From today’s distant standpoint, Hadrian vanishes from sight during the Parthian war. He is not listed as an army commander, though presumably he accompanied Trajan on campaign and was responsible for some unglamorous but essential duty, such as the maintenance of almost impossibly long supply lines through inhospitable country. Dio Cassius records him at this time as being the emperor’s companion, comes Augusti, “sharing his daily life”; but that is all we are told. Then, suddenly, he is back, center stage.
More bad news arrived at the depressed imperial headquarters. Serious disorder had broken out in the Danube provinces, from which substantial forces had been incautiously borrowed. The eastern expedition was threatening to loosen the bonds that held the empire together. Trajan appointed one of his best generals, Gaius Julius Quadratus Bassus, to restore order. An imperial administrator promoted on merit, he was a Galatian and related to one of those onetime royal families who (like Philopappus in Athens) had Romanized themselves when their kingdoms had been annexed and made provinces. He knew Dacia very well, for he had fought successfully in the Dacian wars.
At the time Bassus was governor of Syria. This was a frontline position in light of the insurgency and the more or less simultaneous Jewish revolt, and a competent successor was required. Trajan selected Hadrian. For the first time since the consulship, he was being given a proper job where he could display his talents for all to see.
This was not all. Hadrian was promised the consulship for 118. The story went the rounds that Plotina used her influence with the emperor to win him the appointment. According to the Historia Augusta, Hadrian was no novice himself in the dark art of palace politics. Well known for his promiscuity, he had no qualms in deploying his sexuality to secure advancement.
Widespread rumor asserted that he had bribed Trajan’s freedmen, had cultivated his boy favorites and had frequent sexual relations with them during the periods when he was an inner member of the court.
It looked very much as if the succession to Trajan, if he were to die now, was settled. Unsurprisingly, this stirred Hadrian’s critics into action. Although we have no details, his enemies at court, Palma and Celsus, came under suspicion of planning a coup d’état and fell from grace. Hadrian’s position was further strengthened.
The emperor’s illness worsened. He was intending a fresh attack on Mesopotamia, but he was obliged to leave the front and withdraw to Antioch. Within the constraints of medical knowledge in the classical world, or (more accurately) ignorance, Dio Cassius gives a good description of Trajan’s symptoms:
The blood, which descends every year into the lower parts of the body, was in his case checked in its flow. He had also suffered a stroke, so that a portion of his body was paralyzed, and he was dropsical all over.
In modern terms, Trajan was suffering from peripheral edema, or water in tissues, and hemostasis in his legs, or halting of the blood flow. The cause of these symptoms, and of the stroke, appears to have been congestive heart failure, possibly caused by high blood pressure. He may have been genetically predisposed to the disease, but the stresses and strains of campaigning and his insistence on sharing the privations of his men must also have taken their toll. The prognosis was poor, as will have been apparent to anyone with access to the emperor.
Trajan was of a different opinion; he was sure, however unreasonably, that he had been poisoned. If so, could he guess by whom? If he considered the history of his assassinated predecessors, the only possible conclusion was that their deaths were inside jobs. The killers were family members, servants, or guards. Claudius, it was said, received poisoned mushrooms at the hands of his wife; and Domitian’s wife had joined the conspiracy against her husband. So the fact of the emperor’s suspicions may mean that he had begun to distrust his household, perhaps even the faithful Plotina.
The decision was taken for the emperor to return to Rome. If he were to die in Antioch, he would be the first emperor to do so outside Italy, and Trajan or his advisers may have sought to avoid this luckless eventuality. In any event, his condition deteriorated further, and after two or three days at sea the imperial party put in at the port of Selinus on the Cilician coast, once the haunt of pirates.
Trajan’s life was approaching its end. It was said that he intended to send a list of likely candidates to the Senate and ask them to choose a new emperor. Perhaps an undated anecdote of Dio Cassius’ took place in these days. Apparently Trajan at dinner asked his guests to name ten men who were capable of being sole ruler; after a moment’s pause, he corrected himself. “I mean nine, for I have one name already—Servianus.”
Whatever the truth of this, his sickness overcame him and he was no longer able to conduct public business. An attack of diarrhea, perhaps an infection caught on campaign, finally killed the emperor. Something had to be done. Plotina—aided and abetted by the city prefect, Attianus, and (we may suppose) the other Augusta, Matidia, made sure that an heir was produced before the death was announced. Dio writes:
My father, Apronianus, who was governor of Cilicia, had ascertained accurately the whole story, and he used to relate the various incidents, in particular stating that the death of Trajan was concealed for several days in order that Hadrian’s adoption might be announced first.
This was shown also by Trajan’s letters to the senate, for they were signed, not by him, but by Plotina, although she had not done this in any previous instance.
The empress went further, said the rumormongers. In a darkened bedroom, an impostor stood in for the lifeless Trajan and whispered commands in a tired voice for the adoption of Hadrian.
Whether or not Trajan himself agreed to the succession of Hadrian, it was essential that news of the decision be sent to Rome with all possible speed. For the sake of appearances, there should be as long a delay as possible before the emperor’s demise was announced. Arrangements were made for the Rome mint to issue coinage celebrating the adoption, for dissemination throughout the empire. A gold piece showed Trajan Augustus wearing a laurel wreath on one side and Hadrian, also laureled, on the other, with the inscription Hadriano Traiano Caesari, or “Hadrian, son of Trajan Caesar.” This was the first time the cognomina “Augustus” and “Caesar” were separated, with the former signifying the emperor and the latter the publicly announced heir and junior partner in government, as was to be the custom during the rest of the history of the empire.
On August 9 the beneficiary of this scheming, waiting impotently in Antioch, received his letter of adoption. If it is true that Trajan was already dead, he was surely told that as well. A few more days of patience were required. On the night of August 11 he experienced a portent. He climbed Mount Casius in order to see the sunrise (a very Hadrianic project, for most Romans were far too practical to waste energy on a fine view). A storm struck as Hadrian was preparing a sacrifice and lightning flashed down, striking both the victim and an attendant but leaving Hadrian unharmed and, it is reported, unfrightened. The event signified that he was serenely ready for his great promotion, and at last, on the following day, the official announcement of the end of the reign reached him. The little boy from Baetica, the Graeculus, had at last attained the purple. He had had to wait a long time. The new emperor was forty-one years old.
A sad, strange footnote to the intrigues at Selinus has been discovered in modern times. It is the gravestone of a certain Marcus Ulpius Phaedimus, which reads:
To [the memory of] Marcus Ulpius Phaedimus, imperial freedman, sommelier and head butler of the deified Trajan; chief lictor [official attendant of senior Roman officeholders] and secretary for grants and promotions. He lived for twenty-eight years and died at Selinus on August 12 in the consulships of Niger and Apronianus [117: this Apronianus was not connected with Dio]. His remains were removed [to Rome, where the gravestone was found] by permission of the College of Pontiffs after an atonement sacrifice[piaculo] had been made in the consulships of Catullinus and Aper .
Much can be deduced from this text, but the heart of a mystery remains. From our knowledge of Trajan’s tastes, we can guess that Phaedimus, originally a slave, was an attractive young man. He was certainly an important one, for his duties gave him easy access to the emperor’s person.
Two questions arise. Is it not a curious coincidence that Phaedimus died on the very day that Hadrian received the announcement of Trajan’s death? And why did it take twelve years before his body was returned to Rome?
If the immediate cause of Trajan’s demise (compounding his heart condition) was an infection contracted out east, then perhaps Phaedimus fell victim to it too, alongside his master. Conceivably (but certainly no more) he killed himself from grief. However, the delay in removing his remains is strange.
The only rational explanation is that some scandal attached to the dead man’s name, for which a discreet silence, a forgetting, was the right response. So the trail leads to Attianus and Plotina. If there was truth in the rumor of subterfuges, a loyal Phaedimus may have known too much, seen too much to permit his survival. Liquidated to protect Plotina’s credibility, the sooner he, and even his very existence, was forgotten, the better.
Hadrian needed to take swift, firm action, or other governors with armies under their command would themselves be tempted to bid for the purple. The memory of the Year of the Four Emperors was still green. He presented himself to his legions, who hailed him as emperor without demur. Hadrian was careful to be generous and gave the men—and doubtless the rest of the army throughout the empire—a “double donative,” or bonus.
The Senate needed delicate handling, for it treasured its constitutional right to approve the appointment of a new head of state. Hadrian drafted a polite, carefully worded letter in which he sought divine honors for Trajan. He apologized that he had not left the Senate the opportunity to decide on his accession. He explained: “The unseemly haste of the troops in acclaiming me emperor was due to the belief that the state could not be without an emperor.”
The gesture seems to have been appreciated. He received the Senate’s reply a few weeks later, in September. They had voted unanimously to deify the optimus princeps and added numerous other honors. So far as Hadrian was concerned, they offered him the high title of pater patriae, father of the people. He declined, taking Augustus’ view that this was one honor that had to be earned; he would defer acceptance until he had some real achievements to his credit.
He was also awarded a Triumph—to mark Trajan’s victories. He declined the offer, but because the pretense of success had to be preserved, Hadrian authorized one for the late princeps. Instead of the man himself, an effigy would, unusually, preside over the celebrations and ride in the triumphal chariot.
Coins were quickly issued to disseminate an image of benevolent continuity. One gold piece showed Trajan handing a globe to Hadrian, signifying the transfer of the rulership of the world. In another appears the image of the phoenix, the wonder bird of Egyptian legend. When it dies it burns itself on a pyre and from its ashes its successor arises, which then buries its parent’s remains. The phoenix was an image of continual renewal—and Hadrian the new link in an eternal chain. A third coin from early in the reign reprises the phoenix theme, adding the more ambitious claim that the “Golden Age” had returned.
The dowager empress and Hadrian’s mother-in-law, Matidia, received a due reward in the coinage; they share a splendidly preserved aureus (in the British Museum’s collection) in which a bust of Plotina is partnered by one of Matidia. The message was clear: Trajan’s women were going to remain key members of the imperial household.
Perhaps the most remarkable is a coin with two obverses—that is, one side carries a head of Trajan and the other of Hadrian, both laureled. What was unprecedented was the latter’s short-cut beard. Those who met him from day to day were familiar with this artful innovation; as he well knew, in civilian dress it made him look like a Greek, and when wearing armor, like a down-to-earth soldier. Until his accession, emperors’ faces, whether in statuary or on coins, had been clean-shaven. Now the fashion changed: men in every corner of the empire looked at their money and discarded their razors.
The elderly Attianus was fiercely protective of his onetime ward and wrote to him from Selinus warning of enemies who would do their best to ensure that the new reign was stillborn. In its abbreviating manner, the Historia Augusta provides a less-than-helpful précis:
[He] advised him by letter in the first few days of his rule to put to death [Quintus] Baebius Macer, the prefect of the city, in case he opposed his elevation to power, also [Manius] Laberius Maximus, then in exile on an island under suspicion of designs on the throne, and likewise [Caius Calpurnius] Crassus Frugi [Licinianus].
Laberius carried substantial political weight. A senior figure, he made his name under Domitian and had distinguished himself in Trajan’s Dacian wars. He was that increasingly rare thing in a multicultural court, an Italian, and more than that—a true Latin from Lanuvium, an ancient city near Rome in the Alban Hills. Nothing is known of his plotting, but he may have been implicated in the disgraces of Palma and Celsus. Also a banished man, Crassus labored under the dangerous disadvantage of an ancient aristocratic name. He appears to have been a serial conspirator, against Nerva as well as Trajan.
Emperors often removed favorites or relatives who had fallen from grace to one or other of the many tiny islands that lie off the Italian coast. Expelled from the Senate, these isolated and impotent captives seldom returned to public life. Why Attianus should have particularly feared this pair is unclear; as guard prefect in attendance on the emperor he would have seen secret reports on suspicious activity by dissidents, but perhaps he was being overcautious.
Baebius Macer was a different matter. He was praefectus urbi, prefect of the city of Rome; a combination of chief of police and mayor, the praefectus was responsible for law and order and had jurisdiction in criminal matters. He was of a scholarly disposition and a stickler for what he saw to be right. He was not only in a powerful position, but was likely to take a dim view of any constitutional irregularities as a new regime tried to establish its authority. Attianus had reason to fear a man without the moral flexibility for which the times called.
Hadrian disagreed. Whatever the guilt or innocence of those accused, this was not the moment for a ruler who had not yet established himself to put senior politicians to death. It was too soon to judge loyalties, and he turned down Attianus’ request. To make his position clear publicly, he wrote again to the Senate. Among many high-minded sentiments,
he swore that he would do nothing against the public interest, nor would he put to death any senator, and he invoked destruction on himself if he should violate these promises in any way.
The prefect complied with the emperor’s decision—or at least gave the appearance of doing so. Crassus unwisely left his island, so the official story went, and his keeper had him put to death. The emperor’s writ did not yet run reliably.
Plotina and Matidia, accompanied by Attianus, boarded ship with Trajan’s body and set sail to Antioch and the new emperor. Hadrian went out to meet them, probably at Seleucia, and viewed the remains. These were then cremated and the imperial party took ship for Rome. They carried the ashes with them and eventually they were laid to rest in the small burial chamber at the foot of Trajan’s Column.
As autumn set in, embassies began arriving at Antioch bearing letters of congratulations from municipalities across the empire. Each needed a written answer, which would be taken home and proudly reproduced in stone in every main square. The princepswrote, in formulaic mode, to the Youth Association of Pergamum:
Noting from your letter, and through the ambassador Claudius Cyrus, the great joy you openly feel in our succession, I consider such sentiments to be indicative of good men. Farewell.
Celebrations were staged all over the Roman world, some of them elaborate. But in Antioch, merrymaking was the last thing on Hadrian’s agenda. Fresh and insecure on the throne, he impulsively had the Castalian springs in the pleasure gardens of Daphne blocked up with a huge mass of stone; he did not want anyone else to receive the same message from the oracular waters that he had.
The empire was breaking up. Everywhere the enemies of Rome could not resist exploiting the tempting coincidence of an imperial military setback and an imperial death. The Historia Augusta summed up the situation:
The nations that Trajan had conquered began to revolt; the Moors, too, were on the attack, and the Sarmatians were waging war, the Britons were running out of Roman control, Egypt was hard pressed by riots, and finally Libya and Palestine were showing the spirit of rebellion.
Within a few days of assuming power, the emperor took the two most important, and bitterly controversial, decisions of his entire reign. One of them was tactical and the other strategic. Neither was improvised, but must have been the product of hard thought.
Long imperial frontiers required a large standing army, and paying for this was extremely expensive, and new provinces meant new garrisons. The army was the state’s largest single cost. There was also a limit to the available manpower that could be safely withdrawn from economically productive activity. The technology of warfare, the logistical difficulty of maintaining extended supply chains, and the slowness of long-range communications placed limits on the size of territory that a central government would find manageable. It is true that Rome ruled with a light touch and expected local elites to manage the day-to-day affairs of provincial towns and cities. However, government business seems to have grown inexorably.
In addition, it was not at all obvious that the benefits, the profits, that would accrue from new conquests would make the effort entailed worthwhile, at least in the medium term. Much of the land contiguous with the empire was ecologically marginal and, with the exception of the Parthian and Dacian empires, economically unrewarding—neither worth the trouble of annexing nor the expense of administering. What, one might ask, would be the point of taking over little-populated Scotland?
The historian Appian, who lived through the reigns of Trajan and Hadrian, made the point well.
The Romans have aimed to preserve their empire by the exercise of prudence rather than extend their dominion indefinitely over poverty-stricken and profitless tribes of barbarians.
Emperors, needing to balance their books, settled for the minimum military establishment consistent with safety. They felt they could not afford a mobile reserve ready to meet crises as and when they occurred. (Such a reserve, when unemployed, would also present them with a potential threat to their own power.)
This parsimony had two main consequences. First, any military defeat would create a hole in the empire’s defenses that would be difficult to plug—as Augustus had found when three legions were destroyed on the Rhine frontier in A.D. 9. Domitian had been forced to withdraw troops from Britannia to meet trouble in Dacia. Second, aggressive war, even when victorious, was just as dangerous to imperial stability. Trajan had raised additional legions during his Dacian campaigns (bringing the total establishment up to thirty); however, for his Parthian expedition, he still had to order legions from Pannonia to join him in the east, imperiling the Danube frontier. Once the expedition had been seen to fail, enemies of Rome on every side had seized the opportunity for rebellion. In fact, just to maintain the status quo was almost too much for the legions.
So military and financial reality argued against further enlargement of the empire. Intermittently, emperors recognized this. Augustus, who had been an out-and-out expansionist for most of his career, advised his successor, Tiberius, to stay within existing frontiers. Tacitus’ Annals, a savage but authoritative study of the early empire, had recently appeared (perhaps published between 115 and 117, but possibly some years later). He reports that the aged Augustus produced a list of the empire’s military resources very near the end of his life; the document was “all catalogued by Augustus in his own hand, with a final clause … advising the restriction of the empire within its present frontiers.” Hadrian may well have seen a copy of, even read, the historian’s masterpiece. In any event, he must have known of the policy. The first princeps being a man whom he greatly admired, he accepted his century-old advice without hesitation. Beneath the rhetoric of attack, Domitian, too, seems to have recognized the dangers of endless advance.
It was against this background that Hadrian issued orders to immediately abandon his predecessor’s three new provinces—Armenia, Mesopotamia, and Assyria—and to regroup permanently behind Rome’s traditional border, the Euphrates. Although this decision came as a great shock, it is evident that the dying Trajan, the aggressive warrior, had himself realized that a pull-back was inevitable. Hadrian deposed Trajan’s puppet king, and as a polite compensation installed him in Osrhoene, from which Abgarus and son had been ejected. The emperor explained his decision by quoting from one of his favorite old Roman authors—Cato the Censor. In 167 B.C. Rome defeated the Macedonians with some difficulty and the Senate was considering what it should do about them. Cato pronounced: “Because it is impossible to keep them under our care, they will have to be left independent.”
The emperor also meant to abandon Dacia, for the conquest of which many Roman lives had been sacrificed, but he was persuaded to reconsider. The original population had been killed or dispersed and their place taken by immigrants from the Roman empire. It would be unacceptable to hand them over to the untender mercies of their barbarian neighbors.
Hadrian went much further than pulling out of Parthia. So far as we know no formal announcement was made; it was unnecessary, and would have been incautious, to do so. However, a new long-term strategy can be inferred from his pacific behavior throughout the rest of the reign: Rome was to abjure military expansion of any kind in the future. Negotiation was to replace ultimatum. Trajan’s eastern adventure had been the last straw, showing that while it was possible to project military power temporarily beyond the frontiers of the empire, it was difficult to preserve territorial gains.
The withdrawals are evidence of Hadrian’s clear-sightedness and political courage, but they deeply angered many senior personalities. Opinion in Italy had fed on a diet of victories and as yet had no clear idea that Parthia had not, after all, been conquered. And even though Trajan’s failure was common knowledge in leading circles, the ethos of aggression was too ingrained to accept that the days of imperium sine fine were over.
A contemporary observer summed up the conventional view. Publius Annius Florus was a poet and rhetorician from northern Africa and the author of a brief sketch for schoolboys of Roman history, largely drawn from Livy. In it he compares Rome to a human individual as it grows up, reaches maturity, and subsequently attains old age. So he identifies childhood with the rule of kings, the conquest of Italy with its youth, and manhood with the late Republic.
From the time of Caesar Augustus down to our own age there has been a period of not much less than two hundred years, during which, owing to the inactivity of the emperors, the Roman people, as it were, grew old and lost its potency, save that under the rule of Trajan it again stirred its arms and, contrary to general expectation, again renewed its vigor—with youth, as it were, restored.
And now the next princeps was reverting to the unacceptable and passive norm, or so the elites angrily regarded his actions. As often happens, military adventures abroad lend stability and popularity to governments at home—provided that they bring victory. Lack of success in this regard helped seal the fate of Domitian. Would it do the same for Hadrian?
The emperor was too busy for hypothetical questions. The indispensable Marcius Turbo was bringing the Jewish revolt to a victorious conclusion in Egypt and Cyrene. But now the Greek community in Alexandria started rioting against the defeated Jews.
The emperor replaced Trajan’s governor with a more competent and energetic figure, Quintus Rammius Martialis. It says much for his rapid decisiveness that Rammius was in his post on or before August 25, just over a fortnight since the news of Trajan’s death had reached Antioch.
Hadrian himself probably paid a quick visit to Egypt. There was great economic distress in the country, and he rapidly produced generous and carefully thought-out measures that provided tax relief for tenant farmers. From now on assessments would be made on the actual agricultural yield rather than land value (the tributum soli). It was far more in character for him to investigate this situation directly, rather than rely at a distance on the recommendations of advisers.
It would have been too provocative to visit Alexandria, but he sent a Greek intellectual in his service who was known for his shrewdness and sharpness of wit, Valerius Eudaemon, as procurator, or financial director, for the city’s local administration; his task was to be the emperor’s eyes and ears.
Somewhere in Egypt—perhaps the border town of Pelusium or Heliopolis, at the southern head of the Nile delta—Hadrian presided over the trial, or at least some kind of official inquiry or hearing, of some hotheaded Alexandrian Greeks, led by a spokesman called Paul. A Jewish delegation was also present. From the reported proceedings it is possible to suppose the following savage sequence of events. After the failure of the Jewish revolt, many Jews were imprisoned and the triumphant Greeks put on a satirical stage show lampooning the rebel “king,” Lukuas. Some of them sang songs criticizing the emperor for deciding to resettle Jewish survivors of the revolt in an area of the city from which they could easily launch new attacks on the native population.
The irritated governor (Rammius’ predecessor) ordered the Greeks to produce their “opera-bouffe monarch.” Unfortunately this “bringing forth” also brought many Greek rioters onto the streets. A Jewish witness asserted an unprovoked attack on a defeated community. “They dragged us out of prison and wounded us.” Charges and countercharges followed. The Jews said of the Greeks: “Sire, they lie.”
Hadrian was inclined to agree. He told the Greeks that the prefect was right to ban the carrying of weapons and that he disapproved of the satire on Lukuas. He advised the Jews to restrict their hatred to their actual persecutors and not to loathe all Alexandrian Greeks indiscriminately. This evenhanded treatment came as a pleasant surprise to the defeated insurgents.
At about the same time Hadrian dismissed the governor of Judaea. This was Trajan’s mysterious and ferocious favorite, Lusius Quietus, who was also removed from command of his Moorish cavalry. According to the Historia Augusta, “he had fallen under suspicion of having designs on the throne,” but this was an unlikely ambition for a tribal chieftain now an old man. More probably, he was feared as a potential “kingmaker” for a serious rival to Hadrian.
Lusius had been sent to Judaea to help suppress the Jewish revolt, for the Jewish community there had recovered, at least partially, from the destruction wrought by the Romans almost fifty years previously. He came to the task fresh from butchering the Jews in Mesopotamia, and his removal delighted the diaspora.
Hadrian was rewarded. In some anti-Roman oracular verses, originating among the Jews of Alexandria and widely read in the eastern Mediterranean, an emperor received a rare compliment.
And after him shall rule
Another man, with silver helmet decked;
And unto him shall be the name of a sea;
And he shall be a man the best of all
And in all things discreet.
The name of the relevant sea is the Adriatic, so the reference is to Hadrian. Here at last, from the point of view of battered Jewry, the catastrophe of the revolt had given way, against every expectation, to a well-wishing ruler.
In early October the emperor left Antioch and proceeded urgently northward, with the troubled Danube provinces as his eventual destination. Meanwhile, Lusius Quietus’ horsemen returned discontented to Mauretania, where they stirred up an anti-Roman revolt. The emperor immediately dispatched Turbo, fresh from his Egyptian success, to deal with the disturbance.
The worst possible news arrived. Quadratus Bassus was dead. We do not know if he fell in battle or was felled by natural causes but the depth of the loss was revealed by the arrangements for the long journey from Dacia to the dead man’s home city, Pergamum. They matched what a prince of the blood might expect, with a military escort for the cortege and civic welcomes whenever it arrived at a town of any size and importance. The tomb was paid for at the public expense. In effect, Bassus received the Roman equivalent of a modern state funeral.
Fortunately, Quintus Pompeius Falco, a friend of Hadrian’s, had been governor for at least two years of the huge Danubian province of Lower Moesia, originally a narrow strip south of the Danube and now also encompassing the kingdom of the Roxolani, Dacia’s neighbor on the river’s northern side. He was able to hold the line temporarily.
The emperor, chased by continuing congratulations, made his way to Thrace or perhaps Lower Moesia itself, and discussed with Falco what was to be done. He decided to appoint the reliable Gaius Avidius Nigrinus, who had been imperial legate in Achaea during Hadrian’s stay in Athens in 112; the two men must have met then and had presumably got on well together.
Once again he came to the conclusion that it was pointless trying to hold on to territory that Rome could defend only at a vast expenditure of treasure and lives. So he instructed Falco and his legions to withdraw from the lands of the Roxolani in eastern Dacia (leaving only a narrow cordon sanitaire north of the river, named Lower Pannonia). The superstructure of Apollodorus’ great bridge across the Danube was dismantled—probably only a temporary measure to foil a possible enemy attack. Under no circumstances could Hadrian’s now controversial reputation survive a barbarian incursion into well-established provinces. The demolition may have been a wise precaution, but it was also an unhappy metaphor for a perceived failure of nerve.
Hadrian reached an agreement with the king of the Roxolani, increasing Rome’s ongoing subsidy (the price Trajan had been willing to pay for acquiescence in annexation), granting him Roman citizenship and, it is to be assumed, “most favored nation” status. He took the name Publius Aelius Rasparaganus, the “Aelius” showing respect for his patron. He may also have made Hadrian a valuable and soon to be much-loved gift. It was about now that the emperor’s favorite horse, Borysthenes, was a colt. He was named after the river Borysthenes (today’s Dnieper), which flowed through the land of the Alani, a tribe related to the Roxolani and their near neighbor. This could be the moment when horse and rider met for the first time.
As an official Friend of the Roman People, the king would rule a buffer state that kept the empire safe from unruly barbarians in the northern hinterland beyond the Roxolani—at a cost much lower than that of garrisoning a reluctant province.
A sensible-enough deal, one might think. But much of the Roman elite never forgave Hadrian for what they saw as pusillanimous behavior. Even half a century later, the rhetorician and friend of emperors Marcus Cornelius Fronto felt strongly enough about the issue to say acidly of Hadrian that he was “energetic enough in mobilizing his friends and eloquently addressing his army.” He trained his legions “with amusing games in the camp rather than with swords and shields: [he was] a general the like of whom the army never afterward saw.”
These sneers about a competent soldier were wide of the mark. Although designed to stress by contrast the supposed talents of a later emperor, they must have been credible to be worth making, and they illustrate the scorn that Hadrian’s new strategy aroused.
It was against this gloomy backcloth that a strange and bloodstained sequence of events unfolded during 118. Attianus, the Praetorian Guard prefect, now back in Rome with the Augustas, laid before the Senate the details of a plot against the emperor and persuaded it to vote for the executions of the conspirators. These were four in number and of high seniority, for each of them was a former consul and had been close to Trajan.
Two of them, Celsus and Palma, were already in Hadrian’s bad books: as already noted, they had fallen from grace in a court intrigue toward the end of the previous reign. Presumably they were living in retirement in Italy. Then there was the dismissed Lusius Quietus, traveling from his last posting in Judaea to an unknown destination—perhaps his homeland of Mauretania.
The fourth guilty man was the new governor of Dacia. Gaius Avidius Nigrinus was a senior politician and general, and a respected member of the Roman social scene. He appears in a very favorable light in Pliny’s letters, as an intelligent public official dedicated to good governance. Once, when tribune of the people, he read out to the Senate
a well-phrased statement of great importance. In this he complained that legal counsel sold their services, faked lawsuits for money, settled them by collusion, and made a boast of the large regular incomes to be made by robbery of their fellow citizens.
He was that useful thing in politics, “a safe pair of hands,” and Trajan had sent him to Greece on a delicate mission to resolve a three-hundred-year-old boundary dispute between Delphi and her neighbors.
Interestingly, Nigrinus had a distant family connection with the onetime Stoic opposition, for his uncle had been a friend of the Republican martyr Thrasea Paetus, one of Nero’s most celebrated victims. Perhaps his hostility to Hadrian owed something to the political idealism that Nerva and Trajan’s commitment to the rule of law and senatorial cooperation had largely made redundant.
But Nigrinus’ motives may not have been so pure. His performance as governor of Dacia seems not to have satisfied the emperor, uncomfortably on the spot or at least close at hand. Hadrian brought his brief tenure to an end and replaced him with Turbo, who had taken little time in suppressing the Berber disturbances in Mauretania. He was given temporary command of both Dacia and Pannonia, with the obvious remit of reorganizing the frontier defenses after the withdrawals. This was a daring appointment, for Turbo was only an eques, and so strictly speaking ineligible for a post reserved for senators. But for Hadrian merit outweighed class.
So each member of the offending quartet had grounds for resentment; Palma’s and Celsus’ careers had been abruptly terminated in the recent past, and Nigrinus and Lusius Quietus had just lost their jobs. But if they all had motives for disaffection, it is not altogether certain that they acted on them. Some observers believed that they were set up. Dio Cassius, writing only a century later, remarked that they were victimized “in reality because they had great influence and enjoyed wealth and fame.”
What was the actual offense of which they were accused? Two versions of the story have come down to us. According to the Historia Augusta, Nigrinus and the others planned an attempt on the emperor’s life while he was conducting a sacrifice; but Dio claims that the occasion was a hunt. The contradiction is only an apparent one, for (as we have seen on page 23) hunts were preceded and followed by sacrifices to the gods—especially to Diana, goddess of the chase, and if the catch was good, to the goddess of victory. Hadrian was passionate about the sport, so we can be sure that he often went hunting with his amici as a relaxation from affairs of state and the crisis threatening the empire.
Two interlinked problems arise. First, the only alleged conspirator traveling with the emperor at the time was Nigrinus; the others were many miles away. Second, three of them were executed at their country houses in Italy—Palma at Tarracina (now Terracina), an ancient Latin town some thirty-odd miles southeast of Rome, Celsus at Baiae (today’s Baia), a fashionable seaside resort for Rome’s superrich in the bay of Naples, and Nigrinus at Faventia (modern Faenza) in the Po Valley in northern Italy, presumably his hometown. Lusius was put to death while on the move somewhere in the eastern provinces or northern Africa.
If we assume that there really was a plot to kill Hadrian, how can these data be reconciled with it? Why was Nigrinus not arrested at once in the wake of a failed attack, and why was he allowed to go home? Perhaps the attackers were hired men (legionaries or locals) and it was not immediately obvious who their employer was. But not only would it be hard to recruit people for such a risky mission and control them, but it would be unusual for a noble Roman, especially a distinguished public servant with a link to the brave Stoic opponents of the imperial system, to farm out the cutting off of a tyrant to anonymous others.
Here is a feasible scenario. A hunt was chosen for the attempt, for on no other occasion were armed men routinely allowed in an emperor’s presence, apart from his guards. Nigrinus and some others of like mind in the party decided to strike down Hadrian with their hunting weapons at the ceremonies either at the beginning or the end of a hunt in Thrace or Moesia. Something held them back from making the attack—Nigrinus could have been ill or, most likely, Hadrian turned out to be too well guarded and the intended assassins too few in number for them to have a realistic chance of survival, even if they managed to destroy their victim. So nothing happened, and nothing was noticed.
The scheme came to light only a little later, when the dismissed Nigrinus had returned to Italy and private life. One or more plotters may have revealed it for irrecoverable reasons, or perhaps a servant in the know did so in the expectation of reward. More probably, their correspondence was intercepted, for, if they were to agree on their plans, the principals must have communicated with one another during the weeks following Hadrian’s accession.
Such interception would have been no accident, for Trajan had accessed the public courier or postal service to keep himself informed about “state business”; Hadrian himself quietly put in place Rome’s first organized secret service (before his time, emperors had indeed made use of informers and spies but in an ad hoc manner). To create a new bureau would have been politically controversial, so he added a confidential codicil to the job descriptions of the already-existing frumentarii. These were commissary agents in charge of organizing army supplies and were well placed to gather information about the activities of Roman officials in the provinces. Whether the new service was already in place so early in the reign is uncertain, but its establishment demonstrates Hadrian’s abiding interest in uncovering the unspoken concerns of the senatorial elite. The exposure of the Nigrinus conspiracy thanks to secret surveillance could have been what prompted him to make use of the frumentarii.
A variant explanation for what happened may be found in the career of a German-born centurion, Marcus Calventius Viator. His name appears on two altars, one found in Dacia and the other in Gerasa (today’s Jerash City in Jordan). In the first he appears as the training officer of Nigrinus’ cavalry bodyguard. The second, ten years on, reveals a remarkable promotion; he is now in charge of the cavalry wing of Hadrian’s own imperial bodyguard, the Germanic Batavi whom he inherited from Trajan. Someone close to a traitor could not usually count on a glittering future. Did the emperor take Calventius under his wing as a reward for informing on his commanding officer? It is a tempting speculation.
By a curious chance, the Arabian altar is dedicated to the goddess Diana. It was doubtless in her honor that a hunting party offered up its sacrifice on that dangerous distant day when an emperor was the quarry.
The executions were a political disaster. The fact that senators had been persuaded to vote for them was irrelevant. In their eyes, Hadrian had broken the spirit if not the letter of his guarantee of their personal security, foreshadowing a return to the days of Domitian. Although far away by the Danube, Hadrian immediately recognized the damage that had been done. Disaffection in the ruling class could bring about a return of the Stoic opposition and undo the political settlement, based on consent, that Nerva and Trajan had established.
At about this time the historian Tacitus was finishing the composition of his Annals, and a late passage expresses a melancholy exhaustion with his history of imperial victims during the time of the early emperors; he may also have been covertly alluding to the bloodstained opening of Hadrian’s reign. “This slavish passivity, this torrent of wasted bloodshed far from active service, wearies, depresses, and paralyzes the mind.”
Hadrian tried to extricate himself from blame. It was all Attianus’ fault and what had been done had been done against his own will. Was the emperor protesting too much—or telling the plain truth? It is hard to tell. In a sense, whether or not the quartet did intend the emperor’s death is immaterial. They were Hadrian’s enemies and potentially dangerous. Perhaps what we have here is a prototype of the murder of Thomas Becket; rather as Henry II’s knights made more than was meant of the king’s exasperation with his archbishop, so the guard prefect may have guessed at a new emperor’s fears, and acted. It is conceivable that he did so without informing his employer, in order to give him the deniability he would need when explaining himself to the Senate.
In any event, there was little Hadrian could do at the moment to retrieve the situation, but the sooner he could calm the provinces and return to Rome, the better.