The Emperor Hadrian once went to the public baths and saw an old soldier rubbing his back against a wall. Puzzled, he asked the old man what he was doing. ‘Getting the marble to scrape the oil off,’ the old man explained, ‘because I can’t afford a slave.’ The emperor immediately presented him with a team of slaves and the money for their upkeep. A few weeks later, he was in the baths again. Predictably, perhaps, he found a whole group of old men ostentatiously rubbing their backs against the wall, trying to cash in on his generosity. He asked the same question and got the same response. ‘But haven’t you thought,’ replied the canny emperor, ‘of rubbing each other down?’
This anecdote is preserved in an extraordinary ‘fantasy biography’ of Hadrian put together sometime in the fourth century AD, over two hundred years after Hadrian’s death, by a man writing under the pretentious pseudonym of ‘Aelius Spartianus’. It is an anecdote that must have been told about any number of Roman emperors; the fact that here it happens to be attached to the name of Hadrian probably has no significance at all. What is significant is the glimpse it gives into some Roman assumptions about what made a ‘good’ emperor. He should be generous, far-sighted (note the grant for the slaves’ upkeep: Romans knew that even free slaves did not come cheap) and, above all, smart, not the kind of man to be taken for a ride. He should also have the nerve to come face to face with his people: not for him the elite seclusion of some private bathing establishment, but mucking in with all-comers at the public baths. The Roman emperor should be one of the lads, or at least pretend to be.
Most of the anecdotes that cluster around Hadrian tell the more ambivalent story of someone who prompted awkward questions about the fragility of imperial virtues. Romans might, for example, admire an emperor who was well versed in the Greek literary classics, or one who could tell his Stoics from his Epicureans. It was less clear, however, that their admiration extended to an emperor like Hadrian, who not only grew a beard, Greek-philosopher style, but even flaunted a young Greek boyfriend. And not just a boyfriend, but one whom the besotted emperor embarrassingly made into a god, after his mysterious death on the Nile. Similarly, Romans might admire a ruler who took the trouble to get to know conditions in the provinces. But what of an emperor who became such a professional traveller that he was almost never at ‘home’ (wherever that was)? Could Hadrian get away with breaking the links that bound the emperor to the city of Rome, or not?
And what of his passion for hunting? Hadrian was reputedly a master of this ancient sport of kings: according to Spartianus, he founded a whole town called Hadrian-otherae (‘Hadrian’s hunt’) to commemorate a particularly successful trip. There was a sneaking suspicion, however, that he might have exercised his hunting prowess at the expense of real military virtues: playing at combat, not combat itself. When, for example, his favourite hunting horse died, Hadrian erected a lavish tomb, complete with memorial poem: an elegant reference, perhaps, to the elaborate commemoration that Alexander the Great had laid on for his favourite horse, Bucephalus, but an inevitable reminder also of how things had changed – in the good old days favourite horses were used to conquer the world, not to spear a few boars.
Similar problems are raised by Hadrian’s great ‘villa’ at Tivoli, some twenty miles outside Rome. ‘Villa’ is an understatement, for this was the biggest Roman palace ever built, covering an area more than twice the size of the town of Pompeii (it was almost as large as Hyde Park). It was not just a single building, more a city in itself – combining grand entertainment suites, bathing complexes, libraries, theatres, dining rooms, kitchens, service quarters and fantastic pleasure gardens. A visit to the site today captures little of the original impression; most of it is still not properly excavated and the standing ruins are very ruined indeed. (The fact that it is now the fourth most visited state monument in Italy probably has less to do with the surviving remains or the fame of Hadrian than with the presence of the second most visited monument – the Villa d’Este – just up the road.) But the literally hundreds of statues from it, dug up in the eighteenth century, sold on the Grand Tour antiques market and now adorning the Western world’s museums (including the British Museum), are evidence enough of its almost unbelievable riches; while the various attempted reconstructions, from Piranesi on, combined (as we shall see) with some strange remarks in Spartianus, help to fill out the picture of luxury on a colossal scale. The Villa at Tivoli looks like a monument to megalomania, whether on the part of Hadrian or of his architects, or (more likely) of both.
The question is partly where (or how) to fix the dividing line between the upmarket elegance of an emperor and the decadent vulgarity of a tyrant. This is a problem insistently raised by many of the Villa’s ‘amenities’: for example, the Water Dining Rooms, where the guests reclined around a pool of water and (so one reconstruction has it) steered the delicacies round to each other on a fleet of tiny boats. (Slaves would be on hand, of course, to rescue the beached pickles.) The best-known and most photographed monument on the site, the ‘Canopus’, with colonnade, canal and miniature temple, once thought to be a monument to Hadrian’s beloved boyfriend, Antinous, is now interpreted as one of these dining areas; here the diners took their fill, stretched out in front of the water on couches set in a replica of a famous shrine of the god Serapis. Either learned pastiche for sophisticated diners, or the Roman equivalent of McDonald’s serving Big Macs in a look-alike Sistine Chapel (tarted-up with ornamental fountains and fairy lights).
There is also the bigger question of what the Villa as a whole might be taken to represent. Spartianus writes of it as a microcosm of the Roman Empire itself: Hadrian ‘actually gave to parts of it the names of provinces and places of the greatest renown, calling them, for instance, Lyceum, Academy, Prytaneum, Canopus, Poikile and Tempe’. In other words, the philosophical schools, as well as some of the most famous monuments of Athens and the Eastern Mediterranean, were somehow given a presence in Hadrian’s palace. Spartianus was not necessarily any better informed than we are about the emperor’s intentions, but it is certainly the case that some of the Villa’s features (like the Canopus) seem to mimic these great buildings or famous features. It is hard to resist the conclusion that the Tivoli palace and its designers were making a statement about imperial possession, that they were strategically conflating imperial territory with the emperor’s private estate. To put it another way, the Villa meant that Hadrian could be ‘abroad’ even when he was ‘at home’.
At the same time, the similarities between the image of Hadrian and that of the monster Emperor Nero, half a century or so earlier, are very striking. In both cases, the anecdotal tradition stresses their un-Roman devotion to all things Greek. (Nero is said to have enjoyed a magnificent royal progress round Greece, competing – and winning – in all the major festivals that were re-scheduled to coincide with his visit, before finally and ostentatiously granting the country its ‘freedom’.) They also shared a passion for palatial building, Nero’s Golden House being an obvious precursor of the palace at Tivoli (Nero’s place covered a relatively modest 120 acres, but equipped with state-of-the-art revolving ceilings and a colossal bronze statue – probably of the emperor (p. 144) – in its entrance hall).
Why, then, was Nero overthrown and demonised, while Hadrian died safely in his bed and escaped with nothing more damning than an awkward question mark over his aims and motives? Partly, no doubt, because Hadrian walked the tightrope of imperial image-making more deftly than Nero. The Golden House caused offence because it monopolised the heart of the city of Rome itself (‘Romans flee to Veii – your city has become one man’s house’ was a well-known joke against Nero’s building schemes), whereas Hadrian’s yet more grandiose Villa was at a discreet (enough) distance from the capital. Partly, the question provides its own answer: most Roman rulers were not overthrown because they were demons or demonised (my guess is that assassinations were more often the result of self-serving rivalries within the palace than of political principle or moral outrage), they were demonised because they were overthrown. If one of the many attempts on Hadrian’s life had been successful, he, too, would most probably have been written into history as a tyrannical maniac. Instead, whatever the truth about his regime, his loyal and chosen successor, Antoninus Pius, made sure that posterity did not treat him as badly as it might have done – or (who knows?) as he might have deserved.
Anthony Birley does not have much time for problems of this kind. His biography of Hadrian deals with the Villa at Tivoli in little more than a single page (mostly concerned with the names of other people of Spanish origin, like Hadrian, who might, or might not, have owned villas nearby). He devotes no space at all to wider questions: how imperial reputations were formed, or even how to evaluate the rich anecdotal tradition that goes on telling almost exactly the same stories about a whole series of different emperors. Birley’s method is not much more than blind faith: quoting a well-known anecdote about Hadrian’s encounter with a peasant woman (Hadrian said he was too busy to speak to her; ‘then stop being emperor’, she retorted, so he turned back), he admits that it is also told about a number of earlier Greek rulers; but he still manages to summon up enough credulity to assert that in this case ‘it is likely to be genuine for all that.’ If he feels any doubts about what a modern biography of a Roman emperor is for, about what it should contain or, indeed, whether a modern model of a ‘life story’, still less a ‘personality’, is an appropriate one to foist on the Romans, he certainly does not share them with the reader.
Birley adopts a no-nonsense approach. Starting at the beginning, he charts the course of Hadrian’s life until his dying breath. He asks: what offices did Hadrian hold, who advanced his career, who were his friends (and enemies), where did he go, who did he go with, how did he get there, what did he do when he had arrived, what did he do next? These are harmless enough questions: the problem is that there is virtually no evidence from which to answer most of them. True, there are plenty of anecdotes about Hadrian, there is an enormous quantity of visual material, and not only at Tivoli (he sponsored the grandest building programme in Athens since the development of the Acropolis under Pericles); and a good deal of contemporary philosophy and rhetoric, as well as some startling poetry – including fragments of a mini-epic of Hadrian and Antinous hunting in Africa. What is missing, crucially, is any substantial narrative of Hadrian’s life or reign that attempts to lay out the events within some kind of chronological framework. All we have, for a reign of twenty years, are the 20-odd pages of Spartianus (an ideological fantasy composed centuries after Hadrian’s death) and about the same amount of Byzantine excerpts from Cassius Dio’s account of the period, written in the third century. How, then, has Birley constructed such a long and detailed chronological narrative of Hadrian’s life from this unpromising material? Where has all the information come from? Quite simply, how has he filled the pages?
The way historians of the ancient world have always done, by a combination of scholarship, conjecture and fiction. It does not take long, as you read Hadrian, to spot the favourite tactics for expansion. First, Birley extracts a ‘fact’ from Spartianus or Dio: for example, that Hadrian went to Germany (or Britain, or Greece, or Asia). Next, he reflects on the range of personnel who might have been involved. This can last up to a page: ‘Bradua seems to have accompanied Hadrian on his travels … it might be that he first joined the Imperial party at this stage’; ‘Sabina’s presence was deemed advisable, no doubt’; ‘other senators were probably in the party as well … slaves and freedmen would have been in attendance, too.’ When this line of conjecture is exhausted, he turns to the route. How might Hadrian have travelled from A to B? ‘He cannot have been in this part of Asia without visiting Pergamum’; ‘it is hard to deny Hadrian a call at the famous oracle of Apollo at Claros’; ‘it is hard to believe he did not take the chance of visiting Olympia’; ‘it is easy to envisage the energetic emperor climbing the triple peak of the Eildon Hills to survey the Tweed valley.’
The wilder the speculation, the greater the panoply of scholarship. Fragmentary inscriptions are dissected in detail (largely because Birley conveniently assumes that an inscribed dedication to Hadrian in town X means that Hadrian actually visited town X – when there are plenty of other reasons to account for such displays of local loyalty). Poetry is grilled for ‘facts’ that it could never yield. In one horribly memorable argument he takes a fragment of an epigram by the poet/historian Florus (‘I don’t want to be the emperor/Strolling about among the Britons’) as evidence to support his claim that Hadrian made his first inspection of Hadrian’s Wall on foot. Almost equally memorable is Birley’s invention of a summit conference on the River Euphrates in the mid-120s between Hadrian and the Parthian king, each supported by their respective (conjectural) friends and ‘with each side coming across in turn for dinner’: this exercise in fantasy stems from just one phrase in Spartianus, recording that the emperor halted a war with Parthia ‘by negotiation’ (‘conloquio’).
To be fair to Birley, he does signal his conjectures, guesses and inferences for what they are. Obsessively so. His text is littered with the technical terminology of ‘careful’ ancient history: ‘presumably’, ‘one may readily postulate’, ‘the odds are that’, ‘it is no more than a guess’, ‘no doubt’, ‘in all likelihood’, ‘on this hypothesis’. Such phrases occur literally hundreds of times throughout the book. The problem with this method is not its dishonesty (though readers should be warned that many of Birley’s terms are used in their narrowest academic sense: ‘no doubt’ means ‘this is an extremely dodgy speculation’). The real issue is that this veneer of scrupulous scholarship (‘I shall claim nothing as fact that I cannot firmly authenticate’) turns out to act as a brilliant alibi for outright fiction: ‘I am at liberty to spin any line I fancy, provided I admit that it is conjecture.’ A biography of Hadrian (or of almost any Roman emperor) stretching over four hundred pages is bound to be largely fiction. Birley’s problem, it may be conjectured, is that he is pretending (to himself, no doubt, as much as to anyone else) that it is not.
Publishers like biographies, because – so we’re led to believe – they sell. But it cannot have been mere commercial pressure that induced the immensely knowledgeable, careful and scholarly Birley to concoct his Hadrian. The problem also has to do with ancient history itself, as a discipline, and with what modern historians of the ancient world think it is worth studying and writing about. Contrary to popular opinion, we are not starved of evidence: enough material survives from the Roman world alone to last any historian’s lifetime; and if you include relevant material from Judaism and early Christianity, the problem is one of excess, not shortness of supply. Yet historians still start their books with a ritual lament about ‘the sources’ and their inadequacy. The lament is not entirely insincere (though it is something of a self-constructed problem): the sources often are inadequate for the particular questions that historians choose to pose. But that is part of the ancient-historical game: first pick your question, then demonstrate the appalling difficulty of finding an answer given the paucity of the evidence, finally triumph over that difficulty by scholarly ‘skill’. Prestige in this business goes to those who outwit their sources, prising unexpected answers from unexpected places, and who play the clever (sometimes too clever) detective against an apparent conspiracy of ancient silence. This is true right across the discipline: as much for radical young social historians of the ancient family as for bluff traditionalists like Birley.
The sad thing is that, as Hadrian shows, it is all a missed opportunity. Instead of fantasising about the route Hadrian took to get to Bithynia or where Sabina went (a ladies’ trip to the local spa bath?) while her emperor-husband visited his Wall, Birley could have stopped to think harder about some of the material we do have and know: the extraordinary writing, for example, of one of Hadrian’s own freedmen, Phlegon of Tralles, who produced a famous Book of Marvels, a wonderfully evocative Tales of the Ancient Supernatural (as it is, Phlegon appears in Birley only to testify to the emperor’s route around the East); or the series of surviving portrait sculptures of Hadrian that projected a distinctive, and in some ways strikingly new, image of the Roman emperor across the world.
In fact, the book is a missed opportunity on a bigger scale than even this might suggest. Seen in a wider context, the reign of Hadrian marked the start of a ‘velvet revolution’, the first moment, after its conquest of the Greek world, when the nature of Roman imperialism was comprehensively revised. It was a period of startling new strategies for integrating the Greek and Roman cultural traditions, when ‘Roman’, ‘Greek’ and ‘citizen of a world empire’ came to mean something radically new. Even Hadrian’s constant travelling may suggest something more than mere personal Wanderlust – in fact it signalled a major change in ideas of where the emperor ‘belonged’. Meanwhile, Birley is worrying about the quickest route between Spain and Antioch.
Review of Anthony Birley, Hadrian: The Restless Emperor (Routledge, 1997)