The piglet squealed and wriggled as it tried to escape from Hadrian’s arms. They were on the seashore near Athens and it was his awkward task to wash the pair of them in the water. Once he had accomplished this, the emperor took the young animal and offered it up for sacrifice to Demeter, goddess of the earth’s fertility and provider of grain. Its death was intended to stand in place of his own.
Then followed a ritual of purification. Wearing a blindfold, the emperor sat down on a stool covered with a ram’s fleece. A winnowing fan was waved over him and then a flaming torch brought close to him. In this way he was cleansed by air and fire.
Hadrian was now a mustes, a novice whose initiation would be complete only when he took part in the Mysteries, at the small harbor town of Eleusis in Attica. This religious ceremony took place every year in the autumn month of Boedromion, the first in Athens’ calendar year. The emperor had arrived in Greece from Rhodes in the late summer, to ensure he was in time for his spiritual induction.
In the prehistory of the world, Zeus and his fellow deities lived and schemed against one another on the snowy peaks of Mount Olympus in northern Greece. One day the goddess Demeter’s beautiful daughter, Persephone, disappeared. She had been kidnapped by Zeus’ brother, Hades, lord of the underworld, but her mother had no idea where she was. So Demeter roamed the earth looking for Persephone. Eventually she learned of the abduction and was shocked to discover that the king of the gods had approved the crime in advance. She abandoned her divine status and disguised herself as an old Cretan woman. Eventually she arrived at Eleusis, where she got a job as nanny to a local chieftain’s son.
At night when everyone else was asleep Demeter anointed her infant charge with ambrosia, a cream which with repeated use conferred immortality, and put him into the hearth-fire, where he lay unharmed. Unfortunately the boy’s mother spied on her once and screamed when the flames touched his body.
An incensed Demeter resumed her full divine form and demanded that a temple be built in her honor. There she would teach people her special rituals—and, just as usefully, the art of agriculture. With that promise she vanished. Meanwhile the earth began to undergo a great famine, for Demeter refused to let the seeds grow. A compromise solution was agreed among the gods: Persephone would spend one third of the year in the underworld and nature would temporarily stop work, but for the rest of her time she would return to her mother and the copious earth.
So the fundamental myth of Eleusis was the death and rebirth of growing and flowering things. But the huge popularity for more than one thousand years of the Eleusinian ceremonies was less that they guaranteed the safely turning seasons than that they offered initiates the promise of a happy afterlife. Becoming an adept of Demeter was an attractive insurance policy to ensure a prosperous posthumous future. Men and women, slaves and freedmen, all were entitled to become initiates (provided only that they could speak Greek). Murderers burdened with blood guilt were excluded. Upper-class Romans, weary of the arid superstitions of their state religion, often participated in the Mysteries at Eleusis. Cicero believed that the Mysteries helped to civilize his rough-and-ready compatriots. “We have learned from them the beginnings of life, and gained the power not only to live happily, but also to die with a better hope.”
Initiates were sworn to perpetual secrecy, on pain of death, about what they saw, heard, and experienced. Luckily, some disrespectful Christian apologists revealed what they knew, or thought they knew. The broad shape of the ceremony in which Hadrian took part is understood, although significant details can only be guessed.
On the fourteenth day of Boedromion, 124, a band of young men collected the hiera, or “sacred things” (ritual utensils of some kind), from Eleusis, and deposited them at a small shrine at the foot of the Acropolis. Usually they carried knives during religious ceremonies, but Hadrian had learned his lesson by now about the danger of allowing armed men into his presence, and this year weapons were banned.
On the nineteenth of the same month a multitude of people formed a procession and proceeded along the Sacred Way, the road that ran for twenty-one miles from Athens to Eleusis. Priestesses carried the sacred things in closed hampers. As well as Hadrian and the other mustai, there were the more numerous epoptai, those who had already been initiated and witnessed Demeter’s secrets at Eleusis at least once before. A rhythmic shout, Iakh’ oIakhe, was repeated again and again, perhaps referring to a boy god, Iakchos, in Demeter’s service. The crowd danced itself into a state of euphoria and waved bundles of branches in the air.
At a certain point on the road masked figures mocked the passing mustai, shouting and making obscene gestures. This commemorated an old woman who met Demeter when she was mourning her daughter and offered her a refreshing drink. On being rebuffed, she had pulled aside her skirt and “uncovered her shame, and exhibited her nudity.” The goddess had “laughed and laughed”—and swallowed the drink after all.
The procession crossed a new bridge over the river Kephisos, about a mile from Eleusis. A couple of years previously a flood had swept away its predecessor and Hadrian had commissioned a replacement. He would have been pleased with the result: 165 feet long and 16 wide, it was built of well-cut limestone blocks and has survived in good condition to the present day, although the river itself silted up in modern times.
At last twilight fell and the stars appeared. Once they had arrived at Eleusis, the mustai were allowed to break their fast. Hadrian and the rest drank down (just as the goddess had once done) a beverage called kukeon, which consisted of barley meal and water mixed with fresh pennyroyal mint leaves. Some modern scholars believe that the barley was contaminated naturally with ergot, which causes hallucinations (among other more distressing symptoms), or that some other intoxicating ingredient was added to the potion.
The initiates passed through two columned gateways into a large walled enclosure. After uttering an enigmatic password, they walked on and found themselves in front of a square, windowless building with a columned porch, like a blind temple. This was the Telesterion, or hall of mysteries. Inside its dark interior were rows of columns and stepped benches along the walls, from which thousands of participants watched the proceedings. Hadrian, like the other new initiates, was accompanied by a guide and was not allowed to see all the sights (he probably wore a veil).
What took place now is known only approximately. In the center of the Telesterion was an oblong stone construction with a doorway opening onto a piece of natural, unhewn rock, the Anactoron. Dreadful, ineffable things took place by flickering torchlight, possibly reenacting the story of Persephone’s abduction and all that followed.
On top of the Anactoron, which functioned like an altar, a fire blazed. Perhaps there was some sort of apotheosis by fire, recalling the unharmed boy in the flames. Perhaps animals were killed and burned. The officiating priest, or Hierophant, announced: “The holy Brimo [‘the raging one,’ a name for Demeter] has been delivered of a holy son, the Brimos.”
When the drama came to an end, the priest withdrew through the Anactoron doorway, and then reemerged with the sacred things, a great light shining out when the door opened. This was the culminating revelation, and we have no idea today of what it consisted. A Christian source claimed that it was “an ear of corn in silence reaped. [This was] considered among the Athenians to constitute the perfect enormous illumination.”
The religious authorities were well aware of the presence of their illustrious guest. The female partner of the Hierophant, who helped induct Hadrian into the rites, wrote a poem honoring the
ruler of the wide, unharvested earth,
the commander of countless mortals,
Hadrian, who poured out boundless wealth
on all cities, and especially famous Athens.
The emperor did not reveal what the experience of initiation meant to him. At one level he was merely treading in the footsteps of many Roman predecessors, among them Augustus. But the fact that the Historia Augusta mentions the initiation at all suggests that for Hadrian it was more than a routine experience. He was committed to religion as a transcendent experience, and had been fascinated since childhood by magic and astrology. For someone of this cast of mind Eleusis conveyed a powerful spiritual meaning. On a point of detail, the example of the piglet whose life had been sacrificed to secure his own survival may have lodged in his mind, to be exploited when future occasion demanded.
However, Eleusis was also important for reasons of state. Oddly, the Historia Augusta claims that the emperor was following the example of Alexander the Great’s father, Philip of Macedon, a reference that must derive from a statement in Hadrian’s memoirs. Presumably (although there is no direct evidence for it) the king had taken part in the Mysteries, and for some reason Hadrian had wanted to draw attention to the association. But why?
Philip had brutally extinguished Greek liberty at the famous battle of Chaeronea in 338 B.C., and was the last man the emperor would have been expected to cite as a distinguished forerunner. But the message Hadrian wished to convey was that the Macedonian monarch united all the disputatious Greeks under his leadership, and that he had done so by force was less telling than that he was a Panhellene. He had seen Greece as a single entity—an ideal very close to the emperor’s heart.
For Hadrian, the Mysteries at Eleusis, which bound together all initiates of whatever nationality and class, were the religious dimension of this single entity. It is no accident that an inscription found at Eleusis, carved after his death, refers to “Hadrian, god and Panhellene.”
When he was at Eleusis, Hadrian characteristically kept his eyes open. He noticed, or was informed, that locally caught fish were being sold at an inflated price during the busy period of the Mysteries, and that supply failed to meet demand. He soon discovered that professional retail merchants bought the catch from the fishermen, or from first purchasers, and then sold it to the public with a steep markup. He published a letter to the authorities forbidding this practice and exempting anyone selling fish from the regular purchase tax. He ruled: “I want the vendors to have been stopped from their profiteering or else a charge to be brought against them.”
Hadrian now set off on a tour of the Peloponnese, taking Sabina with him. Wherever the imperial court went, ancient cities received the emperor’s largesse. Sometimes this was practical, at others extravagantly useless. Not far from the uninhabited ruins of Mycenae stood a great shrine to Hera, queen of the gods, at which Hadrian dedicated “a peacock in gold and glittering stones, because peacocks are considered to be Hera’s sacred birds.”
In return, names were changed to honor the donor, statues were erected, and temples dedicated. The small town of Megara, for example, received the full force of the emperor’s benevolence; a brick temple was rebuilt in stone and a road widened to allow chariots to drive past each other in opposite directions. Grateful inscriptions hailed Hadrian as their “founder, lawgiver, benefactor, and patron,” and the empress was enrolled as a “New Demeter.” However, Megara remained an impoverished backwater. According to Pausanias, second-century author of a guidebook to Greece, “not even the emperor could make the Megarians thrive: they were his only failure in Greece.” This implies there was more to the emperor’s munificence than self-aggrandizement. It had a practical purpose—economic development.
Hadrian visited the obvious tourist destinations—among them, austere Sparta, where boys were still whipped until the blood flowed to prove their bravery (and to entertain visitors), and Corinth, systematically devastated by the Romans in 146 B.C. and resettled by Julius Caesar.
But at Mantinea, Hadrian’s personal feelings were engaged. On a plain four miles or so south of the town a great battle was fought in 362 B.C. between Thebes, then the leading power in Greece, and an allied army of other city-states. The brilliant and charismatic general Epaminondas led the Thebans and won the day. However, he and his eromenos, or beloved, were mortally wounded. They were buried at the roadside. A pillar with a shield on it engraved with a serpent, denoting his clan, marked the spot. Hadrian was touched by the fate of these tragic lovers and wrote a poem about them, which he inscribed on a memorial stone by the tomb (it has not survived).
The walled city of Mantinea also had a special significance, being the reputed origin of the Greek settlers at Claudiopolis, Antinous’ birthplace. We do not know of the boy’s whereabouts at this time. However, more than a year had passed since they had (probably) first set eyes on each other. If Antinous did go to Rome for training at the Paedogogium, he would surely have graduated by now and been ready for service at court. If we speculate that the couple were together,princeps and pais will have enjoyed researching the latter’s family tree.
Although there is not a jot of evidence, it is hard to believe that Hadrian failed to visit Xenophon’s farm near Olympia, thirty miles or so from Mantinea. When the Greek adventurer and huntsman Xenophon bought the estate he built a small temple to Artemis (the Greek Diana), for having helped to save him from the Persians, and he held an annual celebration in her honor. The goddess will have been delighted, for the hunting on his land was excellent. Nothing much had changed over the centuries. Hadrian encouraged Antinous to hunt, and here was ideal country, rich in game, for the young man to learn the art of the chase.
The emperor made sure that he was back in Athens in time for the great theater festival of the Dionysia in March 125 (which he had first attended in 112). He presided as its agonothetes, or president, and made a good impression on the locals. Dio Cassius reports: “He wore local dress and carried it off brilliantly.”
His hosts during his stay were the international Romanized super-rich. One of these had been Philopappus, whom Hadrian met during his first visit to the city, but he had died in 116. His sister, Balbilla, built a grandiose monument for him near the Acropolis, decorated with statues of Philopappus and his ancestors, kings of Commagene. Courtesy of Balbilla, Hadrian may well have billeted himself at the family town house or a villa in the countryside.
Another successful Greek was Gaius Julius Eurycles Herculanus Lucius Vibullius Pius, to give him his complete nomenclature. He was of Spartan stock and descended from a Eurycles who had fought on Augustus’ side at Actium and had enthusiastically albeit fruitlessly chased after Antony and Cleopatra as they sped away by sail to Egypt and their doom. A Roman senator and former praetor, he was a senior member of the imperial elite. Plutarch knew him well and dedicated an essay to him (tongue in cheek?) entitled, “How to Praise Oneself Without Incurring Disapproval.”
Hadrian was fond of the twenty-four-year-old Lucius Vibullius Hipparchus Tiberius Claudius Atticus Herodes Marathonios (Herodes Atticus, for short). He was an Athenian aristocrat, and fabulously wealthy. His grandfather was reputed to be the richest man in the Greek world. Both he and his son were generous patrons of the arts and architecture, and more than happy to cooperate with the emperor on the beautification of Athens.
Self-interest mingled with the cordiality. Both sides, Romans and Greeks, were aware that there was latent hostility among provincials to the empire. Pliny, writing earlier in the century, warned a prospective governor of Achaea (the province of Greece) that tact was essential when dealing with the locals.
Do not detract from anyone’s dignity, independence, or even pride … To rob [Athenians and Spartans] of the name and shadow of freedom, which is all that now remains to them, would be an act of cruelty, ignorance, and barbarism.
But however discreetly the Roman rulers conducted themselves, the reality of Greek subordination was clear enough to the intelligent observer. Plutarch, who admired and liked Romans, argued that anyone entering public office should recognize this, but avoid unnecessary subservience. “Those who introduce the emperor’s opinion into every decree, committee debate, act of patronage, and administrative act, force emperors to have more power than they want.”
Well, perhaps not in Hadrian’s case; it was in his nature to interfere and he loved to consume detail. But was he sensitive to the underlying Hellenic reservation? He was too intelligent not to recognize it, but he did not value it. As deeply as he respected Greek culture, he was not a sentimental naïf like Nero, who believed that he could free all the famous city-states and return to them their ancient liberties. That experiment had failed, and Hadrian had a different idea, which was not to liberate Greece from the empire but to make it equal to Rome inside the empire.
There was nothing new in appointing men such as Philopappus and Eurycles to the Senate and other high positions in the government, but it was a growing trend that the emperor happily fostered. However, he wanted to do more than promote meritocrats. His extended stay in Athens witnessed an astonishing expenditure on new buildings. The result, which gradually became apparent during the years of construction, was the transformation of an ancient, slightly dusty “university town” into a new metropolis. Where Rome remained the center of government, Athens was to be the empire’s spiritual capital.
Hadrian’s coup was to complete the enormous temple of Olympian Zeus, which stood about one third of a mile southeast of the Acropolis. The foundations had been laid as long ago as about 520 B.C., the original plan being to outdo the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus, one of the Seven Wonders of the world. The project was soon abandoned and, although work on it briefly recommenced in the second century B.C., since then nothing had been done. Hadrian now brought matters to a successful, if extremely expensive, conclusion. In the temple, he installed a colossal sculpture of Olympian Zeus. The temple was enclosed by a marble-paved precinct filled with statues of Hadrian, each dedicated by a Greek city.
Other developments included an aqueduct, a pantheon, a gymnasium, and, in Pausanias’ eyes best of all, a cultural center and library, which had a “hundred columns, walls and colonnades all made of Phrygian marble; and pavilions with gilded roofwork and alabaster.”
A statue has survived, an official portrait of the emperor in ceremonial armor, which expresses in visual form Hadrian’s view of the relation between Athens and Rome. The breastplate shows in relief the goddess Athena, patron of Athens, being crowned by divine personifications of victory. She is standing on a she-wolf suckling the baby boys Romulus and Remus—the traditional symbol of Rome. It is almost as if Rome were not the conqueror, but had itself been conquered.
Hadrian cast himself as the unifier; after all, it was on his breastplate that images of the empire’s two cultures were brought together. As a boy he had incorporated in his own personality a passion for all things Hellenic and at the same time a deep admiration for the old-fashioned moral fiber of the Roman Republic. That balance he now applied, this time in political terms, to the empire of which he was the head.
Four years had passed since Hadrian had last seen Rome, and it was time to go home. He needed to meet the Senate again and check that discontent was not simmering unseen. More excitingly, the villa complex at Tibur was, if not complete, ready for habitation. In the spring of 125 the emperor left Athens and set off northward to the Adriatic port of Dyrrachium (today’s Durrës, in Albania).
En route he took the opportunity to explore central and western Greece. Once more he was the indefatigable tourist, calling in at Delphi, home of the classical world’s most celebrated oracle. The aged Plutarch served as high priest of the shrine and had dedicated a statue of the emperor; if he was still alive, Hadrian would have held discussions with him. In any case, he adjudicated a complicated dispute concerning the membership of the Amphictyonic League, an association of neighboring city-states, the aim of which was to protect and administer the temple of Apollo at Delphi, where the oracle was based.
As usual, wherever he went, Hadrian busied himself with resolving long-standing local disagreements and deciding on development projects. The town of Coronea disputed grazing rights with its neighbor Thisbe and local tax dues with Orchomenus. The emperor made his judgments, but the vendettas outlived him, and were eventually to trouble his successor on the imperial throne.
Whenever Hadrian’s emotions were captured, he wrote a poem to mark the event. His visit to Thespiae was such an occasion. This town in Boeotia was dedicated to sexual love, as personified by the boy god Eros, Aphrodite’s attractive, mischievous son. Every four years the Erotidia, a “very magnificent and splendid” festival of love, was held.
The love most admired here was that between the erastes and his eromenos, but heterosexual romance was celebrated too. In his dialogue On Love, Plutarch tells the story, ostensibly a true one, of a merry widow at Thespiae who arranged the kidnap of a handsome ephebos and then married him—much to the annoyance of his male admirers. And Heracles was remembered at a sanctuary in his honor for sleeping with forty-nine women, all daughters of the same father, during a single night. A fiftieth daughter declined the honor, and the angry demigod sentenced her to be his virgin priestess for life. Her latest successor still managed the sanctuary.
During his stay, the emperor went hunting on nearby Helicon, the most fertile mountain of Greece, writes Pausanias, where wild strawberry bushes offered delicious fruit for goats. This was the home of the Muses, and “the people who live there say that not a single herb or plant can harm human life; even the venom of snakes is weakened.”
Animals were less fortunate: the emperor downed a bear and dedicated it to Eros, accompanied by a short poem in Greek. He asked the god:
… be gracious, kindly receive
the best parts of this bear from Hadrian,
the one he killed with a blow from horseback.
You, of your own accord, in recompense let grace be
breathed soberly on him by Aphrodite Urania.
How are we to interpret this prayer? Antinous is not mentioned by name, and, if he was absent, this may simply be a lonely emperor’s plea for love. But an alternative and more plausible hypothesis may be hazarded. “Urania” means heavenly or spiritual, so Hadrian was seeking the blessing of nonphysical love. On the assumption that Antinous was with him in Greece at this time, the emperor, as a responsible erastes, was seeking relief from sexual passion and its transcendence by something more honorable—a love that, as Plutarch puts it, leads “the soul from the world below to truth and the fields of truth, where full, pure, deceitless beauty dwells.”