Last Updated on June 19, 2023 by Vladimir Vulic
Life: AD 76 – 138
- Name: Publius Aelius Hadrianus
- Born on 24 January AD 76 at Rome.
- Consul AD 108, 118, 119.
- Became emperor in 11 August AD 117.
- Wife: Vibia Sabina.
- Died at Baiae, 10 July AD 138.
The Early Life of Emperor Hadrian
Publius Aelius Hadrianus was born on 24 January AD 76, probably in Rome, though his family lived in Italica in Baetica. Having originally come from Picenum in the northeastern when this part of Spain was opened up to Roman settlement, Hadrian’s family had lived in Italica for some three centuries. With Trajan also coming from Italica, and Hadrian’s father, Publius Aelius Hadrianus Afer, being his cousin, Hadrian’s obscure provincial family now found itself possessing impressive connections.
Hadrian’s Ascension to Power
In AD 86 Hadrian’s father died in AD 86 and he, at the age of 10, became a joint ward of Acilius Attianus, a Roman equestrian, and of Trajan.
Trajan’s initial attempt to create a military career for the 15-year-old Hadrian was frustrated by Hadrian’s liking the easy life. He preferred going hunting and enjoying other civilian luxuries.
And so Hadrian’s service as a military tribune stationed in Upper Germany ended with little distinction as Trajan angrily called him to Rome in order to keep a close eye on him.
Next, the so far disappointing young Hadrian was set on a new career path. This time – though still very young – as a judge in an inheritance court in Rome.
And alas he shortly afterwards succeeded as a military officer in the Second Legion ‘Adiutrix’ and then in the Fifth Legion ‘Macedonia’ on the Danube.
In Ad 97 when Trajan, based in Upper Germany was adopted by Nerva, it was Hadrian who was sent from his base to carry the congratulations of his legion to the new imperial heir.
But in AD 98 Hadrian seized the great opportunity of Nerva’s to carry the news to Tajan. Utterly determined to be the first to carry this news to the new emperor he raced to Germany. With others also seeking to be the bearers of the good news to a no doubt grateful emperor it was quite a race, with many an obstacle being purposely placed in Hadrian’s way. But he succeeded, even travelling the last stages of his journey on foot. Trajan’s gratitude was assured and Hadrian indeed became a very close friend of the new emperor.
The Marriage of Emperor Hadrian
In AD 100 Hadrian married Vibia Sabina, the daughter of Trajan’s niece Matidia Augusta, after having accompanied the new emperor to Rome.
Soon after followed the first Dacian war, during which time Hadrian served as quaestor and staff officer.
With the second Dacian war following soon after the first, Hadrian was given command of the First Legion ‘Minerva’, and once he returned to Rome he was made praetor in AD 106. A year thereafter he was governor of Lower Pannonia and then consul in AD 108.
Hadrian’s Rule: A Period of Expansion and Consolidation
When Trajan embarked on his Parthian campaign in AD 114, Hadrian once more held a key position, this time as governor of the important military province of Syria.
There is no doubt that Hadrian was of high status during Trajan’s reign, and yet there were no immediate signs that he was intended as the imperial heir.
The details of Hadrian’s succession are indeed mysterious. Trajan might well have decided on his deathbed to make Hadrian his heir.
But the sequence of events does indeed seem suspicious. Trajan died on the 8 August AD 117, on the 9th it was announced at Antioch that he had adopted Hadrian. But only by the 11th was it made public that Trajan was dead.
According to the historian Dio Cassius, Hadrian’s accession was solely due to the actions of Empress Plotina, who kept Trajan’s death a secret for several days. In this time she sent letters to the senate declaring Hadrian the new heir. This letter however carried her own signature, not that of Emperor Trajan, probably using the excuse that the emperor’s illness made him to feeble to write.
Yet another rumour asserted that someone had been sneaked into Trajan’s chamber by the empress, in order to impersonate his voice.
Once Hadrian’s accession was secure, and only then, did Empress Plotina announce Trajan’s death.
Hadrian, already in the east as governor of Syria at the time, was present at Trajan’s cremation at Seleucia (the ashes were thereafter shipped back to Rome). Though now he was there as emperor.
Right from the start Hadrian made it clear that he was his own man. One of his very first decisions was the abandonment of the eastern territories which Trajan had just conquered during his last campaign. Had Augustus a century before spelt out that his successors should keep the empire within the natural boundaries of the rivers Rhine, Danube and Euphrates, then Trajan had broken that rule and crossed the Euphrates. On Hadrian’s order once pulled back to behind the Euphrates again.
Such withdrawal, the surrendered territory for which the Roman army had just paid in blood, will hardly have been popular.
Hadrian did not travel directly back to Rome but first set out for the Lower Danube to deal with trouble with the Sarmatians at the border. While he was there he also confirmed Trajan’s annexation of Dacia.
The memory of Trajan, the Dacian gold mines and the army’s misgivings about withdrawing from conquered lands clearly convinced Hadrian that it might not be wise always to withdraw behind the natural boundaries advised by Augustus.
If Hadrian set out to rule as honourably as his beloved predecessor, then he got off to a bad start. He had not arrived in Rome yet and four respected senators, all ex-consuls, were dead. Men of the highest standing in Roman society, all had been killed for plotting against Hadrian. Many however saw these executions as a way by which Hadrian was removing any possible pretenders to his throne. All four had been friends of Trajan. Lucius Quietus had been a military commander and Gaius Nigrinus had been a very wealthy and influential politician; in fact so influential he had been thought a possible successor to Trajan.
But what makes the ‘affair of the four consulars’, especially unsavoury is that Hadrian refused to take any responsibility for this matter. Might other emperors have gritted their teeth and announced that a ruler needed to act ruthlessly in order to grant the empire a stable, unshakable government, then Hadrian denied everything.
He even went as far as swearing a public oath that he was not responsible. More so he said that it had been the senate who had ordered the executions (which is technically true), before placing the blame firmly on Attianus, the praetorian prefect (and his former join-guardian with Trajan).
However, if Attianus had done anything wrong in the eyes of Hadrian, it is hard to understand why the emperor would have made him consul thereafter.
Despite such an odious start to his reign, Hadrian quickly proved to be a highly capable ruler. Army discipline was tightened and the border defences were strengthened.
Trajan’s welfare programme for the poor, the alimenta, was further expanded.
most of all though, Hadrian should become known for his efforts to visit the imperial territories personally, where he could inspect the provincial government himself.
These far-ranging journeys would begin with a visit to Gaul in AD 121 and would end ten years later on his return to Rome in AD 133-134. No other emperor would ever see this much of his empire. From as far west as Spain to as far east as the province of Pontus in modern-day Turkey, from as far north as Britain to as far south as the Sahara desert in Libya, Hadrian saw it all. Though this was not mere sight-seeing. Far more Hadrian sought to gather first-hand information about the various problem the provinces faced. His secretaries compiled entire books of such information.
Perhaps the most famous result of Hadrian’s conclusions when seeing for himself the problems faced by the territories, was his order to construct the great barrier which still today runs across northern England, Hadrian’s Wall, which once shielded the British Roman province from the wild northern barbarians of the isle.
Hadrian’s Architectural Contributions and Love for Greek Culture
Since a very young age, Hadrian had held a fascination for Greek learning and sophistication. So much so, he was dubbed the ‘Greekling’ by his contemporaries. Once he became emperor his tastes for all things Greek should become a trademark of his. He visited Athens, still the great centre of learning, no fewer than three times during his reign. And his grand building programmes did not limit themselves to Rome with a few grand buildings in other cities, but also Athens benefitted extensively from its great imperial patron.
Controversies and Scandals During Hadrian’s Reign
Yet even this great love of art should become sullied by Hadrian’s darker side. Had he invited Trajan’s architect Apollodorus of Damascus (the designer of Trajan’s Forum) to comment on his own design for a temple, he then turned on him, once the architect showed himself little impressed. Apollodorus was first banished and later executed. Had great emperors shown themselves able to handle criticism and listen to advice, then Hadrian who at times patently was unable, or unwilling, to do so.
Hadrian appears to have been a man of mixed sexual interests. The Historia Augusta criticizes both his liking of good looking young men as well as his adultery with married women.
If his relationship with his wife was anything but close, then the rumour that he tried to poison her might suggest that it was even much worse than that.
When it comes to Hadrian’s apparent homosexuality, then the accounts remain vague and unclear. Most of the attention centres on the young Antinous, whom Hadrian grew very fond of. Statues of Antinous have survived, showing that imperial patronage of this youth extended to having sculptures made of him. In AD 130 Antinous accompanied Hadrian to Egypt. It was on a trip on the Nile when Antinous met with an early and somewhat mysterious death. Officially, he fell from the boat and drowned. But a persistent rumour spoke of Antinous having been a sacrifice in some bizarre eastern ritual.
The reasons for the young man’s death might not be clear, but was is known is that Hadrian grieved deeply for Antinous. He even founded a city along the banks of the Nile where Antinous had drowned, Antinoopolis. Touching as this might have seemed to some, it was an act deemed unbefitting an emperor and drew much ridicule.
The Jewish Revolt Under Hadrian’s Rule
If the founding of Antinoopolis had caused some eyebrows to be raised then Hadrian’s attempts to re-found Jerusalem were little more than disastrous.
Had Jerusalem been destroyed by Titus in AD 71 then it had never been rebuilt since. At least not officially. And so, Hadrian, seeking to make a great historical gesture, sought to build a new city there, to be called Aelia Capitolina. Hadrian planned a grand imperial Roman city, it was to boast a grand temple to Jupiter Capitolinus on the temple mount. The Jews, however, were hard to stand by and watch in silence while the emperor desecrated their holiest place, the ancient site of the Temple of Salomon. And so, with Simeon Bar-Kochba as its leader, an embittered Jewish revolt arose in AD 132. Only by the end of AD 135 was the situation back under control, with over half a million Jews having lost their lives in the fighting.
This might have been Hadrian’s only war, and yet it was a war for which only really one man could be blamed – emperor Hadrian.
Though it must be added that the troubles surrounding the Jewish insurrection and its brutal crushing were unusual in Hadrian’s reign. His government was, but for this occasion, moderate and careful.
Hadrian’s Influence on Roman Law
Hadrian showed a great interest in law and appointed a famous African jurist, Lucius Salvius Julianus, to create a definitive revision of the edicts which 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 some limited knowledge of the legal safeguards to which they were entitled.
The Succession Crisis During Hadrian’s Final Years
In AD 136 Hadrian, whose health began to fail, sought an heir before he would die, leaving the empire without a leader. He was 60 years old now. Perhaps he feared that, being without an heir might make him vulnerable to a challenge to the throne as he grew more frail. Or he simply sought to secure a peaceful transition for the empire. Whichever version is true, Hadrian adopted Lucius Ceionius Commodus as his successor.
Once more the more menacing side of Hadrian showed as he order the suicide of those he suspected opposed to Commodus’ accession, most notably the distinguished senator and Hadrian’s brother-in-law Lucius Julius Ursus Servianus.
Though the chosen heir, though only in his thirties, suffered from bad health and so 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 Hadrian’s promising young nephew Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus (the son of Commodus) as heirs.
Hadrian’s final days were a grim affair. He became even more ill and spent extended periods in severe distress. As he sought to end his life with either a blade or poison, his servants grew ever more vigilant to keep such items from his grasp. At one point he even convinced a barbarian servant by the name of Mastor to kill him. But at the last moment Mastor failed to obey.
Despairing, Hadrian left government in the hands of Antoninus Pius, and retired, dying soon afterwards at the pleasure resort of Baiae on 10 July AD 138.
The Legacy of Emperor Hadrian
Had Hadrian been a brilliant administrator and had he provided the empire with a period of stability and relative peace for 20 years, he died a very unpopular man.
He had been a cultured man, devoted to religion, law, and the arts – devoted to civilization. And yet, he also bore that dark side in him which could reveal him as similar to a Nero or a Emperor Domitian at times. And so he was feared. And feared men are hardly ever popular.
His body was buried twice in different places before finally his ashes should be laid to rest in the mausoleum he had built for himself in Rome.
It was only with reluctance that the senate accepted Antoninus Pius’ request to deify Hadrian.
Historian Franco Cavazzi dedicated hundreds of hours of his life to creating this website, roman-empire.net as a trove of educational material on this fascinating period of history. His work has been cited in a number of textbooks on the Roman Empire and mentioned on numerous publications such as the New York Times, PBS, The Guardian, and many more.