Of more practical value than a jewel was the emperor’s decision to promote Hadrian again, after only twelve months as commander of the I Minervia, to provincial governor—a clear demonstration of his usefulness in the field. As the campaign against Decebalus drew to its climax during the summer of 106, Trajan divided Pannonia into two jurisdictions, Upper and Lower. The latter was the smaller part, with only a single legion as garrison, and this he allocated to Hadrian. The wheel had come full circle, for the new province’s capital was Aquincum, the fortress town on the Danube where the young military tribune had had his first real experience of army life ten years previously.
It was not the grandest of appointments and one of its consequences was that Hadrian probably missed the culminating excitements of total victory. But it was some compensation that the post was no sinecure. Lower Pannonia looked across the Danube to the Hungarian plain, home of the fierce, unmastered Sarmatian Iazyges. This tribe adjoined the western frontier of the Dacian kingdom; they were nervous of Decebalus’ expansionist policy and unsurprisingly supported Trajan’s invasion. According to the Historia Augusta, the new governor “held back the Sarmatians.” We can take it that they had not chosen this unlikely juncture to turn on their victorious Roman friends, but were seizing the opportunity to grab or at least to raid defenseless Dacian territory. What they failed to grasp quickly enough was that Rome already regarded Dacia, no longer just victa but capta, or “taken,” as its own property and did not welcome unfriendly incursions.
Dealing with the Sarmatians, probably by negotiation (for there is no report of fighting), by no means consumed all of Hadrian’s energies and, for the first recorded occasion, his taste for intervention (or, his critics would argue, for interference or meddling) was given full rein. Archaeological evidence suggests that Hadrian had an impressive new governor’s palace built: if so, this was his first opportunity to indulge in what was to become a lifelong passion for commissioning art and architecture and investing in what the French call grands projets. Ever the autodidact, Hadrian convinced himself that he had a talent for design that made him the equal of professional practitioners.
One of the more ingenious characteristics of the imperial system was a division of powers at the provincial level. A governor, a former praetor (as in Hadrian’s case) or consul and a leading member of Rome’s political elite, was responsible for the general administration of the province and the command of its garrison army. Alongside him, one or more procurators were charged with financial management and reported directly to Rome, not to the governor; their chief task was to collect taxes and other sources of revenue and to transmit this income to the fiscus, or exchequer, in Rome or to the emperor’s privy purse (it can be presumed that these were sometimes in whole or in part paper transfers, with the actual cash being spent locally). By removing from him control over finance, this made it far more difficult for a discontented governor to mount an armed challenge to the emperor.
Although procurators enjoyed multiple opportunities for malfeasance, it was a brave governor who pried into their affairs. But, self-confident as ever, Hadrian did not hesitate to do so; no details have come down to us, but, according to theHistoria Augusta, he “restrained the procurators, who were overstepping too freely the bounds of their power.” One would like to know more, but what can be understood is that he took risks by acting ultra vires—and survived them. If he was wise, he would have cleared his plans with Trajan first, and there is evidence that the emperor would have strongly backed him.
The Epitome de Caesaribus claims that during Trajan’s reign some procurators were disrupting the administration of the provinces by launching false accusations.
One was said to ask a wealthy man, “Why are you rich?”; another, “Where did you get it from?”; and a third, “Give me what you’ve got.” The empress, Plotina, tackled her husband on the subject and reproached him for being so unconcerned to protect his good name. She returned to the subject so often that he came to detest unjust exactions. He used to call the fiscus the spleen because, as it grew, the rest of the body, its muscles and limbs, wasted away.
The incident is undated, but when we recall how close Hadrian was to the empress, it could be that it coincides with his governorship and that Plotina was preparing her husband’s mind for the inevitable procuratorial complaints about Hadrian.
The governor was also the legatus of his legion, the II Adiutrix. He knew the men well, seeing that he had served with them as military tribune. One of the challenges facing commanders of troops on frontier duty was to find ways of keeping them at a high pitch of battle-readiness when they spent much of their time not doing anything very much apart from boring guard duty. This absorbed much of Hadrian’s attention, and the Historia Augusta reports that he “maintained military discipline.”
It is uncertain how long Hadrian stayed in his post at Aquincum, but he may still have been there when he reached the apex of a Roman’s political career. In 108, two years or less after starting his governorship, he was awarded a consulship. According to the Historia Augusta, this was in recognition of his successful record in Lower Pannonia, evidence that his interventions had been met with approval. He was only thirty-two. The general rule, dating back to the days of the Republic, fixed the minimum age for holding the state’s senior post at forty-two, but since the reign of Augustus this had been reduced to thirty-one for patricians and members of consular families.
Hadrian was neither, so the early appointment was a compliment. But, as ever, what Trajan gave with one hand he contradicted, or at least contraindicated, with the other. Instead of being one of the two consules ordinarii, who launched the year in January and gave their names to it (officially a year was referred to as “during the consulships of so-and-so and so-and-so”), Hadrian was simply a suffect or replacement consul, who probably took over in May.
Hadrian’s great friend at court, Trajan’s close adviser and companion Licinius Sura, was still putting in good words for him, to considerable effect according to the Historia Augusta.
Sura’s years of power opened with the accession of Nerva, and from that point onward he was the empire’s éminence grise. Dio Cassius claims that he acquired “great wealth and pride,” as well as numerous enemies who schemed to undermine Trajan’s confidence in his loyalty. They lost their labor.
So great was the friendship and confidence he showed toward Trajan and Trajan toward him, that, although he was often slandered, Trajan never felt any suspicion or hatred toward him. On the contrary, when those who envied Sura became very insistent, the emperor went uninvited to his house to dinner, and having dismissed his whole bodyguard, he first called Sura’s physician and caused him to anoint his eyes, and then his barber, whom he caused to shave his chin; and after doing all this, he next took a bath and had dinner. Then on the following day he said to his friends who were in the habit of constantly making disparaging remarks about Sura: “If Sura had wanted to kill me, he would have killed me yesterday.”
The private man seems to have been more agreeable than the statesman. If we can draw conclusions from two letters Pliny wrote to him, he enjoyed being asked to address abstruse conundrums. One of these concerned a spring at Pliny’s villa on the shore of Lake Comum (today’s Como), which had the curious property of intermittently filling and emptying a pool in an artificial grotto. It can still be found at the sixteenth-century Villa Pliniana near Torno and has puzzled great minds down the ages, including such disparate figures as Leonardo da Vinci and the poet Shelley. In fact, water is siphoned off variably according to atmospheric pressure, but Sura’s reply does not survive, so we cannot tell whether he proposed the correct solution.
During the year of Hadrian’s consulship Sura let his protégé know that he was to be adopted by Trajan. This information was widely leaked and led to a new friendliness on the part of onetime critics and enemies, including members of the imperial consilium. “He was no longer despised and ignored by Trajan’s amici.”
This anecdote is hard to interpret. It very probably derives from Hadrian’s autobiographical apologia, and so should be treated with caution. One indubitable fact undermines it: the emperor took no steps to implement his resolution. Did Sura or Hadrian simply make the story up? Unlikely; it would be risky to spread a false report at the time, which might well find its way to the emperor; if it was invented later, former members of the imperial entourage would have been able to deny knowledge of it.
Perhaps it is no coincidence that the reported incident took place not long before the death in about 110 of Sura, who may have been making one last attempt to reinforce Hadrian’s position before quitting the stage. His passing brought a remarkable career to a close. As we have seen, he shared Trajan’s sexual tastes. According to the Epitome de Caesaribus, it was through Sura’s “zeal that he had secured imperium.” The strong implication was that he negotiated persuasively with Nerva, or (some speculate) threateningly, on behalf of his friend, then absent in Germania. Sura was appointed suffect consul in the crucial year of 98 when Trajan inherited the throne from Nerva; and, a rare honor, twice as consulordinarius in 102 and 107. He served in Dacia and was appointed to lead an embassy to Decebalus—a move that came to nothing because of the king’s fear for his own safety. Trajan’s regard for Sura remained undiminished until the end and after. He awarded him a state funeral and erected a statue in his honor. He also named some splendid new baths on the Aventine Hill after his friend, built near or perhaps on the site of Sura’s house; they remained in use for more than two hundred years.
An interval of peace followed the Dacian wars. After his governorship, Hadrian returned to Italy, and he did not hold further public office for some years. It is instructive that the emperor showed no interest in sharing the workload of empire with his now mature and experienced relative; Augustus had had Marcus Agrippa and Tiberius as nearly coequal partners, and Vespasian had worked very closely with his son Titus.
So far as we can tell, Hadrian betrayed no signs of disappointment or resentment. He remained loyal and patient. For a politically inexperienced aspirant to the purple, who had spent the last ten years—that is, most of his adult career—in the field rather than at Rome, he now enjoyed a front-row view of Trajan’s performance as a civilian ruler. There were lessons to be learned.
The first of these concerned the limits of absolute power. Communications were slow; nobody could travel faster than a horse and journeying by ship was extremely dangerous in the winter months. Even an urgent correspondence took weeks to conduct and complete.
The state played a far more limited role than in today’s world. Economic and social theory were little understood, and seldom translated into public policy. Military spending was by far the largest item in the imperial budget. However, the army, with its thirty legions, was hard put to guard the empire’s borders along the Rhine and the Danube, in the sands of Mesopotamia and the Sahara, and in the rocky, contested landscape of northern Britannia. Rome could afford to defend its frontiers but, with a few notable exceptions such as Judaea, not to police heavily or “occupy” its domains as well.
Another factor restricting an emperor’s freedom of action was the relatively small number of officials and bureaucrats that helped him administer the empire. In the days of the Republic a consul or other elected magistratus brought with him members of his household, usually slaves and freedmen, to help him manage his public business. Also, he depended on friends to advise him. Augustus adopted this model, if on a grander scale. He and his successors gathered around him able freedmen, usually Greek, to run an imperial secretariat. Among the most important were the ab epistulis, who handled the imperial correspondence, the a rationibus, in charge of the imperial finances, and the a libellis, who dealt with petitions.
These men accumulated great power and wealth. They were accountable only to the emperor; this meant they could operate out of the public view and, in the event of any scandal, were expendable. Unsurprisingly, they became so unpopular that emperors began to hire equites, men of standing from the business class, in their place.
The princeps, as the first among supposed equals, needed to maintain the confidence of the senatorial class, and to a growing extent the equites. With the support of the army and Rome’s masses, he was in a position to act despotically if he so wished. But if he held all the cards, he needed others willing to play the game with him. As we have seen, the history of the previous century demonstrated only too clearly that if he did not at least go through the motions of working with the Senate he ran a number of unpleasant risks: at worst, assassination or revolt; at best, lack of cooperation.
For all these reasons it was extremely difficult for the center to impose policy on the periphery or to act without consultation, but this did not mean that the center was impotent. It was a reservoir of prestige, authority, money, and law, and Trajan demonstrated how an intelligent princeps could get his way with little difficulty.
To senators he behaved with unfailing affability; the contrast with Domitian could not have been plainer. He treated them as personal friends, visiting their houses if they were ill or were celebrating feast days. In turn, he was a lavish host, entertaining them at banquets “where there was no distinction of rank.” Dio Cassius writes:
He joined others in animal hunts and in banquets, as well as in their labors and plans and jests. Often he would take three others into his carriage, and he would enter the houses of citizens, sometimes even without a guard, and enjoy himself there.
It was claimed that he “took more pleasure in being loved than being honored,” although this did not deter men like Pliny from lauding him in the most flattering terms. This easygoing social manner was very welcome, even if it was little more than intelligent public relations.
Despite all the difficulties, there was a mechanism by which Trajan was able to make his presence felt throughout the empire. Even if overarching policy interventions in provincial life were rare, Trajan was showered with petitions from all and sundry and requests for action of one kind or another. The imperial government interfered as little as possible in local politics and religion, expecting civic elites to maintain an orderly administration. Inevitably, though, disputes arose on almost every imaginable topic and Trajan was asked to adjudicate, just as his predecessors had been.
He was seldom governed by personal whim. The emperor stood at the apex of the legal system. Roman jurists wrote, “What the emperor decides has the same authority as the law of the people, because the people have made him their sovereign.” Local jurisdictions retained their validity, but Roman law was applicable throughout the empire and had something of the force that international law has today. Local authorities and individual Roman citizens could appeal to theprinceps, who acted as a kind of supreme court (Saint Paul was well within his rights about A.D. 60 when he said to Porcius Festus, procurator of Judaea, “Appello Caesarem”—“I appeal to the emperor”).
Experienced jurists bore much of the heavy workload that the preparation of new laws, the promulgation of imperial edicts to clarify points of law, and the judging of particular cases entailed. Trajan was an active reformer; he ruled that defendants condemned in absentia should have the right to a retrial. Also, by banning anonymous accusations laid by delatores and the practice of torturing slaves in maiestas cases, he brought to an end the political show trials that rulers such as Domitian had used to quash suspected dissent.
Petitions did not only deal with legal matters; they also requested practical help with local building developments. As we have seen, Trajan spent vast sums of money on transforming urban spaces, not just in Rome but throughout the provinces. He made sure that his munificence was acknowledged with grateful inscriptions; even a remote bridge in Numidia proclaimed that it had been erected “with the labor of [Trajan’s] soldiers and from his own money.” So many buildings carried his name that he was nicknamed “the Wallflower.”
The imperial archives are long gone, thrown away or destroyed among all the vicissitudes that beset Rome during its long decline and through the longer centuries of the Dark Ages. But we have the next best thing. Grateful provincials engraved their correspondence with the emperors and their replies on stone or bronze memorials, many of which the modern archaeologist has recovered from the ruined sites of lost cities. Reading these documents reveals a continuity of governance from princeps to princeps, with officials evidently looking up past decisions for precedents. Even the decisions of a “bad” emperor such as Domitian were consulted for guidance.
Every now and again something truly original emerges. In 1747 some plowmen in a field near Piacenza unearthed by chance the largest known inscribed bronze tablet of antiquity, measuring four feet six inches by nine feet six inches, the celebrated tabula alimentaria. Two others were discovered in southern Italy. The tablets give detailed information about an ambitious and extremely expensive child welfare scheme, funded by Trajan, as it applied to three communities—the modest township of Veleia in the north, which vanished long ago under a landslide, and places in Tuscany and near Beneventum in the south.
The emperor had a good track record with the young. He passed far-reaching laws to protect the rights of minors and abandoned infants. The exposure of newborn children was a feature of life in the classical world; sometimes they were rescued and brought up as foundlings. Trajan restored their rights as heirs of their birth parents. He also removed the absolute power fathers held over their sons, the patria potestas, in the event of maltreatment. The laws of guardianship (a subject of which he had personal experience as a tutor) were tightened and it was made more difficult for testators to leave their estates to single heirs at the expense of others with reasonable expectations of inheritance.
Probably founded by Nerva but developed by Trajan, the alimenta scheme, as revealed by the inscription, was an ingenious measure that apparently sought to meet two different objectives at once, one economic and the other social. The first step was to set a target number of beneficiaries in a given district and to identify needy children to fill the quota. Both freeborn boys and girls were eligible for financial support—sixteen sesterces a month for the former and twelve for the latter (and less for youngsters who were illegitimate). The treasury then made a capital sum available in the form of cheap 5 percent loans to local landowners on the security of their farms or estates. The interest on the loans was sufficient to cover the dole payable to the children. So far as we can tell, the loans were in perpetuity.
It has been estimated that the entire scheme throughout Italy cost the state annually 311 million sesterces, a very large sum equivalent to three quarters of the army’s annual budget. But what exactly was it designed to achieve?
There is evidence that from the reign of Domitian Italy suffered from an agricultural crisis. Pliny, a substantial landowner, reports that his tenants were finding it hard to pay their rent and were falling into ever-larger arrears. “As a result, most of [them] have lost interest in reducing their debt because they have no hope of being able to pay off the whole.”
The alimenta scheme must surely have transformed economic expectations. The subsidy for selected offspring of citizens (all the freeborn inhabitants of the peninsula held Roman citizenship as of right) would have removed the shadow of poverty from a young generation; Pliny, who ran a similar, much smaller scheme of his own on his estate, expected the boys to grow up into soldiers and the girls to marry and procreate—and so, too, we may surmise, did the emperor.
The cheap loans themselves were probably intended to enable investment in the land and in development projects. To judge from the bronze tablets, most of the mortgagees were of a middling sort and, although this is nowhere spelled out, must have been expected to invest the money in their farms or at least to make good any losses.
Did the inflow of so much cash to the Italian countryside have a beneficial impact? Nobody tells us in so many words, but the government was moved to boast, issuing a series of alimenta coins as well as one with the proud slogan Italia restituta, Italy renewed.
These policies for youth support and rural development have a familiar ring to them, but they were merely a pragmatic response to particular problems. Rome did not invent the welfare state. That said, here was the optimus princeps at his best—generous, well intentioned, and intelligent.
After Sura’s death, Hadrian took over responsibility for writing the emperor’s speeches; this meant that he was often in his presence and as a result relations between the two men warmed. One wonders if, from time to time, he also helped out with his correspondence. In that case, he would have observed that letters poured in unrelentingly from imperial officials in every corner of the empire, each of them posing a conundrum, often of only local significance and requiring detailed knowledge of the area, and asking for a decision.
By a great stroke of luck a bundle of letters between Trajan and a high official have evaded the worst that tidy-minded clerks, barbarian invaders, and Christian monks could do. For some years the province of Bithynia-Pontus on the southern littoral of the Black Sea had been in a state of endemic financial and administrative disarray, and in 110 the emperor commissioned the experienced Pliny as his special representative, legatus Augusti, with a mission to overhaul the political and financial governance of the province. We have sixty-one letters he wrote to Trajan, seeking guidance on a wide range of topics. Despite wide-ranging powers and an imperial letter of instruction, it is remarkable how many minor matters Pliny referred to the emperor. It was probably wise for officials on foreign postings to keep their employers fully informed of what they were doing to ward off misunderstandings or suspicion.
However, important questions were discussed, with the emperor regularly adopting a conservative approach. “My own view is that we should compromise,” he remarked on one occasion, adding: “We should make no change in the situation resulting from past practice.” The basic principle to which Trajan adhered was to interfere as little as possible in the lives and customs of provincials, as when he advised on an issue concerning local-authority senates in Bithynia: “I think then that the safest course, as always, is to keep to the law of each city.”
However, the emperor’s moderation did not stem from an inability to make up his mind; rather, it was a decisive cast of mind. An instructive exchange between him and his legatus is a case in point.
The Romans did not know what to make of the Christians, a new sect less than a century old. The travels of Saint Paul as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles and his letters reveal the existence of many Christian communities in the cities of the eastern empire, especially those that lay on major trade routes, and in the imperial capital itself. To begin with they were hardly noticed and their intentions were much misunderstood. They were accused of criminal depravity and, in a distorted allusion to the Eucharist, of cannibalism.
Nevertheless, conversions mounted and, if we can judge from those named in Paul’s correspondence, believers were widely spread across social classes and in the city or nation of their origin. We have seen that a relative of Domitian was executed in the 90s, perhaps because he was a Christian convert, although at this stage in its evolution the religion did not usually appeal to ruling elites.
The apostle had tried to make his way to Bithynia-Pontus, but mysteriously failed to get there because of opposition from the “Spirit.” However, a Christian community came into being and flourished, to the unease, years later, of the imperial legatus, Pliny. He knew that he was expected to act against the sect, but was uncertain of the nature of their offense. So he wrote to Rome for guidance. Was a Christian to be convicted simply of membership in the church? Or of the crimes allegedly associated with it? And what would be appropriate punishments? It appeared, Pliny found, that coreligionists sang hymns in honor of Christ “as if he were a god” and bound themselves by oath to abstain from theft, robbery, and adultery. At the eucharist, they took food of an “ordinary, harmless kind.” No cannibalism there. What puzzled Pliny was the innocuousness of Christianity.
Typically, the emperor took a cautious line. It was impossible, he wrote, to lay down a general rule. If someone was proved to be a Christian, he should be punished (unhelpfully, Trajan failed to answer the question about penalties). But if he sacrificed to the Roman gods, he should be pardoned. He added:
Pamphlets circulated anonymously must play no part in any accusation. They create the worst sort of precedent and are quite out of keeping with the spirit of our age.
Did Hadrian read this ruling? That cannot be determined, but it is perfectly possible. The matter was of some importance and Trajan is likely to have consulted, or at least informed, his close circle. Also, the bureaucrats in Rome must have recognized that the emperor’s wishes had an empire-wide application and made sure the ruling was widely disseminated. In any event, we can safely assume that Hadrian consulted the imperial archives some years later, when he himself was obliged to take a view on Christianity.