IX

“OPTIMUS PRINCEPS”

Hadrian became a favorite of the new emperor, despite the fact that he fell victim to some mysterious intrigue against him led by the tutors of Trajan’s youthful bedfellows: a gap in the text leaves it uncertain what the problem was. Presumably the people around the emperor did not relish the new arrival, who was well placed to establish a new power base.

Once again Hadrian experimented with fortune-telling. This time he used the Virgilianae Sortes, the Virgilian Lottery. In this game the player picks at random a quotation from Virgil’s Aeneid; often enough it produces suggestive or predictive results. Hadrian’s “lot” was taken from the poem’s sixth book:

Who is that in the distance, bearing the hallows, crowned with a wreath of olive? I recognize—gray hair and hoary chin—the Roman king who, called to high power from humble Curēs, a town in a poor area, shall found our system of law and thus refound our city.

Virgil’s reference is to one of Rome’s early kings, Numa Pompilius. A legendary figure, he succeeded the great Romulus. Pious and plain-living, he was a pacific ruler and the city’s first legislator.

It is not easy to judge the historicity of this anecdote. However, it is consistent with Hadrian’s recurrent dabbling in clairvoyance and his lifelong fascination with the law, and may well derive from his lost autobiography. While the gist is clear, the quotation does not have an elegantly close relevance to Hadrian’s circumstances, which tends to support its authenticity.

Hadrian’s return to favor was not simply a consequence of the ride from Moguntiacum to Colonia Agrippinensis. He also benefited from some promotion: Licinius Sura took a personal interest in him (we do not know how personal) and persuaded the emperor to advance his prospects.

The emperor presided over a household of women, all of whom had known Hadrian since he was a little boy, certainly once he became Trajan’s ward and probably before. He had a devoted friend in the empress, Plotina. He was also extremely fond of Salonina Matidia, the daughter of Trajan’s much-loved sister Ulpia Marciana. Marciana had lived with Trajan and his wife after her husband died in 78; Matidia joined her after her own widowhood, a few years into the reign. This female household was mutually affectionate, and Trajan’s well-being was its exclusive priority.

Plotina was probably in her mid-thirties at this time. She originated in Nemausus (modern Nîmes) in the province of Narbonensis (Languedoc and Provence). An interest in the ideas of Epicurus reflected her calm and constructive character. He argued that the gods were remote and ineffectual. Death marked the end of body and soul, and so a punitive afterlife was not to be feared. A happy, tranquil life could be achieved by kindness and friendship, and by moderation of appetite (although nothing was forbidden).

Matidia was about thirty, and her first marriage produced two daughters, one of whom was Vibia Sabina, now about thirteen years old and marriageable. Matidia remarried after her husband’s death and had two more daughters by successive husbands. They both also died and from then onward Matidia remained single. She often traveled with her uncle and apparently gave him political and administrative advice.

The official statues of these women are marked by a heavy, idealizing passivity, although Marciana’s likeness has a lively, inquisitive look. The conventions of coinage allowed more realistic images: Matidia appears on a silver denarius with a hawklike nose, pendulous cheeks, and a slightly recessive chin, and a sesterce reveals Plotina’s sharp, birdlike profile and similarly full cheeks.

As well as assuring his own position at court, Hadrian was well placed to observe a transformation of the political world. The new emperor gave a master class in moderation combined with firmness, and Hadrian would long remember the lessons he learned in these months.

Trajan knew that ultimately his power rested with the army, but the fact that he was a distinguished soldier meant that he won the legions’ loyalty without having to take any special measures apart from the usual bonus, or donative, that emperors gave at the outset of their reigns. By contrast, the Senate was weak, but, although he could act as he pleased, Trajan’s policy was to conciliate it. His aim was to stabilize the political class. He reported that, before assuming power, he had a dream that conveniently illustrated his careful deference: according to Dio, “he thought that an old man in a purple-bordered toga and vesture and with a crown upon his head, as the Senate is represented in pictures, impressed a seal upon him with a finger ring, first on the left side of his neck and then on the right.”

On his accession, Trajan immediately sent a letter to the Senate, written in his own hand. He promised, among other things, that “he would not kill or disenfranchise any good man; and he confirmed this by oaths not only at the time but also later.” This restated Nerva’s similar oath, and by “good man” he was guaranteeing that he would not persecute senators. It was an assertion of constitutional monarchy and the rule of law.

However, death was a fate in store for those who had humiliated the old emperor. Trajan felt strong enough to summon the Praetorian prefect Casperius Aelianus and his accomplices to attend him in Germania. Casperius duly turned up at Colonia Agrippinensis expecting a job with the new ruler, but to his surprise suffered execution instead. As requested, Nerva’s tears had been requited. A new prefect was chosen. As the emperor’s protector, he was the only person allowed to carry a weapon in his presence: at the ceremony of appointment, Trajan handed him his sword of office, famously saying, “If the public interest demands it, I have placed a weapon in the hands of my prefect for him to use against me.”

Trajan went further: he was determined to break the Praetorian Guard’s armlock over its employers once and for all. It was impractical to abolish it, as he might well have wished, but he created a counterweight by establishing a new cavalry force, the equites singulares Augusti, with a specific duty to protect the person of the emperor. Trajan recruited it from the Batavians, a Germanic tribe living on the near side of the Rhine and on a river island, encouraged by the Romans to specialize in warfare. Some believe that Batavi derives from the West Germanic beter—that is, better or superior men.

The emperor showed no eagerness to return to Rome in a hurry. He stayed for a time on the German frontier. Was he perhaps planning a campaign against the barbarians? Tacitus wrote at this time of the “ridicule that had greeted [Domitian’s] sham triumph over Germania, when he had bought slaves to have their dress and hair made up to look like prisoners-of-war.” He was not the only senior Roman who would welcome a real victory over the unruly tribes beyond the Rhine. However, the emperor moved on to the Danube frontier, where he conducted a tour of inspection. Doubtless Hadrian accompanied him, for he had recent firsthand experience of conditions in Moesia. There were signs of a Dacian resurgence and the arrangement whereby Rome paid the Dacian king, Decebalus, a large and regular subsidy was intolerable.

It was too early in the reign to launch a major campaign, but not so to begin detailed planning and organization. A Greek traveler, the orator and historian Dio Chrysostom (Dio of the Golden Tongue), passed through the area at this time and reported major military preparations at a legionary base.

One could see swords everywhere, and cuirasses, and spears, and there were so many horses, so many weapons, so many armed men … all about to contend for power against opponents who fought for freedom and their native land.

Dio had spent time in Dacia and sympathized with its cause. Trajan disagreed and, for those who could read the signs, was actively meditating invasion. It was probably during this visit that he established forts on the far side of the Danube and cut a canal to circumvent some rapids. But, first, before he could commit himself to a war, pressing business called for attention at home.

At last, in September or October of 99, nearly two years after his accession, Trajan arrived in the empire’s capital. On his journey from the frontier he behaved as if he were a private citizen. Ordinary carriages were requisitioned from the state posting system, no fuss was made about where Trajan lodged for the night, and everyone in his party ate the same rations. He walked on foot into the city. The effect was carefully judged, and well received.

The Senate en masse greeted him outside the city gates, and he met each member with an egalitarian kiss. After visiting the Capitol, where Nerva had announced his adoption, he made his way across the Forum Romanum to the twin imperial residences on the Palatine Hill, once a smart address for Rome’s grain but now expropriated as a center of government.

The first of these was the Domus Tiberiana, or House of Tiberius (Rome’s second emperor and the building’s first occupant), which overlooked, almost overshadowed, the Forum. Remodeled on a grand scale by Domitian after a fire, it was an unplanned labyrinth of accretions and annexes, loggias and peristyles, with hidden green spaces beside a sun terrace and a pavilion (now mostly covered by the Farnese Gardens). Here the imperial archives were stored.

Meanderingly splendid as the Domus Tiberiana was, it served merely as an entrance and appendix to an even more spectacular edifice, commissioned by Domitian and completed only a few years before his death. The public part of this palace, the Domus Flavia, or House of the Flavians, was dominated by a series of vast audience chambers. Columns were of polychrome marble, floors and walls were lined with marble veneer, and vaulted ceilings were painted with frescoes. A banqueting hall, spacious enough to accommodate the entire Senate, gave on to the gardens of a majestic courtyard surrounded by a covered colonnade. The adjoining Domus Augustana, or House of Augustus (not to be confused with Augustus’ modest home on another part of the hill), contained the private apartments, the façade of which towered above the Circus Maximus, the racecourse.

Trajan and Plotina walked into this marmoreal embodiment of hubris “with the same modest demeanor as if it had been a private house.” Before entering, the empress turned around to announce: “I enter here such a woman as I would wish to be when I leave.” She fulfilled her promise, living quietly and attracting little or no criticism of her lifestyle.

Although there had been a brief bloodbath of delatores in the first days of his reign, Nerva had discouraged any further persecution. Trajan took a firmer line (although apparently leaving senior personalities in the Senate alone). In his inaugural games, he replaced the public execution of convicted criminals with an unprecedented spectacle. This was a parade of informers. An observer wrote:

Nothing was so popular, nothing so fitting for our times as the opportunity we enjoyed of looking down at the delatores at our feet, their heads forced back and faces upturned to meet our gaze. We knew them and rejoiced.

The men were adjudged too ignoble for death by fighting in the arena or by execution. They were crowded onto ships and pushed out to sea, where it was assumed they would be wrecked and drown. Any survivors had already lost their homes and property, and, dead or alive, nobody expected to hear from them again. “Well, let them go!” was the happy verdict.

On September 1, 100, Pliny the Younger entered on a suffect consulship, and he gave a speech in the Senate, thanking the emperor for his appointment. It is probable enough that Hadrian was in the audience, but if he was he might well have dozed off, for the consul spoke at length and on a single, unvarying note of praise. Should he have missed the performance, the book was soon available. Pliny published the speech, although not before revising and massively enlarging it. In this version, the Panegyricus (as it is called) took a good six hours to deliver, enough to test the patience of the most pacific of emperors.

Pliny staged a public reading of the address. He took care not to issue formal invitations, but simply asked people to drop by if they had a moment. He had tolerant friends with a great deal of free time at their disposal, for he got a good house. After the event he proudly informed a correspondent:

The weather was … particularly bad, but for all that they turned out for two days running—and when discretion would have put an end to the reading they insisted I continue for a third.

Pliny, a kindly man but inclined to self-love, admired the “critical sense of my audience.”

For all its tedium, the Panegyricus marked a crucial turning point in the governance of the Roman empire. Pliny may have overdone the eulogy, but he was sincere. He was heralding nothing less than the end of the Stoic opposition, which now takes its leave of history. The achievement of Nerva and Trajan was to settle the quarrel between emperor and Senate, government and political class.

Pliny spoke for all when he said:

Times are different and our speeches should show this … Nowhere should we flatter [Trajan] as a god or a divine spirit. We are talking of a fellow citizen, not a tyrant, one who is our father not our overlord. He is one of us.

It is a telling phrase, “one of us,” which distills the Senate’s longing for a citizen-emperor.

In the same year as Pliny’s consulship Hadrian’s career moved forward again. In early December, a couple of months after the Panegyricus, he was appointed one of twenty quaestors, and so ex officio entered the Senate. He was approaching his twenty-fifth birthday (which fell on January 24, 101), the minimum qualifying age for the post since Augustus had reduced it from thirty years. It was a rule that emperors often broke for members of their family, but in the case of his onetime ward Trajan did not offer any major promotion. However, Hadrian did have the honor to be one of two candidati principis, nominees of the emperor, in which capacity his main duty was to read in the Senate any written communications Trajan wished to make to it. In addition, he was made curator of the acta Senatūs, the record of senatorial debates.

His first attempt at standing in for Trajan was an embarrassment. According to the Historia Augusta, when he read out an address of the emperor’s he “provoked a laugh by his somewhat provincial accent.” Stung, he immediately gave attention to the study of Latin pronunciation until he became fully fluent. Presumably what was meant was that Hadrian spoke with a Spanish accent. However, he had spent very little of his life in Baetica, and some scholars argue that he picked up un-Italian speech patterns from the centurions and other ranks during his lengthy military postings. But these had lasted only four or five years in total, and it is more likely that he picked up a Spanish accent from his family and the colony of Baeticans in Rome and Tibur, among whom he passed his childhood. Also, as a Hellenophile, he may have devoted more time to speaking Greek than Latin.

Now that he was a senator, Hadrian probably acquired two additional distinctions at about this time, which conferred prestige and set him slightly apart from his contemporaries. Both of them brought him into direct contact with Roman religious observance at its most emotionally arid—and least appealing to a nature more inclined to the ecstatic and the spiritual.

Two vacancies among the septemviri, or Seven Men, needed to be filled. They were the college of epulones, or Banqueters, one of Rome’s four great religious corporations. The senior college was that of the pontifices, or Pontiffs; headed by the emperor as pontifex maximus, it set the annual calendar of holy days, or holidays, and working days and kept the official state archive. Next came the augures, or Augurs, whose main job was to interpret the divine will by studying the flight of birds; and beneath them the quindecemviri, or Fifteen Men, who guarded the Sibylline Books, a collection of oracular sayings consulted in times of grave crisis.

The epulones were last in order of seniority, having been founded as recently as 196 B.C. They were responsible for arranging all the public banquets at the many festivals and games in the city. Catering to large numbers was no easy administrative matter, especially seeing that the work had an important political dimension. Feasts were an attractive addition to the free or heavily subsidized grain dole.

Hadrian’s second religious function was as one of the twenty-one sodales Augustales, or Companions of Augustus. These were priests responsible for the worship of the god Augustus (similar priests attended to the cults of later emperors after their deaths if the Senate agreed to their deification). Fortunately, Hadrian and his colleagues were, in effect, trustees and were not expected to conduct time-consuming sacrifices and services themselves; these seem to have been left to priestly officiants, or flamines.

Progress was made in Hadrian’s personal life as well. It was time for him to take a wife. This was a business decision, as few Romans married for love. Marriage—in the upper classes at least—was a property transaction. Wealthy clans entered into mutually profitable alliances with others, and deals, both economic and political, were sealed by an arranged union.

Hadrian, of course, had lost his father many years previously, and his guardians had exercised full patria potestas, or paternal authority, over him until he came of age. However, Roman law recognized that young adults, especially those with property, were inexperienced in the ways of the world and, to guard against fraud or extravagance, needed continued monitoring up to the age of twenty-five years. So Trajan and Attianus doubtless took on a looser role as curatores. Hadrian being only months away from full independence, they may have decided that he should be guided into a good marriage while they still had legal standing to influence the decision.

As it turned out, it was not so much the emperor but the women around him who played the key role, probably backed by Sura. Plotina did all she could to advance Hadrian’s career. Some said she was in love with him, but if there is anything in the story a physical relationship is surely out of the question, he being more interested sexually in men than women and she having a reputation for virtue that none of the sources contradict. The empress argued that Trajan’s closest male relative should marry into the Ulpian clan. The choice fell on Vibia Sabina, daughter of Hadrian’s beloved Matidia. As usual with Hadrian, Trajan was of two minds, but allowed the project to go ahead, perhaps to preserve the domestic peace.

The couple probably first entered into an engagement. Written on tablets and signed by them both, this was legally binding unless both parties agreed to cancel. Hadrian bought Sabina some presents and gave her a ring, either of gold or of iron set in gold, which she wore on what is still the ring finger today. According to Aulus Gellius, this finger had a special property in that a delicate nerve ran from it directly to its owner’s heart.

The wedding ceremony presumably took place in the imperial palace, where Matidia and Sabina lived, and was a simple statement in front of witnesses that the man and the woman intended to bind themselves to each other. An auspex, a personal family augur, examined the entrails of a sacrificed animal and ensured that the auspices were favorable. Bride and groom then exchanged vows: Ubi tu Gaius, ego Gaia. Ubi tu Gaia, ego Gaius. “Where you are Gaius, I am Gaia.” “Where you are Gaia, I am Gaius.”

In the evening, Hadrian seized Sabina, dressed in saffron with a flame-colored veil, in a pretence of kidnap. He then escorted her, surrounded by friends and family, back to his house. Flute players headed the procession, followed by torchbearers. People sang bawdy songs. Sabina was lifted over the threshold of her new home and guided to the marriage bed. Here Hadrian removed her cloak and began to undo the girdle of her tunic. At this point the wedding party withdrew.

From the bridegroom’s perspective this was a good match, and both Ulpians and Aelians must have applauded a further bonding of their two families. As for Sabina, we do not know whether she was pleased, but we can be reasonably certain on one point. For many pubescent girls the bloodstained encounter of the wedding night and continuing sexual penetration by a fully grown man was painful and distasteful. Thanks to her husband’s tastes Sabina did not have to endure much or any of this. That she did not become pregnant suggests that Hadrian left her alone. Another mariage blanc was in the making.

Sabina also benefited (or would when she grew older) from a form of marriage that became increasingly popular under the empire. In the old days, a wife would either fall under her husband’s complete authority (cum manu, or “with his hand”) or remain governed by her father’s potestas—in other words, sine manu, without the husband’s control. It was common now for women to be married sine manu, and although that meant they were theoretically accountable to their paterfamilias or an appointed guardian, in practice they could act independently and manage their own property. Augustus brought in a rule that mothers of three or more children did not need to have a tutor, and gradually the system of guardianship was discarded.

Little is known of Sabina’s personality; inscriptions found throughout the empire show that she was a wealthy woman. She owned a mansion in Rome and records of numerous freedmen are evidence of a large household. When very young, she made a generous contribution of one hundred thousand sesterces to her local youth support, or alimenta, scheme (see pages 132–34).

Plotina was a fine example of how a woman could be happily chaste and become her husband’s affectionate friend. Sabina did not follow her lead, and never warmed to Hadrian. Nor did he to her. The ancient authors do not tell us why, presumably because they did not know. But, apart from any other consideration, Hadrian’s close relationship with Sabina’s mother, Matidia, was surely a hard thing for a teenage girl to accept. From her perspective, there may have been three of them in the marriage, so, as a more recent princess remarked, “it was a bit crowded.”

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