Understanding Emperor Hadrian and His Cultural Expansion

Famous as Rome’s traveler, Emperor Hadrian oversaw the consolidation of the Roman Empire. The limits of conquest were recognised by an emperor famed more for his cultural tastes.

Sep 24, 2020By Kieren Johns, PhD Classics & Ancient History
emperor hadrian
Portrait Bust of the Emperor Hadrian, 125-30 AD, via the British Museum, London (forefront); and the oculus of the Pantheon in Rome (background)


Emperor Hadrian was Trajan’s chosen successor during Rome’s Golden Age. The period of history between the reign of Trajan and the death of Marcus Aurelius – from AD 98 to 180 – is usually characterised as the height of the Roman Empire. The period was recognised as a golden age in part due to the character of the emperors themselves. It had begun, of course, with Trajan – the optimus princeps himself. 


Significantly, the emperors during this period all adopted their successors. Lacking biological heirs of their own, they instead appointed their successors from the ‘best of men’ available; meritocracy, not genealogy, appeared to be the principle that guided these emperors to imperial power. One would be forgiven for thinking that such a policy would put a stop to any issues surrounding the succession. The case of Hadrian dispelled any such notions. Reigning from AD 117 to 138, his reign was characterised by magnificent cultural expressions of Roman creativity. It was, however, also marked by periods of conflict and tension.


Succession: Emperor Hadrian, Trajan And The Roman Senate

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Portrait Bust of the Emperor Trajan, 108 AD, via The Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna


Born in AD 76, Hadrian hailed – like Trajan – from the city of Italica (near modern Seville) in Spain, from a family of aristocratic Italian stock. His father’s first cousin was the Emperor Trajan. When he was 10 years old, Hadrian’s parents died and Trajan assumed care of the boy. The early years of Hadrian contained few surprises, including a good education and his advancement along the cursus honorum (the traditional sequence of public offices for men of senatorial rank). 


He also enrolled in the army. It was during his service as a military tribune that Hadrian was first introduced to the machinations of imperial power. He was dispatched to Trajan to give him news of his adoption by Nerva. His career would ever after be closely connected to his benefactor; he even accompanied Trajan during his Dacian and Parthian campaigns. His connection to the emperor’s family had been further solidified in around AD 100, by his marriage to Vibia Sabina, the Trajan’s grandniece. 


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Roman Bust of The Empress Sabina, 130 AD, via Museo del Prado, Madrid

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The marriage was not one that was popular with the emperor. Despite their close familial connections, there was no indication even late into Trajan’s reign that Hadrian had received any particular distinction marking him as the imperial heir. It is suggested that Trajan’s wife – the empress Plotina – influenced not only Hadrian’s marriage to Sabina, but also his eventual secession as she cared for the mortally ill Trajan on his deathbed. It is believed that it was she, not the emperor, who signed the adoption document, confirming Hadrian as the imperial heir. A further irregularity was the geographic distance between the two men; Roman law required all parties to be present at an adoption ceremony, yet whilst Trajan lay dying in AD 118, Hadrian remained in Syria. 

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Gold Aureus of Trajan with an obverse depicts a portrait of the emperor, whilst the reverse shows his wife, Plotina wearing a diadem, 117-18 AD, via The British Museum, London


The ancient historians themselves were divided over the legality of the succession. Cassius Dio highlights the connivance of Plotina, whilst similarly the Historia Augusta – the always fun, but not always factual, 4th century biography of emperors – declared that: “Hadrian was declared adopted, and then only by means of a trick of Plotina’s…” The death of four leading senators soon after has oft been cited as further evidence of Machiavellian politics at play in the lead up to Hadrian’s succession. Their death would also contribute to tensions with the senate that would dog the entirety of Hadrian’s reign, despite the popularity he enjoyed elsewhere. 


Hadrian And The Roman Empire: Greece, Cultural Capital 

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Colossal portrait head of Emperor Hadrian, 130-38 AD, via The National Archaeological Museum, Athens


Reputedly, Plotina’s relationship with Hadrian – which was so pivotal to his accession – was based on their shared beliefs and cultural values. The two of them understood the Empire – the vast spaces of Roman rule and its disparate population – as being built on the foundation of a shared Hellenic, which is to say Greek, culture. Since his youth, Hadrian had been enamoured with the culture of the Greeks, earning him the nickname Graeculus (“Greekling”). Upon his accession, he had already spent a considerable time in Greece, being granted Athenian citizenship amongst other honours, including the archonship (chief magistrate) of the city in AD 112.


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View of the Olympieion (Temple of the Olympian Zeus) with Acropolis in the background, Athens (Following Hadrian)


As Emperor, his interest in Greece continued unabated. This would not necessarily have been well received at Rome; the last emperor to take too keen an interest in Greece – Nero – had very quickly lost support for his Hellenistic, cultural proclivities (notably on stage). Hadrian himself would return to Greece in AD 124 during his tour of the Empire, and again in AD 128 and 130. His stays in Greece involved tours of the region, for instance he visited the Peloponnese in 124, and the encouragement of political cooperation of the leading Greek notables, such as the famous Athenian nobleman, Herodes Atticus. These individuals had hitherto been reluctant to engage with Roman politics. 


Hadrian’s attempts at unity point to his belief in the shared Mediterranean culture. He was also heavily involved in Hellenistic cult practices, most famously the Eleusinian Mysteries at Athens (in which he participated several times). However, it was in architecture that his interest in Greece manifested itself most clearly. His travels to the region were often times of great construction, with structures ranging from the grandiose – such as the Athenian Temple to Olympian Zeus, which he had overseen the completion of – to the practical, including an array of aqueducts.


Hadrian And The Roman Empire: Imperial Frontiers

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Hadrian’s Wall, Northumberland, via Visit Northumberland


Almost all Roman emperors. In fact, those who elected to stay in Rome – such as Antoninus Pius – were in the minority. However, their various journeys were frequently in the name of war; the emperor would journey to the campaign and, if he was successful, take a meandering route back to Rome, there to celebrate a triumph. In times of peace, it was more common for emperors to rely on the reports of their representatives, as the correspondence between Trajan and Pliny the Younger makes clear. 


Hadrian, however, is famous for his peregrinations. For him, travel appears to have been almost a raison d’être. He actually spent more than half of his reign outside of Italy, and his exposure to the cultures of the Roman Empire would leave a lasting legacy on the culture of the Hadrianic Empire. His travels took him to the far northern frontiers of the empire in Britain, to heat of the Empire’s Asian and African provinces, ranging as far east as the wealthy trading centre of Palmyra (which received the name Hadriana Palmyra in honour of his visit), to North Africa and Egypt. 


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The Arch of Hadrian, built in the city of Jerash (ancient Gerasa) Jordan photographed by Daniel Case, built in 130 AD


An important aspect of Hadrian’s travels around the Roman Empire was to inspect the Limes, the imperial frontiers. The reign of Trajan, his predecessor, had resulted in the Empire reaching its greatest geographic extent following the conquest of Dacia and the campaigns in Parthia. However, Hadrian elected to reverse Trajan’s overtly expansionist policies. Some of the territories Rome had won in the east were given up, with Hadrian instead interested in establishing secure and fixed defensive limits to the Roman Empire. These imperial limits are still famous today. Hadrian’s Wall in the north of England for instance marked the northern limit of the Empire, whilst similar structures in North Africa – the fotassum Africae – have similarly been attributed to Hadrian, and indicate the southern borders of the Empire. The emperor’s decision to give up these territories incurred the disapproval of some sections of Roman society.


Rebellion In The East: Hadrian And The Second Jewish War

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Orichalcum sestertius of Hadrian, with reverse depiction of Hadrian (right) and Judaea (left), shown sacrificing, 134-38 AD, via The American Numismatic Society, New York


Rome endured a tumultuous relationship with Judaea. Religious tensions, exacerbated by heavy-handed imperial (mis)management had previously led to revolts, most notably the First Roman-Jewish War of AD 66-73. This war was only brought to a conclusion by the siege and destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem by Titus, the son of the Emperor Vespasian. Although the region was still in a state of ruin following this, Hadrian visited Judaea and the ruined city of Jerusalem during his travels. However, religious tensions once more appear to have led to an outbreak of violence. An imperial visit and integration of the region in the Roman Empire would have been predicated on the population taking an active role in Roman religion. 


This wouldn’t have meant the abandonment of the Jewish faith, but rather that the faith was practiced alongside traditional Roman cult, especially honouring the emperor himself. Such polytheistic integration was commonplace across the empire, but naturally ran contrary to the monotheistic faith of the Jews. The ever-problematic Historia Augusta suggests that the revolt was in part fuelled by Hadrian’s attempted abolition of the practice of circumcision. Although there is no evidence of this, it serves as a useful frame of reference for understanding the incompatibility of Roman and Jewish religious beliefs.


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Bronze statue of the Emperor Hadrian, 117-38, via The Israel Museum, Jerusalem


A revolt quickly broke out, fuelled by anti-Roman sentiment, led by Simon bar Kokhba. This was the Second Roman-Jewish War, which lasted from around AD 132 to 135. Casualties were heavy on both sides, with the Jews in particular shedding much blood: Cassius Dio records the death of some 580,000 men, along with the destruction of over 1,000 settlements of various sizes. With the defeat of the revolt, Hadrian erased the Jewish heritage of the region. The province was renamed Syria Palaestina, whilst Jerusalem itself was renamed Aelia Capitolina (renamed for himself – Aelia – and the god, Jupiter Capitolinus).


Emperor And Architect: Hadrian And The City of Rome

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The Pantheon in Rome photographed by Kieren Johns, built in 113-125 AD


Hadrian wasn’t given the moniker Graeculus without reason. Although given to him as a youth, his career as emperor displays a consistent engagement with and interest in the culture of Greece. This is most clear in the architecture of the Empire that survives from the period of his reign. The city of Rome itself owes perhaps its most iconic structure – the Pantheon – to Hadrian. This “temple to all gods” – the literal meaning of Pantheon – was rebuilt by Hadrian following its devastation by a fire in AD 80. 


It had originally been built by Marcus Agrippa, the right-hand man of Augustus, and Hadrian’s reconstruction is notable for the respect it pays to its origins. Displayed proudly on the portico is the inscription: M. AGRIPPA. L. F. COS. TERTIUM. FECIT. Translated, this states: Marcus Agrippa, son of Lucius (Lucii filius), consul for the third time, built this. Respect to the original builders was a recurrent theme across Hadrian’s restoration projects across the city and the empire. Elsewhere in Rome, he was responsible for the Temple of Venus and Rome, opposite the Colosseum on the edges of the Forum Romanum. 


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View of the Canopus at Hadrian’s Villa, Tivoli, 125-34 AD


On the outskirts of Rome, in Tivoli, Hadrian also built an expansive private villa which covered roughly 7 square miles. The architecture there was magnificent, and even today the expanse of what remains provides a telling indication of the opulence and splendour of this former imperial residence. It also conveyed the influences of Hadrian’s cosmopolitanism. Many of the structures of the villa were inspired by the cultures of the empire, especially from Egypt and Greece. 


Typical of Hadrian’s reign however, tensions bubbled beneath the surface – even in a field as seemingly benign as architecture. Reputedly his own high opinion of his architectural skills brought him into tension with Apollodorus of Damascus, the exceptional architect who had worked with Trajan and was responsible for the wondrous bridge over the Danube. According to Dio, the architect offered pointed criticisms of Hadrian’s plans for the temple of Venus and Roma which so enraged the emperor that he banished the architect before ordering his death!


Love In the Reign Of Hadrian? Antinous And Sabina

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Statue of Vibia Sabina, wife of Hadrian, 125-35 AD, from Hadrian’s Villa, Tivoli, via Indiana University, Bloomington (left); with Statue of Braschi Antinous – lover of Hadrian, 138 AD, via Musei Vaticani, Vatican City (right)


Hadrian’s marriage to Sabina, the grandniece of Trajan, was far from a marriage made in heaven. Its political benefits could hardly be overstated, but in terms of the relationship between husband and wife, it left a lot to be desired. Sabina accumulated a wealth of public honours during her husband’s reign – unprecedented since Livia, the wife of Augustus and mother of Tiberius. She had also travelled widely with her husband and was well-known throughout the empire, appearing frequently on coinages. One scandalous episode in the Historia Augusta has Hadrian’s secretary – the biographer Suetonius no less – dismissed from court for his overly familiar conduct towards Sabina! However, as far as the imperial marriage was concerned, there appears to have been little love – or even warmth – between the two.


Rather, Hadrian, allegedly much like Trajan before him, much preferred the company of men and homosexual relations. His great love was Antinous, a young man from Bithynia (northern Asia Minor). He accompanied Hadrian on his travels of the Empire, even being inducted into the Eleusinian Mysteries with the emperor in Athens. However, in mysterious circumstances, the young man died as the imperial retinue floated down the Nile in AD 130. Whether he drowned, was murdered, or committed suicide remains unknown and the subject of speculation. Whatever the cause, Hadrian was devastated. He founded the city of Antinoöpolis on the site where his great love had died, as well as ordering his deification and cult. 


The importance of Antinous is also evidenced by the wealth of statuary that has survived, showing the cult of the handsome young man spread around the Empire. Some, however, were critical of the intense grief Hadrian expressed for Antinous, especially given the coldness of his marriage to Sabina. 


Journey’s End: The Death And Deification Of Emperor Hadrian

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View of the Mausoleum of Hadrian, the modern Castel Sant-Angelo in Rome photographed by Kieren Johns

Hadrian spent the final years of his life back in the imperial capital; he remained in Rome from AD 134 onwards. His final years were marked by sadness. His victory in the Second Roman-Jewish War was kept comparatively muted – the uprising marked a failure in the attempts to establish a unifying Hellenistic culture across the Empire. Similarly, Sabina passed away in AD 136, bringing to a close a marriage of political necessity and one that passed without children. Lacking an heir, Hadrian was in a similar position to his predecessor. He ultimately settled on Titus Aurelius Fulvus Boionius Arrius Antoninus, who would go on to reign as Antoninus Pius. From AD 134 he had also overseen the construction of the Mausoleum of Hadrian. Known today as Castel Sant’Angelo (thanks to its afterlife as a medieval fortress), this domineering structure would go on to be the final resting place of emperors from Hadrian to Caracalla in the early third century. 


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Reliefs of personified imperial provinces, Egypt, holding a pomegranate (left), and Thrace, holding a sickle (right) photographed by Kieren Johns from the Temple of Hadrian, Rome, now in the Museo Nazionale, Rome


Hadrian died in the summer of AD 138, aged 62. He passed away at his imperial villa in Baiae, on the Campanian coastline, his health gradually declining. His 21 year reign was the longest since Tiberius in the first century, and would remain the fourth longest of all (beaten only by Augustus, Tiberius, and Antoninus Pius – his successor). Interred in the Mausoleum he had built for himself in 139, his legacy remained contentious. 


The empire he left was secure, culturally enriched, and the succession had been smooth. However, the senate remained reluctant to deify him; theirs was a relationship that remained fractious until the very end. He was, in the end, honoured with a temple in the Campus Martius (which has today been repurposed as Rome’s Chamber of Commerce). This temple was decorated with numerous reliefs depicting personifications of the provinces of his empire, identifiable by their iconic attributes, Hadrian’s cosmopolitanism manifested in marble. For Rome’s wandering emperor, there could have been no better guardians to keep watch over his temple.

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By Kieren JohnsPhD Classics & Ancient HistoryKieren is a UK based contributing writer with a PhD in Classics and Ancient History. His thesis explored the representation and status of the Severan emperors. He is passionate about sharing his interest in the past with as many people as possible. Away from his research, Kieren is also interested in arts, literature, and travel.