Hadrian: Life, Accomplishments, and Death of One of the Best Roman

Hadrian, Emperor of Rome from AD 117 to 138, was a transformative leader known for architectural marvels like Hadrian’s Wall in Britain and significant legal reforms. Distinguished by his consolidation efforts, Hadrian prioritized the empire’s stability over expansion, embracing Greek culture and philosophy. His reign saw advancements in Roman law, infrastructure, and arts, but was also marked by personal controversies, notably his relationship with Antinous. Despite these, Hadrian’s is known as a ruler who deeply influenced the Roman Empire’s administrative and cultural landscape endures, underscored by his strategic and empathetic approach to governance.

The Early Life of Emperor Hadrian

Born into a family with deep roots in Italica, Baetica, Publius Aelius Hadrianus emerged on January 24, AD 76, likely in Rome, a city far from his ancestral home. His lineage traced back to Picenum in northeastern Italy, marking a journey of settlement that spanned three centuries and intertwined with the expanding Roman frontier. Hadrian’s familial connections were notably enhanced by his relation to Trajan, a fellow Italican and his father’s cousin, elevating their provincial status within the Roman elite.

The young Hadrian’s life took a turn in AD 86 with the death of his father, thrusting him into the guardianship of Acilius Attianus, a distinguished Roman equestrian, and Trajan himself. This early tragedy marked the beginning of Hadrian’s journey through the ranks of Roman society, though not without its challenges. His initial foray into a military career under Trajan’s guidance at the tender age of fifteen was met with resistance, as Hadrian’s preferences leaned more towards the leisurely pursuits of hunting and enjoying civilian life rather than the rigors of military discipline. This inclination led to a stint as a military tribune in Upper Germany, which ended unremarkably, prompting a frustrated Trajan to recall him to Rome.

Despite this early setback, Hadrian’s path was redirected towards the judicial sphere, where he served as a judge in an inheritance court in Rome, a role that marked the beginning of his ascent. His military career eventually found its footing, leading to successful assignments with the Second Legion ‘Adiutrix’ and later the Fifth Legion ‘Macedonia’ along the Danube, showcasing his capability in both administrative and military domains. This period of Hadrian’s life highlights the complexities of his early years, marked by familial loss, the challenge of living up to expectations, and the eventual realization of his potential within the Roman military and judicial systems.

Rise to Power and Becoming an Emperor

Hadrian’s ascent to the zenith of Roman power was a tapestry of ambition, strategic alliances, and political acumen, woven against the backdrop of a tumultuous period in the empire’s history. His journey from a distinguished governor to the Roman Emperor was marked by a series of calculated moves and serendipitous events that propelled him into the annals of history.

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In AD 97, the foundation of Hadrian’s rise was laid when Trajan, then stationed in Upper Germany, was adopted by Emperor Nerva. Hadrian, seizing the momentous occasion, was dispatched from his base to convey his legion’s felicitations to Trajan, the new imperial heir. This event was a turning point in Hadrian’s career, showcasing his determination and loyalty. His arduous journey to Germany, fraught with obstacles and competition from others eager to deliver the news, demonstrated his unwavering commitment. Hadrian’s efforts were not in vain; his successful mission earned him Trajan’s gratitude and solidified a close bond between them, a relationship that would be instrumental in his future elevation.

Hadrian’s military and political career flourished under Trajan’s patronage. He was given command of the First Legion ‘Minervia’ during the Second Dacian War, a testament to his military capabilities. Following his return to Rome, Hadrian ascended the cursus honorum, serving as praetor in AD 106, then as governor of Lower Pannonia, and subsequently as consul in AD 108. His appointment as the governor of Syria in AD 114 further cemented his status as a key figure in Trajan’s administration, overseeing a crucial military province.

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However, Hadrian’s path to the throne was shrouded in mystery and intrigue. The circumstances surrounding his adoption by Trajan and subsequent ascension to emperor are subjects of historical speculation. Trajan’s death on August 8, AD 117, and the announcement of Hadrian’s adoption in Antioch on the following day, under suspicious conditions, have fueled debates among scholars. The role of Empress Plotina, who was alleged to have orchestrated Hadrian’s adoption by keeping Trajan’s death a secret and sending letters to the Senate under her signature, adds a layer of intrigue to Hadrian’s rise. This maneuvering ensured Hadrian’s uncontested accession to the throne, marking the beginning of his reign as emperor.

Upon assuming power, Hadrian was present at Trajan’s cremation in Seleucia, with the ashes later transported back to Rome. Now as the emperor, Hadrian’s governance would be characterized by a blend of continuity and change, drawing on his unique vision for the Roman Empire. His reign would witness significant military, administrative, and cultural developments, leaving a lasting legacy on the Roman world.

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Hadrian’s Marriage and Family

The matrimonial union of Hadrian and Vibia Sabina in AD 100 represents a significant chapter in the personal life of one of Rome’s most enigmatic emperors. This alliance was not merely a bond of affection but also a strategic convergence within the imperial family, as Sabina was the granddaughter of Matidia and the great-niece of Trajan, thereby weaving Hadrian further into the fabric of the ruling dynasty. Their marriage, solemnized shortly after Hadrian’s return to Rome in the entourage of the newly anointed Emperor Trajan, was a testament to his ascending prominence within the Roman elite.

Sabina’s lineage, distinguished by its close connection to Trajan, offered Hadrian an invaluable link to the imperial throne, reinforcing his status within Roman society‘s upper echelons. This period marked a crucial phase in Hadrian’s career, as he transitioned from military service to assume roles that required a blend of administrative acumen and political sagacity. Serving as quaestor and staff officer during the First Dacian War, Hadrian demonstrated his capability to navigate the complex interplay of military and political responsibilities, an experience that would underpin his later governance as emperor.

The marriage, however, was far from idyllic. Historical accounts suggest a relationship fraught with personal discord and emotional distance, casting a shadow over Hadrian’s private life. Despite the lack of children and the rumors of Hadrian’s extramarital interests, the union endured, a common practice among Rome’s political elite, where marriages often served broader dynastic or political objectives rather than personal fulfillment.

Hadrian’s Rule and Accomplishments

Hadrian is renowned for his profound impact on the Roman Empire, distinguished by a legacy of monumental architecture, legal reform, and a strategic approach to imperial governance. Central to his accomplishments was the redefinition of the empire’s boundaries and an emphasis on consolidation over expansion. One of his earliest and most significant decisions was to withdraw Roman forces from the territories east of the Euphrates, territories that had been annexed by his predecessor, Trajan. This strategic retreat, while controversial, was aligned with Hadrian’s vision of securing the empire within manageable and defensible borders, in accordance with the principles laid out by Augustus.

Hadrian’s rule was also marked by a deep engagement with the Roman military and provincial administration. He personally visited the empire’s far-flung provinces, from the deserts of North Africa to the forests of Britain, inspecting fortifications and ensuring the loyalty and efficiency of the provincial governors and the military. His travels were not merely inspections; they were a mission to understand the diverse realms of his empire, to bring a sense of unity and to directly address the concerns and challenges faced by the provinces.

In Britain, Hadrian’s concern for the empire’s frontiers led to the construction of Hadrian’s Wall, a monumental fortification that stretched across the northern boundary of Roman Britain. The Wall was a physical manifestation of Hadrian’s policy of defense and consolidation, designed to control immigration and trade, and to protect the province from the raids of the northern tribes. It stands as a testament to Hadrian’s architectural legacy and his strategic approach to governance.

Hadrian’s interest in architecture and the arts was evident throughout his reign. He was a patron of Greek culture and the arts, earning him the nickname “Graeculus” (Greekling). His architectural contributions include the Pantheon in Rome, with its revolutionary dome, and the city of Antinoopolis in Egypt, founded in memory of his beloved companion Antinous. These projects reflect Hadrian’s personal taste and his desire to leave a lasting cultural legacy.

Legal reform was another cornerstone of Hadrian’s rule. He commissioned the jurist Salvius Julianus to compile a permanent record of edicts, the Edictum Perpetuum, which streamlined and codified Roman law, making it more accessible to the empire’s citizens. This legal codification was a significant achievement, providing a foundation for Roman law that would influence legal systems for centuries.

However, Hadrian’s reign was not without controversy. His decision to execute four prominent senators early in his reign cast a shadow over his relationship with the Roman Senate, and his efforts to centralize power and reduce the Senate’s influence were met with resistance. Additionally, his efforts to Hellenize the empire and his open admiration for Greek culture were viewed with suspicion by the Roman elite, who saw them as a departure from traditional Roman values.

The Jewish Revolt under his rule, triggered by his policies in Judea, including the establishment of Aelia Capitolina on the ruins of Jerusalem, was a major conflict that marred his reign. The revolt was brutally suppressed, resulting in significant loss of life and further alienating Jewish communities from Roman rule.

Hadrian’s personal life, particularly his relationship with Antinous, also attracted attention and criticism. The deification of Antinous following his mysterious death and the founding of a city in his honor were unprecedented and controversial actions that fueled rumors and speculation about the emperor’s private life.

Hadrian’s Influence on Roman Law

Hadrian’s profound interest in the legal framework of the Roman Empire led to significant reforms that have enduringly impacted the administration of justice. Recognizing the complexity and often the inconsistency of Roman law, he sought to streamline and codify it, making legal processes more transparent and accessible. To this end, he appointed Lucius Salvius Julianus, a distinguished jurist from Africa, to undertake a comprehensive review and consolidation of the praetorian edicts.

These edicts, historically announced annually by the praetors, had accumulated over the years, creating a labyrinthine body of law that was difficult for even the most learned to navigate. Julianus’ task was to distill this vast array of legal pronouncements into a coherent, standardized compilation. The result was a monumental work that not only organized existing laws but also rationalized them, setting a precedent for legal consistency and fairness.

This codification, known as the Perpetual Edict, was a groundbreaking achievement in Roman legal history. It significantly enhanced the accessibility of the law, particularly for the empire’s poorer citizens, who had previously been at a disadvantage due to the opaque nature of legal statutes. By providing a clearer understanding of legal rights and procedures, Hadrian’s reforms empowered individuals across the social spectrum, ensuring a more equitable legal system.

Hadrian’s Wall

Hadrian’s Wall, a monumental feat of engineering stretching across the width of northern Britain, was constructed under the directives of Emperor Hadrian as a means to manage and control immigration, trade, and military incursions by the northern tribes. This massive boundary, composed of stone and turf, marked the northern limit of Roman Britain and served multiple strategic and symbolic purposes.

It facilitated the regulation of movement between the Roman province and the territories beyond, acted as a deterrent against raids, and underscored the might of Rome. The wall also reflected Hadrian’s broader policy of consolidating and securing the empire’s frontiers, prioritizing stability and defense over expansion. Through its forts, watchtowers, and garrison towns, Hadrian’s Wall played a crucial role in the military and administrative organization of the frontier, showcasing the emperor’s innovative approach to governance and his enduring legacy in Roman military architecture.

Controversies and Scandals During Hadrian’s Reign

During his reign, Emperor Hadrian was embroiled in several controversies and scandals that left a lasting mark on his legacy. Beyond the well-documented issues surrounding his relationship with Antinous and the Jewish Revolt, Hadrian’s reign was marked by his unique approach to governance, which often strayed from Roman traditional values and norms, leading to friction within the elite circles of Roman society.

One such controversy stemmed from Hadrian’s intense interest in Hellenism and his efforts to promote Greek culture across the Roman Empire. His admiration for Greek customs and his dedication to the arts were seen by some as an abandonment of Roman virtues, which traditionally emphasized martial valor and public service. Hadrian’s patronage of Greek scholars and artists, along with his architectural projects that favored Greek styles, were viewed with suspicion by the Roman Senate, who saw them as indicative of his preference for foreign culture over Roman heritage.

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Another significant scandal of Hadrian’s reign involved his administrative reforms, particularly his efforts to centralize power and reduce the influence of the Senate. By increasing the power of the equestrian class and implementing policies that bypassed senatorial authority, Hadrian alienated many of the traditional Roman elite. This centralization of power was seen as an affront to the established order, leading to unrest and dissatisfaction among the senatorial class.

Hadrian’s legal reforms also stirred controversy. While his appointment of the jurist Salvius Julianus to consolidate Roman law was a significant achievement, it also led to tensions. His attempts to codify and simplify the legal system were seen by some as an effort to curtail the traditional legal privileges of the Roman elite, further exacerbating the divide between the emperor and the Senate.

Additionally, Hadrian’s foreign policy, characterized by a preference for peace and consolidation over expansion, was a source of scandal among Rome’s military and administrative ranks. His decision to withdraw from the territories east of the Euphrates, which had been conquered by his predecessor Trajan, was particularly contentious. This move not only contradicted the expansionist military tradition of the Roman Empire but also demoralized the legions, who saw the relinquishment of hard-won territories as a betrayal of their efforts and sacrifices.

Finally, Hadrian’s personality and demeanor contributed to the controversies that surrounded him. His temperamental nature, penchant for secrecy, and occasional harshness in dealing with opposition were traits that often put him at odds with those around him. His direct involvement in the affairs of the provinces, bypassing the traditional administrative channels, and his insistence on personal loyalty above all else, were seen as undermining the established Roman political and social order.

Jerusalem and the Jewish Revolt

Hadrian’s actions in Judea and the subsequent Jewish Revolt of AD 132-135, also known as the Bar Kokhba Revolt, were important events that dramatically altered the course of Jewish history and had lasting impacts on the region. Seeking to leave his mark on the empire, Hadrian embarked on a series of cultural and architectural projects across the Roman world. One of his most ambitious projects was the re-foundation of Jerusalem, a city left in ruins since its destruction by Titus in AD 71. Hadrian aimed to transform the devastated city into a grand Roman metropolis, to be named Aelia Capitolina, complete with a temple dedicated to Jupiter Capitolinus on the revered Temple Mount.

This initiative, however, was perceived as a profound desecration by the Jewish population, for whom the Temple Mount held unparalleled sacred significance. The erection of a temple to a Roman god on this hallowed ground was seen as an intolerable act of religious and cultural imperialism. The tensions simmering beneath the surface erupted into a full-scale rebellion led by Simon Bar Kokhba, a charismatic figure who quickly became the focal point of Jewish resistance. The revolt represented a direct challenge to Roman authority and was characterized by fierce guerrilla warfare and widespread support among the Jewish populace.

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The response from Rome was swift and brutal. Roman legions, under the command of Hadrian, descended upon Judea with overwhelming force. The ensuing conflict was marked by its ferocity, with significant losses on both sides. Roman army tactics eventually quelled the rebellion, but only after a prolonged and bloody campaign. The aftermath of the revolt was devastating for the Jewish community in Judea; hundreds of thousands were killed, and many more were sold into slavery or displaced.

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Hadrian’s policies following the suppression of the revolt further entrenched the rift between Rome and the Jewish people. The emperor took measures to erase Jewish identity from the province, including renaming Judea as Syria Palaestina and forbidding circumcision, a central rite of Jewish religious practice. Aelia Capitolina was established, with its construction symbolizing the Roman conquest and the intended obliteration of Jewish Jerusalem.

Relationship with Antinous

Hadrian’s relationship with Antinous is among the most discussed aspects of his reign, capturing both the personal affections and the public actions of the emperor. Hadrian, known for his broad interests and complex personality, also became notable for his relationships, which spanned beyond the conventional boundaries of his time. The Historia Augusta highlights Hadrian’s diverse romantic interests, including his affections for young men and rumored infidelities with married women, suggesting a multifaceted personal life that diverged from traditional marital norms.

Antinous, a young man from Bithynia, became the most famous of Hadrian’s companions, not only for the depth of their relationship but also for the emperor’s profound grief at his untimely death in AD 130 during a journey along the Nile. The circumstances surrounding Antinous’s death remain shrouded in mystery and speculation, with official accounts stating he drowned, while rumors hinted at a more ritualistic sacrifice. Regardless of the cause, Hadrian’s response to Antinous’s death was extraordinary in the context of Roman imperial conduct.

The depth of Hadrian’s sorrow was manifested in the founding of Antinoopolis, a city built in honor of Antinous along the Nile’s banks where he died. This act, alongside the deification of Antinous, was unprecedented. Statues and temples were dedicated to Antinous, elevating him to a cult status that spread across the empire. This public mourning and memorialization of a personal companion were seen by many contemporaries and later historians as an overstep of imperial decorum, attracting both admiration for Hadrian’s devotion and criticism for his untraditional expression of grief.

The Succession Crisis During Hadrian’s Final Years

The latter years of Hadrian’s reign were overshadowed by a succession crisis, marked by his deteriorating health and the absence of a clear heir. In AD 136, at the age of 60 and facing increasing health challenges, Hadrian made the critical decision to appoint Lucius Ceionius Commodus as his successor, a move that revealed both his concerns for the future stability of the empire and his personal vulnerabilities. This choice, however, was fraught with controversy, not least because of Commodus’s own precarious health. Hadrian’s determination to secure a smooth transition of power led him to take drastic measures against those he perceived as threats to his chosen successor, including the execution of several high-ranking senators, which cast a shadow over his final years.

The death of Commodus in AD 138, merely a month after his adoption, forced Hadrian to reconsider his succession plans. In a decisive move, he adopted Antoninus Pius, imposing the condition that Antoninus would, in turn, adopt Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus as his successors. This sequence of adoptions aimed to ensure the continuity of Hadrian’s lineage and the stability of the empire, a testament to his strategic foresight.

Death and legacy

Hadrian’s personal struggle with illness during his final years is a poignant aspect of his life, marked by increasing despair and attempts at suicide, thwarted by vigilant servants. His death on 10 July AD 138, at the Baiae resort, ended a reign that had significantly influenced the course of the Roman Empire. Despite his contributions, Hadrian’s death was met with mixed sentiments, reflecting the complex legacy of a ruler who was at once a patron of the arts and an architect of the empire’s stability, yet also capable of harsh judgment and deep personal vendettas.

Hadrian’s illness remains a subject of historical speculation, with suggestions ranging from heart failure to depression, underscoring the personal vulnerabilities of an emperor who had wielded immense power. His final resting place, a mausoleum he had constructed for himself in Rome, became a lasting monument to his reign. The senate’s hesitant deification of Hadrian, urged by his successor Antoninus Pius, further reflects the ambivalence surrounding his legacy—a mix of reverence for his administrative acumen and cultural contributions, tempered by the darker aspects of his rule and personal life.

The Architect of Rome’s Golden Middle

Hadrian’s reign stands as an important epoch in Rome’s history, characterized by profound architectural, legal, and cultural achievements alongside personal and political complexities. His monumental works like Hadrian’s Wall and the Pantheon, alongside significant legal reforms, underscore his commitment to Rome’s stability and grandeur. Yet, his intimate relationship with Antinous and the contentious succession plans reveal a deeply human side. Hadrian’s legacy, thus, is a blend of visionary leadership and human frailty, leaving an indelible mark on Roman history.

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