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.”
A powerful defense against this danger is provided by the book under review. It includes further information about Hadrian from a variety of ancient sources, all of which are described in its introduction. Hadrian’s biographer must master the whole history of the period, taking into account the evidence not only of literary works but of inscriptions, coins, and works of art. Of all this material Professor Birley shows an impressive command. The nature of the evidence is such that it would be impossible to produce a readable biography without a certain measure of surmise, but the surmise in his book stands in such close relation to the actual evidence that it is hardly reasonable to complain of it.
Hadrian was born in AD 76, by which time Vespasian, who had returned from commanding the army besieging Jerusalem to emerge successful from the battles of AD 69, the Year of the Four Emperors, had been emperor for seven years. Although Hadrian was born at Rome, he came, like Seneca and Lucan, the great writers of the reign of Nero, of an Italian family that had long been settled in Spain, at Italica, not far from Seville, in the province of Baetica. Hadrian visited Italica at the age of fourteen, and may have stayed there for two or three years; but when he visited Spain as emperor, he did not return to that locality. People have tried to find Spanish characteristics in Hadrian; but two other Spaniards, Trajan and Marcus Aurelius, were very different, and Syme was surely right to say “those fancies are firmly to be repulsed.” His father, Aelius Hadrianus Afer, held the office of praetor (the next-highest magistracy to the consulship, with mainly judicial duties), and would no doubt have attained the consulship had he not died in his fortieth year. Like all holders of high office, he was resident in Rome. Hadrian may have visited Greece in early life, but Rome was the cultural capital of the world, and could provide a first-class education, with Greek teachers of high quality available.
When Hadrian was twenty the Emperor Domitian, a competent administrator but a tyrant who made many enemies among the governing class, was assassinated by members of his own household. His successor was Nerva, an elderly man of estimable character, who soon got into trouble; the Praetorian Guard, always difficult to control, mutinied and lynched Domitian’s killers. Nerva, who had no son, dealt with the situation by adopting as his heir a military commander of proved ability, Trajan (Marcus Ulpius Traianus), then governor of the province of Lower Germany. Not long after this, in AD 98, Nerva died and Trajan became emperor. Like Hadrian, Trajan had come from an Italian family that had settled in Spain. His aunt was Hadrian’s grandmother. Trajan had no son, and if he was to choose his heir from his own relations, Hadrian, whose ability must by this time have been evident, was the obvious person. However, Trajan did not adopt him until twenty-one years after he became emperor, just before his own death. It would appear that he did not find Hadrian congenial; but luckily for Hadrian, Trajan’s wife Pompeia Plotina, a highly intelligent woman who had considerable influence, felt differently.
A military tribune at the age of nineteen, Hadrian served as second-in-command of a legion on the Danube. Sent to Germany in AD 98 to express gratitude to Trajan on his adoption, he remained there with another legion. At the age of twenty-four he married Vibia Sabina, a great-niece of Trajan; their relations seem to have been frigid. When Trajan was fighting in Dacia (more or less equivalent to the plateau of Transylvania) against King Decebalus, Hadrian was with him as quaestor; then he was tribune, and later commanded a legion in the Second Dacian War (105-106), which ended with Trajan’s making Dacia into a Roman province. Hadrian duly became praetor, governed Lower Pannonia (south and west of the Danube, covering the valley of the Sava). In 108 he was consul, not one of the “ordinary” consuls who gave their name to the year, but a “suffect,” one of those who took over a consulship later and were less important. No consular appointment to govern a province followed, and in 112 he visited Greece, so far as we know, for the first time.
His first stop in Greece was at Nicopolis, in Epirus, on the northwest coast of Greece, where he became acquainted with Epictetus, a celebrated Stoic philosopher who had been a slave and like other Stoics had been banished from Rome by Domitian after the execution of certain senators with Stoic sympathies. Hadrian probably stayed there with his friend Arrian (Lucius Flavius Arrianus). Born in Bithynia, on the Black Sea, but a Roman citizen, Arrian was later to become consul and to govern Cappadocia. He was also the author of many works, some of them historical (one of them is our main source for the history of Alexander the Great), but also a treatise on hunting, a subject dear to Hadrian, a manual on military tactics, dedicated to him, and the Discourses and the Manual, from which we derive our knowledge of the philosophy of Epictetus.4
Stoicism seems to have appealed to Hadrian; Stoic determinism was easily reconciled with a belief in astrology, of which Hadrian had extensive knowledge. Going on to Athens, Hadrian relished the intellectual society of that city; he was made an Athenian citizen, and held the office of archon, the chief magistracy of the city. Of the Roman emperors Hadrian was the first to wear a beard, and it is usually guessed that he adopted this fashion during his stay in Athens. Greek men had commonly worn beards until the time of Alexander the Great, who forbade them on the ground that in hand-to-hand fighting the enemy could easily catch hold of them. After that most Greeks were clean-shaven, except for philosophers and other intellectuals. The first Roman to follow them in this is said to have been the younger Scipio Africanus (185-129 BC), who set the fashion for the future. Did Hadrian wear a beard in order to seem like an ancient Roman, or to seem like a Greek intellectual? Perhaps for both reasons, but chiefly for the latter.5
Still he did not stay long, for in 113 he joined the staff of Trajan for the emperor’s expedition against Parthia. The formidable Parthian kingdom extended from the Euphrates to the Indus, being separated from Roman territory by the buffer state of Armenia. In the last age of the Republic the Parthians had defeated an invading Roman army under the triumvir Crassus. Augustus had reached a settlement with them, obliging them to return the standards captured on that occasion, and for many years Rome maintained a more or less uneasy peace with them. But now Trajan had taken advantage of a dispute over the throne to take over Armenia and march through Mesopotamia and into Parthia. Trajan captured the capital and advanced as far as the Persian Gulf; he added three new provinces, Armenia, Mesopotamia, and Assyria, to the Roman Empire. But there was a serious uprising in his rear, and a Jewish rebellion in the eastern provinces spread to Mesopotamia, so that the emperor was obliged to retreat.
Meanwhile Hadrian became governor of Syria in 117, and he was designated as ordinary consul for the following year. During that year Trajan on his way home to Italy was taken ill at the small port of Selinus, in western Cilicia; Hadrian received news of his adoption, and on the next day that of the emperor’s death. Plotina, always Hadrian’s friend, was widely held to be responsible for the adoption. Some mystery surrounds the circumstances of Trajan’s end; the death of his butler, at the age of twenty-eight, a few days afterward may arouse suspicion. It must surely be agreed that Hadrian’s complicated relations with his predecessor and his long wait before the adoption must have had a decided effect upon his complicated character.
Along with Acilius Attianus, Prefect of the Guard, Plotina took Trajan’s body home, while Hadrian stayed in the east to deal with the disturbing situation. With a striking reversal of policy he abandoned Trajan’s three new provinces of Armenia, Mesopotamia, and Assyria; he also gave up part of the territory across the Danube which Trajan had annexed. In Rome, Attianus had four ex-consuls executed on a charge of conspiracy. When Hadrian returned to Rome in July of 118 he denied responsibility for their punishment; with lavish tax relief measures and gladiatorial games, he tried to conciliate his subjects.
Hadrian remained in Rome until the year 121, when on April 21, the birthday of Rome, which he now made into a major festival, he announced his plan for a splendid temple to the goddess Rome, together with Venus, who as mother of Aeneas was the legendary ancestress of the Roman kings. He also rebuilt the Pantheon, originally built by Augustus’ great marshal, Marcus Agrippa, and other buildings in the neighborhood. Then he set off for a long sojourn in the provinces. He went first to Upper Germany, where he built a continuous palisade, then to Britain, where he constructed Hadrian’s Wall; both fortifications were significant parts of his policy of containment of the barbarians and maintaining peace within fixed frontiers. Next he passed through Gaul on his way to Spain, wintering at Tarragona, and then through Africa on his way to the Euphrates in order to confirm the peace with Parthia. A tour of Asia Minor brought him once more to Athens, and then he slowly made his way to Rome, by way of Sicily, arriving in the summer of 125. It was at this time that he began the conversion of his villa at Tibur (Tivoli) into the vast and splendid palace whose remains can still be seen.
In the year 128 he again left Rome. After a brief visit to Africa he returned to Athens. During the sixth century BC the Athenian tyrant Pisistratus had begun a vast temple to Olympian Zeus, which remained unfinished despite an attempt to complete it during the second century BC by Antiochus Epiphanes, king of Syria. Hadrian now started work toward its completion. He remained in Greece for a whole year, visiting other places besides Athens. Next he passed through Syria and Arabia on the way to Judaea, where he caused consternation by banning circumcision. Jerusalem, which had been destroyed by Titus after its capture in AD 70, was now refounded as Aelia Capitolina. Like Antiochus Hadrian made an attempt to Hellenize the Jews, which had unfortunate results, including the revolt that broke out after he left.
Now he went to Egypt, accompanied not only by Sabina but by Antinous, a Bithynian boy of great beauty to whom he had become devoted. Under the Julio-Claudian dynasty noble Romans had discreetly veiled their homoerotic activities, but they had ceased to do so by the time of Domitian, whose favorite, Earinon, was celebrated by Statius in a long poem. Antinous was drowned in the Nile, to the great distress of his imperial master, who promptly had him deified.6
This kind of deification did not mean that the person deified was added to the Olympian gods; but emperors after their demise were commonly accorded a temple and a cult, and on occasion the relatives or associates of emperors received similar honors. For a person of Antinous’s social standing, such deification was unprecedented, and it was accompanied by the striking of special coins and medallions, the setting up of many statues representing the deceased, and the naming of a town in Egypt after him. It was put about that Antinous had somehow sacrificed his life in order to preserve that of his master; such beliefs might indeed arise from the astrology in which the emperor was an adept. Hadrian now passed through Syria and Cilicia on his way back to Athens, where he inaugurated the great temple and founded the Panhellenion, an association of cities from five eastern provinces, centering on Athens, which still existed in the middle of the following century.
Hadrian was then called away to Judaea by the outbreak of the Jewish revolt known as the rebellion of Bar Kokhba; it is not clear how long he stayed there, but the rebellion dragged on from 132 to 135, costing the Romans heavy casualties. Great cruelties were practiced by both sides; the Rabbi Akiba, the most important Jewish teacher in the period following the destruction of the Temple by Titus, was torn to pieces with red-hot pincers. The year 134 saw Hadrian back in Italy, in declining health, and usually remaining in his villa at Tivoli. In 136 he gave his mind to the question of his successor. His sister had married Julius Servianus, who was still alive, and they had a grandson, Pedanius Fuscus; but Hadrian disliked this family, and Servianus, aged ninety, was forced to commit suicide and Pedanius was executed.
Hadrian caused great surprise by choosing as his successor Lucius Ceionius Commodus, a young and not particularly distinguished senator known not to enjoy good health. In fact Ceionius died at the end of the year 137, and Hadrian then made a far better selection, adopting Titus Aurelius Antoninus, a senator of proved ability, aged fifty-one, who later reigned as Antoninus Pius. At the same time Antoninus was to adopt as sons both Ceionius’ son, later known as Lucius Verus, and his own nephew, later known as Marcus Aurelius. When Antoninus died in 161, never having left Italy during his reign, the two became joint emperors, but Verus left the government to his colleague and died eleven years before him, in 169. The age of the Antonines, as Gibbon wrote, was one of singular felicity; the world was peaceful and could enjoy an agreeable literary culture, feeding, as we do now, on the stores accumulated by previous ages when literature had been more vigorously alive. The modern reader can get an excellent notion of that culture from Leofranc Holford-Strevens’s learned and delightful book about Aulus Gellius, a writer representative of the period.7
Hadrian died on July 10, 138, aged sixty-two, failing to live to sixty-three and so attain the age astrologers called the “grand climacteric.” He was buried in Rome in a magnificent mausoleum, later Christianized as the Castel Sant’ Angelo; it was here that Clement VII took refuge when the army of Charles V under the Connétable de Bourbon was advancing on Rome in 1527, and it is here that Floria Tosca kills Scarpia and then jumps from the top, a leap that is not really possible. On his deathbed Hadrian composed this poem8 :
Animula vagula blandula,
hospes comesque corporis,
quo nunc abibis? in loca
pallidula rigida nubila—
nec ut soles dabis iocos.
Here is Professor Birley’s translation:
Little soul, little wanderer, little charmer,
body’s guest and companion,
to what places will you set out for now?
To darkling, cold and gloomy ones,
and you won’t make your usual jokes.
The whole complicated story is recounted by Professor Birley with exemplary learning and with great clarity, so that one feels guilty at having to observe that in delineating the complex character of Hadrian he lacks the penetration of Ronald Syme. For that quality, and for his special elegance and wit, one must turn to Syme’s Roman Papers.
December 2, 1999
The Christian father Tertullian called him “an explorer of all curiosities”; the word “curiosities” carried a pejorative implication. ↩
For his relations with Favorinus, see L. Holford-Strevens, Aulus Gellius (University of North Carolina Press, 1988), pp. 74-75. ↩
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). ↩
See Philip Stadter’s excellent study of Arrian (Arrian of Nicomedia, University of North Carolina Press, 1980). ↩
After Hadrian emperors were bearded, or at least ill shaven, until Constantine the Great. He was clean-shaven, but many other Christians wore beards; Tertullian (AD 160-225) had maintained that no beardless man could go to heaven, and Julian the Apostate (332-363) wrote a treatise against beards. ↩
Gibbon wrote that “The deification of Antinous, his medals, statues, city, oracles, and constellation, are well known, and still disgrace the memory of Hadrian. Yet we may remark, that of the first fifteen emperors, Claudius was the only one whose taste in love was entirely correct.” H.R. Trevor-Roper has pointed out to me that here Gibbon anticipates the sense of the word “correct” now familiar from the expression “political correctness.” For details about deifications, see S.R.F. Price, Rituals and Power: The Roman Imperial Cult in Asia Minor (Cambridge University Press, 1984). ↩
Holford-Strevens, Aulus Gellius. ↩
The meter is the iambic dimeter, with many resolved feet in the first and fourth verses. ↩