Voorburg Gallery



Publius Aelius Hadrianus   (76AD - 138AD)

Publius Aelius Hadrianus was born on 24 January AD 76, probably at Rome, though his family lived in Italica Baetica. His family had moved there from Picenum in north-eastern Italy there three centuries before, when this part of Spain was first being opened up to Roman settlers. Hadrian's father, Publius Aelius Hadrianus Afer, was a cousin of the emperor Trajan, who was also a native of Italica. Thus as Trajan's career progressed this relatively obscure provincial family found itself increasingly well connected. When Hadrian's father died in AD 86 the boy of 10 became joint ward of Trajan and of a Roman equestrian, Acilius Attianus. Though Trajan's first attempt at launching him on a military career were unsuccessful. Hadrian was stationed in Upper Germany and perhaps along the Danube, serving as a military tribune. But due to the rich young man's preference for the luxuries of a wealthy civilian's life (in particular his passion for hunting) it was a service of little distinction. Hearing this Trajan angrily summoned him to Rome where he could be kept under closer supervision. Hadrian was launched on a new career, being appointed - despite his youth - as a judge of one of the inheritance courts at Rome. And alas he succeeded in a military career, serving as an officer of the Second Legion 'Adiutrix' and then the Fifth Legion 'Macedonia' on the Danube.

When in AD 97 Trajan, then on the Rhine, was adopted by emperor Nerva as heir, Hadrian was chosen to convey the army's congratulations to the new imperial heir.

But Hadrian's great opportunity came when Nerva died and Trajan became emperor. He was determined to be the first to carry the news of Nerva's death to Trajan and despite the obstacles placed in his way by envious rivals he succeeded in winning the race, travelling the last few stages on foot. The bearer of good news, always is welcome and Trajan and Hadrian soon became close friends.

Hadrian accompanied the new emperor to Rome and in AD 100 married Vibia Sabina, the daughter of Trajan's niece Matidia Augusta. Thereafter he served as qaestor and staff officer.

In the Second Dacian War (AD 105-106) Hadrian commanded the First Legion 'Minervia', and on his return was made praetor in AD 106, governor of Lower Pannonia in AD 107, and consul the following year. When Trajan marched against the Parthians in AD 114 Hadrian was once again appointed to a key position, as governor of the important province of Syria. Yet despite these advancements there was no sure sign that Trajan intended him as successor, and though he enjoyed the support from the empress Plotina, his standing at the imperial court was far from firm.

Hadrian's succession to power when it came is shrouded in mystery. It may be that Trajan did finally resolve to adopt Hadrian as his heir, but if so he left it to the last minute, when he lay on his deathbed in southern Turkey.

But the sequence of events does indeed seem suspicious. Trajan died the 7/8 August AD 117, on the 9th it was announced at Antioch that he supposedly had adopted Hadrian, but it was not before the 11th that Trajan's death was actually made public.

Although many believed that Trajan had in fact done no such thing. According to the historian Dio Cassius, Hadrian's accession was engineered by the empress Plotina, who concealed Trajan's death for several days. She used the time to send letters to the senate in Rome, announcing Hadrian's adoption, but these carried her own signature rather than that of Trajan's, presumably on the excuse that the emperor was too weak to write. Another rumour claimed that Plotina had smuggled someone into Trajan's chamber to impersonate the emperor's voice. Only when Hadrian's succession was finally secure did Plotina announce that Trajan had died.

Hadrian was governor of Syria when the news was brought to him of Trajan's death. He immediately set out for Seleucia, where the emperor's body had been brought, and where the cremation was performed (The ashes were then shipped back to Rome).

One of Hadrian's first and most significant acts was the abandonment of the eastern territories which Trajan had conquered during his last campaign. Augustus a century before had laid down for his successors the policy that the empire should be kept within the natural borders formed by the Rhine, the Danube and the Euphrates. Trajan had crossed the Euphrates to conquer Armenia and Mesopotamia - Hadrian pulled his forces back again to the Euphrates frontier. Hadrian himself took a long route back to Rome, settling a military crisis north of the Lower Danube on the way, and abandoning the territory annexed by Trajan in AD 102.

Hadrian's aim may have been to rule as blamelessly as his distinguished predecessor. If so, he did not begin well. Even before he had arrived in Rome his reputation had been tarnished by the deaths of four distinguished senators. There were all ex-consuls, men of the highest rank, and the incident is known as the 'affair of the four consulars'. The pretext for the deaths was that they were plotting his overthrow. Others saw their wealth and influence as the real reason for Hadrian's wanting them out of the way. One of the four men had been Lusius Quietus, a military man and friend of Trajan's. Another was Gaius Avidius Nigrinus, a very wealthy and well connected distinguished politician.

What made the whole reason particularly unattractive was Hadrian's refusal to accept any responsibility for their executions. The author of the Historia Augusta tells us that in his autobiography, now lost, Hadrian declared that the deaths had been ordered by the senate without his approval. Nevertheless, the matter remained so much in doubt that he swore a public oath that he was not responsible. He also wrote to the senate promising not to put any senator to the death without proper trial. His strenuous efforts to deflect public criticism did not then, and does not now, ring entirely true. Particularly as he publicly tried to put the blame for the murders on Attianus, his former guardian and now praetorian prefect. Attianus was removed from this position but installed as consul. It is hard to see why Attianus was deemed worthy of promotion if he was solely resonsible for this affair.

Hadrian soon proved himself an energetic and efficient ruler. Though not by nature a military man, he tightened discipline in the army and strengthened the frontiers. He continued and expanded Trajans programme of alimenta through which assistance was given to the children of the poor. And he took pains, more than any other Roman emperor before or after, to visit his vast territories in person. and inspect their government for himself. This he did in three extensive journeys, beginning with a visit to Gaul in AD 121 and ending over 10 years later with his return to Rome in AD 133/134. His travels took him to Spain in the west, to Pontus in the east, the the Lybian desert in the south, to Britain in the north. His travels gave him first hand insight into the problems of the populations of the various provinces. One famous result of the northern journey was the construction of Hadrian's Wall, built to shield the Roman province of Britain against barbarian raids in the north.

Since his youth Hadrian had a passion for Greek learning, which earned him the nickname 'the Greekling'. As emperor he had the opportunity to indulge his tastes on a grand scale. Athens, though by this time in decline, was still a hallowed centre of learning and Hadrian visited the city on three separate occasions. He also commission great building programmes, both in Athens and in Rome.

But even Hadrian's love of the arts was tarnished by his wilfulness and jealousy. Most shocking perhaps was the persecution of Trajan's architect Apollodorus of Damascus, whose views Hadrian had invited on his own design for a new temple. Criticism and differing opinion was evidently something which the powerful emperor could not handle.

Hadrian appears to have been a man of mixed sexual interests. The Historia Augusta criticizes both his passion for handsome males as well as his adulteries with married women to which he is said to have been addicted. Certainly his relations with his wife Sabina were not close, and there was even a rumour that he tried to poison her.

Roman historians were very unclear of the subject of Hadrian's homosexuality. The suspicion surfaces most in the story of Antinous, a youth whom Hadrian became exceedingly fond of. He accompanied the emperor on his visit to Egypt in AD 130 and it was there that Antinous met his early and rather mysterious death. The official story goes that Antinous had fallen from a boat during a trip on the Nile. Other people saw a more sinister event, in which Antinous offered himself as a sacrifice for Hadrian in some bizarre rite. Whatever the case, Hadrian was deeply grieved by the death of his favourite and founded a city, Antinoopolis, on the spot where he died. The foundation drew comment, and even ridicule, but it did not prove as troublesome as Hadrian's attempt to refound Jerusalem. The ancient city had been destroyed after the Jewish revolt of AD 66-74, and had not been officially rebuilt. Hadrian planned to raise a new city on the site, and part of the plan was the building of a temple to Jupiter Capitolinus on the site of the Temple of Solomon. The Jews could hardly be expected to tamely stand by at the desecration of their holiest place, and in AD 132 rose in revolt under the leadership of Simeon Bar-Kochba. Over half a million rebels were killed in the bloody suppression and by AD 135 peace had been reimposed. This was Hadrian's only major war. Though it clearly was a war of his own making. Hadrian showed a great interest in law and appointed a famous African jurist, Lucius Salvius Julianus, to create a definitive revision of the successive edicts that had been pronounced every year by the Roman praetors for centuries. This collection of laws was a milestone in Roman law and provided the poor with at least a chance of gaining limited knowledge of the legal safeguards to which they were entitled.

In AD 136 Hadrian, now 60 years old, found himself in failing health. Fearing death and in need of support he adopted Lucius Ceionius Commodus as Caesar and his successor. Once again Hadrian's darker side came to the for as he ordered the suicide of people he suspected opposed to Commodus' accession, most notably the distinguished senator and brother-in-law Lucius Julius Ursus Servianus. Though the chosen heir himself suffered from bad health and Commodus was already dead by 1 January AD 138.

A month after Commodus' death, Hadrian adopted Antoninus Pius, a highly respected senator, on the condition that the childless Antoninus in turn would adopt Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus (the son of Commodus) as heirs.

Hadrian's final days were indeed far from happy. His illness grew worse and left him in long periods of great distress. Hadrian tried to lay his hands on poison or a sword to end his life, but his attendants kept these from him. He even tried to order a barbarian servant called Manstor to murder him, even marking the spot where to plunge the sword into his side. But Manstor failed to obey. Despairing Hadrian handed the reigns of government to Antoninus Pius and retired to the pleasure resort of Baiae. He died soon afterwards on 10 July AD 138.

Hadrian died an unpopular man. Indeed he was a good and pragmatic administrator who provided the empire with stable government for over 20 years, strengthening and stabilizing its frontiers. He was a man of culture and eloquence, devoting his attention to religious rituals, to laws, to the gymnasia, and to teachers, so much so that he established an institute of liberal arts which was called the Athenaeum. But there are perhaps too many echoes of a Nero or a Domitian in his character for him to be seen as one of the outstanding emperors. In any case, his Roman contemporaries found him an uncomfortable, sometimes menacing man to be with.