Hadrian stood on the bank of the Danube and reviewed his troops. To show how perfectly his Batavians, the imperial horse guard, were trained, he ordered them to swim across the river in full armor. This was something of a party trick, for they had a long tradition of crossing wide expanses of water en masse.
The Batavians had a deserved reputation for ferocity; Tacitus remarked of them: “They are made exclusively for war, like arms and weapons.” There were about one thousand of them in the guard and, as intended, they made a daunting impression on the barbarian tribes to the north.
A tombstone found near the Danube celebrates in well-turned Latin verse the achievements of one of these guardsmen, a certain Soranus.
I was once the most famous of men on the Pannonian shore … the one who could swim the wide waters of the deep Danube, with Hadrian as my judge, in full battle gear.
This was not the man’s only skill. He was also an archer who could shoot one arrow in the air and hit it with another, splitting it in two—a feat of which Robin Hood would have been proud.
No Roman or barbarian could ever defeat me …
It remains to be seen whether anyone else will beat my record.
Who wrote these lines is unknown, but Hadrian was a frequent poet who liked to mark out his life in Greek or Latin meter. It is probable he was the admiring author.
Whatever his critics were saying, safe in their town houses in the capital or relaxing in their country villas, Hadrian understood and liked soldiers and enjoyed military life.
By June 118 the Danube frontier had been redrawn and hostile tribes—for example, the Iazyges on the Hungarian plain—pacified. Hadrian acquired the services of a Iazygian prisoner-of-war, a certain Mastor, who was a skilled huntsman “because of his strength and daring.” With his steed, Borysthenes, and his groom both having been recruited from the wild regions north of the Danube, the emperor was equipped to enjoy the dangerous thrills of the chase as never before. His relationship with Mastor became close, and he kept him in his service for the rest of his life.
New governors, friendly to Hadrian, were appointed. Thus, Falco was tackling disturbances in the north of Britannia, and making progress. The Parthians were quiet as they reabsorbed the territory that Trajan had annexed. The brushfires of rebellion had been stamped out.
At last, in June the emperor was ready to leave for the long journey to Rome, confident that the military crisis following the failure of the Parthian expedition and Trajan’s death was over. The task now was to pacify his civilian critics at home.
An emperor’s entry into Rome on July 9, especially his first, tended to be a grand, noisy event. Hadrian had probably traveled overland from Pannonia to northern Italy, riding down the coast road to Ariminum and then over the Apennines on the via Flaminia.
As he approached the city, he met the consuls and other officeholders, with their guards of lictors carrying the axe and rods of imperium, who walked out beyond the walls to greet him. They were accompanied by all the senators, dressed in their whitest red-striped togas and leading representatives of the equites. Members of the emperor’s clientela, or client list, were well represented—especially the young sons of senators and equites ambitious for public careers. Thepraefectus urbi was in attendance, together with other imperial officials.
The road became a long avenue as it crossed the built-over Campus Martius. He rode past the mausoleum of Augustus; this was now full, and at some point he would need to prepare a burial place for himself. A little farther down was the Ara Pacis, a masterpiece of Roman sculpture, albeit inspired by the reliefs on the Parthenon in Athens; its four walls showed the emperor Augustus and his family in the act of sacrificing to the gods. The altar was a celebration of the peace and prosperity that the empire had conferred on its inhabitants.
Next, a large open space to Hadrian’s right gave onto the ruins of the temple to all the gods, the Pantheon, which Augustus’ right-hand man, Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, had erected ninety years previously. It had been burned down in 80. The emperor asked himself if it was not time to rebuild it.
The avenue was reaching its conclusion, passing through an old gate, the Porta Fontinalis. Here Rome’s citadel, the Capitol, to the right and a colossal new structure, Trajan’s forum and market, paid for from the loot of Dacia, created an architectural defile. The lesser forums of Julius Caesar and Augustus clustered nearby.
The emperor and his entourage entered the city’s original central square, the Forum Romanum, and from there ascended the winding road to the summit of the Capitol, where stood the enormous temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus. A sacrifice was offered in thanks for his safe return to Rome and to mark his assumption of the purple.
The ancient priestly association, the Arvals, met on the Capitol on the same day to mark the happy “arrival of Imperator Caesar Traianus Hadrianus Augustus”; in what must have been a lengthy and messy ceremony, they sacrificed an ox to Jupiter; a cow each to Minerva, the “Public Safety of the Roman People,” “Victory,” and Vesta, protectress of the city’s undying flame; and a bull to Mars. The princeps was a new member of the priesthood ex officio, but as a rule he sent his apologies. On this occasion, Hadrian decided to put in an appearance. He was determined to please, and made himself available to everybody.
Hadrian’s task was to relaunch his reign. The consuls convened the Senate, probably as early as the next day after his return. The mood on its benches must have been all the more gloomy for the fact that senators themselves had colluded in the deaths of the four ex-consuls. Many could recall the not-so-distant time when Domitian had insisted on their active cooperation when he struck down the final list of Stoic idealists.
The emperor was extremely sensitive to the comments that people were making about his behavior. For him the lesson of Domitian’s end was that he had to avoid the vortex of violence and lost trust if he wanted to survive and thrive. Hadrian’s reign had opened with violence, and it was essential that he break away from the potentially dire consequences and establish a reputation as a man of peace and legality.
He addressed the Senate as if he were making a speech for the defense at a trial, and declared on oath that he had not ordered the deaths of the four former consuls (later he repeated the denial in his autobiography). He also swore that he would never put a senator to death without the Senate’s approval. In this he followed similar assurances given by Trajan and Nerva, and while these were welcome they did not mean very much, for history showed that the Senate routinely bowed to the wishes of an angry princeps. His listeners doubtless reserved judgment on the emperor’s guilt, but will surely have attended to the passion with which he asserted his good intentions. Time would reveal whether these would translate convincingly into performance. (Somewhat cheekily, next year the emperor issued a coin boasting of his mercifulness: it showed Clemency, personified as a woman sacrificing at an altar.)
No one would begin to believe the emperor’s assurance unless something was done about the man he was fingering as the real culprit—the elderly Attianus. The Historia Augusta has an odd tale that a murderous Hadrian wanted to do away with his former guardian because he was “unable to endure his power” and was deterred only by his existing notoriety as an executioner. There seems to have been a quarrel, and we can imagine the princeps losing his temper—but surely nothing more.
Praetorian prefects held their job for an indefinite period. Emperors fought shy of dismissing them out of hand for fear of trouble from the Guard. With some difficulty Attianus was persuaded to resign his post as prefect. Only an eques, he was given the signal honor of ornamenta consularia—these were the appurtenances of the consulship, without the post itself. He was not allowed to attend the Senate, but was entitled to sit with former consuls at public banquets and to wear a consul’s richly embroidered toga praetexta on such occasions. Attianus was kicked upstairs.
Attianus’ colleague as prefect was also an old man and sought permission to retire. It is a sign that the emperor was short of experienced and trustworthy talent that he refused to accept the resignation immediately. And who was to replace Attianus? The all-competent Turbo, who in little more than one year had ricocheted around the empire from Parthia, to Egypt, to Mauretania, to Pannonia and Dacia, was a wise choice and he now crowned his career with the top government job to which an eques could aspire.
Hadrian introduced a range of reforms designed to boost his popularity. The headline measure was breathtaking—nothing less than a cancellation of all unpaid debts owed by individual citizens to the public treasury (fiscus or aerarium publicum) and, according to Dio Cassius, to the privy purse (fiscus privatus). The period covered was the previous fifteen years.
The announcement was marked by a striking piece of street theater. In the great square of Trajan’s forum all the relevant tax documents were assembled and publicly burned, to make it clear that this was a decision that could not be revoked. (Hadrian may have got the idea for the incineration from Augustus, for Suetonius records that in 36 B.C. he had “burned the records of old debts to the treasury, which were by far the most frequent source of blackmail.”)
Public opinion was enthusiastic and a celebratory monument was erected on the site of the pyre. The inscription has survived, praising Hadrian,
who remitted 900 million sesterces owed to the fisci and by this generosity was the first and only one of all the emperors to have freed from care not only his present citizens but those of later generations.
A carved relief shows the scene when Praetorian Guards entered the forum carrying wax tablets from the treasury archives. To spread the good news around the world a coin was issued showing a lictor setting fire to a pile of bonds in the presence of three taxpayers.
One of the most irritating burdens on local authorities in Italy and elsewhere was the cost of maintaining the government courier service, the cursus publicus, where it ran on main roads through their territories. They were obliged to pay for the horses, carriages, and privately owned hotels and hostels that those traveling on official business needed. The fiscus now took over financial responsibility for the service.
The “crown gold” was waived for Italy and reduced for the provinces; this was a contribution offered to a new emperor, in theory voluntary and in practice compulsory, to the cost of gold wreaths (in imitation of laurel) for grand imperial events such as triumphs.
A supplementary distribution of free and subsidized grain for citizens living in Rome was made, despite the fact that a generous donative of three aurei (that is, gold pieces worth seventy-five sesterces in total) had already been granted before the emperor’s return.
The Italian countryside also benefited from the general largesse. The alimenta scheme had been close to Trajan’s heart, and, as a gesture to the memory of his adoptive father, Hadrian increased its state funding.
It was essential to offer sweeteners that directly benefited the disaffected senatorial class. Existing rules set the minimum wealth a man had to possess if he wished to enter public life at the highest level at 1 million sesterces. Sometimes senators found themselves in financial difficulties; now Hadrian supplemented their income with an allowance, provided they could show that they were impoverished through no fault of their own.
Public office was expensive, for a consul or a praetor faced a number of necessary expenses (for example, the salaries of his lictors) and he was expected to demonstrate his liberalitas as a patron. The emperor made gifts of money to many needy officials—in effect, salaries.
Ever since the Proscriptions launched by the young Octavian (before his elevation to the title of Augustus) and Mark Antony in 43 B.C., rulers short of cash tended to execute opponents ostensibly for political or criminal offenses but in fact to confiscate their lands and wealth. Hadrian was determined to avoid that charge in the case of the four former consuls, so he passed a law assigning the property of condemned persons not to the privy purse but to the state fiscus. In this way he could demonstrate that the emperor was gaining no private advantage from their deaths.
Hadrian had implemented the first part of Juvenal’s gloomy slogan “bread and circuses” by providing cash and grain. It was now time for blood to flow in the arena. To mark his forty-third birthday, January 24, 119, six successive days of gladiatorial games were held; many wild animals were slaughtered too, including one hundred lions and one hundred lionesses. Large numbers of little wooden balls were thrown into the audience: the names of various gifts were written on them—items of food, say, clothing, silver or gold articles, horses, cattle, and slaves—which could be claimed when presenting them later.
The package of reforms succeeded: it was well received and stabilized the new regime. Even if members of the elite were reserving judgment, there was no talk of outright opposition or even noncooperation. Despite a shaky start Hadrian had demonstrated his competence, both militarily and domestically. The empire was quiet and in the Senate no one now had any doubt who was in charge. From managing immediate challenges, the emperor could now take his time and plan a strategy for the longer term.
Hadrian was a man who knew his own mind and was impatient of inefficiency in others, but he also had a disarming talent for admiration. He learned much about the art of government from Trajan, but the true hero among his predecessors was Augustus.
We learn from the Arvals that when the emperor wrote to them in February 118 proposing a co-opted member of the association, “the waxed tablets, fastened with a seal showing the head of Augustus, were opened.” For the image on Hadrian’s signet ring to have been that of the first princeps was an elegantly simple way of acknowledging indebtedness to everyone throughout the empire who mattered. Later, he asked the Senate for permission to hang an ornamental shield, preferably of silver, in Augustus’ honor in the Senate.
Ten years into his reign, Hadrian announced to the world that, speaking symbolically, he was a reincarnation of Augustus. He issued a high-value silver coin, a tetradrachm (worth twelve sesterces), with Augustus’ head on one side, and on the other an image of himself holding corn ears, signifying prosperity, with the legend Hadrianus Augustus Pater Patriae Renatus—“Father of his People, Reborn.”
When appointing the heads of his secretariat he chose an eques, the biographer Suetonius, to be his ab epistulis, the official secretary, who controlled the emperor’s correspondence and as such was one of the most influential people at court. A bookish protégé and friend of Pliny, he had made a name for himself ten years or so previously for his De Viribus Illustribus, “On Famous Men,” a copious collection of brief lives of literary celebrities—grammarians, rhetoricians, poets, and historians.
Suetonius was now working on what was to be his masterpiece, De Vita Caesarum, “The Lives of the Caesars.” In the biography of Augustus, he writes of an unusual cognomen his subject was given as a boy, Thurinus—an allusion to the town of Thurii in southern Italy where his father’s family had originated and where his father had won a battle.
That he was surnamed Thurinus I may assert on very trustworthy evidence, since I once obtained a bronze statuette, representing him as a boy and inscribed with that name in letters of iron almost illegible from age. This I presented to the emperor [Hadrian], who cherishes it among the Lares [household gods] of his bedroom.
What was it that Hadrian valued so highly in his predecessor? Not least the conduct of his daily life. Augustus lived with conscious simplicity and so far as he could avoided open displays of his preeminence. A passage from Suetonius is almost echoed by another from the Historia Augusta. About Augustus the former observed:
On the day of a meeting of the Senate he always greeted members in the House and in their seats, calling each man by name without a prompter; and when he left the House, he used to take leave of them in the same manner, while they remained seated. He exchanged social calls with many, and did not cease to attend all their anniversaries.
As for Hadrian, according to the Historia Augusta,
he frequently attended the official functions of praetors and consuls, was present at friends’ banquets, visited them twice or three times a day when they were sick, including some who were equites and freedmen, revived them with sympathetic words and supported them with advice, and always invited them to his own banquets. In short, he did everything in the style of a private citizen.
Both Augustus and Hadrian made a point of being civiles principes, polite autocrats.
It was not enough to placate the upper classes; it was also important to keep happy Rome’s urban masses. Audiences at the games were infuriated if an emperor in his imperial box was inattentive and worked on his papers. Nor did they appreciate arrogant behavior on his part. Whenever Augustus was present, he took care to give his entire attention to the gladiatorial displays, animal hunts, and the rest of the bloodthirsty rigmarole. Hadrian followed suit.
He once nearly made a dangerous faux pas. The crowd was baying loudly for some favor or other, which he was unwilling to grant. He ordered the herald to call for silence. This had been Domitian’s autocratic way, and the astute herald merely lifted his arm, without uttering a word. The shouting died down. The herald then announced: “That is what he wants.” The emperor was not in the least put out, for he realized that by refusing to issue the tactless verbal order the herald had saved him from an odious comparison.
Augustus well understood that to hold power it was not necessary to show that one was holding power; in fact, it could be positively damaging to do so. While he was consolidating his authority in the 20s B.C. he held the consulship for eight years in a row. The post no longer commanded executive imperium as it had under the Republic, but it remained a great honor. For an emperor to treat it as if it were a permanent office was felt to be insulting, as well as being unnecessary. It also reduced by 50 percent the chance for a senatorial aspirant to become consul ordinarius and have “their year” named after him and his colleague. So from 23 B.C. the princeps more or less gave up the consulship, with only two more tenures during the rest of a long life.
By contrast, the Flavians were greedy; Vespasian held nine consulships in a ten-year reign, Titus eight, and Domitian a record-breaking seventeen. Trajan was more moderate, spreading six consulships across the reign. Hadrian followed Augustus’ example to the letter—that is, once confirmed in place, he abstained. He was consul for the third and last time in 119.
An incoming emperor faced the challenge of making his power effective throughout such a wide domain. In this respect, there was one further characteristic of Augustus’ dominance that must have attracted Hadrian’s attention. The firstprinceps believed that communications were too slow and subordinates too unreliable for governing from Rome: in his view, he could run the empire only by being on the spot. For many years he spent his time on the move in the provinces, checking, settling, supervising, solving problems. And so did his dear friend and colleague in government, Agrippa. It was only with the onset of age and the coming to maturity of trustworthy young male relatives who could fill his place that Augustus abandoned his travels.
Hadrian’s imitation of Augustus made it clear that he intended to rule in an orderly and law-abiding fashion, and his enthusiasm for great men of the past underscored his commitment to traditional romanitas, Romanness. It was on these foundations that he would build the achievements of his reign.
Like the first princeps, Hadrian looked back to paradigms of ancient virtue to guide modern governance. Augustus liked to see himself as a new Romulus, the second founder of a restored Rome; twelve vultures had flown overhead when he assumed his first consulship in his late teens, just as they had at the city’s original establishment in 753 B.C.
Hadrian followed in his footsteps, associating himself with Romulus’ peace-loving (and legendary) successor, Numa Pompilius. He had not forgotten those lines from Virgil about Numa that had foretold his imperial future. Known for his religious piety, the king was credited with the creation of Rome’s religious institutions and, related to these, the annual calendar of sacred and profane days.
Florus, historian and friend of the emperor, wrote of Numa in his Epitome:
In a word, he induced a fierce people to rule with piety and justice an empire which they had acquired by violence and injustice.
This could have been Hadrian’s own political motto, with his strategies of nonaggression and competent administration.
According to Plutarch, writing in Hadrian’s lifetime, Numa was a follower of the Greek mystic and mathematician Pythagoras. This was a historical impossibility, for the former lived more than a century before the latter was born. Nevertheless, the notion that the king was influenced by Greek philosophy, especially a creed with a spiritual dimension, would have appealed to the emperor. According to Aurelius Victor, “in the fashion of the Greeks or Numa Pompilius, he began to give attention to religious ceremonies, laws, schools, and teachers to such an extent that he even established a school of fine arts called the Athenaeum.” The site of the Athenaeum has not been discovered, but the building was a theater or perhaps an amphitheater and was used for readings and training in declamation. It was seen as a token of the emperor’s interest in supporting culture.
In December 119, Hadrian was dealt a heavy personal blow. His beloved mother-in-law and Trajan’s niece, Matidia, died at the relatively early age of fifty-one. He arranged for her immediate deification and issued coinage to announce the fact: a denarius struck at Rome shows a bust of Matidia, wearing a triple diadem, and the legend The deified Augusta Matidia; on the reverse a veiled woman drops incense on an altar, the personification of pietas Augusta, or “the emperor’s sense of duty and family affection.”
The Augusta was given a splendid funeral and a formal consecratio as a goddess. After staging the “most immense delights,” the emperor handed out spices to the people in her honor. The Arvals recorded their generous contribution in this regard by providing two pounds of perfumed ointment in their name and fifty pounds of frankincense as a gift of the association’s servants.
Competent but unsympathetic, Domitian was a domineering ruler.
The Senate loathed him, and he repaid the compliment, terrorizing its members. MUSEI CAPITOLINI.
For much of his life, Nerva was the ultimate courtier, without convictions or shame, but as emperor his signal achievement was to reconcile the imperial system and its opponents in the Senate. PALAZZO ALLE TERME, ROME.
Trajan as triumphant commander. This was how the Romans liked to imagine their emperor, scoring victory after victory and presiding over an imperium sine fine, an empire without end. XANTEN, GERMANY.
Hadrian in energetic middle age, wearing a general’s military cloak. He was the first Roman emperor to grow a beard in the Greek manner, setting a new fashion that many of his successors followed. BRITISH MUSEUM.
A bust of Hadrian as a young man, but sculpted toward the end of his reign. This was how he may have imagined himself, reborn after the self-sacrifice of Antinous.
FOUND IN THE VILLA AT TIVOLI.
But this was how the aging Hadrian really looked in a late study—disillusioned and ill.
ARCHAEOLOGICAL MUSEUM OF CHANIA, CRETE.
Antoninus Pius succeeded Hadrian and maintained his policies. Unlike his predecessor he was neither a military man nor a traveler. He governed without incident and his reign was one of the most peaceful in the history of the Roman Empire. REAL ACADEMIA DE BELLAS ARTES DE SAN FERNANDO, MADRID.
Trajan’s Column rises ninety-eight feet from the ruins of his forum. It tells the story, in the manner of a strip cartoon, of Rome’s victorious wars in Dacia.
It used to be topped by a heroically nude statue of the emperor, but a statue of Saint Peter has replaced him.
Two scenes from Trajan’s Column illustrate the outset of the Dacian wars. In the lower one, a troop of Praetorian standard-bearers marches across the Danube on a bridge of boats. They are led by Trajan, as he sets foot on enemy soil. He is preceded by trumpeters and dismounted cavalrymen. Above, soldiers build a fortress connected by a bridge to a marching camp.
The wall that Hadrian commissioned to run seventy-three miles across northern Britain, from South Shields on the east coast to Ravenglass on the west, was one of Rome’s greatest engineering achievements. This view shows one of eighty milecastles near Steel Rigg in Northumberland.
“MY HOUSE AT TIVOLI”
This model evokes the huge scale of Hadrian’s villa near Tivoli. A road on the right of the picture skirts the long colonnaded terrace in the foreground and leads to the villa’s formal entrance building. Beyond this lies a stretch of water called the Canopus, where summer banquets were held. Further still, at the top right, is a group of buildings, the so-called Academy, where the empress Sabina may have held her court. A temple of Antinous was discovered before the model was made; it should stand on the green land along the side of the entrance road where it approaches its destination. VILLA ADRIANA.
In the heart of the villa complex stand the ruins of Hadrian’s bolt-hole—a tiny circular building separated from the outside world by a moat. Here, in the midst of splendor and publicity, the emperor could be alone.
The Canopus at Hadrian’s villa, so-called after a canal and popular tourist resort outside Alexandria in Egypt. This was the scene of large open-air dinner parties. The long pool was lined with statues, and sculptures of maritime beasts rose from the water. At the far end stands a vast, half-domed water feature, which towers above a semicircular stone dining couch. From this vantage point, the emperor could survey his guests.
THE YOUNG BITHYNIAN
Antinous as a chubby-faced teenager. This was how he looked when Hadrian first set eyes on him in Bithynia. He fell in love with the boy. BRITISH MUSEUM, LONDON.
Antinous lost his life in Egypt.
Hadrian deified his dead lover and buried him in a temple built in his honor beside the entrance to the villa at Tivoli. It housed statues of Antinous, including this image of him as pharoah, the ruler who embodied the skygod Horus in life, and Osiris, god of the underworld, when dead. MUSEI VATICANI.
Antinous was the last sculptural type of male beauty to have been invented in the classical world—lush, melancholy, and demure. With his ivy and grape headband, he is shown here as an incarnation of the gods Dionysus and Osiris. MUSEI VATICANI.
HADRIAN’S OTHER BOYS
Hadrian adopted Lucius Ceionius Commodus and made him his heir, renaming him Lucius Aelius Caesar. Critics said unkindly that he was chosen for his looks rather than his ability as a ruler. Unfortunately he was seriously ill, probably suffering from tuberculosis. He soon died, upsetting the emperor’s plans for the succession.
Young Marcus Annius Verus. A solemn and dutiful child, he was fascinated by philosophy. Hadrian was very fond of him and affectionately teased him for his virtuous behavior, nicknaming him “Verissimus” or “truest.” After the death of Aelius Caesar, Hadrian made Antoninus Pius his heir and designated Marcus as his next successor but one. He reigned as Marcus Aurelius. MUSEI CAPITOLINI.
THE WOMEN IN HADRIAN’S LIFE
Trajan’s wife, Pompeia Plotina, shown here on a sesterce. Devoted to Hadrian, she smoothed his way to power.
Salonina Matidia, shown here on a silver denarius, was Trajan’s daughter and the mother of Hadrian’s wife, Sabina. Hadrian adored her and was greatly saddened when she died.
Hadrian shared little with his wife, Vibia Sabina, except for mutual dislike; he greatly preferred her mother, Matidia. However, he treated his empress with respect and arranged for her to accompany him on many of his journeys. VILLA ADRIANA.
Lucius Julius Ursus Servianus. The image of a tough, ruthless Roman, Servianus served in the Dacian wars with distinction. He married Hadrian’s sister, Paulina, but was critical of his brother-in-law. STRATFIELD SAYE PRESERVATION TRUST.
An outsize cylinder standing on a cube, Hadrian’s mausoleum was surmounted by a roof garden and a colossal four-horse chariot. It was still under construction when the emperor died. Similar in appearance to the mausoleum of Augustus but bigger, it was not only designed for him but also as a resting place for his successors. In the Middle Ages the tomb was transformed into a fortress, and later became a papal residence. It is now known as the Castel Sant’Angelo. Hadrian also built the bridge, the Pons Aelius, still in use but only for pedestrians.
Originally commissioned by Agrippa, Augustus’s friend and partner in empire, the Pantheon was completely rebuilt by Hadrian. Best preserved of all the buildings of ancient Rome, it is still in use as a Christian church.
The emperor delivered the eulogy. We have his own words, which have survived, mutilated but readable, on an inscription. He called Matidia his “most loving mother-in-law,” whom he honored as if she were his own mother, and said that he was overcome with grief at her death.
She came to her uncle [Trajan] after he had taken over the principate, and from then on she followed him until his last day, accompanying him and living with him, honoring as a daughter should, and she was never seen without him … [She was] most dear to her husband, and after his death, through a long widowhood, passed in the very flower and fullest beauty of her person, most dutiful to her mother, herself a most indulgent mother, a most loyal relative, helping all, not troublesome to anyone, always in good humor.
Through the sorrow, can we perhaps detect an indirect dig at “my Sabina,” his phrase for her in the speech, as a spoiled child? In any event, the emperor maintained good formal relations with his little-loved wife, and it may be now that he promoted her to Augusta in the wake of Matidia’s death.
On the Palatine all was calm, order, and luxury, but when Hadrian walked down the hill into the busy, crowded heart of the world’s first megalopolis what did he find? What was Rome like? Luckily, we have one man’s personal view; his perspective was embittered and exaggerated, but he offers us his eyes, senses, and feelings as he strives to survive, if not thrive. He was Juvenal, whose sixteen furious satirical poems describe, condemn, flay the skin off his fashionable or powerful fellow citizens.
Most of what we surmise of his life has been deduced from his poetry. Born probably in 55, he was the son of a rich freedman. Juvenal portrays himself in the satires as a needy client, who lived “in pretentious poverty” on the perilous edge of insolvency, a hanger-on of wealthy patrons.
His circumstances greatly improved after 117 and Hadrian’s accession. This was no coincidence. For once he wrote kind things about an emperor.
All hopes for the arts, all inducement to write, rest on Caesar.
He alone has shown respect for the wretched Muses
in these hard times, when famous established poets would lease
an out-of-town bath concession or a city bakery …
But no one henceforth will be forced to perform unworthy labors …
So at it, young men: your Imperial Leader’s indulgence
is urging you on, surveying your ranks for worthy talent.
Juvenal’s unusual generosity of spirit seems to have been rewarded. He was granted (surely by the emperor) a pension and a small but adequate farmstead near Tibur, that home-away-from-home for the Aelii. Hadrian was, once again, modeling himself on Augustus, who was a generous patron of poets—as was his close friend and associate Maecenas, who bought the hard-up poet Horace a rural retreat at Tibur.
In his third satire Juvenal paints an unforgettable picture of daily life in ancient Rome, then a huddled conurbation of an estimated 1 million souls. Augustus claimed to have found a city of brick and left one of marble. This was an exaggeration, but successive emperors built or restored forums, basilicas, public baths, and theaters. After more than a century of nonstop construction, the result was a magnificent architectural assemblage in the old city center and on the Campus Martius. A network of streets, mostly unpaved and at best laid with pebbles, led to the city’s main gates. Otherwise Rome was a huddle of narrow, dark alleys, punctuated by piazzettas and crossroads shrines. There were temples everywhere and, as Roman religion entailed numerous animal sacrifices, the groans and odors of the abattoir were added to the already complex soundscape and scent of city life.
Aqueducts brought water to numerous public fountains and the public baths and drains ran under main streets. But these amenities only mitigated a universal lack of hygiene and frequent visitations of infectious disease.
In the poem, a friend of Juvenal, a certain Umbricius, explains why he abandoned the city for “a charming coastal retreat.” While the wealthy few lived in quiet, spacious homes with windowless walls on the street frontage and courtyards open to the sky, many ordinary people had single rooms in jerry-built multistory apartment blocks, which tended to come crashing down without warning. Nobody was afraid that his house in the country—“at Tibur perched on its hillside”—would collapse, says Umbricius.
we inhabit a city largely shored up with gimcrack stays and props: that’s how our landlords postpone slippage, and—after masking great cracks in the ancient fabric—assure the tenants that they sleep sound, when the house is tottering. Myself, I prefer life without fires, without nocturnal panics.
The night was noisy for other reasons. Since the days of Julius Caesar wheeled traffic was allowed on the streets only after sunset.
Insomnia causes most deaths here … The wagons thundering past through those narrow twisting streets, the oaths of draymen caught in a traffic jam, would rouse a dozing seal …
There were no street lights, and in the hours of darkness the solitary walker was at risk of a severe beating up.
… however flown with wine our young hothead may be, he carefully keeps his distance from the man in a scarlet cloak, the man surrounded by torches and big brass lamps and a numerous bodyguard. But for me, a lonely pedestrian, trudging home by moonlight or with hand cupped around the wick of one poor guttering candle he only has contempt …
The victim is slugged to a pulp and begs for his few remaining teeth—“as a special favor.”
Immigrants were Umbricius’ “pet aversion”—and, one suspects, Juvenal’s too. They were mostly Greeks—meaning anyone from the eastern provinces. They poured into Rome with their outlandish habits, says Umbricius, including
the whores pimped out around the Circus [Maximus]. That’s where you go if you fancy a foreign pickup, in one of those saucy toques.
There were villains, con men, gangsters everywhere. Even at home the citizen was not safe.
When every building
is shuttered, when shops stand silent, when doors are chained, there are still cat-burglars in plenty waiting to rob you, or else you’ll be knifed—a quick job—by some homeless tramp.
Like his imperial predecessors, Hadrian was determined to place his mark on the ugly, grubby, and higgledy-piggledy metropolis by commissioning masterworks of architecture. He was well aware that Trajan, Domitian, Nero, and Augustus had all spent vast sums of money beautifying Rome. An architectural enthusiast himself, one might even say an amateur architect, he was determined to outbuild them.
At the outset, he focused his attention on the Campus Martius. His aim was to create a visual connection between himself and the first princeps, between the structures that Augustus and Agrippa had left behind them and his own grand edifices, some brand-new and others radical remodelings of the old—beginning with the burned-out Pantheon.
Hadrian decided to reconstruct it using the existing floor plan—a conventional temple portico with columns and a pediment with a circular building behind it. If this circular building had had a roof it was probably made from wood—hence the successive fires. Hadrian had in mind something far more ambitious than Agrippa’s temple, and gave his architect one of the most exciting and challenging commissions in history. With studied modesty he intended to retain the inscribed attribution to Agrippa, and nowhere would Hadrian’s name be mentioned. The new Pantheon would be his homage to the admired founders of the imperial system—simultaneously eye-catching and discreet, a most Aelian touch.
The emperor restored two more of Agrippa’s buildings, the basilica or stoa of Neptune, god of the sea, and his public baths. In addition to these exercises in radical refurbishment, there was one major item of new construction: next to the Pantheon he commissioned a large temple dedicated to that most recent of goddesses, the Augusta Matidia; it was to be flanked by deep, two-story porticoes on either side that came to be known as the basilicas of Matidia and her mother, Marciana. No divae had ever been so honored. In this magnificent new quarter, which stood within easy walking distance from Augustus’ mausoleum and the Ara Pacis, and rivaled their visual impact, past and present were interlocked in marble.
His greatest project by far not only expressed Hadrian’s delight in the art of architecture but also his determination to attach to the traditional governance of the empire something approaching the court of an absolute Hellenistic monarch. This was his celebrated villa on the plain beneath Tibur. As we have seen, the town and its environs were where a Spanish “colony” of expatriates from Baetica established itself and where the Aelian family may have had a country home. Perhaps this was the first-century B.C. house around which the emperor designed his new development; in that case, he was returning to the fields where he had played as a little boy.
For centuries wealthy Romans had built themselves rural retreats, whether on their estates or at seaside resorts like Baiae. Here they could relax from the noise and crowds of Rome. But Hadrian wanted much more than a place where he could get away from it all; he intended a center of government. His architects and he designed a campus of more than three hundred acres rather than a single edifice. Just as the palace of the Ptolemies in Alexandria was a city district, they had in mind a township, both pastoral and splendid, where public buildings, grand entry halls and audience chambers, temples, and baths would intermingle with gardens and terraces and canals.
Hadrian was careful not to be disrespectful of the institutions in the capital city, just visible on the horizon. Senators were bound to live within twenty miles of Rome so that they could easily attend meetings and take part in official duties, and Hadrian’s “villa” was well within the limit.
As early as 117 work began, and it was to continue on and off for most of the rest of the reign. A development on this scale called for a team of architects, a clerk and office of works, and a wide range of experts (some doubtless seconded from the army), including mosaic artists, engineers, purchasing agents, garden designers, and sculptors, and hundreds if not thousands of manual workers.
Despite his engrossing construction projects, the emperor tired of Rome. Perhaps he was missing Athens, for he soon left the city for a tour of Campania, the nearest thing to Greece that Italy could provide. This was a long, fertile region in southern Italy, lying between the Tyrrhenian Sea and Italy’s backbone, the Apennine mountain range. Strabo described it as “the most blest of plains, and round about it lie fruitful hills.” The inhabitants had a reputation for luxury living.
Campania was settled from the eighth century B.C. by Greek colonists. The three great temples in the Doric manner at Paestum in the south still remind the visitor of the splendors of Greek culture. In the north Puteoli (today’s Pozzuoli) began life as the city of Dicaearchia (from the Greek for “good rule”) and was now a thriving harbor for the import of Alexandrian grain and a leading financial center.
Hadrian’s departure may have reminded some of the celebrated occasion when his predecessor Tiberius left the city for Campania under the influence of astrologers—and never returned. When Tacitus described the incident in the Annals, he may have meant readers between the lines to think of their present emperor, also a devotee of the clairvoyant arts. Perhaps Hadrian was to abandon Rome for good. If that was what his contemporaries suspected, we must suppose that the opinionated emperor had already indicated his dislike of the capital.
On this occasion, Hadrian only had an excursion in mind, although he had no intention of spending the rest of his reign among the overblown splendors of the Palatine. His aim in Campania was to “aid all the towns of the region with benefactions and gifts, attaching all the leading men to him.” Inscriptions have been discovered at various towns that record the completion of capital projects he commissioned and financed. Campania was a prosperous region, and the emperor was engaging in public relations rather than responding to some crisis or special need.
His itinerary is not recorded, but we must assume that, as the empire’s commander in chief, he visited the naval base at Misenum and reviewed the fleet. Not far away was Neapolis itself (“new town”), or Naples. Thoroughly Hellenic in appearance and spirit, it was a center of learning and many upper-class young men went there to finish their education by cultivating rhetoric and the arts. Despite centuries of Roman rule, the inhabitants still spoke Greek. Strabo observed how their easy lifestyle attracted people from Rome who wanted
a restful vacation—I mean the kind of people who have made their careers in education, or others who, because of old age or illness, are looking for somewhere to relax. Some Romans, enjoying this way of life and noticing the large number of men who share the same cultural attitudes as themselves staying there, gladly fall in love with the place and make it their permanent home.
Every five years Neapolis staged games in the traditional Greek manner where athletics alternated with musical and poetry competitions. According to the Historia Augusta, Hadrian was honored with the title of demarch (that is, “ruler of the people”), Neapolis’ chief public official; although the date is not given it was probably now, in 119.
Nearby was the small town of Cumae. Here once lived its celebrated clairvoyant, the Sibyl. She let the god Apollo have sex with her if he granted her immortality; but like too many other attractive classical mortals, she forgot to ask for eternal youth as well. She shriveled up and dwindled over the centuries. According to Petronius, novelist and favorite of Nero, she lived in a cave where she sat in a jug moaning, “I want to die.” The cave has been found, and some kind of oracular service seems to have been provided in historical times; if the Sibyl, or more precisely a living priestess, was open to inquiries we can be sure that Hadrian called by.
The journey around Campania gave the emperor a foretaste of how he would like to manage affairs. He conceived a plan to visit every province in his wide dominions. Like the first princeps, he liked to see things for himself, to go to where the problem was, to assess the evidence in person, to make a decision on the spot and not at a distance of tens or hundreds of miles. This, he was sure, was how the empire should be run.
After more than two years in Italy, Hadrian had convincingly asserted his authority. The new regime was no longer new, men loyal to him had been placed at all the power points, and the Senate and people now accepted, if grudgingly, the way things were. He could leave the capital without worrying what was going on behind his back.
The emperor was ready to set off on his travels.