Tiber, near what became the Vatican City. It was renamed Castel Sant’Angelo and became the principal stronghold of the Pope. All of its decorative sculpture was lost (some of it hurled at besieging barbarian armies by the Byzantine expeditionary force which had retaken Rome for the Empire in 537) and its basic drum shape (not unusual for a mausoleum but definitely so for a fortress) is all that remains to hint at its previous use.

In seeking to set examples, refusing to ask his men to do more than he would do himself, Hadrian bivouacked with his legions, eating simple fare, drinking rough wine around the campfire – and marching 20 miles in full armour the morning after. He was forty-one when he succeeded Trajan, and he enjoyed a deserved reputation for toughness. His eleven years of tramping around the provinces made him fit and hard-riding. Practice with the javelin and frequent hunting expeditions taught him weapons skills and kept him active on into his middle age. Like Alexander the Great, Hadrian had a favourite horse and he loved to ride in the chase with his beloved hounds. Game pie, stuffed with wild boar ham and the meat of game birds, was said to be a dish he ate with great relish. Hard physical exercise and discipline were everything, an ideal which all soldiers should cherish and constantly aspire to. In the waters of the North Tyne a walker came across a Roman altar dedicated to the Discipline of the Emperor.

A tall man with a trimmed beard and his hair curled by a comb, Hadrian was said to be an imposing figure. Unusually, his surviving portrait busts all look alike, a firm jaw and broad across the cheekbones. No delicate features, but a mature man of action, a soldier in his prime. Hadrian’s hero was Pericles, the bearded Athenian statesman of the fifth century BC. And as the first Roman emperor to wear a trimmed beard (the longer, straggly sort was thought more suitable for philosophers) in the same Greek style, there is a sense of admiring imitation.

And yet the Emperor was devoted to a beautiful Greek boy, Antinous, clearly the love of his life. More than a hundred representations of Antinous have come down to us, and it seems that he was indeed a very striking-looking young man. Hadrian may have met him in AD 123 when the imperial fleet sailed along the Black Sea coast of what is now Turkey. Pontus-Bithynia was the name of the Roman province, and its coastal cities had originated as Greek colonies. It was a very different place from Britain, where Hadrian had been the year before. Like most Roman aristocrats of the time, Hadrian spoke Greek well and indeed had been governor or Archon of Athens before becoming emperor. Perhaps Antinous embodied all that Hadrian admired in Hellenic culture. In any event, he was devoted to the boy and they almost certainly became lovers.

But there may have been a problem. An affair with a young boy was almost acceptable, even amongst the more starchy Roman aristocratic families. But an affair with a young man on the edge of puberty, perhaps sprouting a beard – that was something that caused much more uneasiness. To be the object of another man’s desire at that age, and to be penetrated by him, was shaming. But what could Antinous do? He had to obey the most powerful man in the known world, and also put up with all the vicious gossip and malice which slithered around the imperial court. It was an impossible position and several historians believe that Hadrian’s insistent devotion probably drove his lover to commit suicide. Matters seem to have come to a head when the imperial entourage reached Egypt.

When Antinous drowned in the Nile in 130, in mysterious circumstances, the world turned upside down. Hadrian’s grief was immense and some commentators reckoned the remainder of his reign was spent in slow and miserable decline. Perhaps some scant consolation was found when Antinous was declared a god.

Homosexuality in Greek and Roman times carried different connotations. Men who made love to other men were not seen as deviant but just as manly as those who did not, perhaps even more so. And the modern concepts of concealment and shame appeared not to apply at all. While many men seem to have been bisexual, Hadrian’s relationship with Antinous does contrast sharply with what is known about his marriage.


There are no words in either Latin or Greek for homosexuality, and although sex between men (and between women) was often commented on, in itself it was not seen as a separate phenomenon or category. Society did not divide into gay and non-gay. Much more significant were sexual relations which crossed boundaries between social class, say, aristocrats and slaves. Modern attitudes do not apply to Roman and Greek homosexuality. There certainly was a distinction between active and passive, between ‘male’ and ‘female’ roles in homosexual relationships, but these generally followed pre-existing social or age-related hierarchies. The Romans called homosexuality ‘Greek love’ and that gloss may have attracted Hadrian Graeculus, the Little Greek.

Hadrian’s wife, Sabina, was well connected. The great-niece of Trajan and daughter of Matidia, a favourite of the Emperor, she made a good match for Hadrian. Some time around AD 100 they married. He was twenty-five and about to take his seat in the Senate, and she would have been considerably younger, probably fifteen. Like most aristocratic marriages, the function was political not passionate. What mattered was advantage and advancement, with the incidental possibility of producing children. Hadrian and Sabina failed in the latter, but succeeded in all else. Sadly their childless marriage seems to have withered into lovelessness, antipathy and even sustained anger. Hadrian was said to have grumbled that his position as emperor forced him to stay with Sabina. If he had been an ordinary citizen, he would have divorced her long ago on account of her moods and contrariness. Quotes from a now-lost biography of Hadrian by Marius Maximus asserted that Sabina had taken steps to avoid becoming pregnant by him – because his children would only do harm to the human race. It seems that she needed to consider contraception, and it may be that the bisexual emperor had at least attempted to do his dynastic duty.

By contrast, Hadrian’s relations with his mother-in-law, Matidia, were much warmer. Perhaps he was first encouraged by the fact that the childless Trajan treated Matidia like an adopted daughter. Or perhaps he felt more comfortable in the company of a mature woman, relaxing in a version of maternal love, a relationship without the embarrassment of sexual expectations or obligations. Trajan’s Empress, Plotina, was also close to Hadrian, and ultimately she took a leading role in persuading her dying husband to adopt her protégé formally in 117. At the risk of reading too much into a scatter of sparse snippets of evidence, it may be that Hadrian’s homosexuality played in his favour as he cultivated these older aristocratic ladies.

In the fort at Newcastle, Sabina and her entourage no doubt made themselves as comfortable as was possible in trying circumstances. When the VI Legion sailed up the Tyne in 120 to reinforce the garrison of Britannia, their commanders caused two altars to be raised in thanksgiving for a safe crossing of the North Sea. Oceanus controlled the tides of the sea, and Neptune was seen at that time as a river-god. Perhaps the Empress Sabina and the ladies of the court made sacrifice on these altars. She may have known then that this chilly, northern outpost was by no means the last destination on her husband’s itinerary. A great deal of travel lay in store.

Meanwhile it was decided to try the favour of Neptune a little more by building a bridge across the Gateshead Gorge. Placed close to where the modern Swing Bridge is, the bridge was a tremendous undertaking but logistically well worth the effort. If the Emperor was considering a permanent frontier north of the river then it was vital to be able to cross the Tyne quickly.

Wooden piles were driven into the muddy river-bed as engineers struggled to establish footings for the piers of a stone bridge but, interested though he was in architecture, it is unlikely that Hadrian hung around to watch. Guarded by the Praetorians and protected by a screen of scouts sweeping the countryside in front of them, he and Platorius Nepos probably rode west to look at the line of the proposed frontier. Only then would the scale of the work have become clear, the practicalities of construction, and the deployment of the legions and their camps. As he rode up into the moorland above the Hexham Gap, the idea of a wall, a stone girdle built across the waist of Britain, had formed in Hadrian’s mind.

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