The emperor had not done quite enough to convince Rome that he loved it. People could still remember the young man who read out Trajan’s letters to the Senate in a Spanish accent. A half foreigner, he had spent most of his adult career soldiering abroad on the empire’s barbarian frontiers. If he was to take to the road for long years in the provinces, as he meant to do, imperium would accompany him—and the city would risk losing its proud sense of itself as capital of the world.

Hadrian took two steps that would prove beyond doubt his devotion, his pietas, that most traditional of virtues. First he designed a temple dedicated to the goddess Venus, mother of Aeneas, who renewed ruined Troy in the fields of Latium, and Roma, the city’s divine spirit. This huge structure was to rest on a high man-made platform on the Velia, a low hill between the Forum and the Colosseum. It was to be large enough to rival the temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus on the Capitol, at the Forum’s other end, and no doubt that visual echo was what the emperor intended.

Second, the emperor felt that Rome deserved a birthday party. On April 21, 753 B.C., legend had it, Romulus founded his new city on the Palatine Hill, digging a trench along the route where its boundary, a strip of consecrated ground called the pomerium, would run. Hadrian announced an annual celebration on that day to mark the Natalis Urbis Romae; it was superimposed on an already existing festival, the Parilia, which honored a pastoral deity, Pales, and sought protection for shepherds and fecundity for their flocks. Interestingly, the birthday of the emperor’s favorite king, Numa Pompilius, also fell on April 21.

This was all clever marketing, but Hadrian was not simply intent on seeking to please. In another ceremony evoking Rome’s distant past, he reasserted his policy of containment rather than expansion. It was permissible to redraw thepomerium and take in a larger area, provided that the territory of the empire had also expanded. In Trajan’s case it had obviously done so, but he had not gotten around to ordering an extension before his death. Rather than complete unfinished business from the previous reign, Hadrian confirmed the pomerium exactly as it was. He conducted a lustratio, a ritual of purification, along the route of the boundary, and in this way made his peaceful intentions absolutely clear.

In 121, not long after the reformed Parilia, the emperor left the city. According to Dio Cassius, he dispensed “with imperial trappings, for he never used these outside Rome.” It was as if he were shaking himself free from the stifling grandeur and constricting rituals of the capital and embracing the freedom of the road.

Hadrian had little idea of the date of his return. He probably sailed to Massilia (Marseille), southern Gaul’s main port, and made his way up the Rhône in the direction of Lugdunum (Lyon). Little information about his activities has come down to us. According to the Historia Augusta, he “went to the relief of all the communities with various acts of generosity.” Evidently, he was still pursuing the popularity of the open hand. Years later imperial coins hailed him asrestitutor, or “restorer,” of the province; in one series, Gallia as a draped woman kneels before the princeps, who grasps her hand as if to raise her up.

Gaul was a sideshow, though, for Hadrian’s real destination was the German frontier, where he was to unveil the military policy through which he meant to implement his strategy of nonexpansion.

For inspiration, Hadrian looked back to the generals of the Republic, not the flashy ones like Scipio Africanus who won brilliant victories, but those who had had to labor against disadvantage. Two men of the second rather than the first rank attracted his particular approval.

Publius Cornelius Scipio Aemilianus Africanus Numantinus was Africanus’ adopted grandson. During the sack of Carthage, Rome’s great rival, in 146 B.C., he turned to a friend and, with tears in his eyes, remarked: “A glorious moment, but I have a terrible fear that some day the same fate will be pronounced on my own country.” He went on to quote from Homer the famous lines:

There will come a day when sacred Troy shall perish
and Priam, and the people of Priam of the strong ash spear.

This fusion of pessimism about the benefits of war and magnanimity will have appealed to Hadrian, but what really struck home was Aemilianus’ generalship during a rebellion by Spanish tribes.

Fighting had been going on for a long time around the tribal settlement of Numantia, and the Roman troops were demoralized and ill disciplined. Aemilianus realized he would never win the war unless he brought his men under control. He arrived at the army camp with a small escort and immediately ordered the removal of everything that was not necessary to the war effort. The numerous civilians in the baggage train—tradesmen and prostitutes in the main—were sent away.

[The soldiers’] food was limited to plain boiled and roasted meats. They were forbidden to have beds, and [Aemilianus] was the first one to sleep on straw. He forbade them to ride on mules when on the march; “for what can you expect in a war,” said he, “from a man who is not able to walk?”

The harsh medicine worked; but Aemilianus knew that his legions were not yet ready for battle. So he instituted a severe and exhausting training regime. The troops were sent on route marches and were made to build, demolish, and rebuild camps. Tasks had to be completed within strict deadlines.

It was only when the legions were in good physical condition and morale had sharply improved that Aemilianus resumed his (ultimately successful) campaign against the Spaniards.

Hadrian’s second military hero was Quintus Caecilius Metellus Numidicus, who flourished in the second century B.C. After holding the consulship, he was posted to North Africa to lead the campaign against the able and ambitious Numidian king, Jugurtha.

For him, too, training was the watchword. His predecessor in command had kept his forces in permanent camp, moving only when the bad smell or a lack of food supplies forced him. Men absented themselves from duty when the mood took them.

Just like Aemilianus, Metellus got rid of all the civilians, moved camp daily, undertook cross-country marches. At night he placed sentry posts at short intervals and did the rounds himself. When on the march, he moved up and down the column to check that no one left the ranks, that the men kept close to their standards and carried their own food and weapons. In this way, by inflicting exercise rather than punishment, Metellus soon restored discipline and morale.

The dowager empress’s serious mind and quiet disposition owed much to her appreciation of the philosophy of Epicurus. His thinking derived from an atomic idea of nature (originally promoted by the fifth-century B.C. scientific theorist Democritus). The fundamental constituents of everything, he asserted, were indivisible little bits of matter, or atoms, and everything that happened was the consequence of these atoms colliding with one another. Unlike Hadrian’s admired Epictetus, who saw the universe as the expression of a divine will, Epicurus held that it was no more than a sequence of random events.

On what foundation, then, was it possible to rest a system of ethics? The answer was that all good and bad originate in sensations of pleasure and pain. It was from these sensations that we construct a moral code. Epicurus also taught that death was the end of body and soul; it should not be feared, for there were no posthumous rewards and punishments. In later centuries Christian propagandists inaccurately labeled Epicurus as a hedonist (hence our terms epicureandepicurean). In fact, he sought no more than a tranquil life without pain, and cultivated simplicity.

Epicurus attracted a small band of devoted followers whom he taught in his house and garden just outside Athens. Above the garden gate a sign read: “Stranger, you will do well to linger here; here our highest good is pleasure.”

On his deathbed he informed a friend, with a whiff of self-congratulatory sangfroid:

A painful inability to urinate has attacked me, and also dysentery, so violent that nothing can be added to the violence of my sufferings. But the cheerfulness of my mind, arising from the recollection of all my philosophical contemplations, counterbalances all these afflictions.

Epicurus left the house and garden to a nominated successor and they were handed on in turn from one philosopher to another, down to Hadrian’s day. They were both a shrine and a continuing “school,” known as the Succession of Epicurus. Its doctrines survived and thrived.

Plotina learned of a problem facing the Epicureans at Athens. The Successor at the time was a man called Popillius Theotimus. Popillius is a Latin name and indicates that he held Roman citizenship, and in this fact lay the difficulty. The provincial authorities insisted that the head of the Succession of Epicurus be a Roman citizen. Theotimus wanted the rule to be relaxed. Evidently he had someone in mind to take over from him who was ineligible.

He was fortunate to be well connected. He asked Plotina to intervene and she was happy to do so. She wrote a letter to her adopted son, which reached him during his European tour:

You know very well, sir, [the interest I] have in the sect of Epicurus. His school needs your help. [Since, as of now], a successor must be taken from those who are Roman citizens, the choice is narrowly limited. [I ask,] therefore, in the name of Popillius Theotimus, who is currently Successor at Athens, that it be permitted by you to him … to be entitled to appoint as successor to himself one of foreign nationality, if the distinction of the person should make it advisable.

Hadrian complied without demur and sent Theotimus the necessary permissions. The dowager empress was delighted and wrote to “all the Friends”:

We have what we were so eager to obtain … We owe … a debt of gratitude to him who is in truth the benefactor and overseer of all culture and therefore a most reverence-worthy emperor, very dear to me in all respects as both an outstanding guardian and loyal son.

But she added a note of warning, knowing how personal feelings could warp judgment in tightly knit communities. It was important to choose as a successor “the best of all fellow-sectarians and to attribute more importance to his view of the overall interest than to his private congeniality with certain members.”

Surely, Plotina had at the back of her mind another succession. She had had recent experience of an awkward handover of authority, in which she was widely supposed to have played a leading role. Hadrian had not been the most congenial personality at Trajan’s court, but in her calm way the empress had acted firmly to ensure that the best man, in her opinion, followed her husband to the purple. The same principle, she was certain, should be applied in the garden of Epicurus.

When the emperor arrived at the German front he soon showed what he had learned about the art of command, both from his own experience and from a study of history. His strategy of defensive imperialism did not make him unwarlike or negate his many years in the army: quite the reverse, he was a soldier’s soldier. Also, he needed to pacify his critics by demonstrating his prowess as a general.

Hadrian realized that the army had been growing slack thanks to the “inattention of previous supreme commanders,” as the Historia Augusta has it: an interesting phrase, for, despite Hadrian’s appreciation of Trajan’s generalship, it implies that his adoptive father had been careless about the day-to-day routines of life in the camp and in the field.

Hadrian introduced the highest standards of discipline and kept the soldiers on continual exercises, as if war were imminent. In order to ensure consistency, he followed the examples of Augustus (once again) and Trajan by publishing a manual of military regulations. His approach to training was innovatory; he made his soldiers practice the fighting techniques of potential or actual opponents—Parthians, Armenians, Sarmatians, and Celts—and, according to Arrian, devised some of his own “with a view to beauty, speed, the inspiring of terror, and practical use.” He led by example, sharing the life of the rank and file and cheerfully eating “such camp fare as bacon, cheese, and vinegar.” It may be while on campaign that he developed a liking for tetrafarmakon, a pie made from pheasant, sow’s udder, and ham. The Historia Augusta writes: “He generally wore the commonest clothing—refusing gold ornamentation on his sword belt, fastening his cloak with an unjeweled clasp, and only reluctantly allowing himself an ivory hilt to his sword.”

The emperor joined his men on the regular route marches he insisted on, walking with them for as many as twenty miles (the target was to cover this distance in five hours). He made a point of never setting foot in a chariot or sitting in a four-wheeled carriage, and always walked or rode on horseback. Whatever the weather, he went about with his head bare.

Hadrian was naturally inquisitive, and these qualities now came into their own. Dio Cassius writes: “He personally viewed and investigated absolutely everything.” He inspected garrisons and forts, closing some down and relocating others. He examined all aspects of camp life—the weapons, the artillery, the trenches, ramparts, and palisades—making sure that every detail came up to his high standards.

The private lives of both rank-and-file soldiers and officers came under close scrutiny. The main aim was to eliminate luxury. Some officers behaved as if they were on vacation. The emperor put a stop to all that. According to the Historia Augusta, he “demolished dining rooms in the camps, and porticoes, covered galleries, and ornamental gardens.”

The emperor also took steps to improve the professional caliber of officers. He was particularly anxious about military tribunes, who were, in effect, a legionary commander’s general staff. He took care to appoint somewhat older men “with full beards or of an age to give to the authority of the tribuneship a full measure of prudence and maturity.”

As for the ordinary legionary, Hadrian improved the quality of weapons and other equipment, and forbade the recruitment or maintenance in service of men who were either too young or too old to cope with the physical demands of military life. He found other ways of softening the severity of military regulations. He ruled that the death penalty should be used as sparingly as possible.

Soldiers were not allowed to marry during their term of enlistment, but often contracted informal partnerships with women and had children by them. On their discharge many married their mistresses and so legitimized any offspring. But if they died in service, their sons were bastards and not permitted to become principal heirs. In a letter discovered in the Egyptian desert, Hadrian discussed the matter with the prefect of Egypt. He had decided that it was time to allow illegitimate soldiers’ sons the same limited property rights as relatives. The emperor was pleased to “put a more humane interpretation on the rather too strict rule established by emperors before me.”

So far as we can tell, Hadrian’s provincial survey was comprehensive. He visited the two Germanias, Lower and Upper, and the two small provinces along the upper Danube—Raetia (in today’s geography, Bavaria and Swabia, with parts of Austria, Switzerland, and Lombardy) and Noricum (some of today’s Austria and Slovenia).

Hadrian’s army reforms should be seen alongside his defensive foreign policy. If war was to be discounted, his soldiers needed something else to ensure discipline and spur morale—namely, a leader who knew how to marry discipline with affection and concern for their welfare. Hadrian became very popular with them, and for the rest of his reign never found reason to doubt their loyalty. The impact of his reforms was deep and long-lasting. Through unremitting energy and skill, he forged a peacetime army into a powerful war machine. Hadrian’s legions were one of the most valuable legacies he left to his successors.

The Roman had a different idea of a frontier than we do today. It was not a line demarcating the edge of a national or political territory, on the far side of which another power owned the freehold. Rather, he saw it as the edge of land that the state, the Senatus Populusque Romanus, directly administered.

Beyond lay a swath of territory also held to be in his possession, even if he chose not to govern it. Its inhabitants were to a certain degree imperial subjects. Some lived in client kingdoms, others were members of allied tribes who perhaps received subsidies from Rome or, alternatively, paid tribute. The result was that most frontiers were porous. Merchants and travelers, men looking for jobs, came and went. Goods were declared and dues paid. Embassies ferried complaints and compliments. At the same time, of course, the legions had to be on their guard against raiders, serious armed incursions, or even revolts. So a frontier was not like a city wall, the purpose of which was purely defensive. The job of guards was less to keep intruders out than to be traffic policemen.

When Hadrian arrived in Upper Germania he was especially interested in the limes that Domitian and, later, Trajan had erected. Originally a limes was a pathway between two fields, but here it meant a road lined with about one thousand watchtowers and two hundred or so forts and fortlets, running from the Rhine above Mainz southeast to the Danube above Regensburg. The limes bridged an awkward gap between the two great rivers that otherwise constituted Rome’s natural borders between the North and Black seas.

When the emperor visited the limes, he made an important and innovative decision. On the “enemy” side of the road he ordered his soldiers to build an unbroken wooden palisade perhaps ten feet high, consisting of large oak posts, split in two with the flat sides facing out, and strengthened by crossbeams. This was a tremendous enterprise, for the limes was about 350 miles long. Wide swaths of German forest were harvested.

What problem was the emperor trying to solve? The existing fortifications seem to have been perfectly adequate, and the tribes in the hinterland posed no special threat of invasion. However, a wall would enable tax-hungry officialdom to discourage smuggling and increase customs dues, as well as control immigration. It would also be a time-consuming fatigue duty that would keep the legions busy for years.

But the sheer ambition of the project suggests another, overriding motive. The wall was a visible confirmation of Hadrian’s policy of imperial stasis. It was a spectacular symbol both of the power of Rome and of its determination not to grow any further. This interpretation is supported by an observation in the Historia Augusta that Hadrian used artificial barriers to shut off or set apart barbarians “during this period [his first provincial tour] and on many other occasions.” In other words, the German palisade was not a one-off project to meet a particular threat, but an example of an empire-wide policy that was bound to have a demonstrative as well as a practical effect.

The policy may well have been unpopular with his generals and with the Senate, but the emperor never wavered in his determination to implement it. With the passage of time, the benefits of defensive imperialism became widely accepted, at least in the provinces. Later in the century a commentator remarked approvingly: “An encamped army, like a rampart, encloses the civilized world in a ring.”

Having introduced his new training regime and commissioned his palisade, the emperor was ready to move on. His next major destination was the island of Britannia, perched on the outer boundary of the known world.

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