In A.D. 93 Hadrian was nineteen years old; it was time for a public career.

Senators’ sons with ambition, such as Hadrian, joined the vigintivirate, a college of twenty men who were allocated a variety of duties, some laborious and tiresome and others ceremonial. The most interesting job was usually restricted to those of patrician background; this was appointment as one of the three controllers of the mint, or tresviri monetales (only a nonpatrician, or plebeian, who commanded the most powerful political patronage could hope to capture one of these posts). The tresviri administered the production and design of the coinage—an important task, for coins were an effective and universal means of publishing state propaganda. We can infer that they worked closely with government officials.

At the other extreme, two boards were responsible for street maintenance in Rome and supervision of basic police duties (arrests, executions, and the collection of fines), and were to be avoided if at all possible.

Hadrian, being a plebeian, failed to win a post in the mint, but at least he was able to avoid the fatigue duty of civic administration. In 94 he served on the fourth and last of the vigintivirate committees, as decemvir stlitibus iudicandis, member of the Board of Ten for Civil Judgments. This demanded less onerous work than might at first appear. The decemviri chaired sessions of the Centumviral Court, which handled such noncriminal matters as disputed wills. The court enrolled 180 jurors, as a rule divided into up to four individual panels, each determining a different suit. Cases were heard in the Basilica Julia, a large conference hall in the Forum, Rome’s main square—once, before Augustus and the establishment of one-man rule, the arena of political debate and power, but now merely a legal and shopping center.

Large crowds gathered to witness legal encounters. They had no interest in the youthful presiding judges, whose task was little more than to preside. The advocates were the real attraction. Their speeches created great excitement and were popular cultural events, rather as sermons used to be in seventeenth-century England. A well-informed commentator argued that he knew oratory was not dead when he noticed that a “young patrician who had had his tunic torn off, as often happens in a crowd, stayed on in nothing but his toga to listen for seven hours.”

As a decemvir Hadrian had attendants, or viatores, at his disposal and secretaries who recorded proceedings and, it may be surmised, were able to offer legal advice on those occasions when he had to make a decision.

Hadrian was also appointed a sevir turmae equitum Romanorum, commander of one of six squadrons of young Roman “knights.” Unless a man was a member of a turma, he was excluded from holding significant public office. It was a high honor to be a sevir. Here we have the first evidence that Hadrian was being fast-tracked for future preferment, presumably because of official interest on the part of someone at the imperial court if not of the emperor himself. The discreet helping hand of Trajan can be suspected; as we have seen, at this time he may have been serving as governor of one of the two German provinces, Upper Germania and Lower Germania, but a letter to Rome would have been sufficient. Sura, too, could have put in a word.

In the same year an even more distinctive honor came the young man’s way, probably at the behest of one of the consuls for 94, who was a friend of Trajan and had served under Trajan’s father. He was appointed praefectus urbi feriarum Latinarum, city prefect for the Latin Festival. This great celebration, originally a sacred truce among the warring towns of Latium, took place on the Alban Mount, a hill overlooking the Alban lake about twenty miles southeast of Rome and not far from the emperor’s great villa. All the leading officeholders and public figures of Rome processed out of the city to sacrifice an ox at the antique shrine of Jupiter Latiaris, which stood on top of the hill. Offerings of lamb, cheese, and milk were made, and long and joyful feasting followed.

In theory, the praefectus was left in charge of the deserted city, in place of the consuls. But his duties were purely symbolic, and the post was awarded to young men with prospects. Julius Caesar appointed his great-nephew, the teenage Augustus (in those early days, called Gaius Octavius), and the emperor Claudius the youthful Nero. Hadrian was not in that league, but he was being singled out as a boy of promise.

Life was not all duty and ritual. Rome offered many opportunities for amusement and excitement. Apart from hunting, no record survives of young Hadrian’s leisure activities, but there was plenty for him to sample.

By the middle of the first century, Rome boasted more than ninety feriae, annual festivals or holidays. On these days no public business could be conducted and various forms of religious ceremony were conducted. However, no one in the Mediterranean world had yet picked up the Jewish notion of a seven-day week, and the concept of a Saturday or Sunday as a day of rest was unknown—let alone a weekend of leisure. Whether everyone laid down tools during the feriae and took time off may be doubted, but they were the only breaks in laborious routine.

Interspersed among and between the feriae were the games, or ludi. By the first century there were six sets of games at different times of the year over a total of fifty-seven days. Their purpose, at least in origin, was to reward the gods for Rome’s prosperity and success. They included the spring games in honor of the eastern goddess, the Great Mother, which took the form of a drama festival, and the licentious Ludi Florales, running from late April to early May, which featured naked actresses and prostitutes and took place partly at night. The last day of the Floral Games would have pleased Hadrian, for deer and hare were hunted in Rome’s premier racecourse, the Circus Maximus, whose grand marble stands, accommodating some 250,000 spectators, have long since gone and been replaced by today’s long, scrubby stretch of grass and dirt.

The greatest celebrations took place in the autumn, the Roman Games, or Ludi Romani, and the Plebeian Games, the Ludi Plebei. Programs of events were dominated by theatrical performances that were not universally popular; discontented audiences would shout, “We want bears!” or “We want boxers.”

Comedy and tragedy fell out of fashion under the emperors and were supplanted by the pantomimus, a dancer, usually male, who acted out all the parts in complex narratives. He was backed by flute and lute, sometimes even a full orchestra, and a singer or chorus. Plots were historical, mythological, or based on the masterpieces of Greek tragedy. A dancer’s repertoire was extensive and might even include a dialogue by Plato. What would one not pay to witness a dance performance that gave a wordless account of the philosopher’s theory of ideas?

Pantomimi had a reputation for sexual immorality, and at the same time were sought after and patronized by the upper classes. The emperor Caligula included a pantomimus among his favorites, and Nero acted as one himself. In Hadrian’s day there was an eccentric old noblewoman, Ummidia Quadratilla, who kept a troupe of pantomimi in her home; when she found herself at a loose end she used to watch them dance. Her priggish grandson Gaius Ummidius Quadratus lived with her; he disapproved and took care never to see them perform.

Pantomime should not be confused with the mime, which was a much coarser, more highly spiced kind of spectacle. It encompassed a wide range of performance styles: words, usually prose but sometimes verse, mingled with music and acrobatic displays. The titles of the shows suggest an affinity with today’s tabloid newspapers—“Millionaire on the Run,” “The Locked-Out Lover,” “From Rags to Riches.”

Sometimes condemned criminals joined the cast and were compelled to suffer, in character, real-life punishment. Apuleius, in his picaresque novel Metamorphoses, written in the second century A.D., described a typical provincial company as it planned a very singular display. As a climax of the entertainment, a murderess was to “marry” and have sex with a donkey. The donkey selected for the purpose was, in fact, the author’s hero Lucius, a young man transformed by a malevolent witch.

Lucius was led to the local theater and left to graze outside the entrance while warm-up acts were presented. Then a new stage set appeared, a bed shining with Indian tortoiseshell, piled high with a feathered mattress and covered with a flowery silk coverlet. At this point, Lucius the donkey took fright. He realized that the woman was to be fastened to him in some way, and once copulation had taken place (or was supposed to have done so) wild animals would be brought on to kill her. Lucius suspected that in the process he would lose his life as well, and seizing an unguarded moment galloped away.

Apuleius’ story is fiction, and the intended atrocity did not take place. However, it is known that a similar spectacle actually occurred in Rome, this time involving a bull: it replayed the legend of Pasiphaë, wife of King Minos of Crete, who fell in love with a bull and after copulation gave birth to the monstrous Minotaur, half bull and half man. Martial remarked approvingly on the event.

A minority of days during the games was given over to a sport that was hugely popular among all social classes—namely, chariot racing. Drivers and chariots belonged to four teams, or factions—red, white, green, and blue. In Rome these were substantial organizations that employed buyers, trainers, doctors, vets, grooms, and stablemen and were controlled by a team manager, or dominus. The factions attracted fierce, sometimes violent, loyalty among their fans.

There were two main racecourses in Rome, the Circus Maximus beneath the Palatine Hill and the smaller Circus Flaminius in the Campus Martius (the Field of Mars, a large area originally used for military training to the north of the city, but now largely covered with public buildings). Chariots were usually drawn by four horses, but on occasion up to ten; novices drove two-horse chariots. They waited in twelve starting boxes, charged down a long straight, maneuvered sharply and dangerously around a cluster of three turning posts, galloped back, turned again, and so on for seven laps. Races at the Circus Maximus, whose track was almost a quarter of a mile long, lasted about fifteen minutes.

Charioteers were hugely popular. Many of them began their careers as slaves, but bought their freedom with their prize money. They could earn giddyingly large sums: one of the most successful was a Spaniard from Lusitania, one Appuleius Diocles, who styled himself as the “most eminent of charioteers” and drove teams of chariot horses for twenty-four years. During this time he ran in more than four thousand races and came first nearly fifteen hundred times. He won a staggering total of 35,863,120 sesterces, although presumably some of this was payable to his faction management, and he earned himself a place among the superrich of ancient Rome.

Of course, few charioteers were as successful as Diocles. The twenty-two-year-old Eutyches was obviously not much good at his job. He died young, and the epitaph on his gravestone admits, touchingly, that

In this grave rest the bones of an inexperienced charioteer …
I was brave enough to drive the four-horsed chariots,
But never won promotion from the two-horse teams …
Please, traveller, lay some flowers on my grave.
—Perhaps you were a fan of mine while I lived.

Chariot racing was reserved for professionals, and young men from the upper classes were excluded from entering and driving their own chariots. The more raffish emperors might encourage an exception. Nero, predictably, allowed men and women of both the equestrian and senatorial orders to take part in the games whether as stage performers or as gladiators and charioteers. In Dio Cassius’ day, audiences were able to sit and watch members of Rome’s great families “standing down there below them [in the arena or onstage] and doing things some of which they formerly would not even watch when performed by others.”

This kind of permissiveness was not on offer under the Flavian emperors. In any event, Hadrian’s days as a tearaway were over and, even if he watched the thrills of the circus with a certain envy, his attention was now focused on climbing the lower rungs of the political ladder. While he enjoyed his distractions, from now onward he never let himself be distracted from the main business of ambition.

In A.D. 94 Hadrian was able to enjoy one of Domitian’s most extravagant innovations—the Capitoline Games, founded eight years previously to mark the rebuilding of the great temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus on the Capitol and staged every four years. They were founded on the Greek model and were evidence that the Hellenizing ideas of Nero were not dead. They attracted the disapproval of old-fashioned Roman moralists, who were shocked that the city’s most sacred precinct and its divine custodian should be sullied by non-Roman rites. Not so Hadrian. Whatever else he made of the Flavian regime, these games will have pleased a young man who was more Greek than the Greeks.

Everything was done on the grandest scale. Rather as with today’s Olympic Games, vast sums of money were spent on specially designed buildings. The Stadium in the Campus Martius held seats for about fifteen thousand spectators (its arcades were soon given over to brothels) and was reserved for athletic contests. Not far away, the Odeum was erected for musical performances. For centuries these were among the city’s most admired buildings (they have since completely disappeared).

The games featured chariot racing, gymnastics, and athletics (unusually, there was even a foot race for girls); also poetry, music, singing, and oratory. The emperor himself presided, wearing a purple toga in the Greek manner, with a golden crown on his head featuring images of Jupiter, his wife, Juno, and daughter, Minerva. This first year there were fifty-two contestants for the Greek poetry prize alone.

Competition was fierce and the games soon became very popular throughout the empire. They sent a powerful message of the high value that the government accorded to Hellenic culture. It was a message with which Hadrian heartily concurred, and to which he would return later in his life.

To modern eyes, the most disgraceful aspect of Roman culture was the gladiatorial display. Fights in the arena were called munera (literally, a munus meant a service, favor, or gift), and had nothing to do with the ludi. Slaves and criminals, complemented by a few volunteers, fought one another in costly spectacles.

The origins of this bloodthirsty practice are uncertain, but what evidence we have suggests that it began with sacrificial combats at the funerals of great men. By the end of the Republic, a century before Hadrian’s day, educated Romans such as Cicero found the whole business vulgar and boring, but acknowledged that watching men trying to kill one another was a training in physical courage.

Gladiatorial shows were so expensive that even emperors had to ration the number of days devoted to them in a year. In Rome, they were usually held in March and December, but also at other times when the emperor chose to celebrate particular events. Thousands of gladiators might take part in imperial spectacles, although other promoters were restricted to no more than 120 pairs. Small teams of gladiators toured the provinces.

Fighters wore different types of armor; some were heavily armed, whereas others, such as the Thraeces, or Thracians, were provided with a light shield and sickle. The most distinctive gladiator was the retiarius; he simply wore a tunic and was equipped with a net, a trident, and a dagger.

An ingenious recent calculation allows us to estimate a total of four hundred gladiatorial venues across the empire. Perhaps on average two shows a year were staged at each of them, featuring teams of about thirty gladiators, who would each fight twice. This would have meant about twelve thousand fighters in total. Perhaps four thousand were killed annually, a death rate of one in six per show. Numbers were made up by recruitment, signifying an annual throughput of sixteen thousand men.

In the public eye, gladiators were extremely sexy; they were the ultimate in masculinity, and their charms were much enhanced by their mortality. Juvenal evokes an upper-class woman’s fondness for “her Sergius,” who had

    one dud arm that held promise
of early retirement. Deformities marred his features—
a helmet scar, a great wen on his nose, an unpleasant
discharge from one constantly weeping eye. What of it?
He was a gladiator. That makes anyone an Adonis.

The Romans liked animals, and especially liked to see them killed. With considerable difficulty, elephants, bears, crocodiles, ostriches, leopards, even polar bears and seals (another first for Nero) were caught, transported to Rome, and trained to do tricks or fight against each other. Elephants were particularly popular, being attributed with a humanlike intelligence: Pliny the Elder claims that one beast, beaten for failing to learn a trick, was discovered at night practicing what he had to do.

As well as gladiators, the program for a munus would usually include one or more of three spectacles—armed men fighting animals, animals driven to fight each other, and unarmed condemned criminals exposed to starved carnivores. The first of these was not unlike hunting in the open, and so may have interested a keen huntsman such as Hadrian. Martial, with his unerring eye for the unpleasant, describes the death of a pregnant wild sow; a bestiarius wounded her in the stomach and, as she expired, a piglet ran out of her into the arena.

The government devoted much attention to, and spent resources on, the munera and the ludi. The powers of the people to vote politicians into office had been steadily whittled away, but emperors knew that their authority lay in part with popular support in and around the capital. State provision of subsidized grain and free public entertainment helped to ensure the loyalty of the masses. Juvenal’s sharp eyes saw this with poetic clarity. He noted that citizens no longer had a vote to sell, or even the wish to have one.

   Time was when their plebiscite elected
generals, heads of state, commanders of legions; but now
they’ve pulled in their horns. Only two things really concern them:
bread and the games [panem et circenses].

It was not surprising, then, that the Flavians sought to secure their new dynasty by a massive building commission. Within a few years of assuming the purple in 69, Vespasian began construction of the Flavian Amphitheater, or the Colosseum as we know it, still Rome’s most striking and unforgettable monument. Its seating capacity was around fifty thousand, so only a minority of the city’s inhabitants could squeeze in at one particular time. Although tickets for all public entertainments were free, gaining entry to a major show at the Colosseum must have entailed some string pulling.

The seating was arranged hierarchically in steeply serried ranks and, when the amphitheater was full, was a representation in small of Roman society. In the front row of the lowest tier, spaces were reserved for members of the Senate and for state priestesses, the Vestal Virgins. Next came places for the equites and so on to high up in the top rows, where slaves and women were allowed to sit. For the emperor himself was reserved an imperial box, or pulvinar (originally a cushioned couch on which images of the gods were displayed).

In 80, the Colosseum was at last ready. By that time Vespasian was dead and Titus had succeeded him. The new emperor opened the building with a spectacular celebration. One hundred days were set aside for an extravagant series of combats and animal hunts. The program, if uninterrupted, would surely have been too much for the most diehard enthusiast for slaughter and must have been broken up into manageable groups of days over the year.

Hadrian was only five years old when the Flavian Amphitheater first opened its doors and would not have been taken to the more bloodthirsty events. But it was a great moment in the history of the dynasty, and, as an associate of the Ulpian clan, which was high in favor at court, he would surely have been taken to some ceremony or other over which the emperor presided, or perhaps to a comparatively “safe” spectacle, such as the horse racing. Later, as a young man he had ample opportunity to experience the complete gallery of horrors.

Another kind of horror awaited Hadrian on the public stage. Domitian’s darkening mood as his reign proceeded had serious implications for anyone in the senatorial elite. People whom the young Spaniard knew, or certainly knew of, faced exile and execution, in large part through the law courts.

The Roman state had no public prosecution service or anything resembling a modern police force, so the legal system depended on a private citizen laying an accusation that some other person had committed an offense. He was called a delator, a denouncer. Often the matter concerned him directly, and he would either prosecute the case himself or commission an experienced advocate to do so on his behalf.

As already discussed, an upper-class Roman received years of training in oratory. Many launched their political careers as young men by initiating prosecutions in the public interest—for instance, against embezzling governors at the end of their terms. The most brilliant speakers, such as Marcus Tullius Cicero in the final years of the Republic, were in great demand, whether for the prosecution or the defense.

Gradually there grew up a class of advocate who made a regular, one might say “professional,” practice of informing against and prosecuting people on serious or capital charges. They flourished, for emperors found them useful tools with which to eliminate their opponents. Denunciations were accepted from every socioeconomic class, even slaves, but the delatores who were also advocates and were capable of prosecuting as well as naming their victims usually came from leading circles. They made large fortunes from their trade: if they attached maiestas, or high treason, to the list of charges, one quarter of a convicted man’s assets went to the prosecutor. Domitian relied on men like this to terrorize the senatorial elite, and especially members of the Stoic opposition, under cover of judicial propriety. Juries, made up of senators, were likely to convict when they sensed that the emperor approved or had even provoked the prosecution.

But being a delator was not without its dangers. If a case failed, then he was subject to the same penalties as the accused. What is more, he was likely to be pursued in the courts on other charges by his victim’s vengeful relatives or friends. One such was Baebius Massa. He served as governor of Baetica (and may have been in office during Hadrian’s visit to his estates there in 90), where he acted so corruptly that the locals brought charges against him. He was arraigned in Rome before his peers in the Senate, which commissioned two of its members—Herennius Senecio, a native of Baetica himself, and the younger Pliny—to lead the prosecution. This was a great state event and, as a senator’s son, Hadrian had the right to attend; if we bear in mind the Baetican connection and his interests as a leading landowner, he very probably did.

The case seems to have been straightforward. Massa was convicted, and his assets were frozen while compensation for the Baeticans was assessed. The consuls objected and quietly unfroze them. But this contradicted a senatorial vote and, when he learned of this unusual move, Senecio, supported by Pliny, protested and the consuls swiftly revoked their decision.

At this juncture matters took a sinister turn when a furious Massa prosecuted his prosecutor for high treason. Horror omnium, wrote Pliny, to a friend, of the Senate’s reaction. “Universal horror.”

A routine corruption case had been suddenly transformed into an attack on the Stoic opposition, of which Senecio was a leading and well-known member. One may well detect here the hidden hand of Domitian. In the aftermath of the Saturninus revolt, he was uncertain of the extent and sincerity of political support for him in the Senate. To begin with, he sought to conciliate potential troublemakers, but Massa’s outburst signaled the end of this uneasy entente. The ex-governor proceeded to prosecute Senecio, who had adopted a policy of dumb insolence toward the imperial government by refusing to compete for office after having won entry to the Senate as a quaestor. The implication was that the regime did not deserve his cooperation. Unsurprisingly, this was made much of during his trial, as was a political biography he had written of Helvidius Priscus, whom Vespasian had executed.

More trials followed, including that of Arulenus Rusticus, another author of incautious panegyrics of Stoic martyrs. Plutarch, the great Greek essayist and biographer, recounts that Rusticus was among the audience for a lecture he gave at Rome. “A soldier marched in and handed him a letter from the emperor. There was a silence. I stopped speaking so he could read the letter. But he did not, nor even open it, until I finished my lecture and the audience had left.” Neither his sangfroid nor his recent consulship saved Rusticus. Another victim was also a former consul, Helvidius’ son. Warned by his father’s fate, he spent much of his time in quiet retirement, but he had the misfortune to have written a stage farce about Paris of Troy and his first lover, the wood nymph Oenone, whom he threw over for Helen. Domitian decided that the piece was a satire on his own divorce from his wife, Domitia, and thus a capital crime. From this distance it is hard to tell whether a paranoid ruler was imagining conspiracy where none existed or whether his irrational fears brought conspiracy about.

In any event, all these men were put to death, and some of their relatives sent into exile.

This chain of murderous events, with its Baetican associations, came a little too close for comfort to Rome’s Spanish aristocracy, settled in its assembly of villas at Tibur. It felt as if the situation was foundering. Pliny, like many in the Senate a friend of the executed Stoics but no rebel and a trusty servant of empire, recalled these times: “I stood among the flames of thunderbolts dropping all round me, and there were certain clear indications to make me suppose that a like fate was awaiting me.”

The Aelii and the Ulpii were protected from personal harm by Trajan’s rise to favor, but Hadrian would have been upset by the emperor’s decision in 95, following Senecio’s death, to expel philosophers from Rome. “Philosopher” was code for teachers of Stoicism. Hadrian was much impressed by the Stoic outlook and at some point in his life became an admiring friend of Epictetus, although not necessarily at this early stage. As a student he may well have attended some of his lectures in Rome, but now that Epictetus was banished the opportunity for any longer-term relationship was removed.

The philosopher took a dim view of the regime’s approach to freedom of speech. He particularly resented its policy of entrapment. Speaking from experience (either of his friends or of himself), he said:

In Rome reckless persons are entrapped by soldiers. A soldier in civilian dress sits down next to you and begins by speaking ill of Caesar, and then, as if you had received a pledge from him of trust—the fact that he began the reproaches—you also say what you’re thinking. Then come the chains and the march to prison.

The expulsions did not come as much of a surprise. Philosophy was well enough respected, and even Domitian had no particular quarrel with Stoicism in itself, which (after all) accepted the principle of monarchy—always providing that the monarch was a philosopher-king. What the regime could not endure, though, was open criticism of the government and ostentatious withdrawal into private life by members of the senatorial class. These were the sins that had led to the recent purge, and now that the political practitioners of Stoicism had been disposed of, it was time to remove the theoreticians.

This was by no means the first occasion that foreign intellectuals had been cleared out of the city; indeed Domitian had ruled against them ten years previously. However, the Roman fondness for everything Hellenic meant that it did not take long for them to creep back, and some patrons at least took care to preserve their philosophical protégés from want.

Astrologers also felt the full brunt of the emperor’s anger. Hadrian was by no means alone in consulting the heavens about the future. It was precisely because Domitian shared this belief that he profoundly disapproved of its practice. Anyone plotting against him could establish the date of his future death, and this could help them win adherents. He would also be able to compute the name of the next emperor—a serious threat, for the one man who was by definition sure to survive Domitian was his successor.

As we know, Hadrian had a fearful secret in his possession. The horoscope that his ancient great-uncle had cast years before promised him imperial power. This was a wonderful daydream for an ambitious boy, but potentially lethal if he told anyone about it. In these slippery times, he kept silent.

For a young man at the outset of a political career, the performance of the emperor gave pause for thought. A vicious circle was clearly in process. The more Domitian sensed he was losing the confidence of the ruling class, the more punitive he became; and the more punitive he became, the more he lost the confidence of the ruling class. Could a wiser ruler break out of the vortex? Was it possible to govern by consent? And, if the answers to these questions were yes, how could a transition be planned to a virtuous circle that would avoid yet another civil war, a return to the terrible Year of the Four Emperors?

You can support our site by clicking on this link and watching the advertisement.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!