(AD 117 – 138)

(Publius Aelius Traianus Hadrianus Augustus)


 Hadrian was the third of the Antonine emperors and probably the most controversial.

Hadrian’s administration was firm, efficient and generally benign. He was incredibly energetic and a good strategic thinker. He greatly increased the Empires security by using diplomacy to make alliances and also by strengthening the Roman military capability behind  extended fortified defensive lines along the borders (‘Limes’). For the greater part of his reign, there was peace, security and general prosperity throughout the Empire.


Hadrian was a man of many talents and a great builder. He enhanced  both the City and Provinces with great architectural masterpieces and also founded several new cities. Besides this, he also did much to encourage interest in philosophy, jurisprudence and the arts. He continued Trajan’s reforms for helping the poor and expanded the alimenta (state fund for assisting orphans).


But was Hadrian Really One of the Good Emperors?

Hadrian’s actual succession to the throne had been controversial and was marred by an incident of extra-judicial killing. However, for years, the new emperor managed put all this behind him and rule both wisely and justly. He followed the good example of his predecessor Trajan, by cooperating with the senate and paying attention to the established constitutional safegards. Regrettably, towards the latter part of his life, following personal loss and in failing health, he became increasingly morose and reclusive and there were several unjust arbitary rulings made against individuals who questioned his authority.


Early Life

Hadrian was born in AD 76 in Italica in Western Spain but was of Italian, not Spanish stock, as his ancestors had been Roman colonists. His natural father, Publius Aelius Hadrianus Afer, died when Hadrian was about ten and his principal guardian was his kinsman, the future emperor Trajan, who was serving with Domitan’s armies at the time. His other guardian was Publius Acilius Attianus, who was to be Trajan’s future praeterion prefect.


Hadrian was given an excellent education in Rome and became enamoured with Greek literature and philosophy. Trajan’s wife, Plotina, an educated woman, who had no children of her own, was fond of the talented youngster. In AD 100, to strengthen the family ties and presumably to prepare the way for the future adoption of her protege, she arranged that Hadrian marry Vibia Sabina, the daughter of Trajan’s niece, Matidia. In the event this was an unhappy marriage and there were no children.


Character of Hadrian

Hadrian was a complex man. Highly intelligent and decisive, he was an energetic and talented ruler, possessing clear sight and a practical bent for finding inspired solutions to complex issues. A good soldier and administrator, he was a robust man, who enjoyed riding and hunting, but at the same time he was also an intellectual, a well educated hellenophile, with strong leanings towards philosophy, mysticism and the arts. Hadrian always took time to get to grips with the minutest details in matters of administration and military strategy and training.


He did not spend much time in Rome, but travelled widely to ensure that the provinces were being administered justly and efficiently. Hadrian is also remembered as one of the greatest builders of all time, creating several architectural masterpieces and founding several new cities. Hadrian’s wall in Britain was a wonder of the ancient world and was of huge strategic significance. However, probably Hadrian’s greatest achievements was to consolidate Rome’s provincial borders, by abandoning some of Trajan’s conquests, to make the empire more defensible.


Unfortunately, in the latter part of his reign, following the death of his homosexual lover, Antinous, Hadrian became increasingly gloomy and morose. He largely withdrew himself from public appearances, and became subject to making arbitary and unjust judgements about the people around him. On his death, in spite of his notable achievements, he was not well liked by the senate and other members of the ruling classes and, but for the intercession of his adoptive son Antoninus Pius, he would have been refused the traditional recognition of Deification.


Early Career

Under Trajan’s patronage, Hadrian served through every step of the ‘cursus honorum’ – the approved career path since republican times, for a Roman gentleman from a family of senatorial rank. Hadrian ultimately rose to the rank of consul, and by then had had a very active military career. He served with distinction, first as military tribune, then as commander (legatus legionis) of both Legio V (Macedonica) and Legio I (Minervia). In Trajan’s Dacian wars Hadrian was decorated by the emperor for outstanding service. In AD 107 he was appointed governor of Lower Pannonia, an important military province that faced several warlike German tribes. In AD 109 Hadrian was appointed ‘consul suffectus’ – this was more or less just a honorific title at this stage of the Principate, as in reality the emperor held all true power. In the following years Hadrian was granted important priesthoods in the formal State religion and took on various civic duties in Rome.


Hadrian then seems to have taken some time out to pursue his cultural interests. He visited Greece and dabbled in mysticism, attended lectures at Plato’s Academy and was initiated into the mystical ‘Eleusian rites’ associated with the goddess Demeter and the underworld. In recognition of his love of all things Greek, Hadrian was declared an Athenian citizen and made an ‘Archon’ of Athens in AD 112. He thereafter rejoined active service and by AD 114 he was a staff officer serving under Trajan in Mesopotamia for the war against the Parthians. Initially Hadrian does not seem to have been given independent command in this difficult campaign, but was subsequently appointed governor of Syria, after the successful commander, Lucius Quietus had been sent off to quell a revolt in Dacia. When Trajan became ill and left for Rome, Hadrian was left in command of the armies that the emperor had used for the Parthian war and found himself in a supremely powerful position.


A Controversial Succession

Trajan died in en-route to Italy at the town of Selinus in Cilicia AD 117 as a result of his illness. Although Trajan had not earlier appointed Hadrian officially to be his heir apparent, nevertheless the succession passed to him anyway, as Hadrian found that he had been adopted, on short notice, just before the old emperor died. However there have been allegations (notably by the historian Dio Cassio) that a forgery was perpetrated and the alleged ‘adoption’ never actually took place. Yet since the ‘adoption’ document was certified by Trajan’s well respected wife Plotina, it was generally accepted as legitimate. If this had not happened, there could easily have been a civil war, probably between Hadrian with his Syrian army and Lucius Quietus the highly popular general, hero of the Meopotamian campaign, who was now commanding the Danubian legions. As it was, Quietus was murdered under suspicious circumstances a short time thereafter.


Beside’s the endorsement of Plotina, Trajan’s widow, the praetorion prefect, Attianus, who had been Hadrians other guardian, also claimed to have been present at the alleged ‘adoption’ of Hadrian by the dying emperor. Attianus now rushed off to Rome, to bolster support for Hadrian. Apparently acting on his own authority, Attianus then summarily executed four senators of consular rank, who he alleged had been conspiring against Hadrian. The new emperor expressed his horror and always denied any complicity in this crime, but the damage had been done. The senators were never to forgive this bloody start to his reign.


However, by the following year, Hadrian had consolidated his power base sufficiently and felt that he would no longer need Attianus, who had become an embarrassment. Hadrian wanted to convince the world that his administration was going to follow the ethical and moderate example of Trajan, so Attianus was induced to resign as praetorian prefect, granted some token honours, then sent home to Spain to retire into obscurity.




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