Roman imperial history is full of remarkable characters, from the revered Augustus to mad Caligula, and each has left his own individual mark on the past. In comparison to those of more famous emperors, the rule of the Emperor Hadrian (AD 117-138) is often overlooked, and most people’s acquaintance with his name is only in relation to the famous Hadrian’s Wall. However, Hadrian also led a fascinating life and the accomplishments of his rule, in particular his widespread and ambitious building projects that greatly affected both civil and provincial infrastructure, left an enduring impact on the history of the Romans and their empire, as well as a tangible legacy for future generations.
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Publius Aelius Hadrianus was born on January 24th, AD 76. While it has generally been assumed that his birthplace was in Spain, as his family origins were in that country, there are records that show that he was likely born in Rome (Birley 10). While few written documents survive which refer to Hadrian’s childhood and upbringing, one can say fairly confidently that he was born into an exciting era in Roman history, and that the events that occurred during his youth would surely have had an impact on him. Some of his earliest memories perhaps were of the circumstances of Emperor Vespasian’s death in AD 79 and the accession of his son Titus, followed shortly by the devastation of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, and less than a year later, a great fire in Rome (Birley 15). As a young man, Hadrian was educated in the manner of the elite, learning languages, arts, philosophy, and science (Hadrian 1986). As all men who desired to achieve political status, he also served in the military, as tribune in Pannonia on the German frontiers, as well as in Macedonia (Speller 15). He was clearly a man of complex character. There are written records, such as the Historia Augusta and Cassius Dio’s Roman History, that portray an intelligent, enthusiastic, and generous individual with a pleasant sense of humour, who showed an interest in all levels of society. It has been said that he was as comfortable talking with people of the lower classes as he was with the rich and noble, and many examples of his sympathy for and duty to his people are recorded (Brown 51). He showed little of the brutality that characterized previous emperors, although he was known to have a temper and a highly competitive nature. Cassius Dio (LXIX, 249) paints him as a passionate scholar and a patron of almost all the arts, showing particular fascination in magic, architecture, and engineering. Although educated by the best in Rome, he is famous for his obsession with Hellenistic Greece, and this passion would come to drive many of his personal and imperial decisions. His friends were known to have called him “Graeculus”, meaning “the little Greek” (Brown 50), and in identifying himself with celebrated Greek philosophers he would insist on wearing a beard, setting the trend for future emperors. Perhaps what most sets Hadrian apart from many other emperors was his great love of travel. Twelve of his twenty-one years of rule were spent away from Rome, during which time he visited almost every territory in the empire.
Hadrian was forty-one years old at the time of his succession, and was well educated and experienced in both military and politics. During the next twenty-one years he would bring about many changes that would leave their mark on history. His first act as emperor was to abandon Trajan’s recent conquests in Mesopotamia, Assyria, and Armenia, perhaps realizing the complexity of trying to administer an empire with resources and manpower already spread thin. Not only did he relinquish these territories, but he also set about a widespread process of consolidating the empire and it has been suggested that Hadrian put an end to the expansionist policies that had distinguished Rome since the time of Augustus (“Hadrian” 1986). His main goal was to strengthen and secure the borders and to condense the empire into a more manageable entity. The most lasting remnant of this is, of course, Hadrian’s Wall in Northern Britain, built as a defensive and economic border for the empire’s most Northern territory to separate it from the Caledonian lands to the north. As The Historia Augusta recounts, ‘…he made for Britain, where he set right many things and – the first to do so – drew a wall a length of eighty miles to separate barbarians and Romans’ (Historia Augusta, Hadrian 12.1). Construction on the wall was begun in AD 122, when Hadrian visited Britain on his tour of the western provinces. The work was carried out by soldiers of the Roman army and was an extremely ambitious task. By the time it was completed six years later, the wall, and its many forts, stretched across the entire width of northern England, some 73 modern miles long. It has been estimated that to try and reconstruct the wall today would cost over $200 million (Breeze 7). Hadrian also firmly established the borders of the empire in Germany, along the Danube and the Rhine, and in North Africa (Brown 90), and as mentioned previously, he personally visited and thoroughly inspected almost every territory. He also made a deliberate attempt to be seen by his people and to try and understand the different cultures that they were composed of. He perhaps hoped that by doing this he would be better able to understand and administer his empire.
These travels and personal interests of Hadrians often directly affected the infrastructure of the provinces. Of all of Hadrian’s accomplishments, he is perhaps best known for his building programs, and it is certainly not only Hadrian’s Wall that bears testament to this today. It has been estimated that over 130 cities throughout the empire directly benefited from Hadrian’s travels through them (Boatwright 5) with gifts of new or refurbished public buildings, such as baths, roads or temples. Hadrian’s policies of consolidation impacted the empire’s financial situation, as income from conquest booty was no longer coming in, and the vast Roman army had become a ‘fixed expense’ (King 169-70). King argues that Hadrian’s travels were partly an attempt to regenerate growth in a different way, by spreading Romanization. This was done not only by physically bestowing structures, but also by improving provincial administration and economy (King 170). The physical impact of this is evident in the number and range of building works undertaken on Hadrian’s orders. From her compilation of Hadrian’s provincial works, Mary Boatwright points out that his most popular benefactions were functional infrastructure, followed by religious buildings (Boatwright 143). Some of the vital components of the provincial, and indeed imperial, infrastructure that Hadrian ordered either built, renovated, or improved included aqueducts (which the Historia Augusta (Hadrian 20.11) mentions as ‘countless aqueducts’) including those at Antioch and Argos; roadwork, such as widening the important Athens to Corinth road; harbours, like at Ephesus; city walls; markets; grain storehouses; basilicas and stoas; amphitheatres; gymnasia; baths at Ostia, Corinth, Antioch, and Italica; temples; and agricultural and irrigation improvements, including crucial flood prevention measures, such as those undertaken at Copais Lake in Boeatia (Boatwright 2000). Hadrian very often cooperated with the local communities during these engineering projects, which of course resulted in a ‘spill over’ effect for the area, influencing its economy, communications, technology, agriculture, and even religion in some cases (Boatwright 113), and he was generally careful to respect the individual cultures, histories, and local differences of the places he chose to physically change. For example, following the bad earthquake in AD 120 that destroyed much of the rival towns of Nicaea and Nicomedia, Hadrian was careful to repair and bestow equal quantity and quality of new public buildings in both cities (Boatwright 122). Although Hadrian’s travels physically contributed to many different places throughout the Empire, it is quite obvious that he focused most of his attentions on Athens, Italica, and Smyrna (Boatwright 112). He visited Athens five times as emperor; each time contributing more to the city he considered his “spiritual home” (Brown 54). The list of public works constructed by Hadrian for the city is impressive, including a substantial library, a gymnasium built with imported stone from Libya, a new residential quarter whose entrance was marked by a grand arch, the Olympieion, a temple to Zeus started in 174 BC and only finished by Hadrian, a great aqueduct and reservoir, which functioned without change until 1456, and again the list goes on (Brown 55).
Although not often resident in the imperial capital, Hadrian certainly did not ignore the city. The Rome Hadrian inherited was crowded and chaotic, and he aimed to renovate the city to be more organized, pleasant, and spacious by widening streets and building more open squares and porticoes, particularly in the residential areas, perhaps emulating cities he had seen on his travels (Boatwright 237). The Historia Augusta (Hadrian 19.1) states that ‘at Rome he restored the Pantheon, the Saepta, the Basilica of Neptune, many sacred temples, the Forum of Augustus, the Baths of Agrippa; and he consecrated all of these in the names of their original builders’. Indeed many of the famous buildings in Rome today are remnants of Hadrian’s continuous attempts to modernize and beautify the city: his immense mausoleum, now known as the Castel Sant’Angelo, the abovementioned Pantheon, still standing solidly as a tribute to the marvels of ancient engineers (up until 1958 it was the largest dome ever constructed), and even the arches that once held up the bridge he built across the Tiber now support the modern Pons Aelius (Bussagli 114-122). He also made repairs to the Forum, built the Atheneum academy for learning, completely renovated Rome’s seaport of Ostia, repaired several of the city’s aqueducts, as well a much more (Boatwright 1987). Parts of Hadrian’s massive Temple of Venus and Rome still tower above the forum. This temple was Hadrian’s own architectural design, based on the Olympieion in Athens, and resembled a Greek stylobate temple (Sear 183). Boatwright (133) argues that the example of the Temple of Venus and Roma can be viewed as symbolic of the Pan-Hellenic empire that Hadrian wished to create. One of Hadrian’s most extraordinary constructions is at Tivoli, where his enormous and luxurious villa of an estimated 900 rooms and 300 acres of formal gardens, nearly one-tenth the size of Rome at the time, was located (Brown 69). Built over a fifteen year time period, the villa had numerous pavilions, banquet halls, baths, swimming pools, theatres, temples, and even Hadrian’s own private island, all constructed and decorated to resemble the many different lands and cultures he had travelled through (MacDonald 1995).
Of all the Roman emperors, Hadrian is perhaps best known for his personal interactions with the widely different regions of the empire. His penchant for travel, fascination with different lands and peoples, and desire to spread Romanization, combined with his interest in engineering, led him to bestow hundreds of physical gifts of building to the cities and provinces. These gifts were very often functional, ranging from roads to temples, and not only greatly impacted the infrastructure of an area, but also had an influence in many other aspects of a community.
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