The great cavalcade that was the imperial court gathered itself together and moved on. The next stage in the emperor’s travels was a return to Gaul, then Spain and North Africa.
Florus ribbed Hadrian for his inability to stay still and sent him a few satirical verses, detailing his movements so far in reverse order.
I couldn’t bear to be Caesar
roaming up and down Britannia
loitering around Germania
freezing my balls off in Scythia.
“Scythia” was a poetic way of referring to the wild Danubian provinces. The emperor was amused and composed a good-humored but sharp reply.
I couldn’t bear to be Florus
one of nature’s pub crawlers
who stuffs his face with burgers
and lets bedbugs share his mattress.
As we have seen, Florus did not agree with what he saw as the emperor’s do-nothing foreign policy, although he did remark that “it is harder to hold on to new provinces than to create them”—a dig at Trajan, one must suppose, which coincided with Hadrian’s opinion. In a number of respects, the two men had prejudices in common. A couplet by Florus on the nature of women may well have won the concurrence of Sabina’s husband.
Every woman’s breast conceals a noxious slime,
sweet words pass her lips, but her heart contains venom.
However, consistency is not everything. Plotina’s adopted son simultaneously cherished an affectionate opinion of the opposite sex. It depended on the woman in question. Some time about now, the news came from Italy of the much-cherished dowager empress’s death. As Dio Cassius put it bluntly, she had been “the woman through whom he had secured the imperial office because of her love for him.”
So far as we can tell, this love was platonic. The Augusta had run the oddest of happy households. At its center was a sexually uninterested emperor. Husband and wife liked and trusted each other, but they had no children, and probably no sex. Relations with the other senior ladies at court, Trajan’s sister Marciana and her daughter Matidia, were harmonious. In fact, at the eye of the storm of power they lived lives of Epicurean calm, and present themselves as a high-minded, slightly monochrome sorority.
The empress was never accused of interfering in politics until the intestate Trajan’s dying hours. On that occasion she did the state some service. She may have staged the less-than-convincing charade in Trajan’s darkened bedroom, but the outcome had been worth the deceit.
Hadrian was very upset by her passing, for (says Dio) he “honored her exceedingly.” He wore black for nine days and wrote some hymns in her honor (they are lost). In due course he arranged for her deification. He remarked of her: “Although she asked much of me I never refused her anything.” By this he meant that he never had to refuse her anything, for her requests were always reasonable.
Plotina came from Nemausus (today’s Nîmes, in southern France), capital of the Narbonesis province. The Pont du Gard, part of its aqueduct, and an extraordinarily well-preserved temple, now called the Maison Carrée, survive to the present day, but not the basilica “of marvelous workmanship” that Hadrian built in the empress’s memory.
Hadrian retained his youthful passion for hunting. He had become so skillful that he famously brought down a huge boar with a single spear thrust. On one occasion, he broke his collarbone and on another suffered a leg injury that came close to crippling him.
When he visited Vindolanda during his tour of the Britannic frontier, he would have found to his delight that the sport was part of the garrison’s culture. Presumably he made full use of the opportunities there to ride out with horses. And so he did in Gallia, too. We know of one particular hunt that came to a sad end. The Gallo-Roman town of Apta Julia (today’s Apt, in Provence, some thirty miles or so from Aix) stood on the via Domitia, which led down to Spain, and so was on Hadrian’s itinerary (Hannibal had traveled along it in the opposite direction on his march to Italy). There is mountainous hunting country nearby, and it is no accident that five dedications to the god of huntsmen, Silvanus, have been found in and near Apt.
The emperor’s favorite horse, Borysthenes, died here, and the emperor prepared a tomb with an epitaph for him. The epitaph is a short poem of praise of little artistic worth, which must have been quickly scribbled by the bereaved, versifying owner.
Borysthenes the barbarian
Caesar’s hunting horse
was accustomed to flash by
through sea and through bog
and past Etruscan barrows.
It is a private tribute. Something amusing or un toward must have happened at a tumulus in Tuscany, but the author does not trouble to tell us what it was. He goes on to claim that no boar ever gored Borysthenes, so that cannot have been the cause of his death at Apta. Perhaps the horse fell and broke a leg, and had to be put down. In any event,
Killed on his fated day
here he lies beneath the soil.
Hadrian was very fond of animals, and Borysthenes was not the only creature to be buried with honors. According to the Historia Augusta, he loved his horses and dogs so much that he provided tombs for them all when they died.
The saddened emperor continued his journey south, spending the winter of 122 at the capital of the province of Hispania Tarraconensis. This was Rome’s oldest foundation in Spain, Tarraco (today’s Tarragona)—or to call it by its proper title, Colonia Julia Urbs Triumphalis Tarraco. A walled city built on terraces on high ground, it stood on the coast but lacked a safe harbor. It was well appointed with all the appurtenances of the civilized life.
According to the poet Martial, who, out of favor for his excessive flattery of Domitian, spent his last years in his native Hispania, Tarraco had much to recommend it, especially to a keen huntsman like his friend Licinianus.
There you will slaughter deer snared in soft-meshed toils and native boars
and run the cunning hare to death with your stout horse (stags you will leave to the bailiff).
The nearby wood shall come down right to your own hearth and its girdle of grimy brats.
The hunter will be invited; shout from close by, and a guest will come to share your dinner.
The simple life without luxuries in the countryside appealed to generations of world-weary urban Romans. This could be little more than a literary trope, and often meant lounging around in comfortable rural villas. But Hadrian had a genuine taste for roughing it in the company of ordinary, unpretentious folk. It was one of the delights that hunting guaranteed.
Hadrian would have known Tarraco. It had been the hometown of his dead patron and promoter, Licinius Sura, and was a regular stopping-off point for travelers from Baetica in the south as they made their way by the safe if slow land route to Italy.
Among the city’s amenities were some gardens. They were probably those which, according to an inscription, a certain Publius Rufius Flavus left during his lifetime to four of his manumitted slaves. The legacy was to honor the “perpetual memory” of his dead wife, and the gardens could not be sold by the heirs or their successors, so we can deduce that they were to be a public park under the management of his freedmen and freedwomen.
It was here that the emperor took a stroll one day. According to the Historia Augusta,
one of the slaves of the household rushed at him madly with a sword. But he merely laid hold of the man, and when the servants ran to the rescue handed him over to them. Afterward, when it was found that the man was mad, he turned him over to the physicians for treatment, and all this time showed not the slightest sign of alarm.
The attempt had no political implications—except that the emperor’s calm and clement reaction won him widespread admiration.
Hadrian somewhat tarnished his popularity by announcing a recruiting drive for the legions. Roman citizens of Italian origin were not used to signing up in the army, and good-humoredly (but probably unsuccessfully) objected. It is a curious, and perhaps not unrelated, fact that on his journey south through Spain he failed to revisit his hometown of Italica, despite investing heavily in public buildings there over the years. His fellow citizens may have been preparing to submit a request to raise their town’s municipal status, but they were disappointed. Any petition had to be put in writing, and the emperor merely promised to speak to the subject when next in the Senate.
Urgent matters were calling for the emperor’s attention. While he was still in Britannia, reports had arrived of a renewed rebellion in Mauretania and riotous disturbances in Alexandria. It was only four years since the civil strife between rebellious Jews and the Greek community had been suppressed by Marcius Turbo (now the praetorian prefect in Rome). But this time the trouble came from the native Egyptians in the form of a found bull.
According to their cosmogony the universe was dreamed of and then created by the god Ptah; in another epiphany he was Osiris, the murdered deity who rose from the dead and was the redeemer and merciful judge in the afterworld. Ptah’s incarnation or messenger on earth was a sacred bull, Apis. The bull was recognized by special markings on his forehead, tongue, and flank, and was housed in Ptah’s temple at Memphis. He was given a harem of cows and worshipped. On his death, he was interred alongside his predecessors in a huge sarcophagus in a necropolis known as the Serapeum.
A new Apis bull had recently been identified and coins minted in Alexandria welcomed the happy event. However, a dispute broke out; according to the Historia Augusta, different communities put in a claim to look after the Apis bull, and widespread disorder ensued. The nervous prefect of Egypt sought the emperor’s presence.
The North African phase of Hadrian’s travels is very poorly documented. We must assume that the Mauretanian problem was not as large as supposed; if there had been a major war and the emperor had had to intervene personally, we would have heard something about it. The provincial governor may have dealt with the matter before his arrival in the region, or the very fact of his arrival may have calmed angry breasts.
So far as Alexandria was concerned, good advice was at hand. Suetonius’ successor as ab epistulis was very probably a Gallic intellectual, Lucius Julius Vestinus. A cultured man, he had been director of the imperial libraries and, germanely, had held the top academic post in the ancient world. He had been head of the Mouseion, a scientific research institution and literary academy in Alexandria with a celebrated library, which the ruling Ptolemies founded in the third century B.C. So Vestinus had direct knowledge of the Egyptian way of life, and was well placed to counsel his employer on the best course of action.
For the time being, Hadrian contented himself with a stern letter of reproof, which had the surprising effect of immediately stopping the rioting. Once again, the knowledge that he was slowly but inexorably journeying toward Egypt may have concentrated minds.
Hardly had these passing crises died away than a new and larger one loomed. Parthia was stirring. The emperor forwent a full inspection of the African provinces, probably setting sail for Antioch and arriving there in June 123. His aim was to meet the Parthian king, whichever member of the royal family happened to be on the throne for the moment, and dissuade him from aggression.
The city had not yet fully recovered from the devastating earthquake of eight years previously, and Hadrian scattered cultural largesse about him. He seems to have cherished an affection for the morally dubious gardens at Daphne and remained grateful to the clairvoyant Castalian springs there which had predicted his accession to the purple. He founded a “festival of the springs” to be held there every June 23, as well as commissioning a “theater of the springs” and a shrine of the nymphs. Although there is no record of the fact, presumably he removed the stones with which he had fearfully blocked the source in the first days of his reign.
Before setting off for the Parthian border Hadrian took care to honor Trajan’s memory by ordering the construction of a “very elegant” temple dedicated to his predecessor. The honor of Rome, and the practicalities of negotiation with a resentful interlocutor, meant that Trajan’s disastrous attempt to conquer the Parthian empire had to be presented as a victory.
Few details have survived about the quarrel, and it is even uncertain which of two rival rulers was occupying the throne at the time. It was probably Chosroes, whom Hadrian had acknowledged as rightful king in 117 when pulling the legions back from Parthia. As already noted, the new Roman emperor had deposed the puppet monarch whom Trajan had installed, Chosroes’ renegade son Parthemaspates, awarding the young man the consolation prize of Osrhoene, the little kingdom in northwestern Mesopotamia.
Five years later, Chosroes may have objected to this continuing thorn in his side. He may also have pressed for the return of his daughter and his throne, both of them captured and held hostage during Trajan’s campaign. One wonders, too, whether the king pressed for some kind of reparations for all the damage the legions had done during their blitzkrieg offensive. Rome was used to subsidizing neighboring states or tribes to keep them quiet.
The usual form for encounters between Roman and Parthian heads of state was for them to gather on either bank of the Euphrates, which marked the border between the two realms, and meet face-to-face on an island in the river; and that was presumably what happened on this occasion. As for the outcome, the Historia Augusta is brief and vague. “War with the Parthians had not at that time passed beyond the preparatory stage, and Hadrian checked it by a personal conference.” From this we can safely deduce that the emperor gave ground. Because he was uninterested in recouping Trajan’s brief gains, war would bring no practical advantage and would contradict his policy of self-containment. It would also consume vast quantities of treasure.
Coins tell the story of how the emperor presented the entente with Chosroes. For some time they made reference to an expeditio Augusti, or “the emperor on campaign,” which covered the defense review of Britannia, putting down the Moorish rebellion, and addressing the Parthian threat. Then the image of Janus began to appear on the coinage.
Janus was the god of entrances and exits, of comings and goings, beginnings and endings. He was presented as two-faced “since he is the doorkeeper of heaven and hell,” and presided over gates and doorways. A small temple in the Roman Forum was dedicated to him, the doors of which were opened in times of war and closed when the empire was at peace. The Romans understood peace to be the fruit of victory on the battlefield, so if, as seems very likely, the new coins mean that the emperor shut Janus’ doors, he was claiming military success for what was at best an achievement of negotiation.
It can be no accident that the ruler he revered so much, Augustus, took the same line on Parthia as he did—namely, that talking is better than fighting. He, too, presented the deals he struck in 20 B.C. and A.D. 2 with Parthian monarchs as the result of compelling, rather than compromising with, a recalcitrant enemy. And it was the first princeps who made clever use of the doors of Janus; they had been shut only twice before in Rome’s whole, warlike history, but Augustus closed them three times.
The past came vividly to life for the emperor when he visited the spot where a famous incident had taken place in the fifth century B.C. It was a rough pathway leading up to a mountain ridge that overlooked the Black Sea and the port of Trapezus in northern Cappadocia (today’s Treb izond). It was here that one day in 401 B.C. a harassed band of Greek mercenaries found themselves after struggling through a high pass along a very narrow, steep, and winding route.
Greek infantry (“hoplites”) were widely believed to be the best soldiers of their day, and about ten thousand of them had been hired by a pretender to the throne of the Persian empire. They joined his army and marched against the sitting king of kings. Near Babylon they helped the pretender win a decisive victory, but he fell in the fighting. The rebellion died with him, and the Greeks, now unemployed and unwelcome, had to fight their way through hundreds of miles of hostile territory to escape from the Persians. Their generals and senior officers were killed or captured, and the Athenian Xenophon, then an inexperienced but able young soldier, was elected as commander. He was a natural leader and, against the odds, brought his men to the safety of the Black Sea coast, with its Greek cities and ships to sail them home.
As the bedraggled regiment toiled its way up the slope, Xenophon and the rearguard heard a great shout from the brow of the hill and feared that it was some more enemies attacking from the front. Xenophon, who wrote a memoir of the long march home (modestly speaking of himself in the third person), described what happened next:
However, when the shouting got louder and drew nearer, and those who were constantly going forward started running toward the men in front who kept on shouting, and the more there were the more shouting there was, it looked then as though this was something of considerable importance. So Xenophon mounted his horse and, taking … the cavalry with him, rode forward to give support and, quite soon, they heard the soldiers shouting out: “The sea! The sea!”
It was as famous a moment of return as Odysseus’ homecoming in Ithaca from the Trojan war. Hadrian, who was inspecting the eastern frontier provinces after agreeing his entente with Chosroes, made sure he found the time to pay homage to one of his heroes. He regarded Xenophon highly not just for his courage and decency, but because he was an enthusiastic huntsman and, as we have seen, the author of a classic text on the subject.
Hadrian was touched by the place. To mark his visit, he added to memorial cairns built by the Greek soldiers by arranging for altars to be erected, plus a statue of himself. A few years later, Arrian, the emperor’s friend and an even more fervent admirer of the Athenian, was appointed governor of Cappadocia and toured the area in that capacity. He was dismayed by what he found at the mountain ridge. He informed the emperor that the altars had indeed been built, but in rough stone with an inaccurately cut inscription, and he had decided to replace them. As for the statue of the emperor,
although [it] has been erected in a pleasing pose—it points out to the sea—the work neither looks like you nor is beautiful in any way. So I have sent for a sculpture worthy to bear your name, in the same pose; for that spot is very well suited to an everlasting monument.
No doubt the replacements were a distinct improvement, but Arrian’s reference to an “everlasting monument” was challenging fate. Nothing now remains of altars or statue—but the cairns are still there. Immortality, only where it is due.
The emperor’s next stop was Bithynia-Pontus. The province was of strategic importance because it lay on the southern littoral of the Black Sea and was the main communication route between the Danube and Euphrates frontiers. According to ancient sources, the region was settled by Thracians from across the Propontis, but along the coastline a necklace of cities was founded by Greek colonists from the mainland and Asia Minor. Hellenic culture flourished there, as is borne out by the distinguished men whom the province produced—the famous rhetorician Dio Chrysostom of Prusa; Arrian, author and soldier; and, born later in the second century, the historian Dio Cassius.
There was plenty for an inquisitive visitor to inspect. The politics of Bithynia-Pontus was disputatious and corrupt and, for all Pliny’s attempts at reform in the previous reign, it is unlikely that much had changed since. Also, his correspondence with Trajan discussed numerous building and engineering projects, exactly the kind of thing that fascinated the emperor. At the city of Amastris, for example, Pliny wrote of a “long street of great beauty” marred by an open sewer running down the middle of it; he won Trajan’s permission to cover it and remove a “disgusting eyesore which gives off a noxious stench.” Hadrian could not have resisted the temptation to inspect the street himself to make sure that the project had been completed satisfactorily and the problem solved.
An earthquake had struck the province, and Nicomedia, the provincial capital, and the town of Nicaea had sustained much damage. The emperor provided funds for the necessary restoration work and doubtless busied himself with the detail of public development projects.
He expected no especial surprises during his stay in the province and laid plans for his future destinations—Thrace and then northward to the frontier provinces on the Danube. Finally, to his huge pleasure and as a reward for his labors, he anticipated a lengthy stay in his spiritual homeland, Greece. However, before he went on his way a chance encounter took place.
He came across a country boy in his mid-teens, who was to transform his life.