In the spring of 134 Hadrian returned to Rome from the east, probably revisiting the Dacian provinces en route. The war in Judaea was by no means over, but he had made all the necessary arrangements and he had confidence in his generals. That dependably undependable client king Pharasmenes stirred up trouble for the Parthians by encouraging a neighboring people, the fierce Alani, to invade their empire as well as the Roman province of Cappadocia; the Parthian king complained to Hadrian, but luckily the governor, Arrian, was on hand. He deployed a Roman force with masterly skill to deter the incursion; being a writer as well as a man of action, he wrote a book on the subject, which is the fullest record of the Roman army in the field to have survived.
Despite these alarms, coins celebrating the emperor’s adventus breathed optimism. In one series, a galley rides on the waves with the goddess Minerva in the prow brandishing a javelin and holding a spear: underneath, a legend readsFelicitas Aug, “the emperor’s happiness.” Other coins from this time boast of Mars the Avenger and Rome holding a statuette of Victory.
The emperor’s brother-in-law, Servianus, was still vigorous in his ninth decade. After a long, resented wait, he had been appointed to serve as consul ordinarius this year for the third time (in April he handed over, as was usual, to a suffectus). This was a high honor, which, despite a history of chilly relations with the emperor, he owed to being a leading member by marriage of the imperial family. Paulina, his wife and Hadrian’s sister, had died a few years previously. Nothing is heard of his daughter and son-in-law. Servianus’ grandson Pedanius Fuscus was now in his late teens and, via his grandmother, was the only adult male linked by blood to Hadrian. For so long as the emperor did not adopt someone else, he was entitled to regard himself as the heir presumptive. He was probably in the imperial entourage, where an eye could be kept on him.
As previously noted, the only other senator to have held a third consulship was Annius Verus, and we can take it that Hadrian was looking forward warmly to seeing his loyal old friend’s grandson again. Little Marcus, his verissimus, was now thirteen years old. It was six years that the emperor had been away, a very long period in the life of a child. It would be a pleasant task to find out how he had developed.
Always serious-minded, the boy proved to be a hardworking pupil when his elementary education began at the age of seven. His maternal great-grandfather Catilius Severus was city prefect and an important man at court. However, he found time to guide the boy’s schooling; Marcus recalled gratefully in later life that he was “allowed to dispense with attendance at schools and to enjoy good teachers at home.” Two family slaves or freedmen taught him the rudiments of Greek and Latin. Specialists gave him a grounding in the arts—literature, music (mainly singing), and geometry.
A tutor looked after Marcus’ moral formation, and seems to have instilled worthy but slightly dull values in the growing teenager. He was taught “not to side with the Greens or the Blues at the chariot races, or to back Thracian [swordsmen] or Samnite [heavy-armed] gladiators; to tolerate pain and limit my needs; to work with my own hands and mind my own business and not to listen to malicious gossip.”
A year or so before Hadrian’s return to Italy, Marcus entered his secondary education under various grammatici. But his most influential teacher was his art master, Diognetus, from whom he learned not only painting but the rudiments of philosophy. He wrote dialogues in the manner first established by Plato and “set my heart on the pallet bed and coverlet of animal skins, and everything else that tallied with the Greek [philosophical] system.” In fact, according to theHistoria Augusta, Marcus would have preferred to sleep on the ground, were it not for his mother’s veto.
Diognetus also imparted a subversive principle that presumably would have annoyed Hadrian had he learned about it. This was “not to give credence to the claims of miracle-mongers and magicians and such matters.”
Marcus sounds as if he was becoming rather priggish, but the emperor liked what he saw of him. This may have had something to do with the fact that he was a nice-looking boy, as a bust of him in his teens shows. More to the point, Hadrian believed he could foresee an intelligent and responsible adult in the making.
During the emperor’s absence, building work in Rome had proceeded busily. The spectacular temple of Venus and Rome was dedicated in 135. Hadrian was very proud of the result. According to Dio Cassius, he invited Apollodorus to offer his comments. Hadrian bore him a grudge, because years before he had interrupted with some smart remark a conversation between Apollodorus and Trajan about a building project. The architect had snapped back at Hadrian, who was practicing his draftsmanship at the time: “Go away, and get back to your drawing exercises. You don’t understand any of this.”
The emperor hoped that this time Apollodorus would compliment him, but he was disappointed. The architect remarked that the temple
ought to have been built on high ground and that the earth should have been excavated beneath it, so that it might have stood out more conspicuously on the Sacred Way from its higher position … Second, in regard to the statues [of Venus and Rome], he said that they had been made too tall for the height of the cella [the temple’s inner chamber]. “For now,” he said, “if the goddesses wish to get up and go out, they will be unable to do so.”
Dio has it that the emperor was so angry that he banished the architect and later put him to death. This is a tall story. The joke about the goddesses had already been made centuries previously against Phidias’ famous statue of Zeus at Olympia, and there is evidence that Hadrian continued to make use of Apollodorus’ services. However, the exchange is consistent with what we know of the emperor’s bossy nature. It may well be that the amateur and the professional got on badly. If they quarreled, though, the worst that can have happened was that the architect died soon after and malicious tongues made the most of the coincidence.
Rome was still a construction site. On the right bank of the river the emperor’s huge mausoleum, long planned, was rising from the ground. A bridge connecting it to the Campus Martius had already been constructed. The tomb itself was similar to that of Augustus, which was full. Nerva had been squeezed in there and Trajan’s remains lay at the foot of his column; the dynasty needed a long-term replacement. The design was a large drum rising from a square base and faced with marble. It probably supported a superstructure decorated with statues and surmounted by a colonnaded tower, on top of which stood a colossal four-horsed chariot.
The emperor was wise to plan his final resting place, for he was feeling unwell. He suffered from recurrent and increasingly copious nosebleeds. He remained in or near Rome, presumably spending most of his time at the villa complex at Tibur, where there was the construction of the temple of Antinous to superintend. The text on the obelisk there included a prayer from Osirantinous to Ra-Harachte, a union of the sun god Ra and Horus, king of the heavens, that the emperor “live eternally, like Ra, / With a prospering and newly risen age!”
Hadrian had believed that the death of Antinous would cure him of his chronic ailment. Perhaps he had benefited for a time from this most selfish of placebos, but, of course, the truth was otherwise. By the time he celebrated his sixtieth birthday, on January 24, 136, and doubtless long before, it was obvious that the magic had failed. Mumbo jumbo was mumbo jumbo and Hadrian was sicker than ever. A portrait study from sometime in the 130s from Diktynna in Crete shows a weary, disillusioned face. The loss of his beloved had been for nothing.
The emperor’s state of mind grew irritable. Some thought that the stress released an innate cruelty. He began to throw over old friends and allies for reasons that are now obscure, but do not appear to be altogether rational. He dropped Aulus Platorius Nepos, who had probably accompanied him on his visit to Britannia and who, as governor, had organized the building of the wall. He now held him “in the greatest abhorrence,” writes the Historia Augusta. “Once, when he [Platorius Nepos] went to see him when he was ill he refused him admittance.”
Saddest of all, Quintus Marcius Turbo, who had been a centurion with the legion II Adiutrix when Hadrian was a military tribune in his first army posting, fell from favor about now. Turbo had had a glittering career, quashing the Jewish uprising in 117 and serving with distinction in Dacia. One of the emperor’s closest advisers and confidants, he had been Praetorian prefect since 125. Dio Cassius reports that
he spent the entire day near the palace and often he would even go there before midnight, when other people were just going to bed.
Turbo was never to be found at home during the daytime, even when he was unwell. Hadrian once asked him to calm down and live a quiet life; he replied, adapting Vespasian’s famous last words: “The prefect ought to die on his feet.”
Turbo was removed from office and replaced. A strong link to the past was broken.
Hadrian only just survived a major hemorrhage in the villa at Tibur, perhaps another unstoppable nosebleed. He realized that he was approaching the end of his life, and that it was time to think of the succession. Among his relatives, Servianus was much too old. A quarter of a century previously Trajan had once considered him worthy of the purple, but his time had passed. Anyway, Hadrian disliked him. What, then, about Pedanius Fuscus? The young man harbored great expectations, and so presumably thought himself to be in favor with the emperor.
However, for some reason, now impossible to ascertain, Hadrian disregarded his claim. Instead, he chose as heir someone who could hardly have been less suitable for the imperial throne. The political world was amazed when during the second half of 136 the emperor unexpectedly announced that he was adopting as his son Lucius Ceionius Commodus. He was renamed Lucius Aelius Caesar (from now on the word caesar ceased being an ordinary cognomen, but became the title of the nominated successor to the throne).
The Historia Augusta asserts that “his sole recommendation was his beauty.” His pleasures were “not discreditable but somewhat unfocused”: he enjoyed sex (with women, for a change) and kept by his bedside copies of Ovid’s book of naughty poems, “My Love Affairs” (Amores). Frivolity went hand in hand with poor taste; apparently Martial was his Virgil. On the face of it, there was little to choose between him and Pedanius Fuscus. That said, Ceionius Commodus was now a man in his late thirties and was running a successful political career. This year he was consul and, although the appointment was in the emperor’s gift and could have had a personal rather than a political significance, he seems to have commanded a certain competence.
It is possible that Lucius had been Antinous’ predecessor as eromenos, albeit with a significant difference. If he was an attractive boy, he was also a freeborn Roman citizen of high status. A love affair on the traditional Greek model was feasible, but any sexual expression of affection would have necessarily been conducted with restraint. By the same token, the imperial erastes would have been expected to train his noble boyfriend for public life. Once Lucius had grown up, the relationship should have matured into philia, a deep and loyal friendship. Perhaps this was the background to his surprising promotion.
It is relevant to note that two or three years later, young Marcus Annius Verus and his tutor Marcus Cornelius Fronto exchanged letters about their love for each other. Fronto, holding back, says, “So far as I am concerned you shall be called [‘beautiful,’ usually applied to victorious athletes] and not [eromenos, or ‘beloved’].” Marcus objects: “You shall never drive me, your lover, away.” There is something artificial about the correspondence, but even if Marcus and Fronto were only playing at having an affair it does strongly suggest that Greek love was a respectable and accepted convention at court.
It is also worth observing that Ceionius Commodus had been the stepson of Avidius Nigrinus, one of Hadrian’s four consular victims in the opening weeks of his reign—the crime for which the Senate had never quite forgotten. Could it be, wondered contemporaries, that a dying emperor was seeking to make amends by this remarkable adoption?
The real problem had nothing to do with favoritism or lack of outstanding ability, but with health. The new caesar was very ill, more so indeed than his adoptive father. He was known to cough up blood and, so far as we can tell, was suffering from tuberculosis. He was too ill even to appear in the Senate to offer his thanks to the emperor for the adoption.
Nevertheless, great celebrations were held. His health improved enough to allow Aelius Caesar to preside over games in the Circus Maximus, and he handed out lavish donatives to the People (that is, citizens living in or near Rome) and to the legions. He was designated consul again for 137 and was given the tribunician power that was an essential ingredient of imperial authority. Deciding that his heir needed a military grounding, Hadrian sent him to the Danube as governor of the two Pannonian provinces.
Pedanius Fuscus nursed a grievance. His hopes of succeeding Hadrian had been dashed, and he staged a coup. A second-century horoscope of the emperor claims that he nearly died when he was sixty-one years and ten months old, namely November 137. To be technical, “the degrees of the Horoscopos and the moon in Aquarius come into quartile to Saturn, which, however, is not destructive because Venus is in aspect to it (Saturn) also the second time.” This was presumably a reference to Pedanius’ plot. It failed, and it was the great-nephew who lost his life, not the emperor.
A horoscope of Pedanius reports him as coming “of an illustrious family of the highest level—I speak of his father and mother, both of high repute.” The document continues (minus planetary data): “Having been born with great expectations and thinking he was coming into the imperial power, he was given bad advice and fell from favor about his twenty-fifth year. He was denounced to the emperor and was destroyed along with a certain old man of his own family, who was himself slandered because of him. In addition, all members of his family because of him were done away with in a lowly manner.”
The “certain old man” was Servianus. Whether or not he was implicated in the conspiracy, it was unsafe to let him live once Pedanius had been removed. He was either executed or (so the Historia Augusta says) instructed to commit suicide. The alleged offense was ambition for the throne, presumably on his grandson’s behalf rather than his own. The evidence, such that we have, smells of prosecutors making the most of little: the charge sheet noted that “he gave a feast for slaves in the royal household, sat in a royal chair placed close to his bed, and, though an old man of ninety, used to go out and meet the soldiers on guard duty [at the palace].”
Before he died, Servianus asked for fire with which to burn some incense. As he made the offering he exclaimed: “That I have done nothing wrong, you gods know very well. As for Hadrian, this is my only prayer, that he may long for death, yet be unable to die.”
Two literary sources claim that “many others” or “many from the Senate” were also put to the sword, either openly or by subterfuge. However, they name no names, and the accusation may be false—a malicious lie, an exaggeration of a purge of officials, or a simple mistake. If there is truth in it, though, the deaths were doubtless related to the Pedanius affair. To many they echoed the scandalous executions of 117, and the Senate’s old resentment against the emperor returned.
At about this time (or perhaps in the following year) another illustrious death occurred—that of the empress. A late source reports that “his wife, Sabina, while she was nearly being incapacitated by servile affronts, was driven to a voluntary death.” A forced suicide is possible, but improbable. Although the husband and wife cordially loathed each other, the emperor took great pains to ensure that Sabina was treated with respect. She accompanied him on many of his travels and received all the honors due to an empress. Hadrian immediately had his late wife deified, enabling her to join her mother, Marciana, and Plotina on Olympus. Her apotheosis was recorded on an aureus, on the reverse of which she is shown seated on a flying eagle.
However, her disappearance just when the regime was undergoing a painful succession crisis is odd. The empress was still only in her late forties or early fifties and, in the normal course of events, should have expected another ten or twenty, even thirty, years of life. If there really was a Hadrianic bloodbath, it is conceivable that Sabina would have joined the other victims, should the emperor have suspected that she would scheme against his settlement when he was gone. The Historia Augusta mentions a rumor that he poisoned her, but there is no other evidence for this. Apart from the mysterious scandal during the visit to Britannia when Suetonius lost his job as imperial secretary for lèse-majesté, Sabina had no more recorded involvement in politics than Plotina had as Trajan’s consort. The timing of her departure is most likely to have been merely a coincidence of fatalities.
Marcus Annius Verus was fifteen in April 136, by which time he had come of age and exchanged the red-striped toga praetexta of the child for the adult’s plain toga virilis. As had been the case with the teenage Hadrian, the consuls appointed him to the honorary, and highly honorific, post of prefect of the city, praefectus urbi (not to be confused with the official of the same name who was in charge of the city’s administration). The prefect, a boy from an aristocratic or imperial family, was left nominally in charge of the city of Rome when all the officeholders from the consuls down processed to the Alban Mount a few miles outside Rome and celebrated there the Feriae Latinae.
Marcus was still the apple of Hadrian’s eye. He won golden praises for his ceremonial performance as prefect, and at banquets given by the emperor. He loved boxing and wrestling, running and fowling: he was a huntsman and an excellent ball player. However, he remained a studious youth. According to the Historia Augusta,
His enthusiasm for philosophy led him away from all these pursuits and made him an earnest and serious-minded person. Yet it never completely took away a certain personal warmth … he was austere but not unreasonably so, reserved but not shy, serious but not depressive.
It was at the emperor’s express wish that Marcus had been betrothed to Ceionia Fabia, one of Ceionius Commodus’ daughters. This may provide a clue of Hadrian’s real intention when deciding on the adoption. Aware of the man’s poor health, he only wanted him to keep the seat warm for Marcus until he was old enough to assume the purple (as a matter of fact, Ceionius had a son of his own, but he was no more than seven years old and perhaps only five, young enough to be disregarded). Augustus’ efforts to plan for the long-term succession of a grandson provided a precedent, although not a happy one as things turned out. He had expected Tiberius, a capable general and administrator, to govern the empire until young Gaius Caesar was ready to hold the reins of power. Tiberius refused to play the part allotted to him, and both Gaius and his younger brother Lucius died prematurely.
Once again, the fates put an end to an emperor’s hopes. Hadrian had not originally realized just how ill Aelius Caesar was, but he came to see that the prognosis was poor. He repeatedly used to say, “We have leaned against a tottering wall and have wasted the four hundred million sesterces which we gave to the people and the soldiers on the adoption of Commodus.”
Aelius Caesar spent less than a year on the Danube, where he had by no means been a failure as a commander. Before the end of 137 he was back in Rome. He was due to deliver an important speech before the Senate on January 1, but on the preceding night he collapsed. He took an overdose of some medicine, and his condition deteriorated further. He hemorrhaged badly and lost consciousness, dying on New Year’s Day. The emperor forbade mourning, so as not to prevent the annual vow-taking ceremony for the safety of the state. The adoption had been greeted with “universal opposition,” and there was no question of deification.
It was a near-disastrous setback. Hadrian himself was failing; he was looking emaciated and suffered from dropsy. A new succession plan was urgently needed. On January 24, his sixty-second birthday, he summoned leading senators to his sickbed, from which he addressed them.
My friends, I have not been permitted by nature to have a son, but you have made it possible by legal enactment … Since Heaven has bereft us of Lucius [Aelius Caesar], I have found as emperor for you in his place the man whom I now give you, one who is noble, mild, tractable, prudent, neither young enough to do anything reckless nor old enough to neglect anything.
This time Hadrian’s choice had fallen on someone entirely unexceptionable. He confessed later: “I made my decision even when Commodus was alive.” His successor was to be Titus Aurelius Fulvius Boionius Arrius Antoninus. He was a middle-aged senator of great wealth and with impeccable antecedents. He was orphaned as a child and his grandfather Titus Arrius Antoninus had brought him up. An amiable friend of Pliny, an intimate of Nerva, and a skilled versifier in Latin and Greek, Arrius was a senator of the old school who held the consulship “with the dignity of a bygone age.”
The adoption of Arrius Antoninus’ grandson as the new Caesar was an astute move on Hadrian’s part, for it symbolized the entente between the two parts of the ruling class—those who were willing to collaborate with the emperors and traditionalists, including survivors of the Stoic opposition, still in mourning for the Republic. This entente had been Nerva’s great achievement, and Antoninus was an assurance of its continuance into the future.
Good-natured and distinguished in appearance, Antoninus was an excellent public speaker. From Hadrian’s point of view he had the overriding advantage of being a man of peace. He had no military experience of any kind and so there was little chance of a return to military aggression and imperial expansion.
The emperor had privately contacted Antoninus immediately after Aelius Caesar’s death, but the senator asked for time to consider the invitation before accepting it. Perhaps he had something of Arrius in him and feared that the attractions of power were overrated. Also, Hadrian’s offer came with conditions. Antoninus was to adopt Marcus, his verissimus, now seventeen years old, along with the dead Commodus’ little son—probably confirmation that the boy had been the emperor’s preferred choice all along. His solution was not without risk: Antoninus might disregard the adoptions after his death, or die before Marcus was old enough to take over. But if all went well, the empire would be in the hands of two competent and well-intentioned rulers for another couple of generations. It was a bet worth taking.
After due thought, Antoninus accepted the emperor’s offer. He insisted on retaining his cognomen and was known as Titus Aelius Hadrianus Antoninus. Marcus became Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus; today we call them Antoninus Pius (pius means “loyal” or “dutiful”) and Marcus Aurelius.
The end was near. The emperor suffered from bad dreams; in one of them he asked his father, fifty years dead, for a sleeping draft. On another occasion he was overcome by a lion, a distorted memory perhaps of his last hunt with Antinous in the sands of Libya. He was no longer really in a fit condition to attend to affairs of state, but he insisted on trying to do so. In practice, Antoninus, officially endowed with proconsular imperium and tribunicia potestas, very soon found himself in charge of the government machine.
The emperor still placed confidence in “charms and magic rituals” and he received temporary relief from his dropsy, but his limbs soon filled up with fluid again. It would seem that Hadrian had contracted congestive (that is, fluid-retaining) heart disease, a condition that could have lasted for a couple of years or so. As has been seen, he may also have been suffering from chronic erysipelas.
It is impossible to assign a definite cause at this distance in time, but one clear possibility is reduced blood flow to the heart through the coronary blood vessels. If reports of Hadrian’s heavy drinking with Trajan are correct and reflect a long-standing habit, this may have led to alcoholic cardiomyopathy, a weakening of the heart muscle or a change in its structure. Cardiac failure means that the heart’s function as a pump to deliver oxygen-rich blood is inadequate to meet the body’s needs. This in turn reduces the kidneys’ normal ability to excrete salt and water. As a result the body retains more fluid which descends to the legs when the sufferer is standing or sitting. Hence the symptoms of dropsy.
Hadrian would have found temporary relief by lying down, but that risked fluid gathering in the lungs and shortness of breath. Sometimes he would have awoken at night, gasping for air. He may have had to learn how to sleep seated upright. Excess fluid also prompts increased urination, especially at night, and when it accumulates in the liver and intestines causes nausea, stomach pain, and a loss of appetite.
The emperor felt as if he were dying every day, and came to long for an immediate end. He asked for poison or a sword, but nobody would give them to him even if he promised money and immunity from prosecution. The curse of Servianus had come to pass.
Finally, Hadrian sent for Mastor, the captive tribesman from the Iazyges, who had acted for years as his hunting assistant. According to Dio Cassius,
partly by threatening him and partly by making promises, he forced the man to promise to kill him. He drew a colored line about a spot beneath the nipple that had been shown him by Hermogenes, his physician, in order that he might be struck a fatal blow there and die without pain.
Antoninus was informed of what was happening and went to see Hadrian, taking the guards and city prefects with him. He begged the emperor to endure the course of his illness with equanimity. Now that Antoninus was his adopted son, he would be guilty of patricide if he allowed him to be killed. Hadrian lost his temper and ordered the whistle-blower to be put to death (Antoninus ensured that the sentence was not carried out).
He now drew up a will. Somehow he acquired a dagger, but the weapon was taken from him. He instructed his doctor to give him poison, and the doctor committed suicide to avoid having to administer it.
Two eccentric visitors called, both of them claiming to be blind. First, a woman said she had been told in a dream to coax Hadrian from suicide, for he was destined to make a full recovery. After meeting the emperor, she recovered her sight, or so he was assured. Then an old man turned up when Hadrian was suffering from a fever. He touched the patient, whereupon he saw again and the fever vanished. The emperor’s biographer, Marius Maximus, believed that these were benevolent hoaxes. The court knew its Hadrian, and his penchant for magic.
Hadrian enjoyed periods of remission, or at least quiescence, for he managed to muster the energy to write an autobiography during these last months, almost certainly in the form of a letter to Antoninus. A fragment of a copy on papyrus of its opening lines has been found at Fayum in Egypt. It reads like an indirect apology for attempting to do away with himself (at some point about now he asked those close to him to keep a suicide watch). He wrote:
I want you to know that I am being released from my life neither before my time, nor unreasonably, nor piteously, nor unexpectedly, nor with faculties impaired, even though I shall almost seem, as I have found, to do injury to you who are by my side whenever I am in need of attendance, consoling and encouraging me to rest.
His mind turned to his birth father, who, he calculated, “fell ill and passed away as a private citizen at the age of forty, so that I have lived half as long again as my father, and have reached nearly the same age as my mother.”
He also wrote a poem, a short address to his soul as it quits its body and sets out for the unknown. It is a fine piece of work, allusive, adroitly opaque—and owing more to Hadrian’s favorite, Ennius, than to fluent, smooth Virgil.
animula vagula blandula
hospes comesque corporis
quae nunc abibis? In loca
pallidula rigida nudula
nec ut soles dabis iocos
Little soul, you charming little wanderer,
my body’s guest and partner,
where are you off to now? Somewhere
without color, savage and bare;
you’ll crack no more of your jokes once you’re there.
The failing emperor retreated from Rome to an imperial villa at the seaside resort of Baiae. He abandoned his medical regimen and ate and drank whatever he liked. This precipitated a final crisis and he lost consciousness after shouting out loud: “Many doctors killed a king.”
On July 10, 138, the man who entered life as Publius Aelius Hadrianus left it as Imperator Caesar Divi Traiani filius Traianus Hadrianus Augustus. His next name was due to be Divus Hadrianus, Hadrian the God. But he very nearly failed to make the grade.