From New World Encyclopedia

Emperor Hadrian

Publius Aelius Traianus Hadrianus (January 24, 76 C.E. – July 10, 138 C.E.), known as Hadrian, was Roman emperor from 117 C.E.–138 C.E., and a member of the plebian family gens Aelia. Hadrian was the third of the "Five Good Emperors," although, according to Elizabeth Speller, he was the first emperor whose assessment moved beyond the stereotype of good and bad emperors. His reign had a faltering beginning, a glorious middle, and a tragic conclusion (Speller, 2003). Hadrian was renowned for his public speaking ability and also for his knowledge of philosophy. Some consider him among the most gifted men produced by Rome. He appears to have wanted to create a civil community or society throughout the empire, a type of free republic governed by the wisest and best teachers. All would “come together as into a common civic center, in order to receive each man his due” Rome always maintained a republican infrastructure.[1]

Hadrian was born in Rome to a well-established family that had originated in Picenum Italy and had subsequently settled in Italica, Hispania Baetica (originally Hispania Ulterior). He was a distant relative of his predecessor Trajan, being a grandson of Trajan's father's sister. Trajan never officially designated a successor, but, according to his wife Plotina, Trajan named Hadrian emperor immediately before his death. However, Trajan's wife was well-disposed toward Hadrian, and he may well have owed his succession to her. He is famous for building the defensive wall between what became England and Scotland, for his patronage of the arts, and for attempting to bind the former Greek city states together through a pan-Hellenic parliament. His policies in Palestine were harsh, resulting in Bar Kochba's revolt and the expulsion of Jews from Palestine, but his reign was generally peaceful. His policy of peace through strength, even through threat, perhaps compares to how more recent empires or powers have attempted to police the world, that is, by possessing far more military capability than any possible rival.

More questionable was Hadrian's personal life, in which he maintained a pederastic relationship of such intensity that he ordered his lover deified, and had temples built for his worship throughout the empire.

Early life

Hadrian was born in Rome and was the son of Publius Aelius Hadrianus Afer, a cousin of Trajan, from Italica in Hispania Baetica. His mother was Domitia Paulina of Gades. His sister was Domitia Paulina the Younger. After his father died (probably in 85 C.E.), Hadrian became the ward of Acilius Attianus and the future Emperor Trajan (Lambert, 1997). Hadrian was schooled in various subjects common to young aristocrats of the day and was so fond of learning Greek literature that he was nicknamed Graeculus ("Little Greek").

Hadrian enlisted in the army some time during the reign of Domitian. His first service was as a tribune to the Legio II Adiutrix. Later, he was to be transferred to the Legio I Minervia in Germany. When Nerva died in 98 C.E., Hadrian rushed to inform Trajan personally. He later became legate of a legion in Upper Pannoni and eventually governor of said province. He was also archon in Athens for a brief time, and was elected an Athenian citizen.

Hadrian was active in the wars against the Dacians (as legate of the V Macedonica) and reputedly won awards from Trajan for his successes. Due to an absence of military action in his reign, Hadrian's military skill is not well attested; however, his keen interest and knowledge of the army and his demonstrated skill of administration show possible strategic talent.

Hadrian joined Trajan's expedition against Parthia as a legate on Trajan’s staff (Birley, 1997). Neither during the initial victorious phase, nor during the second phase of the war when rebellion swept Mesopotamia did Hadrian do anything of note. However, when the governor of Syria had to be sent to sort out renewed troubles in Dacia, Hadrian was appointed as a replacement, giving him an independent command (Birley, 1997). By now, Trajan was seriously ill and had decided to return to Rome while Hadrian remained in Syria to guard the Roman rear. Trajan only got as far as Selinus before he became too ill to go further. Hadrian, however much he was the obvious successor, had still not been adopted as Trajan's heir. As Trajan lay dying, nursed by his wife, Plotina (a supporter of Hadrian), he at last adopted Hadrian as heir before he died Allegations that the order of events was the other way round have never quite been resolved (Speller, 2003).

Securing power

Hadrian quickly secured the support of the legions—one potential opponent, Lusius Quietus, was instantly dismissed (Lambert, 1997). The senate's endorsement followed when possibly falsified papers of adoption from Trajan were presented. Nevertheless, this rumor of a falsified document of adoption carried little weight. The real source of Hadrian's legitimacy arose from the endorsement of the armies of Syria and the senate ratification. It is speculated that Trajan's wife Plotina forged the papers, as historical documents show she was quite fond of Hadrian.

Hadrian did not at first go to Rome. He had his hands full sorting out the East and suppressing the Jewish revolt that had broken out under Trajan and then moving to sort out the Danube frontier. Instead, Attianus, Hadrian's former guardian, was put in charge in Rome. There he "discovered" a plot involving four leading senators including Lusius Quietus and demanded of the senate their deaths. There was no question of a trial—they were hunted down and killed.. Because Hadrian was not in Rome at the time, he was able to claim that Attianus had acted on his own initiative. According to Speller, the real reason for their deaths was that they were Trajan's men (Speller, 2003). The crushing of the Jewish revolt in 135 C.E. resulted in Hadrian's edict banning the Jews from living in Palestine, the name of which was changed to Syria Palestine. Jerusalem was destroyed and rebuilt as a pagan city.

Hadrian and the military

Extent of the Roman Empire under Hadrian.

Despite his own excellence as a military administrator, Hadrian's reign was marked by a general lack of major military conflicts. He surrendered Trajan's conquests in Mesopotamia, considering them to be indefensible. There was almost a war with Parthia around 121 C.E., but the threat was averted when Hadrian succeeded in negotiating a peace. Hadrian's anti-Jewish persecutions in Judea led to the massive Jewish uprising (132 C.E.–135 C.E.) led by Bar Kokhba and Rabbi Akiva. Hadrian's army eventually defeated the revolt and continued the religious persecution of Jews, according to the Babylonian Talmud.

The peace policy was strengthened by the erection of permanent fortifications (limites, singular limes) along the empire's borders. The most famous of these is the massive Hadrian's Wall in Great Britain. The Danube and Rhine borders were strengthened with a series of mostly wooden fortifications, forts, outposts, and watchtowers, the latter specifically improving communications and local area security. To maintain morale and keep the troops from getting restless, Hadrian established intensive drill routines, and personally inspected the armies. Although his coins showed military images almost as often as peaceful ones, Hadrian's policy was peace through strength, even threat (Speller, 2003).

Cultural pursuits and patronage

Castel Sant'Angelo, the ancient Hadrian Mausoleum.

Above all, Hadrian patronized the arts: Hadrian's Villa at Tibur (Tivoli, Italy) was the greatest Roman example of an Alexandrian garden, recreating a sacred landscape, lost in large part to the despoliation of the ruins by the Cardinal d'Este who had much of the marble removed to build his gardens. In Rome, the Pantheon built by Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa was enriched under Hadrian and took the form in which it remains to this day.

Hadrian took his architectural designs very seriously, but it seems no one else did. Apollodorus of Damascus, architect of the Forum of Trajan, dismissed his designs. When Trajan consulted Apollodorus about an architectural problem, Hadrian interrupted to give advice to which Apollodorus replied, "Go away and draw your pumpkins. You know nothing about these problems." The pumpkins referred to Hadrian's drawings of domes like the Serapeum in his Villa. Once Hadrian succeeded Trajan and became emperor, he had Apollodorus exiled and later put to death. It is very possible that this latter story was a later attempt to defame his character, as Hadrian, though popular among a great many across the empire, was not universally admired, both in his lifetime and afterward.

Another one of Hadrian's contributions to the arts was the beard. The portraits of emperors up to this point were all clean shaven, idealized images of Greek athletes. Hadrian wore a beard, as evidenced by all his portraits. Subsequent emperors would be portrayed with beards for more than a century and a half.

Hadrian was a humanist and deeply Hellenophile in all his tastes. While visiting Greece in 125 C.E. he attempted to create a kind of provincial parliament to bind all the semi-autonomous former city states across all of Greece and Ionia (in Asia Minor). This parliament, known as the Panhellenion, failed despite spirited efforts to instill cooperation among the Hellenes. Hadrian was especially famous for his love relationship with a Greek youth, Antinous. While touring Egypt, Antinous mysteriously drowned in the Nile in 130 C.E. Deeply saddened, Hadrian founded the Egyptian city of Antinopolis. Hadrian drew the whole Empire into his mourning, making Antinous the last new god of antiquity.

Hadrian died at his villa in Baiae. He was buried in a mausoleum on the western bank of the Tiber in Rome, a building later transformed into a fortress, Castel Sant'Angelo. The dimensions of his mausoleum, in its original form, were deliberately designed to be the same as the earlier mausoleum of Augustus.

Hadrian's travels

Much of Hadrian's reign was spent traveling. Even prior to becoming emperor, he had traveled abroad with the Roman military, giving him much experience in the matter. More than half his reign was spent outside of Italy. Other emperors often left Rome to simply go to war, returning soon after conflicts concluded. A previous emperor, Nero, once traveled through Greece and was condemned for his self indulgence. Hadrian, by contrast, traveled as a fundamental part of his governing, and made this clear to the Roman Senate and the people. He was able to do this because in Rome he possessed a loyal supporter within the upper echelons of Roman society, a military veteran by the name of Marcius Turbo. Also, there are hints within certain sources that he also employed a secret police force, the frumentarii, to exert control and influence in case anything should go wrong while he journeyed abroad.

Hadrian's visits were marked by handouts which often contained instructions for the construction of new public buildings. Indeed, Hadrian was willful of strengthening the Empire from within through improved infrastructure, as opposed to conquering or annexing perceived enemies. This was often the purpose of his journeys; commissioning new structures, projects, and settlements. His almost evangelical belief in Greek culture strengthened his views. Like many emperors before him, Hadrian's will was almost always obeyed. His traveling court was large, including administrators and likely architects and builders. The burden on the areas he passed through was sometimes great. While his arrival usually brought some benefits, it is possible that those who had to carry the burden were of different class to those who reaped the benefits. For example, huge amounts of provisions were requisitioned during his visit to Egypt. This suggests that the burden on the mainly subsistence farmers must have been intolerable, causing some measure of starvation and hardship (Speller, 2003). At the same time, as in later times all the way through to the European Renaissance, kings were welcomed into their cities or lands, and the financial burden was completely on them, and only indirectly on the poorer class.

Hadrian's first tour came in 121 C.E. and was initially intended to allow himself the freedom to concentrate on his general cultural aims. He traveled north, towards Germania and inspected the Rhine-Danube frontier, allocating funds to improve the defenses. However, it was a voyage to the Empire's very frontiers that represented his perhaps most significant visit; upon hearing of a recent revolt, he journeyed across the sea to Britannia.

Hadrian's Wall, a fortification in Northern England.


Prior to Hadrian's arrival in Great Britain, there had been a major rebellion in Britannia, spanning roughly two years (119 C.E.–121 C.E.). It was here that Hadrian initiated the building of Hadrian's Wall in 122 C.E. The wall was built chiefly to safeguard the frontier province of Britannia by preventing possible future invasions from the northern country of Caledonia (now modern day Scotland). Caledonia was inhabited by tribes known to the Romans as Caledonians. Hadrian realized that the Caledonians would refuse to cohabitate with the Romans. He also was aware that although Caledonia was valuable, the harsh terrain and highlands made its conquest costly and unprofitable for the empire at large. Thus, he decided instead to build a wall. Hadrian is perhaps most famous for the construction of this wall, whose ruins still span many miles and to date bear his name. In many ways the wall represents Hadrian's will to improve and develop within the empire, rather than waging wars and conquering. By the end of 122 C.E. he had concluded his visit to Britannia, and from there headed south by sea to Mauretania.

Parthia and Anatolia

In 123 C.E. he arrived in Mauretania, where he personally led a campaign against local rebels (Lambert, 1997). However, this visit was to be short, as reports came through that the Eastern nation of Parthia was again preparing for war. As a result, Hadrian quickly headed eastwards. On his journey east it is known that at some point he visited Cyrene where he personally made funds available for the training of the young men of well bred families for the Roman military. Cyrene had already benefited from his generosity when he, in 119 C.E., had provided funds for the rebuilding of public buildings destroyed in the recent Jewish revolt (Birley, 1997).

When Hadrian arrived on the Euphrates, he characteristically solved the problem through a negotiated settlement with the Parthian King (probably Chosroes). He then proceeded to check the Roman defenses before setting off west along the coast of the Black Sea (Birley, 1997). He probably spent the winter in Nicomedia, the main city of Bithynia. As Nicomedia had been hit by an earthquake only shortly prior to his stay, Hadrian was generous in providing funds for rebuilding. Indeed, thanks to his generosity he was acclaimed as the chief restorer of the province as a whole. It is more than possible that Hadrian visited Claudiopolis and there espied the beautiful Antinous, a young boy who was destined to become the emperor's eromenos—his pederastic beloved. Sources say nothing about when Hadrian met Antinous, but there are depictions of Antinous that show him as a young man of 20 or so. As this was shortly before Antinous's drowning in 130 C.E., Antinous would more likely have been a youth of 13 or 14 ( Birley, 1997). It is possible that Antinous may have been sent to Rome to be trained as a page to serve the emperor and only gradually did he rise to the status of imperial favorite (Lambert, 1997).

After meeting Antinous, Hadrian traveled through Anatolia. The route he took is uncertain. Various incidents are described, such as his founding of a city within Mysia, Hadrianutherae, after a successful boar hunt. The building of the city was probably little more than a mere whim—lowly populated wooden areas such as the location of the new city were already ripe for development. Some historians dispute whether Hadrian did in fact commission the city's construction at all. At about this time, plans to build a temple in Asia Minor were written up. The new temple would be dedicated to Trajan and Hadrian and built with dazzling white marble (Birley, 1997).


Temple of Zeus in Athens

The climax of this tour was indeed the destination that the hellenophile Hadrian must all along have had in mind: Greece. He arrived in the autumn of 124 C.E. in time to participate in the Eleusinian Mysteries, a popular cult of the time. By tradition, at one stage in the ceremony the initiates were supposed to carry arms, but this was waived to avoid any risk to the emperor among them. At the Athenians' request he conducted a revision of their constitution—among other things a new phyle (tribe) was added bearing his name (Birley, 1997).

During the winter he toured the Peloponnese. His exact route is uncertain, however Pausanias reports of tell-tale signs, such as temples built by Hadrian and the statue of the emperor built by the grateful citizens of Epidaurus in thanks to their "restorer." He was especially generous to Mantinea, which supports the theory that Antinous was in fact already Hadrian's lover, because of the strong link between Mantinea and Antinous's home in Bithynia (Birley, 1997).

By March of 125 C.E. Hadrian had reached Athens, which was in the midst of a Dionysian Festival. The building program that Hadrian initiated was substantial. Various rulers had done work on building a temple to Olympian Zeus, but it was Hadrian who ensured that the job would be finished. He also initiated the construction of several public buildings on his own whim and even organized the building of an aqueduct (Birley, 1997).

Return to Italy

The Pantheon was rebuilt by Hadrian.

On his return to Italy, Hadrian made a detour to Sicily. Coins celebrate him as the restorer of the island, though there is no record of what he did to earn this accolade (Birley, 1997).

Back in Rome he was able to see for himself the completed work of rebuilding the Pantheon. Also completed by then was Hadrian's villa nearby at Tibur—a pleasant retreat by the Sabine Hills for whenever Rome became too much for him. At the beginning of March 127 C.E. Hadrian set off on a tour of Italy. Once again, historians are able to reconstruct his route by evidence of his hand-outs rather than the historical records. For instance, in that year he restored the Picentine earth goddess Cupra in the town of Cupra Maritima. Less welcome than such generosity was his decision to divide Italy into four regions under imperial legates with consular rank. Being effectively reduced to the status of mere provinces did not sit well with the citizens and this innovation did not long outlive Hadrian (Birley, 1997).

Hadrian fell ill around this time, though the nature of his sickness is not known. Whatever the illness was, it did not stop him from setting off in the spring of 128 C.E. to visit Africa. His arrival began with the good omen of rain ending a drought. Along with his usual role as benefactor and restorer, he found time to inspect the troops and his speech to the troops survives to this day (Lambert, 1997).

Hadrian returned to Italy in the summer of 128 C.E. but his stay was brief before setting off on another tour that would last three years (Birley, 1997).

Greece and Asia

In September 128 C.E. Hadrian again attended the Eleusinian Mysteries. This time his visit to Greece seems to have concentrated on Athens and Sparta—the two ancient rivals of Greece. Hadrian had contemplated the idea of focusing his Greek revival round Amphictyonic League based in Delphi, but he had by now decided on something far grander. His new Panhellenion was going to be a council that would bring together Greek cities wherever they may be found. The meeting place was to be the new temple of Zeus in Athens. Having set in motion the preparations,Hadrian set off for Ephesus (Birley, 1997).

In October 130 C.E., while Hadrian and his entourage were sailing on the Nile, Antinous drowned, for unknown reasons, though accident, suicide, murder, or religious sacrifice have all been postulated. The emperor was grief-stricken. He ordered Antinous deified. Cities were named after the boy, medals struck with his effigy, and statues erected to him in all parts of the empire. Temples were built for his worship in Bithynia, Mantineia, and Athens, festivals were given in his honor, and oracles were delivered in his name. The city of Antinoöpolis or Antinoe was founded on the ruins of Besa where he died.


Hadrian died in 138 C.E. on the July 10 in his villa at Baiae at the age of 62. But the man who had spent so much of his life traveling had not yet reached his journey's end. He was buried first at Puteoli, near Baiae, on an estate which had once belonged to Cicero. Soon after, his remains were transferred to Rome and buried in the Gardens of Domitia, close to his nearly-complete mausoleum. Upon the completion of the Tomb of Hadrian in Rome in 139 C.E. by his successor Antoninus Pius, his body was cremated, and his ashes were placed there together with those of his wife Vibia Sabina and his first adopted son, Lucius Aelius, who also died in 138 C.E. He was deified in 139 C.E.


  1. Benario, Herbert W., Hadrian. Retrieved June 18, 2007.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Birley, Anthony R. Hadrian. The Restless Emperor. London: Routledge, 1997. ISBN 041516544X
  • Lambert, Royston. Beloved and God: The Story of Hadrian and Antinous. London: Phoenix Giants, 1997. ISBN 1857999444
  • Speller, Elizabeth. Following Hadrian: A Second-Century Journey through the Roman Empire. London: Review, 2003. ISBN 074726662X
  • Yourcenar, Marguerite. Memoirs of Hadrian. NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1974.

External links

All links retrieved January 21, 2024.


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