For the wellborn Roman, educated as he had been to value Greek history and culture above his own, the first visit to Athens was a rite of passage. As Pliny put it to a young friend, he was going “to the pure and genuine Greece where civilization and literature, and agriculture too, are believed to have originated.”

The voyager from Rome chose from two alternative itineraries. He rode down the Appian Way and a brand-new stretch of road commissioned by Trajan, took ship at Brundisium (today’s Brindisi), then sailed across the Adriatic and down the coast of Greece into the Gulf of Corinth. There were no passenger ships as such, but places could be booked on merchant vessels: government officials or senior personalities in the imperial regime were in a position to commandeer a warship, fast although not comfortable. Landfall was made at Corinth’s western harbor, and the traveler crossed over by land to its eastern counterpart. The adventurous alternative was to sail down the coast of Italy, turning east through the Strait of Messina and rounding the windswept peninsula of the Peloponnese.

Either way, journey’s end was the port of Piraeus, with its three fine weatherproof harbors, which had once been the home of the eastern Mediterranean’s most formidable fleet. As the traveler rode the few miles to the city, he could see on either side the ruins of the Long Walls, built to link Athens securely to its ships. Along the road stood the gravestones of past generations of Athenians.

Soon a spectacular distant view of the city presented itself against a horizon of high mountains. The sun caught the spear and helmet of a colossal statue of the goddess Athena that guarded the citadel, the crag of the Acropolis. Just to one side the columns of the Parthenon, shrine of the Maiden, shone whitely.

The famous words of Pindar were as apt as when minted six centuries previously.

O glittering, violet-crowned, chanted in song,
Bulwark of Hellas, renowned Athens,
Citadel of the gods.

In 112 Hadrian made his way to Athens for an extended stay. This is his first recorded visit, although (as has been seen) it is possible that his father took him there when a young child. Also, he may have been in Athens a few years before, during the fallow period after his consulship. A man of some importance in the state, Hadrian doubtless journeyed in style with a considerable entourage; it was the done thing for elite wives to accompany husbands on their travels, so the little-loved Sabina was probably present.

Which of the two routes he took is uncertain. It is plausible that he chose the first, via Brundisium and Corinth. Although it entailed a good deal of walking or riding a mule or in a mule-drawn carriage and was slower and more tedious, it reduced the ever-present risk of shipwreck in a storm. En route, Hadrian was able to follow the example of many other Roman tourists and stop over at Nicopolis; this was the City of Victory, which Augustus founded near Actium after his victory at sea over Mark Antony and Cleopatra in 31 B.C.

The temptation was not so much Nicopolis itself, pleasant place though it was, as the fact that the philosopher Epictetus was living and lecturing there. We know that at some stage Hadrian became a friend and admirer and that he may have already met him in Rome. He would hardly have turned down the opportunity of an encounter.

At about this time an eager young man from Bithynia was studying under Epictetus, taking copious shorthand notes at his lectures. This was Lucius Flavius Arrianus Xenophon (Arrian in English), now in his mid-to late twenties. A capable and intelligent man, he had three heroes—the Greek author and adventurer Xenophon, whose name he took, most unusually, as a cognomen; Alexander the Great, about whom he wrote an influential biography; and Epictetus.

Deeply impressed by the philosopher’s thought, Arrian was aware that, like Socrates, the sage never wrote anything down, and decided to publish his lecture notes so that an accurate memory of his philosophy survived. From these an unmistakable theme emerges—a scorn for authority and, more particularly, that of the emperors. Although Hadrian’s name is not mentioned, a number of remarks in his lectures bear a certain aptness to the character of the imperial student.

At one point during a discussion in which Epictetus argues that everyone is a son of God, he remarks, “If the emperor adopts you, no one will be able to bear your conceit.” Later he inquires, “Shall kinship with the emperor or any of those who wield great power in Rome be sufficient to enable men to live securely, proof against contempt and in fear of nothing whatsoever?” Whom, we muse, did Epictetus know among Trajan’s very few politically important relatives, if not the man perhaps sitting in the lecture hall in front of him?

The philosopher pleaded for tolerance of those who chattered on about their war records in Dacia.

Some men … have excessively sharp tongues and say: “I cannot dine at this fellow’s house, when I have to put up with his telling every day how we fought in Moesia [Hadrian’s province, one recalls]. ‘I have told you, brother, how I climbed to the crest of the hill; well, now, I begin to be under siege again.’” But someone else says: “I would prefer to eat my dinner, and let him chatter on as he pleases.”

Epictetus concludes with his advice to those who cannot bear it: “Never forget that the dining room door stands open.”

It cannot be proved that the philosopher had Hadrian in mind when he made these good-humored jibes; but they do sketch a portrait of someone rather like him—bumptious, talkative, and a know-it-all.

What is more interesting is the fact that a man who had his eye on the throne should sit at the feet of a thinker who criticized the imperial system. Epictetus’ view was that the “power” of power was much exaggerated. In a brief dialogue between an imperial official called Maximus and himself, Epictetus pricks the balloon of self-aggrandizement.

MAXIMUS: I sit as a judge over Greeks.

EPICTETUS : But do you know how to be a judge? And what has given you this knowledge?

MAXIMUS : The emperor gave me my credentials …

EPICTETUS: And there is another question—that is, how did you come to be a judge? Whose hand did you kiss? In front of whose bedroom door did you sleep so as to be the first to say good morning? To whom did you send presents? …

MAXIMUS: Well, I can throw anyone I want into prison.

EPICTETUS: Just as you can throw a stone away.

MAXIMUS: And I can have anyone I want beaten to death with a club.

EPICTETUS: As you can a donkey. That is not governing men.

Govern us as rational beings by pointing out what is useful to us and we will follow you. Point out what is useless, and we will turn away from it.

Epictetus’ final remarks suggest that for him the ideal wielder of power was very much like a philosopher whose task was to guide human beings down the path of reason.

We can take it that Hadrian was aware of Epictetus’ political opinions. He may have attended a version of this lecture. Whether or not he agreed with everything he heard is immaterial; what matters is that Hadrian had an opportunity to meditate on the nature of government and to take seriously the concept of emperor as a philosopher-king.

After the short ride from Piraeus—or possibly walk, for he enjoyed exercise—Hadrian arrived at his destination. Once through the city gates, Hadrian found himself in a broad avenue, the Panathenaic Way; on either side were colonnades, with statues of famous men and women along their front, as the street passed through an industrial district, the Kerameikos, or Potters’ Quarter, and led into the Agora, or marketplace.

Originally a triangular square planted with plane trees, the Agora once had been bisected by a racetrack for athletes. For the rest of the year it had been populated with traders’ stalls. Here had been the beating heart of classical Athens. However, the Romans had arrived, with their passion for building. They constructed a new marketplace, the Roman Agora dedicated to Julius Caesar and Augustus, a large square courtyard surrounded by colonnades on all four sides, not dissimilar to a monastic cloister. And in the middle of the old Agora, Marcus Agrippa built a huge new multistory concert hall, which it completely dominated. It was a fine example of arrogance masked as generosity.

Hadrian was well aware that Athens had long lost its political importance, but it was a cultural center with a thriving intellectual life: a rough modern analogy would be Paris in the first half of the twentieth century. This was what appealed to him. Civic buildings also contained countless works of art. In the Propylaea, the grand (and still very beautiful) marble gateway up to the Acropolis, there was a picture galley. On every corner there were shrines, temples, statues, and altars. It was as if the city was a vast open-air museum celebrating the achievements of Greek civilization.

The rich and well connected did not expect to stay at the various inns and hostels that could be found in most cities. A local worthy—perhaps a friend or acquaintance—or government official would offer generous hospitality. The name of Hadrian’s host at Athens has not survived, but we can make a guess. One possibility is Gaius Julius Antiochus Epiphanes Philopappus. He was one of a breed of rootless multimillionaires in whom Greek, oriental, and Roman cultural attitudes mingled.

His name contains his history: “Gaius Julius” signifies Roman citizenship, but he was of Asiatic origin, being the grandson of Antiochus IV, the last king of Commagene, a region of ancient Armenia just to the east of Cilicia. Although one of the wealthiest of Rome’s tributary kings, Antiochus was not the most nimble of politicians. In 72 he wisely supported Vespasian when he made his bid for the purple and sent forces to help Titus during the siege of Jerusalem; but he was then found to be conspiring with Rome’s great enemy in the east, the Parthians.

The new emperor had no time for slippery loyalties and promptly deposed him. Antiochus withdrew to Sparta, once a great power and Athens’ rival but now a quiet tourist backwater. Then, presumably after mending some bridges with the Flavian regime, he settled in Rome, where he lived with his two sons and was generally regarded with great respect.

His grandson was evidently fond of him, for his cognomen Philopappus means “lover of his grandfather.” He spent most of his time in Athens, where he became an Athenian citizen and a member of the Besa deme, or district. A generous patron of the arts, he funded cultural and athletic events. Philopappus took care to keep his lines open to senior government officials; he became a Roman senator and was a suffect consul in 109.

This was a man who enjoyed living lavishly and prominently—as his other cognomen, Epiphanes, or “illustrious,” indicates. He became a celebrity in the modern sense of the word, famous for nothing in particular except for conspicuous expenditure. The Athenians nicknamed him King Philopappus. Hadrian became a good friend of his and Sabina made much of his sister, a poet and bluestocking, Balbilla. The siblings will have been of special interest to him, for magic had been a family tradition: two of their ancestors were celebrated astrologers, the onetime prefect of Egypt Tiberius Claudius Balbillus and his father, Thrasyllus of Mendes, who survived holding the dangerous post of official astrologer to the emperor Tiberius.

There had been no emergency—political, military, or personal—forcing Hadrian to take to sea during the perilous winter months, so we may assume that he traveled in late spring—say, from May onward. He was well received, for almost immediately the Athenians offered him citizenship, which he accepted without demur, and, as with Philopappus, made him a member of the Besa deme. They then awarded him their highest honor, appointing him archon, or chief magistrate: only a handful of leading Romans had been so distinguished, among them Domitian, who, with typical tactlessness, appointed himself by imperial fiat and held the post in absentia. The official year ran from summer to summer and Hadrian took office immediately.

The new archon was soon hard at work, helping to ensure that the Panathenaic Games of 112 were a success. Philopappus was doubtless on hand to offer support (we know he was interested, for at some stage in his career he was appointedagonothetes, or games producer). The games were held every four years in the year preceding an Olympiad, in the height of the summer. Both body and mind were tested to the extreme.

As well as athletic contests, competitors in poetry competitions spoke or chanted excerpts from the works of Homer. Musical contests—solo lyre and flute performances and singing to one’s own lyre or flute accompaniment—were held in one of the most curious of buildings. This was the Odeion, in the shadow of the Acropolis: a vast square structure with a roof supported by a forest of columns, it was a copy in stone and wood of the spectacular tent of the Persian king of kings, Xerxes, which he had had to abandon after his failed invasion of Greece in the early fifth century B.C.

Every year at the height of summer a great celebration, the Panathenaea, was staged in honor of the city’s tutelary goddess, Pallas Athene. Priestesses, official seamstresses, and four specially selected little girls made a new tunic, or peplos, to clothe an archaic statue of Athena, housed in the little temple on the Acropolis, the Erechtheum. A great procession gathered at the Dipylon Gate, as depicted in the Elgin or Parthenon Marbles. Charioteers, horsemen, musicians, elders, resident aliens, three sheep and a bull for sacrifice, and girls carrying bowls and jugs for libations walked through the Agora and up to the Acropolis, where the peplos was handed over. The brilliantly painted marble frieze high up on the outside walls of the temple’s sanctuary, or cella, showed the Olympian gods in benevolent attendance at the ceremony.

As archon, one of Hadrian’s first duties on taking office was to select two deputies and some administrators to plan the following March’s Great Dionysia. At this religious festival in honor of Dionysus, god of wine and ritual madness, patron of agriculture and theater, three days of drama were presented in the theater of Dionysus; built against the southern slopes of the Acropolis, this seated fifteen thousand to seventeen thousand spectators. Each day a playwright presented three tragedies, based on well-known legends, and a raucous farce, a so-called satyr play. Comedies and choric odes were also performed.

Originally all these were new works, but by Hadrian’s day audiences preferred revivals of masterpieces by authors such as Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. Judges were elected by lot and awarded a prize of an ivy wreath to the producer of the best show, the choregos. Hadrian sat ex officio in the front row of the auditorium alongside the judges and other dignitaries.

If we may believe the Epitome de Caesaribus, he devoted every spare moment from his duties as archon to cultural pursuits (the author flatters, for Polycleitus and Euphranor were celebrated old masters).

He devoured the pursuits and customs of the Athenians, having mastered not merely rhetoric, but other disciplines too, the science of singing, of playing the harp, and of medicine: [he was] a musician, geometrician, painter, and a sculptor from bronze or marble who was next to Polycleitus and Euphranor [in artistry]. Indeed, like those things in a way, he, too, was refined, so that human affairs hardly ever seem to have experienced anything finer.

Now in his mid-thirties, Hadrian was in the prime of life. He was tall and very strongly built, but elegant in appearance, with carefully curled hair. According to Dio Cassius, he was “a pleasant man to meet and possessed a certain charm.”

His features were reasonably good-looking, with a strong nose, high cheeks, and puckered eyebrows. He looked about him with an alert, even suspicious gaze. Flatterers said that his eyes were “languishing, bright, piercing and full of light,” signs of a true Hellene and Ionian. One may suspect that this was exactly what Hadrian liked to hear (just as his revered Augustus prided himself on his clear, bright eyes). He had a way of compressing his mouth, with the lower lip projecting slightly forward. The overall impression he gave was of inquiry, decisiveness, and sharp, sometimes acid judgment. This was a self-confident man used to giving orders—but with few illusions that they would necessarily be carried out efficiently.

His face possessed one remarkable singularity. For centuries Romans of the ruling class had been clean-shaven (no painless task in the days before the invention of soap and tempered steel for razors)—that is, in civilian life, for they often let their beards grow when on military campaign, as the reliefs of Trajan’s Column clearly show. The fashion had been set at the beginning of the second century B.C. by Scipio Africanus, the charismatic young general who defeated Hannibal. The lower classes did not bother to follow suit. Romans had a way then as today of kissing each other socially, and Martial writes disgustedly of the “bristly farmer with a kiss like a billy-goat’s.” In the twilight of the Republic gilded young men sported goatees to irritate their elders; Cicero called them barbatuli (“beardy boys”), but the tradition of beardlessness persisted into the empire.

Hadrian decided to follow his own taste and grow a beard. The Historia Augusta claims that he wanted to cover some natural blemishes, but, if true, that will not have been his only motive. Doubtless he listened to Epictetus, who had something to say on the subject. He posed a question to his students: “Can anything be more useless than hairs on the chin?” and immediately replied to himself in the negative. Facial hair, he claimed, was nature’s sign for distinguishing men from women, and was more beautiful than a cock’s comb or a lion’s mane. “So we ought to preserve the signs which God has given. We ought not to throw them away. We ought not, so far as we can, confuse the sexes which have been distinguished in this way.”

By implication Epictetus was advising a Roman, not a Greek. This was because Greek adult males usually wore short, trimmed beards as a matter of course, and these were an easy means of ethnic identification. The new archon of Athens did not wish to appear as a smooth-skinned imperialist in a toga and, although we do not know when he gave up shaving, it is very plausible that he did so now—as a gesture of solidarity with the city that had given him so warm a welcome and as a visible sign of his Greekness.

These months in Athens were a high point in Hadrian’s life. He was a member of the Roman establishment and in no way did he resile from that; but, at least temporarily, he had become a leader of the culture he so greatly admired. He could imagine himself to be a true Hellene, an heir of Pericles and the great men of old.

After years of peace the thoughts of the optimus princeps were turning again to war. The enemy he had in mind was the Parthian empire. Onetime nomads from northeastern Iran, the Parthians defeated and expropriated the Seleucid empire, founded by Seleucus, one of Alexander the Great’s Macedonian officers. At its height their realm stretched from today’s Pakistan to the river Euphrates. Little is known in detail about them, for they left behind no written records, but they governed loosely, allowing a good degree of local autonomy to their vassal provinces. A coin issued by Chosroes, the present king, in about 110, hailed the ancestral founder of his dynasty as “Friend of the Greeks”; so it is evident that he had no wish to halt, reverse, or subvert the Hellenization of the Middle East.

The nobles were striking to look at. They always seemed to be on horseback, whether fighting or dining, traveling or relaxing. They wore long beards, used cosmetics, and elaborately styled their hair. Plutarch recalls how Roman soldiers were once thoroughly put out by the misleadingly effeminate appearance of an opposing Parthian commander with his “painted face and parted hair.” He was as fierce a fighter as they had ever met.

Although militarily they could be most effective, the Parthians were greatly weakened by their eccentric constitutional arrangements. The king of kings was an absolute ruler and had to be a member of the Arsacid clan; however, he was elected by two councils. One represented the nobility—in effect, the Arsacids and their cadet branches, in other words all his relatives—and the second was drawn from the Magi, or “wise men,” a priestly tribe responsible for religious and funerary arrangements. At any time, these committees could elect a new king. The succession was never undisputed and primogeniture often yielded to fratrigeniture, and a dispossessed elder son would contest his uncle’s throne.

It was hard to see, even at the time, why Trajan was meditating an expedition against the Parthians. He had demonstrated his soldierly prowess against the Dacians, but in that case had been responding to a real military threat. In general, he presented himself as a man of peace.

Arrian, a friend of Hadrian as we have seen and a competent public official and historian, was absolutely certain that Trajan, while mindful of the dignity of the empire, did all he could to avoid war with Parthia. Dio Cassius (albeit in a late summary) takes the opposite view: he is explicit that the emperor went to war on a pretext and that his true motive “was a desire to win glory.”

In the light of the fragmentary state of the surviving evidence, it is impossible to decide definitively between the two opinions, but there are enough clues to suggest that Dio was right.

In 112 the emperor celebrated fifteen years of power. On January 1 he entered on his sixth consulship and formally dedicated his magnificent new forum and basilica. Coins were issued featuring the emperor’s kindly wife, Plotina, and his much-loved sister, Marciana. For the first time each woman is named as Augusta, or “revered one.” Sadly, Marciana died in August; her brother arranged for her deification and promoted Matidia to Augusta. Sabina was now the grandaughter of a Diva and the daughter of an Augusta.

Festive coin types in the same mintage celebrate Trajan’s father, onetime holder of triumphal honors, ornamenta triumphalia, over the Parthians when he governed Syria, and deified by his son. Another shows Trajan himself with the curious legend “May fortune return him safely,” fort[una] red[ux]. This signified that the emperor was planning a profectio, an imperial expedition, of some kind; combined with a tribute to the last Roman to have beaten the Parthians, it could be interpeted by the Roman equivalent of Kremlinologists as a hint that battle was to recommence. Other coins of the period have a markedly martial flavor—with images of Mars, the god of war, of the emperor on horseback trampling on his fallen enemies, and of legionary eagles and standards.

The Historia Augusta remarks, but infuriatingly fails to date the event precisely, that Hadrian was appointed legatus to the emperor “at the time of the Parthian expedition.” Dio reports that he “had been assigned to Syria for the Parthian war.” This may mean that he traveled on from Athens sometime during 113 to Syria, the province that shares a frontier with the Parthian empire, and began to assemble an invasion army. In that case it would seem likely that he received the emperor’s confidential instructions before setting off for Greece in early 112, and made preliminary preparations during his stay there.

So such particular evidence as there is suggests a long-planned intention only awaiting an opportunity. More generally, though, there was a traditional pattern in the relations between the two powers. The Parthians were usually too preoccupied with their internecine court politics to plot aggressive war; and their statesmen must have recognized that their system of governance would not readily permit them to manage a larger territory. However, from the perspective of a Roman general ambitious for glory (for example, Crassus, Julius Caesar, and Mark Antony), they were a tempting if often indigestible prey. It is reasonable to regard Trajan as the inheritor of this tradition.

The longed-for casus belli eventually presented itself in Armenia, a bone of contention for more than a century. Both parties saw the kingdom as falling within their legitimate sphere of interest. Long ago Augustus had negotiated a face-saving arrangement, confirmed by Nero: the Parthians nominated a Parthian prince to the throne of Armenia, but the Romans confirmed the choice and conducted a coronation in Rome. By and large this double-lock system had assured an uneasy but durable stalemate.

For some years, though, Parthia had been divided by two rival kings. During the second half of 113, the leading contender for the throne, Chosroes, self-confidently deposed the Armenian ruler, a nephew of his, and replaced him with the king’s older brother, a certain Parthamasiris. Nothing particularly unusual here—except that Chosroes foolishly failed to consult Trajan. This certainly meant a loss of face for Rome, but no fundamental imperial interest was at risk. A rational response would have been to follow in Augustus’ footsteps and send out a high official (say, Hadrian) to negotiate an acceptable settlement.

Trajan made it clear, though, that negotiation was the last thing on his mind. Public opinion was enthusiastically behind him and, amici cheering crowds, he set out from Rome for the east, accompanied (according to a late source) by a “large force of soldiers and senators.” He probably chose for his departure the date of his adoption by Nerva, October 25. Chosroes panicked and sent an embassy, which met the emperor at Athens; it presented gifts and begged Trajan not to make war on him. Trying to make up for his earlier mistake, the king of kings asked that Armenia be given to Parthamasiris and requested that Rome send him the royal diadem as a token of endorsement. He had deposed his nephew, he claimed, for being “satisfactory neither to the Romans nor to the Parthians.”

Trajan was unrelenting. He refused to accept the gifts and did not respond to Chosroes’ requests, either orally or in writing. He merely stated, forbiddingly: “Friendship is decided by actions and not by words. When I have reached Syria, I will do everything that is proper.”

So what were Trajan’s true motives? What did he have in mind if not in word? We can only speculate, but one thing is certain—he was obedient to the long-established rhetoric of imperial expansion. As he was an admirer of Alexander the Great, an invasion of Parthia would be a happy echo for him of the Macedonian king’s conquests. Now in his mid-fifties, this was Trajan’s last chance to live a dream of youthful adventure.

Hadrian waited in Antioch (today’s Antakya), then capital of Syria, for Trajan to take command of the legions he had assembled. Founded by Seleucus in the fourth century B.C., the city was squeezed in between the river Orontes (the modern Asi or Nehri) to the west and Mount Silpius to the east. It was laid out in imitation of the grid plan of Alexandria; two long colonnaded streets met in the center. With a population of about half a million, Antioch was the empire’s third largest city after Rome and Alexandria.

About four miles away was Daphne, a large paradeisos, or walled park around a gorge with groves of laurel and cypress. There were formal gardens and cascades. A spring called the Castalian fount was believed to have prophetic properties; it was perhaps on this occasion that the superstitious Hadrian consulted it and was informed that he was to become emperor.

However, Daphne had a reputation less for religious observance than as a haunt for sexual promiscuity, as more generally did Antioch itself. This was the city that inspired the stereotype of the slippery, treacherous, and untrustworthy Asiatic—perhaps the closest Romans came to anything approaching contemporary racism. But it was also nicknamed the “Athens of the East” and its great wealth attracted artists, philosophers, poets, and orators from across the Mediterranean, and financed a luxurious and permissive lifestyle. Although he was busy, Antioch would have been an entertaining billet for a man like Hadrian, with an inquisitive mind and an openness to experience.

Toward the end of December he greeted the emperor when he disembarked at Antioch’s port, Seleucia Pieria (near today’s Samandağ). They made their way at once to the neighboring Mount Casius (Jebel Akra) for a religious ceremony at a temple of Zeus Casius. At nearly six thousand feet, this was the highest landmark in northern Syria, with views of Cyprus and the Taurus range in Cilicia.

The imperial pair presented an array of gifts for the god; more was promised if the Romans were victorious in the impending campaign. Hadrian composed a short poem in Greek (of course) elegiac couplets for the occasion.

To Zeus Kasios has Trajan, son of Aeneas, dedicated this gift,

the ruler of men to the ruler of the immortals:

two artistically wrought cups and from a large ox

the horn adorned with all-gleaming gold,

chosen from his former spoils when, unyielding,

he has wasted the Getae with his spear.

But you, lord of the dark clouds, grant him the power

gloriously to complete this Achaemenian conflict,

so that your heart may be twice warmed by the sight

of two spoils, those of the Getae and those of the Arsacids.

Aeneas was the prince who escaped the blazing ruins of Troy and settled in Italy, and whose descendants founded Rome; so Trajan is represented as the millennial inheritor of this great tradition. The Achaemenids (literally the name of the dynasty Alexander overthrew) and the Getae were poetic terms for the Parthians and the Dacians. Hadrian was associating past victories with an assured future one. But would the god smile on the enterprise?

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