This is a tale of two families and an orphaned boy.

The Aelii and the Ulpii had the usual share of irritations and friendships, marriages and estrangements, and their influence on the child lasted for his entire life. He was called Publius Aelius Hadrianus Afer, and he was born on the ninth day before the Kalends of February in the year when the consuls were the emperor Vespasian and his son Titus—that is to say, January 24, A.D. 76. Hadrian (for this is the English version of his name) first saw the light of day in Rome, but his hometown was far away, on the extreme edge of the Roman empire.

Andalusia, in southern Spain, is well sited, for it is the bridge between Europe and Africa and its coastline joins the Mediterranean Sea to the Atlantic Ocean. For many centuries it has been among the poorest regions of Europe. Farm laborers there are still among the worst paid in the Continent.

Barren lands and snowcapped mountains alternate with fertile fields watered by the Guadalquivir River, which rolls down the wide valley it wore away from rock through prehistoric millennia and pours itself into the main. A few miles upstream of the fine city of Seville is the undistinguished little settlement of Santiponce. Here, way below tarmac, apartment buildings, and roadside cafes, below the feet of its more than seven thousand inhabitants, lie hidden from view the unexcavated remains of Roman Italica. The population then was about the same as that of today, and the Aelii were among the leading families of this provincial backwater. This was little Hadrian’s patria, his place of origin.

On an eminence overlooking Santiponce, the splendid ruins of New Italica, added on to the original town by the adult Hadrian much later in his life, bake in the sun. Wide avenues, lined with the footings of vanished shady colonnades, crisscross a vast scrubby field, once an opulent and busy urban center but now populated only by a few dusty, undecided butterflies. Along a main street are the foundations of a public baths complex and the mosaic floor, displaying the signs of the zodiac, of a rich man’s villa. Through tall trees, the visitor glimpses one of the empire’s largest amphitheaters, all of it still in place except for some fallen upper arches.

Today’s Andalusia is beginning to recover its long-vanished prosperity, thanks to a revived democracy and membership in the European Union. From a viewing platform over which a nude statue of the emperor Trajan presides, new, snaking motorways look as if they are tying a knot around the ancient monuments; and nearby yet another Italica, this time “Nueva,” is rising from the ground. Blinding white high-rises and empty streets await their first occupants.

Two thousand years ago the region was among the wealthiest of the Roman empire. The Latin name for the Guadalquivir was the Baetis, and the province was called Baetica after it. The great geographer Strabo, writing in the first quarter of the first century A.D., had little time for most of Spain, which he found rugged, inhospitable, and an “exceedingly miserable place to live.” But Baetica was a different story.

Turdetania [another name for Baetica, after its aboriginal inhabitants] is marvelously blessed by nature; and while it produces all things, and in large quantities, these blessings are doubled by the facilities for exporting goods, [including] large quantities of grain and wine, and also olive oil, not only in large quantities, but also of the best quality.

Olive oil sold exceptionally well. A staple of the ancient world, it was part of everyone’s diet as well as being used for indoor lighting, cosmetics, soap equivalents, and medicine. Demand from a large city such as Rome was huge (perhaps as many as 5 million gallons a year were consumed), and Baetican landowners sold as much as they could produce.

Evidence for this is provided by the largest rubbish dump of the classical world, Monte Testaccio in Rome—an artificial hill 165 feet high and 1,100 yards wide composed entirely of broken-up amphorae, or earthenware storage jars, perhaps 45 million in all. They were often stamped with their contents and exporters’ names; most of those from Baetica contained oil, and it has been estimated that 130,000 of them, having contained not less than 2 million gallons, were deposited on the hill every year. Among the largest oil producers of southern Spain were the Aelii.

An Aelius first came to Italica when it was founded during Rome’s second long war with the merchant city-state of Carthage; strategically located on the coast of what is now Tunisia, in northern Africa, Carthage had dominated trade in the western Mediterranean for centuries.

For a long time the struggle went very badly. Hannibal, the Carthaginian general and one of history’s great commanders, spent more than ten years marching up and down Italy, winning battle after battle. At the time southern Spain was a Carthaginian colony, and the twenty-four-year-old Publius Cornelius Scipio led an expeditionary force there. After a masterly campaign, the young commander provoked a battle a few miles from Italica. Despite being outnumbered, he won a complete victory, interrupted only by a downpour. The battered and drenched Carthaginians tried to escape, but Scipio followed after and butchered them. Only six thousand men survived from a force of more than fifty thousand.

Scipio went on to invade Carthage itself, where he routed Hannibal on his home ground. The war was over, and the triumphant general was honored with a title to add to his ordinary names—Africanus.

A large number of sick and wounded legionaries were left behind in Spain and were settled in the new town of Italica, named after Italy. This was not, or not just, a case of convenient abandonment of veterans who had become a liability; once recovered, they would make themselves useful by keeping an eye on the locals, introducing them to the Roman way of life, and, in case of unrest, using military force.

Our Aelius, whose hometown was Hadria, about ten miles from the sea on Italy’s eastern coast, was among the human detritus of the war. How happy he was to be deposited permanently in a foreign land far from home cannot be determined. However, his children and his children’s children settled into the agreeable task of making money and rising in the world.

For about 150 years we have no news of the Aelii. Baetica prospered and, attracted by economic opportunity, immigrants from Italy poured in. Then in 49 B.C. civil war broke out in Rome. This was a struggle to the death between a charming, unscrupulous, and farsighted politician and general, Gaius Julius Caesar, and the aristocratic establishment that ran the Roman Republic. Most of the leading personalities in Italica had the ill judgment or the ill luck to choose the losing side. More than ten thousand men with an Italian background joined up to serve in the Republican army. Roman legions twice fought each other on Spanish soil and twice Caesar won; the second of these campaigns won him the war, too.

At about this time Hadrian’s great-great-great-grandfather, a certain Aelius Marullinus, was the first member of the family to become a senator. He was more astute than his compatriots, for the promotion can only have been at the victorious Caesar’s behest, a reward for loyalty.

Hadrian’s father—like him, named Publius Aelius Hadrianus Afer—was born a century later and married a woman from Gades, Domitia Paulina. Gades had been founded and colonized by Phoenicians from Tyre and Sidon on the Palestinian coast, just as Carthage had been. Some passing member of the great Roman clan of the Domitii must have conferred Roman citizenship on an ancestor, but Paulina’s origins were most likely to have been Punic (a Roman term for Carthaginian). The couple had two children, Hadrian and an elder daughter.

Aelius Hadrianus was among the growing number of wealthy Baeticans who decided to pursue political ambitions in Rome. Little has come down to us about his career, but he was evidently intelligent and able. He served in the senior post of praetor, probably in the year of his son’s birth. The authorities must have thought well of him, for he was probably only about twenty-nine or thirty years old, the minimum qualifying age for the praetorship. As praetor he either acted as a judge in Rome or received a commission to command a legion. This may have been followed by a provincial governorship (possibly in Baetica itself).

The Aelii were friendly with the Ulpii, another of Italica’s leading clans. The historian Dio Cassius, writing in the third century A.D., claimed dismissively that the Ulpii were of Spanish origin; they did not even have Italian or Greek blood from southern Italy in their veins, let alone Roman. But they, too, were probably among the town’s first settlers and originated from Tuder (today’s Todi), a hill town in northern Umbria, in those days celebrated for its martial valor.

Hadrian’s paternal grandfather married an Ulpia. This was an excellent match, for her brother was Marcus Ulpius Traianus (the cognomen doubtless derived from a marriage with one of the Traii, a Baetican clan with an interest in the mass production of amphorae). Traianus had once been governor of Baetica, and at the time of Hadrian’s birth was serving as governor of Syria, one of Rome’s most senior provincial posts. He had with him on his staff his talented and affable son—in the Roman way, also Marcus Ulpius Traianus, whom we know as Trajan.

The Ulpii were rich and grand, and Traianus was not the first member of his family to enter the Senate, the necessary but not sufficient qualification for which was a fortune of at least 1 million sesterces. Access to the Senate lay in the emperor’s hands, and conferred membership of the senatorial class, or ordo senatorius, on a man’s male offspring. It has been estimated that there were only at most four hundred active senatorial families throughout the empire, so a place such as Italica that boasted several was fortunate indeed.

The Aelii and Ulpii boasted no aristocratic Roman forebears in them. They were “new men,” the condescending phrase that the great and ancient families who had governed Rome for centuries applied to unknown politicians from outside their magic circle. They had exploited the economic opportunities that fertile Baetica offered, and were now determined to make their mark in Rome itself.

The baby Hadrian was in great peril. This was because the most life-threatening period of anyone’s life in the ancient world was that from birth to seven or eight years of age. Medical science was in its infancy, and while some doctors were pragmatists who encouraged healthy lifestyles and prescribed treatments that had been seen to work, others regarded medicine as a branch of philosophy or of magic, and allowed theory, often of the most bizarre kind, to replace observation.

Having managed to survive his arrival in the world, Hadrian was not yet accepted as being completely alive. Like other Roman newborn boys, he received his praenomen, or personal name, only on the ninth day after his birth, the delay reflecting the fact that many infants perished in the first week or so of life. The most common fatal diseases were gastric disorders—diarrhea and dysentery. The latter remained a threat throughout early childhood.

One of the consequences of the high rate of infant mortality was that upper-class parents took care not to become too attached to their children until they were reasonably confident that they would live. Mothers tended to avoid breast-feeding (despite the fact that this accelerated their liability to conception), and Paulina was no exception.

So a wet nurse had to be found. It was essential to recruit the right type of woman. According to a leading gynecological textbook of the period, the Gynaecologia of Soranus, she “should be not younger than twenty and not older than forty years, who has already given birth twice or thrice, who is healthy, in good condition, of large frame of a good color. Her breasts should be of medium size, lax, soft, and unwrinkled.” In addition, she should be “self-controlled”—that is, she should abstain from sexual intercourse and alcohol.

Paulina appointed a woman called Germana to this essential task, and we may suppose that she fulfilled the job specification. Her name suggests that she was a slave who originated in northeastern Europe. She was evidently a success, for she was later given her freedom and, in the event, reached a considerable age, outliving her charge.

Little else is known for certain of Hadrian’s infancy. His father, being a senator, was obliged by law to live in or near Rome, unless on a foreign posting. No doubt the family had a town house, and also a place in the country within striking distance of the capital. A colony of well-to-do Spaniards built or occupied villas at Tibur (today’s Tivoli), and the Aelii will surely have been among them. This fashionable resort about eighteen miles east of Rome was built on the lower slopes of the Sabine Hills, at the end of a valley through which the river Anio (today’s Aniene) passes. The town stands at the point where the valley narrows to a gorge.

The river rushes past with spectacular cascades and makes a loop around the town, and eventually joins the Tiber. Tibur was noted for an abundance of water and its cool, refreshing climate. Wealthy Romans escaped there from the suffocating summer heat of the capital, and sometimes lived in or near the town all year round. Their villas were often of great splendor. The fashionable author Statius wrote a eulogy of one palatial residence, a villa Tiburtina, in its wooded park by the banks of the rushing Anio. Hadrian must have visited it and marveled.

Should I express wonder at gilded beams,
or Moorish citrus wood for all the doorposts,
or shining marble shot with colored veins,
or water piped to flow through all the bedrooms?

The poet went on to describe every appurtenance of luxury, the mosaics, the works of art in ivory and gold, the gemstones, the statuary.

Hadrian probably spent much of his childhood in this enchanted spot, for which he harbored a lifelong affection.

For his first eight years Hadrian was left in the charge of his mother. Then, in 84 or thereabouts, Hadrian became the direct responsibility of his father and his formal schooling began. It is uncertain whether he was educated by a home tutor or sent to school. The leading educationist of the day, Marcus Fabius Quintilianus (in English, Quintilian), was worried that the typical family no longer offered reliable role models. Children were corrupted by kindness and were excessively spoiled (“they grow up lying around in litters”); he recommended the “broad daylight of a respectable school” in preference to the solitariness and obscurity of a private education. The Aelii may well have taken his advice.

Elementary school classes were usually held in a rented shop with an open frontage, like a porch, in a main square. The day started at dawn or earlier and ended in the afternoon with a visit to the baths. Teaching methods were both brutal and boring, testing memory rather than intelligence. Hadrian and his fellow pupils learned the names of letters before their shapes. They sang them forward and backward from a to x (there were no y or z in the Latin alphabet) and x to a. They then memorized groups of two or three letters and finally graduated to syllables and words. The basics of practical mathematics were also taught, to enable a Roman to act confidently in the daily to-and-fro of buying and selling, and of managing his money.

The schoolmaster, or ludi magister, guided Hadrian’s hand over his tablet when learning to write. Later he gave his students sentences to copy with their styluses on waxed tablets or with a reed pen and ink on papyrus or cardboard-thin wooden sheets. They had an abacus for counting and recited their multiplication tables in chorus.

In 85 or 86, when Hadrian was about ten years old, an event took place that transformed his world. His father died unexpectedly at the age of forty. A promising career near the summit of imperial politics was cut short. The cause of death has not been recorded, but he was most likely to have succumbed to one of the numerous epidemics in the ancient world, which struck impartially at rich and poor alike.

Domitia Paulina was in a difficult, but not altogether unusual situation. Women married young, sometimes as early as thirteen years old, soon or immediately after the onset of puberty, whereas their husbands would typically be much older, in their mid-or late twenties as a rule. Despite the high rate of mortality when giving birth, women were more likely to see their children into adulthood than were their spouses; it is estimated that only one third of twenty-five-year-olds had a living father, while nearly half still had a mother.

Hadrian’s mother or her family advisers considered what was best for the boy. He was heir to a fortune, and it was agreed that masculine guidance was required to keep a watchful eye over him as he grew up and to ensure that the family estate in Baetica was well managed. So two guardians were appointed, both of whom were townsmen of Italica. One was an eques (or “knight,” a member of the business or country gentry class, one rank below that of the political, or senatorial, elite), Publius Acilius Attianus.

The second was a glamorous and impressive figure—one of the Ulpii, and the son of Hadrian’s maternal great-uncle. He was Trajan, whom we first met in his youth when he served in the army under his father. Now thirty-two, he was proving to be an able soldier. A great admirer of Alexander the Great, he was ambitious for military glory. Tall and well made, “with a noble appearance,” he had a beak of a nose and a wide mouth. He had recently been praetor and had his eye on the crowning glory of a consulship, the public office that was the apex of a Roman’s political career (unless he dangerously aspired to the purple).

Trajan followed outdoor pursuits and was a keen huntsman. He seems to have been something of a mountaineer, an unusual hobby in his day, who enjoyed “setting foot on rocky crags, with none to give a helping hand or show the way.” He was a heavy drinker, and liked having sex with young men. He was on affectionate terms with his wife, Pompeia Plotina (in full, Pompeia Plotina Claudia Phoebe Piso), whom he married in 78. The union seems to have been a mariage blanc, and there were no children.

The quality that contemporaries noted and most respected in Trajan was his fair-mindedness. He had a reputation for never allowing his private pleasures to impinge on his public duties, a little-observed quality in the governing elite.

At the time, the guardianship of a ten-year-old Spanish boy was of little interest except to those directly affected; but, as it turned out, this was the moment when the fortunes of the Aelii and the Ulpii tied themselves together in an inextricable knot, with imponderable consequences for the future of Rome.

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