Although by any objective standard he had been a successful ruler, Hadrian never won over the Senate and the ruling class. He was widely believed to have been innately cruel, and to have hidden his true nature beneath an affable veneer. An opposing view came from someone who had no reason to be kind, being a cousin of one of the former consuls Hadrian had killed at the beginning of his reign. He wrote that the emperor “mixed justice with kindheartedness in accordance with the care he took when making decisions.”
Dio Cassius gives a levelheaded summary:
Hadrian was hated by the people, in spite of his generally excellent reign, on account of the murders committed by him at the beginning and end of his reign, since they had been unjustly and impiously brought about. Yet he was so far from being of a bloodthirsty disposition that even in the case of some who clashed with him he thought it sufficient to write to their native places the bare statement that they did not please him.
A generous epitaph was written near the end of the reign by the emperor’s friend, the historian, administrator, and general Arrian. Quoting Terpander on the virtues of the Spartans, he writes:
The following words, it seems to me, are better applied to the present government of which Hadrian has been the princeps for twenty years than to old Sparta:
When the young men’s spear prospers, so do the sweet-toned Muse and holy Justice, the defender of fine deeds.
The army (the “spear”), the arts (the “Muse”), and holy justice can indeed be seen as the three foci of Hadrian’s life’s work.
Antoninus conveyed Hadrian’s remains to Rome and arranged his burial “in the gardens of Domitia.” This park was the location of the late emperor’s mausoleum. The building had not yet been completed, for it was dedicated the following year; perhaps a temporary interment took place nearby. We know that eventually Hadrian lay in the grandiose tomb he had built for himself and his successors, for Antoninus’ memorial stone has been found there.
The Senate, remembering its embittered relationship with Hadrian, did not wish him to deify him, but Antoninus insisted (hence perhaps the cognomen Pius). The consecration ceremony was modeled on the obsequies of Augustus. An artificial body, made from wax and wearing the costume of a triumphator, a general at a triumph, represented Hadrian and lay in state in the Forum Romanum. Here it repeated symbolically the dying of the already deceased emperor; for some days doctors examined the “patient” and issued bulletins. Then, when death had eventually been acknowledged, Antoninus delivered a eulogy after which a long procession of dignitaries headed by the Senate made its way to the Campus Martius. Here the effigy was placed on a tall, richly decorated multistory pyre. The consuls set light to it and an eagle, caged on the top tier, was released, which signified Hadrian’s spirit flying up through the flames to join the immortal gods.
What are we to make of Hadrian? The judgment of his contemporaries was much too harsh. Whatever the truth about the killings at the beginning and end of his reign, he governed humanely and equitably. He was immensely industrious and exercised good judgment. He loved the arts and was an enthusiastic and not ungraceful poet.
However, his personality puzzled people; he was gregarious and friendly in manner, but he dropped intimates easily and without apparent regret. In specialist fields such as architecture, he was that annoying person, the self-taught (if talented) amateur who insists on competing with the professional. A Christian poet, Tertullian, called him omnium curiositatum explorator, “a seeker-out of every kind of curiosity.” A hostile witness notes and overstates his faults, but cannot help sounding a note of admiration: Hadrian was
diverse, manifold, and multiform … He adroitly concealed a mind envious, melancholy, hedonistic, and excessive with respect to his own ostentation; he simulated restraint, affability, clemency, and conversely disguised the ardor for fame with which he burned. With respect to questioning and likewise to answering in earnest, in jest, or in invective, he was very skillful; he returned verse to verse, speech to speech, so you might actually believe that he had given advance thought to everything.
In his reflections many years later, in which he reviewed those to whom he owed gratitude, Marcus Aurelius surprisingly makes no affectionate mention of his adoptive grandfather. “Do not be upset,” he wrote, addressing himself as a good Stoic. “In a little while you will be no one and nowhere, as is true now even of Hadrian and Augustus.” His friend and mentor, Fronto, found it hard to warm to Hadrian, whom he compared unfavorably to his successor.
I wished to appease and propitiate [him], as I might Mars or Jupiter, rather than loved him. Why? Because love requires some confidence and intimacy. Since, in my case, confidence was lacking, I dared not love someone whom I so greatly revered. Antoninus, by contrast, I love, I cherish … and feel that I am loved by him.
Hadrian cuts a lonely figure. His moated refuge in the heart of the villa-city at Tibur suggests an emotional self-sufficiency into which few if any were allowed to intrude, except perhaps Antinous. But if it is true that the emperor agreed to the boy’s sacrificial death in the Nile, we can only conclude that here, too, self-sufficiency—and its subset, self-interest—trumped love.
It is a curious feature of Hadrian’s protracted death that no close family members or friends are recorded as having been at the patient’s bedside. They had died, or been killed or dropped. His secretary, Caninius Celer, “saw Hadrian to his grave, then went to his own grave.” Two otherwise unknown men, Chabrias and Diotimus, kept vigil by his coffin; their Greek names suggest that they were members of the emperor’s household, on a par with Trajan’s Phaedimus. Raison d’état brings cruel consequences for even the most lovable ruler, but it seems entirely appropriate that Hadrian spent his last days in the care of slaves and freedmen, and of an heir who, until recently, had only been a political colleague.
If we examine Hadrian’s political and military record, he scores very high. His emphasis on the training and disciplining of the army complemented his unpopular but wise policy of nonaggression to neighbors. He introduced no important structural reforms, but improved the efficiency and morale of the legions in an age when serious fighting was seldom required. Dio Cassius, himself an experienced public servant, observed: “Even today the methods he then introduced are the soldiers’ law of campaigning.”
In another passage earlier in his Roman History, Dio sets out his view of the ideal emperor. In a fictional debate, he has a speaker advise Augustus: “Because of your intelligence and because you have no desire to acquire more than you already possess, you should be strongly disposed toward peace, but in your preparations you should be thoroughly organized for war.” As we have seen, until the very end of his reign, Augustus was an uncompromising and bellicose imperialist. Dio’s prescription fits Hadrian much more closely, and he must surely have had his example in mind when penning these words.
It is difficult to judge the impact of Hadrian’s pan-Hellenic strategy, but he wisely maintained and developed the Roman tradition of encouraging provincial elites to take part in the governance of the empire as partners. In his day more men than previously from “old” or mainland Greece joined the Roman Senate and even governed provinces in the Latin West. In succeeding centuries there was a great flourishing of Greek culture. That the Hellenic easterners increasingly bought into the empire and regarded it as theirs is reflected in their description of themselves during late antiquity as (Romaioi), or Romans. Hadrian can claim some of the credit.
However, his attempt to forcibly Hellenize the Jews precipitated the worst crisis of his reign. The Bar Kokhba rebellion cost thousands of Roman lives, and the number of Jewish victims was many times greater. The elimination of Judaea as a national homeland meant that Jewry no longer posed a political threat—in fact it no longer had a political existence. It was a blunt reminder that, in the last resort, the Roman empire was sustained by violent force.
Roman law functioned as a kind of international law, in the sense that plaintiffs could appeal to it from local jurisdictions, and it helped bind people to the imperial system. Hadrian was very interested in the administration of law, and his judicial decisions reveal a disinterested and detailed concern for fair treatment. The codification and publication of the praetor’s annual edict into “perpetual” or definitive form was an important step in the development of European law.
Like emperors before him, Hadrian was a great builder, and architecture fascinated him. The Pantheon in Rome and the villa complex at Tibur provided a treasure-house of ideas that inspired the architects of the Renaissance and later ages.
Despite his defects of character, Hadrian meant well. He had the great good fortune to preside over an empire at its zenith and of following two well-meaning predecessors. He faced no serious external military threats or economic challenges. His genius lay in the fact that he was a consolidator. Determined not to squander the advantages he inherited, he made the empire safe, purging it of military adventurism, binding its inhabitants to the imperial idea, and embedding the rule of law.
Later in the second century Aelius Aristides, a celebrated Greek orator, addressed a personified Rome in a speech that he delivered in the presence of the emperor Antoninus. It attributes to the spirit of Rome achievements to which Hadrian made a significant contribution.
The sea is not a hindrance to becoming a citizen, nor is the mass of intervening land, nor is any distinction made here between Asia and Europe. Everything lies within reach of everyone. Nobody is a stranger who is worthy of magistracy or trust, but a free commonwealth, in which the whole world shares, has been established under one excellent ruler and director, and everyone meets as if in a common assembly, each to receive his just reward.
In the original Greek, the word the speaker used for “commonwealth” was democracy, which in this period meant a government in which the civil rights of citizens were protected.
It is telling that it was a Greek who paid these lavish compliments; the average, conservative Roman did not feel quite so warm toward an idea of empire as an equal community of peoples. This was one of the reasons Hadrian never really won their hearts, but it was through tirelessly promoting this idea that he helped to ensure the prosperous and pacific continuance of Roman rule.
Antoninus generally maintained Hadrian’s policies and preserved, in the elder Pliny’s phrase, “the immeasurable majesty of the Roman peace.” We hear of no dramas, and the reign exemplifies the truth of the maxim: Happy the country that has no history. There was occasional frontier trouble; in Britain an insurgency led to a new rampart north of Hadrian’s Wall, only for it to be abandoned twenty years later. Thereafter the Romans manned Hadrian’s Wall until the end of their occupation of Britannia.
Such disturbances attracted little attention. Aelius Aristides remarked: “Wars, if they once occurred, no longer seem real.” The empire ran smoothly, he asserted, thanks to the emperor’s watchfulness, but not to his presence. “He can stay quietly where he is and govern the whole world by letters.”
Hadrian’s succession plan worked. When Antoninus died after reigning for more than twenty years, Marcus Aurelius, the verissimus, and Lucius Commodus (later Verus, who soon succumbed to a stroke) assumed office without opposition. Foreign policy became more aggressive, again. After a successful war with Parthia the legions brought back a plague that ravaged the empire and caused a famine. Troops had been withdrawn from the Danube provinces for the campaign, allowing a mass breakthrough of tribes from the far side of the river.
The fighting continued on and off for most of the reign, and Marcus died in camp at Vindobona (today’s Vienna), still struggling to protect the empire’s northern frontier. Breaking the precedent set by his predecessors, he left the empire to his son by birth, the eighteen-year-old Commodus. He was a handsome blond whose hair shone in the sunlight as if dusted with gold powder. A lazy good-for-nothing, he devoted his time to having a good time. In 192 he was assassinated in a well-managed palace plot. In this way, a run of five good emperors came to a miserable end. Some very old men were able to recall the day when Hadrian announced his sequence of adoptions, and to regret the return of inheritance by bloodline.
Migrating tribes pressed harder and harder against the borders. From now on Rome was on the defensive. Its long endgame had begun.