Who Was Hadrian?

Hadrian: The Restless Emperor

by Anthony R. Birley
Routledge, 399 pp., $50.00

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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.