Back from Spain, Hadrian was ready to complete his education by studying public speaking under the guidance of a rhetor, or specialist in oratory. By contrast with schoolteachers, rhetors were well paid and were often hired to give speeches on public occasions; some of them were celebrities and, as on today’s lecture circuit, could command high fees.
There were plenty of these oratorical experts in Rome, and the leader in a competitive field was the educational expert Quintilian. Another Spanish import, he came from what is today Navarre. He founded a very popular school of oratory in Rome, for which he received an unprecedented state grant of 100,000 sesterces a year. The authorities saw the school as a means of creating a responsible, hardworking, and well-trained ruling class, for, in Cato’s footsteps, Quintilian’s aim was to educate the complete man rather than simply to impart a skill. He wrote:
The man who can really play his part as a citizen … the man who can guide a state by his counsel, give it a firm basis by his legislation, and purge its vices by his decisions as a judge—that man is assuredly no one else than the orator.
As consul, Trajan was an influential figure at court and would have wanted to place the boy with Quintilian. Unfortunately, about the year 90, when in his late forties or fifties, the great man retired, partially or wholly, from teaching, in order to devote himself to writing. For some years afterward, though, he was tutor to the emperor’s two grandchildren and it is perfectly possible that the consul was able to persuade Quintilian to take on another private student.
In an ancient version of the Grand Tour, many Romans in late adolescence spent some months or more topping up their oratorical training in mainland Greece or the eastern provinces. After a period studying in Rome, whether under Quintilian or some other rhetor, Hadrian may have been one of them. In that case he could have spent time in Athens. There is no direct evidence that he did so, but it is a happy speculation that the lover of Greek civilization seized the first available opportunity (as an adult at least) to linger in Plato’s Academy; to join the audience in the grand open-air theater where the tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides had received their premieres; and to climb up to the Parthenon to pray before the colossal statue in ivory and gold that, more than five centuries previously, the sculptor Phidias had made of the city’s tutelary goddess, Athene Parthenos, the Maiden.
As a member of a family heavily involved in imperial politics and military affairs, Hadrian was well placed to view and learn about the world around him. As the son of a senator he was destined, as of right, to become a senator himself. He was entitled to attend meetings of the Senate as an observer. More important, by attaching himself to a leading politician and orator he gained a practical insight into the process of government. Who was chosen has not been recorded, but one likely candidate is Lucius Licinius Sura, another Spaniard (this time from the northeastern port of Tarraco, today’s Tarragona). As he was one of Trajan’s closest friends, Hadrian would already have been known to him.
By chance an ancient horoscope of Sura survives, which casts an unfriendly light on his personality. Whatever the sophisticated mathematical computations the astrologer devoted to his task, the document reflected Sura’s public image; reading the heavens is an art that hands back to the inquirer what he already knows.
The (person) who has the stars in this way (at his nativity) will be very distinguished, of very distinguished (ancestors), a person of authority and punisher of many, and very wealthy … but unjust and not brought to justice … very distinguished … And he was indifferent to female inter course and sordid toward males … The moon (in Gemini) waxing in the trigonal configuration with Saturn (in Libra) and Jupiter (in Aquarius) also effected a happy and very wealthy (theme) and a person who provided many dedications and gifts for his fatherland.
It is interesting to note here that Sura, like Trajan, is reported to have slept with men, and this may indicate the existence of a well-placed cabal of intimates who shared their sexual preferences. Sura was an able military commander, as well as a noted man of letters. According to his friend Martial, he cultivated an old-fashioned Latin—“your antiquated vocabulary evoked our grave forefathers.” He may have influenced Hadrian’s literary taste, whether encouraging him to read the older Latin authors, or at least approving his admiration of them.
Through practical study and observation, Hadrian came to understand how the empire worked. Its inhabitants formed a colossal pyramid of mutual aid. A powerful Roman was a patronus, or protector, of many hundreds or even thousands of “clients,” not just in Rome or Italy but across the Mediterranean.
A patron looked after his clients’ interests. He would help them by giving them food, money, even land, or by standing up for them if they got into trouble with the law. In return, clients were expected to support their patron in any way they could—voting as he wished at elections and doing all kinds of useful service. In Rome, clients would pay their respects at their patron’s house every morning and walk with him to the Forum.
Clientship was not legally binding, but its rules were almost always obeyed. A patron’s client list lasted from generation to generation and was handed down from father to son. If someone freed one of his slaves, the libertus would automatically become a client of his former owner. Hadrian inherited his father’s extensive client list and, when he visited Baetica, he would have made sure to assert his patronage of many citizens of Italica and beyond.
A man could have more than one patron, and a patron could, in turn, be a client. This benevolent reciprocity cut across social class and linked Romans to people in the provinces. The greatest patron of all was the emperor, and the clientship system enabled him to exact loyalty and cooperation. It was a reliable and trustworthy network of communication in an age when travel was slow, administrative regulation uneven, and legal redress difficult. International trade and banking were advanced and political stability fostered.
Most men and women were very poor, and knew and saw little outside their immediate world. They tilled the fields either as smallholders or as laborers, often slaves, on someone else’s land. Many produced little more than was needed for subsistence. Medium-size farms were more profitable and their owners often paid bailiffs to run them. Life was hard and often brutal. On one Italian farm the laborers recognized their good fortune when they paid for the gravestone of their farm manager, a slave himself, because he “gave orders respectfully.”
Life for ordinary people in towns and cities was no great improvement. Many were jobless or only partly employed. Emperors went to a great deal of trouble to ensure the supply of grain for Rome from Egypt and Sicily and prices were carefully controlled. Some citizens received a grain dole and from time to time there were free distributions of other goods and money. Those who had jobs, whether slaves or freemen, mostly worked in the service industries or in manufacturing workshops. Tombstones from the early empire convey the manifold variety of the men and women Hadrian encountered as they strolled along the Roman street or snatched a bite to eat in one of the numerous fast-food bistros.
Those endowed with intelligence and luck were secretaries, personal maids, or barbers to the wealthy and the well-to-do. A bold and lucky few aspired to the social and political heights: one of these was Tiberius Claudius Zosimus, a freedman, who was manager of food-tasters for the nervous emperor Domitian. Others, unsuited to the exotic perils of the court, ran their own small businesses: a merchant of salted fish and Moorish wine commemorated himself in his own lifetime alongside his freedmen and freedwomen. Lucius Caelius was a tanner and leather-maker who lived to the ripe age (for the period) of sixty-one. There are fewer inscriptions to women, who tended to be wet-nurses, seamstresses, midwives, and the like. But memorials to sword-makers, locksmiths, dealers in cloaks and skins, timber and marble merchants, potters, teachers of literature, interpreters for barbarian tribes, ship’s pilots, goldsmiths, and bankers evoke the teeming labor landscape of a preindustrial society.
Freedmen owned and operated banks throughout the empire, but credit was fully secured, short-term, and usually took the form of bridging loans. Letters of credit enabled travelers to obtain cash when they needed it. When it came to large sums of money, the rich arranged loans among themselves. Seneca defined a praiseworthy man as one who “has a lovely family, a beautiful house, plenty of land under cultivation, and plenty of money out on loan.”
The growing web of arrow-straight roads was primarily designed for military movements and the imperial courier service, but they were also open to traders. Nevertheless, transport by land was painfully slow and so expensive that a journey of any length would either eliminate profit margins or substantially raise prices for bulk goods. Sea travel was much cheaper, but dangerous and out of the question during the winter.
The operations of government were a technical matter that concerned few of the estimated 60 million or so men and women who lived under Roman rule. However, Hadrian, as he approached a career in public administration, needed to grasp the political realities of Rome toward the end of the first century A.D. And the lessons of the past informed an understanding of the present.
During the first six centuries since its legendary foundation in 753 B.C., Rome had devised and implemented an eccentric but surprisingly successful constitution—largely, the outcome of a long struggle between ordinary citizens (theplebs)and the nobility. Ostensibly a democracy, assemblies of adult male citizens passed laws and elected officials who doubled as civilian administrators and generals. In theory any citizen could stand for office, but in practice only candidates from a handful of old, aristocratic families had a chance of election (except for the occasional “new man”). Although senior officials held unlimited power, or imperium, their terms of office usually lasted for only one year and the Senate, once an advisory committee consisting of past and present elected officeholders, acquired overriding authority with the passage of time.
Rome was originally a monarchy, but after the kings had been expelled and a Republic established, the Romans were determined that no one man should ever again be allowed to control the state. So two consuls replaced a single head of government. Beneath the consuls, officials of different levels of seniority ranging from quaestors, who looked after treasury business at home or abroad, to praetors came in groups of various sizes. At each level, one officeholder could veto any decision taken by a colleague. In addition, ten “Tribunes of the People” were charged with the protection of citizens’ interests as against those of the state: they could veto any officeholder’s decisions. A tribune’s person was sacrosanct; he could convene the Senate and lay bills before the people’s assemblies for approval.
Every four or five years two censors were elected from among former consuls, with a duty to supervise public morals. They checked the list of Roman citizens and reviewed the membership of the Senate, expelling any who were guilty of reprehensible conduct.
For anything to get done, this complicated system of checks and balances required all those involved to cooperate. By the end of the first century B.C. the strain of running a large empire with such an incommodious constitution began to tell, and politics grew confrontational and violent. Soldiers of the victorious legions needed smallholdings so that they could earn a living as farmers when their terms of service came to an end. A mean-spirited Senate was reluctant to free up land for the veterans, and a succession of ambitious generals compelled it to do so by the use or threat of force.
These able and ruthless men made a laughingstock of the Republic, and the last of them, Julius Caesar, precipitated a series of civil wars that lasted from 49 to 31 B.C., leaving his great-nephew and adoptive son, Gaius Octavius, as the master of Rome.
Everyone was grateful to Augustus, or Revered One, the title the Senate gave him in recognition of his preeminence, for bringing peace after two decades of civil strife, but gratitude in politics is an emotion that quickly evaporates. He realized that the idea of the old, competitive commonwealth still meant a great deal to the political class. He needed to find a way of retaining power while at the same time “restoring the Republic.” Otherwise, he ran the risk of sharing his adoptive father’s fate: in the most famous assassination in history, Caesar had been struck down by fellow senators in the course of an official Senate meeting.
Augustus rose to the challenge. First, the forms of the old Republic were reinstated and nobles contended for all the offices of state, including the consulship, as they had always done. Augustus presented himself tactfully as princeps, or “leading citizen,” merely the first among equals.
Second, Augustus was awarded a megaprovince, comprising the existing provinces of Spain, Gaul, and Syria. It was no accident that these were where most of Rome’s legions were based, for in this way Augustus made sure he held an effective monopoly of military force. He appointed legates, or deputies, to run his provinces in absentia. As in the past the Senate appointed propraetors and proconsuls (that is, men who had served as praetors and consuls) to govern the empire’s remaining provinces. Augustus reserved to himself an overriding authority—imperium maius—which allowed him to give orders to the provincial governors should that ever be necessary.
Finally, Augustus was granted tribunicia potestas—that is, all the powers of a tribune without the inconvenience of having to hold the office. As with tribunes, his person was sacrosanct and to offer him physical violence would be to break a grave taboo.
This system of government was a great success and, although some traditionalists still hankered after the “real” Republic and acted as an informal opposition, it won the cooperation of most of the ruling class. Augustus’ constitutional arrangements were durable and, with some refinements, were still in place a hundred years later when the young Hadrian was becoming politically aware.
There was one major difference. The Augustan constitution depended, in the last analysis, on the threat, albeit hidden, of force. The pretense that the emperor was a senator like the rest, but just happened to be rather more powerful, was gradually abandoned. The autocracy was recognized for what it was. All that the ruling class requested was that their master did not rub their noses in their humiliation. Some emperors obliged, others did not.
A growing number of non-Italians—drawn from wealthy local elites—were invited to participate in power. The Aelii and the Ulpii were by no means the only provincial families to enjoy senatorial careers.
Men who were elected to public office in the latter days of the Republic had usually been Italians, but Julius Caesar in the 40s B.C. experimented with widening the recruiting pool. Claudius, who reigned between A.D. 41 and 54 and was the first emperor to have been born outside Italy, approved a standing policy that the Senate should include “all the flower of the colonies and municipalities everywhere.”
In practice the early emperors did comparatively little to bring this about, but in the second half of the century the position changed markedly and a number of provincials attained high positions. In 56 the first Greek was appointed to the sensitive post of prefect of Egypt: this was Tiberius Claudius Balbillus, a noted court astrologer, who wrote a book about his journeys around the country he governed. By Hadrian’s birth the complexion of the Senate was looking more representative of the empire as a whole. It has been estimated that perhaps 17 percent of its six hundred members came from outside Italy. Men from the thoroughly Romanized provinces of southern Gaul and southern Spain were recruited, among them (of course) Hadrian’s father. Most of these were ultimately of Italian origin, but for the first time two Greek senators were elected.
Just below the senatorial class were the equites, literally “horsemen.” In Rome’s early days, these had been wealthy citizens who served in the army as cavalry, but now the term embraced businessmen and country gentry. The minimum entry qualification to the ordo was capital or property worth 400,000 sesterces (less than half the 1 million sesterces required of senators). Companies of equites collected taxes on behalf of the state, although cities in the provinces were beginning to take over this task from them. The loss was compensated by gains at court. From the time of Augustus emperors had appointed former slaves to run the burgeoning imperial bureaucracy. These men did not have a politicalconstituency on which they could call and so had no choice but to be totally loyal to their employer. Perhaps for this reason, but also because they made large fortunes that they tended to spend on conspicuous display, imperiallibertinibecame dangerously unpopular. Eventually, emperors replaced them with equites; they, too, carried little or no political weight, but, unlike freedmen, had the signal advantage of being accepted and respected members of the Roman commonwealth.
Meanwhile civic leaders throughout the empire were rewarded for their willingness to take part in public life with the grant of Roman citizenship. The Romans had a long tradition that can be traced back to the distant times when they were conquering their neighbors, local tribes in central Italy. They recruited their victims, inviting the vanquished to join the winning side. Rome awarded some of them full citizenship with privileges and others the lesser Latin Rights.
Once the lands encircling the Mediterranean basin were in Roman hands, the same principle was applied. More and more men from the provinces with not a single Italian gene became citizens. This made the empire a shared enterprise in the success of which those who might otherwise have opposed an occupying power had a common interest. The custom was that a man took on the nomen of the distinguished Roman who had granted him citizenship. Thus a Corinthian who was the son of Laco and the grandson of Eurycles added Gaius Julius to his Greek names, implying enfranchisement by Julius Caesar or Augustus; Gaius Julius Severus was a proud “descendant of kings and tetrarchs” in the Middle East and went on to become a senior Roman official and governor of Achaea (mainland Greece). Nothing is more expressive of someone’s personal identity than how he or she is called, and the fact that throughout the empire everyone of any importance had a Latin name was a vivid assertion of Rome’s unifying authority.
The long era of peace, the pax Romana, that Augustus had introduced after his victory over Antony and Cleopatra showed no sign of coming to an end a century later. We should not allow this to mislead us. The Romans were fundamentally belligerent. Since the Republic’s earliest days they had been more or less continuously at war. As has been seen, their politicians also acted as military leaders. To be Roman was to place a high value on individual valor and state violence.
In theory the Senate condemned aggressive war, but it was usually not too difficult to devise a sufficiently plausible casus belli. And once they were in the field the legions obeyed few conventions. The remote Britannia offers a textbook example of imperial ruthlessness. The island was invaded and annexed in A.D. 43, but at the outset only England and parts of Wales fell under Roman control. Over the following decades, further campaigns led to the reduction of most of the island except for the far north. Although a patriot, Publius Cornelius Tacitus, an older contemporary of Hadrian and one of Rome’s greatest historians, could see an enemy’s point of view. In his biography of his father-in-law, Gnaeus Julius Agricola, who campaigned in Britannia, he puts a passionate speech into the mouth of a Caledonian leader, Calgacus—so passionate that it must have reflected the historian’s real if not openly acknowledged feelings. It is an indictment of empire builders that rings true even today:
Robbers of the world, [the Romans] have exhausted the land by their indiscriminate devastation, and now they ransack the sea … They are unique in being as violently tempted to attack the poor as the wealthy. Robbery, butchery, rapine, the liars call empire. They make a desolation and they call it peace [in Tacitus’s unforgettable Latin, ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant].