An Introduction to Hadrian
By: TammyJo Eckhart, PhD on 5/7/2019


The Emperor Hadrian’s large-scale and far-reaching building and rebuilding campaign in the early second century CE impacted many of the buildings you can find via the Rome Reborn® apps, particularly the Pantheon. Hadrian was a multifaceted man, and we can uncover his life in numerous ways, but first we need a foundation upon which to build our understanding of him. Today’s essay, therefore, will look at the basics about his history, his works, and his demeanor.

Hadrian (Publius Aelius Hadrianus) was of a Spanish-Roman senatorial family. Some modern scholars believe he was born in the Roman city of Italica in Baetica, Spain, while others say he was born in Rome. Italica was founded by Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus in 206 BCE. It was the birthplace of the emperor Trajan (Hadrian’s predecessor as emperor as well as his first cousin once removed) and possibly Theodosius I (emperor in the late fourth century CE). The city and Spain would benefit from Hadrian’s rule through his building projects but had been Romanized for centuries.

Hadrian was one of the series of leaders memorably dubbed by Machiavelli “The Five Good Emperors” (the others were Nerva, Trajan, Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius; see N. Machiavelli, Discourses on Livy, Book I, Chapter 10 [1503]). When Hadrian’s parents died in 86, Trajan, his close relative, adopted him as his son and made sure he got an excellent education. He enrolled in the military as a Tribune under the Emperor Nerva. When Trajan became emperor in 98, Hadrian continued his military service for the new ruler. In 100 ce, Hadrian married his cousin Vibia Sabina, Trajan’s niece whom he had also helped to raise when her father died in 84.

When Trajan died in Cilicia in 117 ce, where he had gone to prepare for war against the Parthians, the widowed empress Plotina claimed that Hadrian had been adopted by Trajan shortly before his death. Despite the skepticism of some, her declaration swayed the army, which proclaimed Hadrian emperor. Some modern historians suspect the adoption was more the work of Plotina than the wish expressed by Trajan on his deathbed, but nonetheless adoption scrolls were presented to and accepted by the Senate in Rome. However, four senators dissented, or were accused of dissenting. Hadrian had them put to death without a proper trial, an act that forever after compromised Hadrian’s relationship with the Senate.

Hadrian spent much of his reign, 12 out of 21 years, away from the capital. Julio-Claudian emperors like Tiberius and Nero were criticized for abandoning the city, but Hadrian does not seem to have been subject to the same reaction. This may be related to what he did while he was away. He spent much of this time touring the empire, visiting various cities, and even living in camp with his soldiers, whose state of readiness was a major preoccupation.

Hadrian has been criticized for not pursuing war against the Parthians after Trajan’s death. However, he did not abandon all military projects and certainly did not withdraw from the entire East. Rome maintained its grip on Greece and Asia Minor with a continued military presence. In the West, Hadrian reinforced the borders with Hadrian’s Wall (Vallum Hadriani) in Britain as well as the German and Rhaetian Limes, a line of defensive camps and cross-points along natural boundaries. These structures along with the manpower to watch over them existed into the fifth century CE. Stabilized borders allowed for greater Romanization of the western parts of the empire through trade, travel, intermarriage, and more building projects.

Hadrian built in Rome and across the empire (for details, see the two books by Boatwright in the Bibliography). In the Life of Hadrian attributed to Spartianus, the emperor was said to have “built some building or given public games” in almost every city, meaning, I assume, every one that he visited. Among the buildings the Emperor is credited with are the baths and the Zaghouan aqueduct in Carthage. In Athens, Hadrian built a library (designed like a forum) and named it after himself. He also completed the Temple of Zeus, the largest sanctuary in Athens and a project begun centuries earlier. He expanded Italica, his supposed birthplace, and built the massive public baths called the Trajaneum.

Hadrian did not stop at funding individual buildings. He founded cities in Asia, Egypt, and Europe. Many of these he simply called Hadrianopolis after himself. He named one foundation in Egypt Antinopolis after his lover, a beautiful Greek lad named Antinous. He had drowned under mysterious circumstances in the Nile in 130. He gave Antinous cult honors, and temples to the new god were built in many places around the empire. Perhaps the most ill-conceived and poorly thought out urban project was Hadrian’s rebuilding of Jerusalem. Rebuilding a city is politically tricky, particularly when done by the nation which caused the destruction. Hadrian, like Caligula before him, so disrespected Jewish traditions and history that military conflict arose. The immediate cause of the troubles was Hadrian’s decision to build a temple of Zeus on the site of the Jewish Temple, which had been destroyed by Titus in 70. Hadrian’s reign might be called peaceful, but his banishment of the Jews from the Holy Land after the Bar-Kokhba Revolt from 132-136 CE proved how brutal he could be when he felt himself under threat.

In Rome, he rebuilt the Pantheon, the Baths of Agrippa, and the Basilica of Neptune, among other monuments. In each case, he kept the original inscriptions, making it a challenge for historians to date some of these structures until they turn to science for help. He also built the Aelian Bridge (now called Ponte Sant’Angelo), the Temple of the Bona Dea, and started construction of his tomb, to name a few of his major construction projects. We’ll touch upon Hadrian’s Roman building and rebuilding projects in later essays on Rome Reborn® as we look into more and more of the structure of the city.

Hadrian was a philhellene, a lover of Greek culture, and visited the region at least twice, even being inducted into the Eleusinian Mysteries. The people of Athens built the Arch of Hadrian to honor him and the god Apollo. Hadrian also promoted the spread of Roman culture through bureaucratic changes and the creation of Roman structures and institutions within the cities he created. His villa at Tivoli (Villa Adriana or Hadrian’s Villa), which Hadrian is credited as designing himself, shows a meshing of both Greek and Roman cultures and a love of art and learning that put it on par with cities such as Ostia in terms of variety of buildings (for details, see MacDonald and Pinto in the Bibliography). When I visited that site in 1990, it inspired my interest in Roman cities and the connection between private and public in the lives of the imperial family.

With his health declining, Hadrian followed the examples of Nerva and Trajan by adopting the adult Antoninus Pius upon condition of Pius’ adoption of Marcus Aurelius. Pius finished the Mausoleum of Hadrian in 139 CE, a year after his predecessor’s death, and moved the body there.

Finally, we should note that Pius received this nickname because of the sense of filial duty that he displayed in pushing through the Senate Hadrian’s apotheosis after his death. Left to its own devices, the senators would not have bestowed this high honor on a man who had four of their number put to death without a fair trial.

Controversial as his reputation may have been among his contemporaries, Hadrian generally receives high marks from moderns, starting with Machiavelli, who, as noted, named him one of his five “good” emperors. In the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1788), Gibbon presents a balanced view of Hadrian, whom he called “capable, by turns, of the meanest and the most generous sentiments.” More recently, Margaret Yourcenar (born in Belgium in 1903 and naturalized as a US citizen in 1947) wrote a hugely popular novel called The Memoirs of Hadrian (1951), which portrays the emperor in a positive light as a deep thinker and sensitive soul.



Ancient biography:

Aelius Spartianus, “Life of Hadrian,” in The Scriptores Historiae Augustae, translated by D. Magie, vol. 1 (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1967) vol. 1, pp. 3-82.


Modern work of fiction:

Yourcenar, M. Memoirs of Hadrian, translated by G. Frick (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York 1974).


Modern studies:

Birley, A. Hadrian. The Restless Emperor (Routledge, Abingdon, 1997).

Boatwright, M.T. Hadrian and the City of Rome (Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1987).

Boatwright, M.T. Hadrian and the Cities of the Roman Empire (Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2000).

Brennan, T.C.  Sabina Augusta An Imperial Journey (Oxford University Press, Oxford 2018).

MacDonald, W.L. and J.A. Pinto. Hadrian’s Villa and Its Legacy (Yale University Press, New Haven, 1995).

Opper, T. Hadrian: Arts, Politics and Economy (British Museum, London, 2013). Free download available at https://www.britishmuseum.org/pdf/Hadrian_online.pdf


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