Hadrian’s two guardians were busy men and cannot have had much time to supervise their ward’s progress closely; but they shared Domitia Paulina’s ambitions for her son. Hadrian was sent to a secondary school when he was about twelve years old. It was one of the best, or at least best known, in Rome, for its grammaticus, a Latin word meaning both secondary-school teacher and grammarian, was the celebrated Quintus Terentius Scaurus. Author of a manual on grammar and books on spelling and the correct use of prepositions, he was a master of scholarly ratiocination at its driest.
Grammatical cruxes were popular talking points among educated Romans, and evidently went down well with the bright young student from Baetica; or so we infer, for the adult Hadrian made himself out to be something of an expert on linguistics. He was the author of Sermones, or “Conversations,” two volumes on grammatical topics (sadly, lost), and once engaged in scholarly debate with his former teacher. He challenged Scaurus, still alive and working, on his interpretation of the word obiter—“by the way” or “in passing”; he cited many learned authorities, including a letter Augustus wrote to Tiberius in which the emperor criticized his stepson for avoiding the word. Of course, Hadrian added bumptiously, the emperor was only an amateur.
Here we have the unmistakable tones of the precocious and competitive teenager who insists on outdoing the expert, and who will never altogether grow up. It was the authentic Hadrian.
Going to school—or, more exactly, to the grammaticus’s house—was to enter the dangerous world of grown-ups. Well-to-do parents understood this and appointed a paedogogus, a trusted slave who supervised children at home and accompanied them to the classroom. He was all the more necessary as his charges approached puberty and attracted the attentions of men in the street. Boys were more at risk than girls, if only because the latter went out in public less often and were usually educated at home. Unsavory encounters were common, and a handsome bribe could transform the home tutor into a go-between. And it did not take more than a gift or two to persuade an inquisitive child to a fumble.
It was to ward off this kind of threat that the poet Horace’s father refused to delegate accompanying his son to school.
… he preserved my chastity
(which is fundamental in forming a good character), saving me Not only from nasty behavior but from nasty imputations.
Unfortunately the trouble was not over once a pupil had walked through a grammaticus’s door. If a contemporary of Hadrian, the great poet and satirist Decimus Junius Juvenalis (his full name is uncertain; we know him as Juvenal), is to be believed, the classroom was the scene of much furtive sexual experimentation. Observing that the teacher was expected to act in loco parentis, he wrote that fathers
require that he take the father’s role in the scrum,
ensuring that they don’t play dirty games
and don’t take turns with one another.
It is no light thing to keep watch on all those boys
with their hands and eyes quivering till they come.
Covert sexual abuse was commonly accompanied by overt physical abuse. Masters routinely flogged idle or rebellious or just lively students. A mural at Pompeii reveals a typical scene: the schoolmaster stands sternly on the left, students are seated quietly at their desks, and a boy carries the almost fully stripped culprit on his shoulders. Another grabs his legs. A classroom assistant raises a cat-o’-nine-tails, ready to strike. So central was the experience of corporal punishment to the learning process that an expression for being too old for school was manum subducere ferulae—“to withdraw the hand from the cane.”
The curriculum Hadrian settled down to study was narrow. The notion of a liberal education that catered to mind and body was little valued. Mathematics and science were not on the syllabus, nor music and the arts, with the sole exception of literature. Gymnastics and athletics were left to the holidays.
There were, in essence, only two related subjects of study—literature and oratory—and two languages to be learned, Latin and Greek. Hadrian was introduced to the classics of both tongues, foremost of which were the two epics of Homer, the Iliad and theOdyssey, composed by one or more oral poets in the eighth and seventh centuries B.C. In Latin he studied masterpieces from the more recent past—the speeches of Marcus Tullius Cicero, “that genius, the only possession of Rome to rival her empire”; Horace; and Publius Vergilius Maro, or Virgil, author of the great national epic, the Aeneid, which celebrated Rome’s eternal empire, imperium sine fine.
Scaurus and his assistants were not directly concerned with literary criticism, although they did expound the “moral” of every passage. Texts were examined in great detail and their meaning explained, their meter and syntax analyzed, as well as the tonal and rhythmic aspects of the spoken word. Hadrian and his fellow students were taught to read aloud with intelligence and feeling. They broke down, or parsed, sentences into their constituent elements—subject, verb, object, and so forth—and scanned verse through a tough system of question-and-answer.
This could be dreary work, and the classes in oratory were much more fun. For centuries, the art of public speaking had been an essential skill for any upper-class Roman interested in a career as a politician and as an advocate in the courts. To get on in the world it was essential to be able to address large gatherings with confidence and to persuade listeners of the rightness of one’s point of view. Even under the empire, when election to office had largely been replaced by imperial designation, oratory was a highly valued art.
Scaurus introduced Hadrian’s class to the foundations of rhetoric. Boys learned to retell legends and stories from Rome’s past in their own words. They took epigrams from the poets and developed them into arguments. A more complex task was to compose speeches around imaginary themes. These were either controversiae, exercises based on cases in a court of law, or suasoriae, the giving of advice at a public meeting.
Pupils spoke on one side of a case or the other. The issue debated, of course, had less to do with the law than with resolving a moral dilemma. This was no accident, for the study of oratory was an essential part of a boy’s ethical molding. As Marcus Porcius Cato, called the Censor, a paradigm of Republican citizenship, observed in the second century B.C.: “An orator, son Marcus, is a good man good at speaking.”
Whatever might have been the case in his day, theory was not now borne out by practice. As an induction to virtue, oratory left much to be desired. The subjects for debate were too remote from the challenges of ordinary life to be relevant, and encouraged the use of specious and hairsplitting arguments. The unscrupulous would knowingly strive to make the worse cause seem the better. Oratory’s disjunction from the real world was reflected in the fact that it had become a highbrow entertainment. Speeches were honed to perfection and authors then read them aloud in lecture theaters. Audiences would applaud a particularly fine effect. The art of persuasion had dwindled into a work of art.
We are not told whether Hadrian liked going to school. Contemporary observers were highly critical, but we know of at least one man who looked back on his education as the “happiest days of my life.” Hadrian may not have gone that far, but he had a lively, inquiring mind and his studies certainly won his attention.
Quite suddenly he became infatuated with all things Greek. Soon after the death of his father, he immersed himself in Greek studies so enthusiastically that he was nicknamed Graeculus, “little Greek boy.” There is the slightest hint in the Historia Augusta that the two events were somehow linked; perhaps his philhellenism filled an emotional gap (especially if, as is possible, his father had taken him to Greece when on a foreign posting and introduced him in a simple way to the glories of its civilization). It is likely that his guardian’s new wife, Plotina, encouraged him. She became very fond of Hadrian and was something of an intellectual and philhellene herself.
Caution is called for. The only thing unusual in Hadrian’s passion was the length to which he took it. The Romans were a practical people who distrusted works of the imagination, unless they conferred an immediate and useful benefit. Law, architecture, engineering—these were disciplines they could understand, for they called for rigorous mental application but no flights of fancy.
However, they had little in the way of a homegrown intellectual or cultural tradition. Although they had been aware of the Greeks for all of their history, they were bowled over by what they found when they conquered the Greek world in the second century B.C. and incorporated it into their empire. The cities—Athens, Antioch, Ephesus, Alexandria (in every way Greek rather than Egyptian)—astounded with their beauty, elegance, and splendor. Greek philosophy and scientific inquiry, its poetry and drama, provoked a deep, if reluctant, admiration. Most well-educated Romans spoke Greek fluently; Latin poets copied the literary masterpieces of Athens and Italian architects modeled their buildings on its temples and pillared porches.
Horace famously wrote:
When Greece was taken she took control of her rough invader, and brought the arts to rustic Latium [the Italian region where Rome can be found].
He added, with almost tangible disgust, that the “fetid smell” of primitive Italian verse forms gave way to clear and unpolluted air.
The Greece with which Hadrian was so fascinated was no longer simply that of the mainland, of the tiny city-states that drove off two Persian invasions, among whom the most powerful had been democratic Athens and militaristic Sparta, of Socrates and Plato, of Sophocles and Aristotle. Nor was it just the larger Greece of all the many colonies that the mainland city-states had scattered around the Mediterranean along the coastlines of the Black Sea, Asia Minor, and northern Africa, in Sicily and southern Italy.
In fact, “Greece” had grown further still to include the complete eastern half of the Roman empire. This was because four centuries earlier the Macedonian king, Alexander the Great, had overthrown the Persian empire, whose territory stretched from the Ionian Sea to the Indian Ocean. After his death, his generals divided his conquests into powerful independent kingdoms, and introduced Greek ideas, Greek and Macedonian colonists, and, above all, the Greek language to these vast oriental domains.
Any natives who wanted to get on were obliged to Hellenize themselves. As Peter Green remarks:
Like Indians under the British Raj angling for the entrée to European club membership, they developed the taste for exercising naked, for worshipping strange gods, for patronizing the theatre; they courted municipal kudos by the lavish generosity of their benefactions.
Of course, the Greekness of many Asiatic provincials was only skin deep. Their Roman overlords thought them tricky, cowardly, greedy, and unreliable. They were venal confidence tricksters, and what could sometimes be a true talent for high-flying rhetoric was in the case of most Asiatics no more than a tiresome gift of the gab.
To many traditionally minded Romans, there was something still more threatening about the Greeks—their approach to religion. Official Roman religion was not intended to be emotionally satisfying; it entailed a web of complicated rituals in the home and in the public square, designed to preserve the pax deorum, the grace and favor of the gods. Eastern cults, by contrast, offered mysticism and their ceremonies induced out-of-body, ecstatic experiences. Initiates were often sworn to secrecy. The state, whether under the Republic or the empire, distrusted excessive excitement and was always on its guard against the coniuratio, the society bound together by a common oath and invisible except to its members. Cults were often expelled from Rome, but they were so popular that they kept creeping back.
This spiritual exoticism appealed to Hadrian’s deepest levels of feeling far more than did Rome’s traditional nit-picking superstitio, and would go on doing so for all his life. And so did two other oriental imports—magic and astrology. Magic had long been illegal, but became increasingly popular under the empire. It was employed for many purposes—healing illnesses beyond the reach of conventional medicine; hurting, even killing, one’s enemies; stimulating erotic love; ensuring the victory or defeat of a charioteer at the races.
This last was the purpose of a curse tablet in lead found by archaeologists, which still conveys a strong stench of hatred two millennia later. It demands of a powerful spirit, or daimon,
from this day, from this moment that you torture the horses of the Greens and Whites [chariot teams]. Kill them! The charioteers Glarus and Felix and Primulus and Romanus, kill them! Crash them! Leave no breath in them!
Spell books were published and “magical papyri” have been unearthed from the bone-dry sands of Egypt that reveal the lengths to which people were willing to go to unleash the powers of darkness.
One of magic’s key principles was sympatheia, or “fellow feeling.” This allowed the part to be taken for the whole, pars pro toto—hence the removal from barbershops of hair or nail clippings, which gave the spellbinder power over their owner. Alternatively, and more ambitiously, the principle of “like for like” explained the use of wax dolls which, when pierced with a needle, communicated pain, even death, to their human originals. Another version of similia similibus entailed human sacrifice, where one living person was killed either to save another or to preserve the state, or in an act of self-immolation volunteered his or her own life. But in these days such a tragic transaction was rare, and the Baetican teenager had no grounds for supposing that it would ever apply to him, or anyone he might come to love.
Hadrian was also fascinated by astrology and other arcane means of foretelling things to come. Because it depended on complicated mathematical calculations, reading the stars was felt to be more of a science than spells and incantations and, despite its inherent implausibility, was bracketed with astronomy as a legitimate form of inquiry. It gave humankind a godlike knowledge compared to which even kingship was insignificant.
It was precisely because the authorities were convinced that astrologers genuinely opened a door into the future that they frowned on their art; casting an emperor’s horoscope was high treason, for it might predict the time and manner of his death. None of this deterred Hadrian from making himself something of an expert, at least in his own eyes; he developed a habit of casting his horoscope every New Year’s Day, writing down all the things he would be doing in the coming year.
Hadrian was never frightened by contradiction. His philhellenism was essentially antiquarian and archaic: what he admired was Greece’s glorious past. At the same time, he looked back with nostalgia and respect to the heyday of the Roman Republic, long before the catastrophic first century B.C., when it broke down in a welter of bloodshed and the “free state” gave way to the rule of emperors. He did not much enjoy studying the classics of the age, Virgil and Cicero, finding their styles too polished and orotund.
He came to prefer the rougher, more muscular writing of Quintus Ennius, who flourished in the third and early second centuries and was a close friend of Scipio Africanus, Hannibal’s nemesis. Ennius was the author of the Annals, an epic poem that told the story of Rome from the fall of Troy and the arrival of the Trojan prince Aeneas on the shores of prehistoric Italy to the present day. For many years the Annals was a set text at school, although the Aeneid came to supplant it.
Ennius stood for old values. He set out his philosophy in a line that, like the best writing in Latin, requires at least twice the number of English words if a translation is to do it full justice: moribus antiquis res stat Romana virisque, “the Roman state depends on the customs and morals of ancient times and on real men, who deserve the name.”
Another of Hadrian’s heroes was Marcus Porcius Cato, whom Ennius knew well personally. Cato wrote Origines (sadly, lost), which traced the rise of the Italian cities and told the story of Rome from the time of the kings—a parallel track in prose to Ennius’ epic. He loathed the noblemen of his day, whom he regarded as corrupt, self-serving, and softened by luxury. In his account of the Punic Wars (the usual name for the wars with Carthage), Cato refused to praise any of them by name, singling out for bravery only a one-tusked Carthaginian elephant called the Syrian.
At first sight Hadrian’s respect for these authors contradicts his enthusiasm for all things Hellenic. But appearances deceive. Ennius was of Greek descent and came from southern Italy, an area so dominated by Greek cities that it was named Magna Graecia, or Greater Greece. As well as the Annals, he wrote many plays in the classical Greek manner, often closely imitating works by the Athenian tragedian Euripides.
And although Cato made much of his down-to-earth Romanness, a close examination of his writings reveals a detailed knowledge of Greek literature from Homer onward. He published a textbook on public speaking, inspired by Greek rhetorical theory, and was clearly familiar with the best Greek texts.
So what are we to conclude? Cato and Ennius represented a bridge between the two cultures at their respective and distinctive bests. By Hadrian’s time it was evident that Cato’s gloomy prognostications were mistaken. Rome could safely enjoy Hellenic thought, imagination, and artistry without risking its predominance. However, the Greeks had failed militarily and politically. By contrast, soldiering, military élan, and true grit were fundamental to a Roman’s idea of himself; in the social sphere, so too was the rule of custom and law; and, in the public square, the old Republican elite had shown a talent for finding practical solutions to problems and for reasonably clean administration.
As Hadrian matured from boy to man, he understood that Rome’s future good fortune required a commitment to the mos maiorum, to the way generations of forefathers had done things—even if he remained a Graeculus in the center of his being.
On January 24, 90, Publius Aelius Hadrianus Afer celebrated his fifteenth birthday. Roman boys usually attained their majority in their mid-teens, and sometime in the months that followed, he officially came of age. The occasion, marking the onset of physical puberty rather than psychological maturity, was usually celebrated in a special ceremony on March 17, the day of the Liberalia. This was a festival of the ancient Italian fertility deities Liber (identified with Bacchus, god of wine) and Libera, to whom images of female and male genitalia were dedicated in their temple in Rome.
Hadrian put aside forever his toga praetexta, a purple-edged toga that was a boy’s uniform on formal occasions, and his bulla, a golden plate-or boss-shaped amulet that hung from the neck; he then robed himself in the all-white toga virilis that signified adulthood. He sacrificed at home to the household gods and, if he was at Rome, made his way, surrounded by relatives, friends, and family clients, to the Capitol, the citadel overlooking the Forum Romanum, where he visited the colossal temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus, Best and Greatest; he paid his respects to the divinity that protected the civic community of which he had become a full member.
On quitting the status of a child, Hadrian, like other Roman boys, left school. However, his education was not yet over. Wellborn young men were expected to spend time in the capital “shadowing” a senior political personality (rather as an intern does today), and to follow advanced studies in the art of rhetoric. He also undertook military training.
In Hadrian’s case, though, there was to be a variation on the general rule. Officially he was now head of the family, and this presented his kin with a serious problem. In the ordinary course of events an adolescent adult’s father would be alive and well, and empowered to exercise authority over his inexperienced son, guiding him away from the temptations that beset wealthy young men. Somehow the Aelii had to find a way of keeping their juvenile paterfamilias on the rails.
Perhaps as a holding measure, Domitia Paulina and his guardians, Trajan and Attianus, decided that Hadrian should go to Baetica to inspect the family estates in his capacity as the new master. Although he had spent most of his childhood in or near Rome, Hadrian had visited Baetica once before; we are not sure exactly when, but if, as has been suggested, his father had been posted there at some point after his praetorship, he would have taken his family with him. Hadrian was now back on home ground in his own right.
It is hard to imagine Domitia Paulina allowing her inexperienced son to travel alone, and she presumably accompanied him. She will have introduced him to relatives on her side of the family in the port of Gades. He definitely met a paternal great-uncle; the encounter was more than the fulfillment of a polite obligation, for this Aelius Hadrianus was, fascinatingly, a master of astrology. He cast the boy’s horoscope and predicted imperial power. Prophecies of this sort were perilous and must have been kept secret, only to be revealed many years later in Hadrian’s autobiography.
The young master visited his lands a few miles upstream from Italica; these were mostly devoted to the production and export of olive oil, and storage amphorae have been found stamped port. P.A.H.—“from the warehouse of Publius Aelius Hadrianus.” This does not mean that Hadrian’s father had run the estate directly himself, nor would his son be expected to do so. A senator—or for that matter a senator’s son—was not supposed to soil his hands too openly with “trade.” He took an interest in the exploitation of his assets, but often set up in business his more able slaves or freedmen and invested in their commercial activities. Bailiffs managed his estates, supervising the labor force and negotiating with tenants.
Duty done, Hadrian went on to have a thoroughly good time. He learned something of military life; this did not entail joining the army but becoming a member of a local collegium, or association, of teenage boys of good family. Iuvenes, as they were called (literally, the word means “youths”), received some training, and were also expected to do good works: we know of a collegium in the province of Africa that dedicated a basilica (a large building used for trials and as a conference and shopping center) and some storehouses for public use.
We can safely assume that they also enjoyed hunting, to which Hadrian was introduced when he was in Baetica. He cannot have known much about the sport beforehand, although Trajan, who was a keen huntsman, may have mentioned the subject, for most upper-class Italians saw it more as an amusement for slaves and freedmen, or as a spectacle in the amphitheater, than as a pursuit for gentlemen.
Hadrian had no time for such reservations, and hunting immediately engaged his impassioned attention. The animal most commonly pursued in the ancient world was the hare, often hunted on foot with the assistance of scent hounds and driven into nets. However, by the time of the empire sight hounds were in use, which were fast enough to have a good chance of catching the animal, and nets could be dispensed with. Huntsmen rode on horseback if they wanted to keep up with the chase without having to run long distances.
A larger and more alarming enemy than the hare was the wild boar, and in the eastern provinces and northern Africa, intrepid enthusiasts hunted the lion, the leopard, the lynx, the cheetah, and the bear.
One of hunting’s attractions for Hadrian was that, even if it was not yet fashionable in Rome, it was popular with Greeks, for whom it was not just a pastime but an exercise in bravery and a religious act. It promoted good health, improved sight and hearing, delayed old age, and, in particular, trained men for war. Xenophon, an Athenian who studied under Socrates in the fifth century B.C., wrote a classic text on the subject, which was still widely read. The Olympian deities themselves enjoyed hunting, according to him, and liked to watch the sport. Pious huntsmen opened proceedings with a prayer to Apollo and his sister, Artemis (goddess of the chase, equivalent to the Roman Diana), to grant them a good bag, and closed them with a short thanksgiving.
So Hadrian was able to cite respectable justification for his new craze. He needed to, for his family was showing signs of anxiety about him. Hunting was not merely time-consuming but expensive. When a friend once complained about his son’s extravagant expenditure on hounds and horses, Pliny counseled calm. “Surely everyone is liable to make mistakes,” he remarked, “and everyone has his own foibles.”
But, despite his own enjoyment of the chase, Trajan did not take such a relaxed view. His ward was getting above himself and had attracted criticism in Italica. His Hellenic posturing may also have irritated the thoroughly “Roman” Trajan; it is telling that years later he used Hadrian’s old nickname when he referred dismissively to some Hellenic provincials as “these Graeculi.” The boy needed to be taken in hand, so Trajan, then a legionary commander in northern Spain, ordered him back to Rome. From now on he treated his ward as his son, pro filio—a gesture that had as much to do with control as with affection.
Hadrian’s interlude of independence was over. He would never again be in a position to kick over the traces. This may well have rankled, but not for long. Trajan was close to the seat of power, serving as consul in 91, and was well regarded by the emperor. The sixteen-year-old Hadrian found himself at the fulcrum of great events. It was an exciting time to be in Rome.