As the darkness lightened and the stars went out, rosy-fingered dawn materialized, looking her most delightful. Although he was covered in black volcanic dust and exhausted, Hadrian’s spirits lifted as he gazed across from the summit of Mount Etna at the brightening horizon.
He had decided on a long, risky night climb so that he could see the sunrise, which, according to the Historia Augusta (quoting doubtless from the emperor’s autobiography), was “many-colored, it is said, like a rainbow.” He had done exactly the same at Mount Casius in Syria, just before his accession, and his nocturnal ascent had culminated in a storm. He had nearly been struck by lightning. This time the danger was even greater, for he was ascending a live volcano.
Etna stands about nine thousand feet above sea level, and the emperor and his party grew light-headed as they climbed and the oxygen thinned. They found their way up to the crater by torches. The mountain was restive; not long before, in 122, its entire crest had been blown off in a violent explosion. Ash, cinders, and volcanic blocks had fallen from the air for miles around and many roofs in the nearby town of Catania had collapsed.
The countryside had not yet recovered, and the beautiful sunrise revealed desolation all around. It must have been much the same scene as after the eruption of Vesuvius, about which Hadrian had learned, horrified and fascinated, as a little child, with its evocation of the end of the world.
Having sailed south from Dyrrachium, the emperor’s flotilla probably put in at the great harbor of Syracuse, which was not far from Etna. After his volcanic ascent and a brief inspection of western Sicily, he resumed his journey to Rome.
The emperor’s arrival in the capital had been heralded by public prayers for his safety. Coins were struck celebrating his impending reditus. The bloodstained events of 117 still rankled, but it was now clear that he was no Domitian. While ruling decisively, he consistently acted as a princeps, a first among equals, not as a dominus. There had been no more executions of senior senators. The settlement between the supporters of the imperial regime and the Stoic opposition that Nerva had struck was holding firm.
There was much building work for Hadrian to inspect. Best of all, the Pantheon was ready. An architectural masterpiece, it is one of the very few Roman buildings that has survived complete to the present day (in the guise of a Christian church). Approached from the front, the building has the appearance of a conventional temple, with three rows of columns supporting a pediment with a pitched roof. Visitors pass through bronze doors (the originals, although repaired in the sixteenth century) and find themselves in a round space surmounted by a great coffered dome, with a circular opening through which the sky can be seen. The exterior of the dome was covered in gold leaf.
The Pantheon retained its dedication by the man who commissioned the original structure, Augustus’ friend and partner in rule, Agrippa. Hadrian had a rule of not having his name inscribed on buildings he commissioned; but he made one exception, the newly completed majestic temple of Trajan and Plotina, which he dedicated parentibus suis, to his adoptive father and mother.
An even more tempting architectural treat awaited the emperor outside the city—the villa complex at Tibur. He intended to stay there for some time, and it cannot reasonably be doubted that Antinous was now living with him.
A senator or ambassador summoned to Tibur to enjoy the emperor’s hospitality was driven in a carriage up a long hill from the plain below. To his left he looked across gardens to a stone theater and a circular temple of Venus. The road skirted a high, colonnaded terrace about 250 yards long; supporting it was a long multistory block of tiny rooms, quarters for the service staff—the cooks, cleaners, gardeners, engineers, builders—who made the villa function. It has been estimated that as many as two thousand people—slaves, servants, officials, and guests—could occupy the villa at any one time.
The distinguished visitor stepped down from his conveyance and walked up some steps into a large vestibule where there was a shrine to Hadrian’s beloved Matidia. He was guided to his quarters, or directly to a presence chamber, through a labyrinth of halls, banqueting suites, columned porticoes, baths, peristyles and atria, covered walkways and formal gardens.
First impressions were overwhelming. The place was garishly multicolored. Public rooms were decorated with frescoes and marble of every hue, and bright mosaics covered their floors. A phrase on an inscription, which may have been Hadrian’s own words, speaks of “the Aelian villa with the colorful walls.” In niches or on plinths, indoors and out, everywhere there were groves of statues, all of them, as was the convention, painted in brilliant colors.
Another, equally ubiquitous feature of the villa was water. It spurted, fell, or flowed in monumental fountains, ran along sluices, or stood still and glassy in rectangular pools. Martial spoke approvingly of rus in urbe, or the countryside in the town. The Romans had a pronounced taste for intermingling nature with urban artifice. In Hadrian’s villa, greenery was civilized by statuary and architecture set off by a touch of nature, of the wild. As much space was given over to gardens and fields as to buildings.
The Historia Augusta reports that the emperor
built his villa at Tibur in wonderful fashion, and actually gave to parts of it names of provinces and places there, and called them, for example, the Lyceum, the Academy, Prytaneum, Canopus, Poecile, and Tempe. So that he might omit nothing, he even made a Hades.
In this memorial nomenclature, Hadrian was not original. For generations wealthy Romans had built country villas on much the same lavish principles as he applied to what he liked to call, modestly, his “house at Tibur.” They took pleasure in naming features after admired originals, usually Greek; so Cicero had his “Academy” a century and a half before Hadrian established his. The difference was one of scale and scope. Even Nero’s famous Domus Aurea, or Golden House, a luxuriant mix of town and country in the heart of Rome, occupied only between 100 and 200 acres to Hadrian’s 250 or more.
It is not known for certain which parts of the villa corresponded to which Roman province or place. Hadrian made room at Tibur for the great Greek philosophers: the Lyceum was a gymnasium outside the walls of Athens where Aristotle gave lectures and Plato’s Academy a walled olive grove. The Poecile was the Painted Stoa (Poikile Stoa) at the northern end of the Athenian marketplace, where Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, met his students. Their equivalents in the villa were not copies, but at most stylized evocations or perhaps on occasion simply the names given to a building or a piece of land. For visitors they were presumably identifiable by appropriate statues and decorations.
Presumably the Canopus canal in Egypt and the Vale of Tempe in Thessaly had personal associations for Hadrian that cannot now be recovered with any assurance; with the former (to be named some years later), an allusion to Antinous may be hazarded (see pages 283–84), and Tempe’s reputation for sorcery points to one of the emperor’s abiding interests. The Prytaneum, the town hall of Athens, seems out of place, but perhaps it was in some way connected with Hadrian’s service as archon.
Whether or not the trapezium of underground tunnels beneath open land to the south of the estate was intended as a metaphor for Hades is unsure, but possible. Such an ambitious engineering project must have had some important function. So far as can be told, the tunnels had no practicable exits except for a subterranean link to an open-air stone theater. Some scholars suggest that this may have been a cult theater, used for religious events, and that in the tunnels initiates experienced chthonic rituals, not unlike the terrifying ceremonies at Eleusis, where darkness and sudden bright light induced ecstatic visions of truth. An underworld, indeed.
The villa was both a palace and a vacation resort, accommodating on one site the public and the private. For the rituals of state the architects—among whom we assume the talented amateur, Hadrian himself—designed spaces of more than sufficient grandeur. At the same time, the emperor enjoyed the good things in life: he was “devoted to music and flute players, and was a great eater at great banquets.” At Tibur there were open-air dining rooms, leafy terraces for pleasant promenades, quiet gardens populated with rural deities in marble—Dionysus, Pan, Silenus—and, very probably, rough country for hunting. Where Domitian built a despot’s palace on the Palatine, Tibur was the home of a sociable citizen-emperor.
Hadrian wished to maintain a personal life away from the public gaze and his official duties. His most astonishing architectural innovation was a round structure at the heart of the complex. Almost exactly of the same diameter as the Pantheon in Rome, it is still substantially in place, but unroofed and ruined. Inside the external wall are a colonnade and a moat surrounding a circular island on which a building stood—an intertwining confection of stone curves and straight lines. As well as living and sleeping areas, it contained two lavatories and a small bathhouse (with access to the moat for swimming). A minivilla within the villa, it could be reached only by wooden bridges that were easily removed to give a sense of complete inaccessibility. Here was the emperor’s hideaway. Here he could relax alone, or be alone with Antinous.
A building can scarcely be cited as reliable evidence of the psychology of its maker. However, beautiful as the marble cottage is, the suspicion arises that it was the invention of a man with negative affect, with a weak fellow-feeling for others. Here we see Hadrian, solitary in his deluxe hermitage, hidden in the crowd, as a misanthropic Timon of Athens, although much too rich to be ruined by his unbefriending generosity.
The villa was an elaborate reminder of imperial power. It was no accident that its splendors matched those of the court of a Hellenistic monarch. Even though Hadrian was a civilis princeps, who walked with kings nor lost the common touch, he governed in an even more executive manner than his predecessors. In the capital, the fiction of the emperor as the first citizen of a republic was still observed and Hadrian politely followed the constitutional conventions. However, when he was in Italy, the center of government was to be found at Tibur not Rome. Also, Hadrian spent more than half his reign traveling. Consulting the Senate, attending its meetings, and seeking its advice was not possible.
Of course, an emperor seldom acted alone and when announcing a decision often indicated the many experts whom he had consulted. He increasingly depended on his amici (literally, “friends”), chosen advisers and senior officials who accompanied him wherever he happened to be. A favored amicus might be appointed a comes (or “companion,” hence the later title of count) and given a particular area of responsibility. The emperor also made use of a consilium, a council of state that could consider, even develop, policy and endorse major decisions. This was not a permanent committee but a shifting group of men of high rank. They were drawn from a pool of senators, including some with a legal background, and equites (among them, heads of government departments), and were selected for their expertise on any given topic on which the emperor needed advice.
The imperial bureaucracy was growing, but, more important, its administrative departments, previously managed by freedmen, were increasingly headed by equites, for whom the public service offered a well-paid career path. This change meant that not only senators had an opportunity to participate in government.
There was nothing new about these centralizing trends, which (as already observed) can be detected in previous reigns; the novelty was the pace with which they were moving forward under an autocrat whose benevolence was matched by his decisiveness.
Most of the women in his family were dead by now, but Hadrian had a number of male kinsfolk, some of whom he liked better than others. Servianus had married Hadrian’s eldest sister, Paulina, by thirty years her husband’s junior. He had criticized his young brother-in-law during Trajan’s reign, but he was now seventy and enjoying the twilight of a successful career.
He retained a certain political importance, for his daughter had married a man called Gnaeus Pedanius Fuscus Salinator and given birth to a son, Pedanius Fuscus. He had been born in or about 113 and was now a boy of twelve or so. His importance lay in the fact that he was Hadrian’s great-nephew and the only other male Aelian. Everyone could see that the emperor, approaching his fiftieth birthday, was most unlikely to sire offspring at this late stage, and showed no inclination to secure the succession with an adoption. Little Pedanius Fuscus could expect to be the emperor’s heir when he grew up.
A more congenial personality than Servianus was Marcus Annius Verus, a wealthy senator and a member of the Spanish set at Rome. The family came from Baetica and may have been related to the Aelii: like them, its fortune probably originated in the export of olive oil. Verus had four children, two boys and two girls, all of whom made highly advantageous matches. He was high in favor with Hadrian, who appointed him to a third consulship, for the year 126; this was an unprecedented distinction on the part of an emperor who had served as consul only three times himself.
Servianus was a friend of Verus and sent him an odd little congratulatory poem. In it a man called Ursus claims to be a leading player in the “glass-ball game,” but admits that “I myself was beaten by the thrice consul Verus, my patron, not once but often.” Sometime many years previously Servianus had adopted the name of Ursus; as he had only held the consulship twice, he was ruefully admitting defeat in the great game of politics, for which playing with a fragile glass ball was an apt metaphor.
One of Verus’ sons, also Marcus Annius Verus, married an heiress who owned a vast brickworks outside Rome (and no doubt profited from Hadrian’s many building schemes). In 121 a son arrived, yet another Marcus (confusingly, every male Verus, not simply the firstborn, shared the same given name). By the time of the emperor’s return to Italy he was a toddler of four.
The father died in the year of his praetorship, probably in 124, and the child was adopted by his grandfather. Many years later Marcus remembered the old man for “his kindly disposition and avoidance of bad temper.” Despite her exceptional wealth, his mother instilled austere habits in her son: he reported that she was god-fearing and virtuous, and lived “the simple life, far removed from the habits of the rich.”
His grandfather was not the only man to busy himself about this little boy. Lucius Catilius Severus, his maternal great-grandfather, played so active a part in his upbringing that Marcus added the names Catilius Severus to his original Marcus Annius Verus. Catilius, a Bithynian of Italian descent, was a close friend of the emperor, having given him crucial support during the first nervous days of his accession to the purple.
On his return to Italy, Hadrian met the orphan, now about four, and took a liking to him. According to the Historia Augusta, he was a “solemn child from the very beginning,” a quality that pleased the emperor. As time passed, his interest and affection grew; Marcus was brought up under the emperor’s close supervision—literally “in Hadrian’s lap,” in Hadriani gremio. Evidently, the child seldom lied, and Hadrian nicknamed him Annius Verissimus, or “most truthful”—a pun on his cognomen Verus, which means “true” in Latin.
At the unusually young age of six, before he started his education proper, Marcus was enrolled as an eques, by Hadrian’s specific arrangement. A year later the emperor enrolled him among the Salii, a priestly college founded by the legendary king Numa Pompilius, Hadrian’s antique model of the just and wise ruler. These were the “leaping priests” of Mars—twelve young patricians who wore outlandish outfits originally worn by warriors in the remote past. Every March they purified the sacred trumpets that the Romans carried to war and sang the “Carmen Saliare,” a chant the function of which was to keep Rome safe in battle. Hadrian’s intervention was unusual, for the college usually elected new members itself, and was a sign of special favor.
Hadrian’s relationship with Marcus was political as well as personal. It recalls Augustus’ grooming of the two sons of Marcus Agrippa, Gaius and Lucius Caesar. The first emperor removed them to his own house and personally attended to their upbringing, as if he were a very grand paedogogus. He was thinking in the long term; he hoped that he would live long enough for the boys to become adults and enter politics. Fate dashed his plans, for they died young. The echo with Hadrian was not fortuitous. If he were allowed enough time, it made sense to train up a successor from childhood. After all, Augustus had survived to the age of seventy-seven: that would give Hadrian more than a quarter of a century; plenty of time.
The emperor was unenthusiastic about young Pedanius Fuscus. It was not simply a question of his kinship with the little-trusted Servianus, but he seems to have been a bad lot, being “erotic and fond of gladiators.” It was sensible to have more than one option at his disposal.
Even the lovely villa at Tibur could not keep Hadrian in one place for long. On March 2, 127, after no more than a year and a half since returning from his grand tour, the emperor left Rome for a tour of northern Italy.
On his return he decided to reorganize the governance of the peninsula. Augustus had divided it into eleven districts, but this appears to have been for statistical convenience when managing periodic censuses. Local authorities were largely left to themselves under the general supervision of the Senate. Hadrian disagreed with this laissez-faire approach. He arranged Italy into four administrative regions headed by ex-consuls called iuridici. The extent of their powers is unclear, but it looks as if the emperor wanted to place the homeland of the empire on a level with other provinces. This demotion paralleled the promotion of all things Greek. The reform was unpopular, and was repealed after his death.
Hadrian was back in Rome to celebrate an important moment in his life. August 11 marked the tenth anniversary of his accession. Ten days of games were held to mark the occasion and thirty Pyrrhic dances (a war dance performed by men in full armor) staged in the Circus Maximus.
The emperor then fell ill, or so the evidence strongly suggests. According to the Fasti Ostienses, the annual record of official events, the games were to promote “the emperor’s health.” A number of coins also refer to the salus Augusti; on their reverse they show the personification of health as an attractive woman, feeding a snake in a basket. Snakes were often used in healing rituals and were associated with Asclepius (Aesculapius in the Latin form), the god of healing and medicine. Patients slept in healing temples and nonvenomous snakes were encouraged to slither therapeutically around the dormitories. Another coin type of the same period shows Hope, Spes, holding up a flower.
The supposition of bad health is supported by a report in the Epitome de Caesaribus that for a long time he endured a painful “subcutaneous disease” that left him “burning and impatient with pain.” It is possible, of course, that the emperor had been incapacitated by an accident. The Historia Augusta mentions a fractured collarbone and rib sustained while hunting; no date is given, and the summer of 127 is as good a time as any for an accident to have taken place. However, the balance of the evidence suggests a bout of illness lengthy enough and grave enough to have warranted numismatic propaganda.
As to what the emperor was suffering from, retrospective diagnoses in the absence of the patient are risky. However, his symptoms are consistent with erysipelas, a streptococcus bacterial infection. This infects the underskin, or dermis, and the fatty tissue beneath, and often inflames the face or bodily extremities. A red, swollen, warm, hardened, and painful rash occurs. The patient can go on to suffer fever, tiredness, headaches, and vomiting. In the days before antibiotics erysipelas could be fatal, or, if not, quite likely to recur.
In the following year, with his tenth anniversary behind him and his health presumably having improved, the emperor judged the time right to accept the title of Pater Patriae, father of his people. Like Augustus, and probably in imitation of him, he had declined the Senate’s offer for a long time; despite the fact that it conferred no additional power and was not an official post, the honor was not to be treated lightly. The wise emperor regarded it as a reward for substantial attainment. Hadrian could feel sure that he had at last put the deaths of the four ex-consuls behind him: they had been forgotten, or at least forgiven.
Hadrian laid plans for further expeditions. His first stop was to be the provinces of northern Africa, rich, urbanized, and fertile (although then suffering from a severe drought). No princeps had ever been there before, and in 123 he himself had had to cut short a tour to deal with a sudden Parthian crisis. The visit got off to an excellent start. According to the Historia Augusta, “it rained on his arrival for the first time in the space of five years, and for this he was extremely popular with the Africans.”
The provinces received the by-now-familiar treatment. Hadrianopolises bloomed along the itinerary: even Carthage was so renamed. Great building works were announced, an aqueduct, temples, and so forth. Emperors such as Nero had confiscated many African estates to refill the treasury, so large areas were crown land, sublet to tenants-in-chief. Hadrian checked carefully that they were not oppressing the peasants who tilled the land. He introduced new regulations, giving tax breaks to those who cultivated marginal or previously unused land. An inscription recording some of the details refers to “Caesar’s untiring concern by which he assiduously keeps watch for the advantage of humankind.”
Three key features of Hadrian’s reign, its recurring melodies, were given another hearing—building the limes that marked out the edge of empire; recruiting the victims of empire to help the victors run it; and, ultimately the most essential of all, maintaining the morale and (much the same thing) the efficiency of the legions. Hadrian extended what were called Latin Rights, according to which political leaders and their families who headed town councils automatically received Roman citizenship. Although the details are not altogether clear, he now opened citizenship to ordinary town councillors.
Visitors to the predesert of Algeria and Tunisia today can see substantial stretches of wall and ditch. They are the remains of the fossatum Africae, already under construction by the time of Hadrian’s arrival. This series of border defenses had many features in common with the Britannic wall, although local materials were used—in this case mud bricks. The longest unbroken stretch ran for about forty miles, with a gateway every Roman mile and an additional watchtower equidistant from two gates. Rome had widened its zone of control under the Flavian emperors and Trajan, and the fossatum made it clear that this process of expansion had now concluded.
However, if the wall asserted a border, it was not there to exclude. Rather, its main purpose was to enable the legions to manage relations between a settled agricultural population to the north and southern nomads who needed to move their herds and flocks to and from summer and winter pastures. This entailed controlling water sources, especially in times of low rainfall.
By the end of June, Hadrian had reached the former kingdom, now province, of Numidia, where the III Augusta legion was waiting for his inspection. Its legate, Quintus Fabius Catullinus, was an intelligent officer who had obviously been warned what to expect of his demanding commander in chief. He trained his troops to the highest possible level of efficiency, and in an elegant piece of indirect flattery to Hadrian the rainmaker erected two altars, one dedicated to “Jupiter Best and Greatest, lord of the heavenly rainstorms” and the other to “Winds that have the power to bring generous rainstorms.”
The legion had just moved to a new base at Lambaesis and was busy constructing a fortress. Large parts of an inscription, on the base of a column erected to commemorate the imperial visit, have been found, which transcribe speeches the emperor made to the troops. A shorthand writer must have been in attendance, for his remarks have been taken down verbatim. It is one of the few times we have Hadrian’s own words as he spoke them, and can almost hear his voice.
Addressing legionary cavalry after they had performed in front of him, he said, “Military exercises, in a manner of speaking, have their own rules, and if anything is added to or subtracted from them, the exercise becomes too insignificant or too difficult. The more difficulties that are added, the less pleasing is the result. Of all difficult exercises the most difficult was the one you performed, throwing the javelin in full battledress … I approve of your eagerness.”
On July 1 the emperor praised a Spanish cohort for building a stone wall for the new fortress in record time. “A wall requiring much work, and one that is usually made for permanent winter quarters, you constructed in not much longer a time than it takes to build one of turf.”
The officers came in for a fair share of praise, but there was criticism of a cavalry commander whose name is lost. “I commend Catullinus, my legate, … because he directed you to this exercise, which took on the appearance of a real battle and which has trained you in such a way that I can also praise you. Your prefect Cornelianus also has performed his duties very well. However, the cavalry skirmish did not please me. [———] is the person responsible. A cavalryman should ride across from cover and pursue with caution, for if he cannot see where he’s going or if he cannot restrain his horse when he wishes, it is perfectly possible that he will be exposed to hidden traps.”
A week later the emperor congratulated some Pannonian auxiliaries for their maneuvers. “If anything had been missing, I would have noticed it, and if anything had stood out as bad, I would have pointed it out. In the entire exercise you have pleased me uniformly.”
It is easy to see why the emperor was popular. We can imagine him in the African sun in front of hundreds of sweating men. His words crackled with energy. He knew exactly what he was talking about, and had precise ideas of how things should be done. His praise was worth having, and his listeners were fearfully aware that he would not hide his disapproval.
This was how to keep an army fighting fit when there was no fighting to be done.