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Who Was Hadrian?

Even if one does not agree with the German scholar Otto Hirschfeld, who in 1905 called Hadrian “the most remarkable of all the Roman emperors,” one may agree with Sir Samuel Dill, at one time professor at Belfast, who a year earlier had called him “the most interesting” among them. Ancient writers remark on his complicated character, on his having many admirable qualities and at the same time their opposites.

That he was a successful ruler of the Roman Empire during his reign between AD 117 and 138 cannot be denied. His immediate reversal of the policy of imperial expansion of his predecessor, Trajan, though it was highly controversial, can be plausibly defended. Although, unlike Trajan, Hadrian won no great victories in the field, he was an effective controller of the great armies that guarded the Roman Empire, who traveled about its vast territories as no other emperor ever did and did much to strengthen their defenses. The building of the great fortification in the north of England that bears his name is only one of numerous measures that he took to protect the Empire against its barbarous neighbors, who in the following century were to do so much havoc. His choice of his successor, Antoninus Pius, and indeed of his successor’s successor, Marcus Aurelius, is generally agreed to have had excellent results. Gibbon wrote that “if a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian [AD 96] to the accession of Commodus [AD 180]”; and a considerable share of the credit for that state of affairs belongs to Hadrian.

At the same time this emperor had marked intellectual interests; he found time to cultivate them to a remarkable extent, and his power enabled him to indulge unusual tastes.1 Like Nero, but far more intelligently, he was devoted to Greek culture, and he did much to comfort and encourage the eastern section of the Empire, which had suffered grievously during the civil wars that began during the last stages of the Roman Republic. Splendid buildings that he caused to be constructed, both in Italy and Greece, still continue to impress the visitor. His love of literature and art went together with wide knowledge; he even wrote poems, one of which deservedly appears in most anthologies of Latin literature.

All these achievements stand to Hadrian’s credit; yet just as the benefits of Roman rule are balanced by its frequent cruelty and ruthlessness, so in the notoriously complicated character of Hadrian the noble qualities were offset by vanity, perversity, and vindictiveness. He genuinely loved literature and the arts, but his taste shows tiresome affectation. A preference for early Roman writers over the classics was not rare, even in the time of Horace, and in the time of Hadrian it was common; but Hadrian carried it a long way, preferring to Sallust, the greatest archaizing writer of the Ciceronian age, the early annalist Coelius Antipater. Among Greek poets, he preferred the work of Antimachus of Colophon, who in the age of Plato foreshadowed the later learned poets of Alexandria, to the work of Homer. Like Kaiser Wilhelm II, he liked to display his dilettante expertise in putting down the most celebrated experts.

The sophist Favorinus, corrected by Hadrian for having used a word which was in fact found in the works of respectable authors, afterward remarked, “Who can quarrel with the master of thirty legions?”2 Favorinus is said to have been exiled by him; the great architect Apollodorus, who early in his career had snubbed Hadrian, is said, perhaps truly, to have been executed by him. Hadrian was capable of generosity, but also of pettiness and meanness. The dangerous revolt of the Jews during his reign was provoked by his unwise attempt to Hellenize them. His relationship with his predecessor, Trajan, was complex to a degree, and the circumstances of his accession to power are enveloped in mystery. His reversal of Trajan’s policy of imperial expansion was by no means agreeable to everyone, and he had many enemies. Both the beginning and the end of his reign were marked by the execution of important persons against whom he had a grudge. Hadrian loved hunting, and it seems that he enjoyed killing.

The greatest Roman historian of the twentieth century, Sir Ronald Syme (1903-1989), found the complexity of Hadrian’s character to be “reassuring rather than perplexing.” “Fragmentary and defective though the evidence may be,” he continued, “we confront a real person, not a hero or a villain, not a conventional artefact or a political projection. In short, something like a character in a modern novel.” Hadrian indeed is the subject of a highly successful modern novel, which takes the form of a fictional autobiography, Les Mémoires d’Hadrien, by the late Marguerite Yourcenar. Although a Belgian and a longtime resident of Mount Desert Island, Maine, Yourcenar was the first woman to become a member of the Académie Française; Colette had had to content herself with belonging to the Académie Goncourt.

One of the essays about various aspects of the emperor which are scattered about the seven volumes of Syme’s Roman Papers,3 the text of a lecture given in Oxford in 1984, is devoted to the topic of fictional history, including an examination of Mme. Yourcenar’s work. Syme does not question the right of the writer of an historical novel to depart from strict veracity, but he finds it “alarming” when an author who does this claims that his work is historically accurate; he cites the instance of Robert Graves’s King Jesus, whose author, according to his biographer Martin Seymour-Smith, “believed what he was writing to be the historical truth.”

One recalls that many people, both learned and unlearned, tried to show that Flaubert’s Salammbô was full of historical inaccuracies, until the Italian scholar L.A. Benedetto demonstrated that Flaubert had in fact made himself familiar with almost every possible source of knowledge relevant to his subject; but Flaubert had cleverly placed his story in Carthage, about whose life we know almost nothing. The central character, or characters, in that work are, as Syme observes, invented; but that does not alter the fact that the historical background is largely authentic.

In Marguerite Yourcenar’s novel the central characters are real people, and the author claims for her work that “sa valeur humaine est néanmoins singulièrement augmentée par la fidélité aux faits.” But it also happens that the sources of our knowledge of the life of Hadrian are both defective and complicated to a high degree, as will presently be explained, and though in the appendix to her book describing her sources and her use of them Mme. Yourcenar cites some forty books and articles, Syme pointed out that she failed to reckon adequately with this unfortunate fact.

There has been until now no adequate modern biography of Hadrian; this is strange, especially when one remembers how much the age of Hadrian and the Antonines has in common with that in which we are now living. Wilhelm Weber, who came to occupy the chair in Berlin once held by Theodor Mommsen, produced in 1907 a life of Hadrian that is learned, but somewhat dry; the Oxford tutor B.W. Henderson in 1923 brought out a life that is lively but superficial, and not helped by a prejudice against what its author calls “Teutonic scholarship.” In particular Henderson inveighs against the practice of investigating the sources, often lost, of extant works (Quellenforschung). But as Syme remarked, an adequate life of Hadrian without investigation of sources is impossible.

But now we are fortunate enough to have an up-to-date biography of high quality by a learned member of a remarkable family of scholars, who is thoroughly familiar with the work of Syme and has edited five of the seven volumes of Syme’s Roman Papers. His command of the ancient evidence for the life of Hadrian appears to be complete, and his firm grasp of the complicated history of the whole relevant period is impressive.

No adequate account of Hadrian’s reign by an ancient historian exists. Tacitus was born nearly twenty years before he was, and the last emperor whose reign he described was Domitian (81-96). True, Tacitus was still writing during Hadrian’s reign, and Syme in his great book on that historian conjectured that, when writing of the twisted character of Tiberius, who like Hadrian had to wait for the succession through many years of uncertainty, and of the ingenuous philhellenism of Nero, he sometimes obliquely glanced at the occupant of the throne in his own time; but that is a matter of speculation, and relates to attitudes and not to facts. Book 69 of the historical work of the consular historian Cassius Dio (who lived between about 155 and 235) covered Hadrian’s reign; but that book is preserved only in epitome, and Cassius Dio is not a historian of the highest quality. A life of Hadrian is the first in the series of biographies of emperors known as the Historia Augusta; but this work is notoriously inadequate, displaying much frivolity and containing an admixture of fiction. It purports to have been written by six separate writers; but all of them write in the same style, and in 1895 Hermann Dessau argued that they were all written by the same person. His theory has won general acceptance, though the nature of the work is still the subject of controversy.

Syme argued that the author of the so-called Historia Augusta wrote in about AD 400, and wished to make fun of the excellent historical work of Ammianus Marcellinus, which had been published not long before that date; his view has been contested, notably by the eminent Italian historian Arnaldo Momigliano (1909-1987), and the discussion continues. In any case the biography of Hadrian in the Historia Augusta must be used with caution, a fact of which Mme. Yourcenar seems to have been altogether unaware. Some of Historia Augusta derives from the lost real autobiography of Hadrian, some from a basic historical source, also lost, some from Marius Maximus, who continued the Lives of the Caesars by Suetonius, “with malice and with many scandalous anecdotes,” and part is the invention of the frivolous impostor who compiled the work. But in the appendix describing her sources Mme. Yourcenar assures us that Cassius Dio and the author of Hadrian’s life in the Historia Augusta were “singulièrement proches du fait vécu,” and that modern researchers have corroborated their statements more often than not—“le plus souvent de façon saisissante.”

Syme’s treatment of the novel is not a case of a learned pedant picking holes in a noble imaginative work; Syme was a highly cultivated person, and a considerable literary artist. His own style, which is terse and pungent, with many short sentences, is very different from the dignified amplitude of the novel he discusses. Yet Syme is properly respectful of the merits of Mme. Yourcenar’s book. He speaks of its “grace and power of style, fluent and vivid, yet severe and classic—and archaic,” and observes that in comparison with the work of some recent historians her book “may not fare too badly.” But Syme lists and examines numerous inexactitudes. One example should serve: “Much space is allotted,” Syme writes, “to the consultation of a native [British] sorceress; and Hadrian spends a whole winter in London. The only evidence for that winter shows him in Spain, at Tarraco, where he escaped assassination by a slave.” Syme concludes that if the book is read for the wrong reasons, “grave misconceptions of a general order concerning Roman society and imperial government are in danger of being encouraged and propagated.”

  1. 1

    The Christian father Tertullian called him “an explorer of all curiosities”; the word “curiosities” carried a pejorative implication.

  2. 2

    For his relations with Favorinus, see L. Holford-Strevens, Aulus Gellius (University of North Carolina Press, 1988), pp. 74-75.

  3. 3

    Roman Papers, Vol. VI, edited by Anthony R. Birley (Oxford University Press, 1991), pp. 156-181 (“Fictional History Old and New: Hadrian”). There is also important discussion of Hadrian in Syme’s Tacitus (2 volumes, Oxford University Press, 1958).

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