The modern age opened for Hadrian a few years before his birth, with the emperor Nero and the catastrophe that engulfed him in A.D. 68. A revolt by provincial generals led to his suicide at the early age of thirty-two, and with that the dynasty founded by his great-great-grandfather Augustus came to an end. For most Romans Nero became a type of the bad emperor: he had murdered his mother, decimated the Senate, and been (mistakenly) accused of burning down his capital city. He displayed an unhealthy, an un-Roman obsession with poetry and the arts. Where was the austere virtus of his ancestors to be found?

Among philhellenes, though, Nero was celebrated as a martyr and his memory stayed evergreen for many years. His biographer, Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus, noted, “There were people who would lay spring and summer flowers on his grave for a long time, and had statues made of him, wearing his fringed toga, which they put up on the Speaker’s Platform in the Forum.” A well-known observer of the contemporary scene remarked: “Even now everyone wishes [Nero] to be alive, and most people think he really is.” Indeed, pretenders emerged in the Greek east to cause brief trouble from time to time.

There was a straightforward explanation for this abiding popularity. Nero, who assumed the purple when he was only seventeen, had been as much of a Graeculus as Hadrian a generation later. As a boy he developed an interest in the arts, dashing off verses with facility; unusually, music was part of his childhood curriculum. The adult Nero aspired to be a great poet, musician, and performer. His aesthetic and sporting interests were essentially Hellenic: he drove a chariot at Olympia, the home of the Olympic Games, and he founded a Greek-style festival, the Neronia, in which musicians, orators, poets, and gymnasts competed for prizes. He visited Greece, where he took part in musical, literary, and dramatic contests.

Nero once remarked: “The Greeks alone are worthy of my efforts; they really listen to music.” His enthusiasm was not entirely artistic, but had a political dimension. During his first of two Hellenic tours (probably in 67) he made the astonishing decision to liberate the province of Achaea—namely, mainland Greece up to Macedonia in the north.

The emperor announced his decision in a clumsy and pretentious speech (we have its text because it was taken down verbatim and carved onto a marble stele). “Other leaders,” he said, “have liberated cities, only Nero a province.” Greek opinion was delighted, and one of his critics, praising with a faint damn, remarked that the decree earned Nero reincarnation as a singing frog rather than as a viper. However, the boasted liberation did not last, for a later emperor soon rescinded it.

We do not know Hadrian’s opinion of Nero, but, when he came to learn the history of his times, he must have been sympathetic to this attempt to rehabilitate the culture of Greece and to place the descendants of Pericles and Plato on something approaching level terms with their Roman masters. When many years later he found an opportunity to advance the same cause, he did not hesitate to seize it.

Two other significant events that took place in the years before Hadrian’s birth molded his world and had serious consequences both for him and his contemporaries. The first of these was a military crisis toward the end of Nero’s reign, which offered Hadrian food for thought as he looked back more than half a century later, with all the advantages of hindsight.

In A.D. 66 Judaea rose in revolt against Rome.

The Jews had long been the most awkward and annoyingly rebarbative of the conquered peoples, and the imperial authorities had never been certain how best to handle them, veering unpredictably between toleration and repression, ruling Judaea sometimes indirectly through a client king such as Herod the Great and sometimes directly as a province. Of an empire of about 60 million souls, a census conducted in A.D. 48 recorded some 6,944,000 Jews, not counting the many thousands still in Babylonian exile and living under Parthian rule. Perhaps 2.5 million lived in or around Judaea. Many had settled elsewhere in the empire, in Rome and especially in the eastern provinces; in an exodus in reverse, a million Jews lived in Egypt, and were a majority in two of the five districts of the city of Alexandria, second only to the imperial capital in economic importance and a learned center of Greek culture. At about 10 percent of the total subject population, they were numerous enough to create difficulties.

Although many Jews of the diaspora were willing to Hellenize themselves like everyone else in the eastern half of the empire, serious obstacles stood in the way of integration. Believing as they did in one invisible God, Jews abjured the multitude of overlapping divinities in whom both their Roman masters and their Greek-speaking neighbors confided their trust. However, respectful of their religious scruples, the emperor intermittently forgave them the duty of sacrificing to his well-being, allowed them freedom of worship, and exempted them from military service. They had the right to send an annual tax to Jerusalem for the upkeep of the Temple, splendidly rebuilt by Herod the Great, and to coin money without the emperor’s head on it, or any other image.

Toleration was not accompanied by tolerance. For most citizens of the empire monotheism was a kind of atheism. While grudgingly admiring their obduracy, both Roman and Greek despised and distrusted Jews. Tacitus exemplifies the general opinion, in which falsehood and fact, unexamined prejudice and sharp perception jostle. He knew about Moses and the escape from Egypt, noting drily that they proceeded to “seize a country [Canaan], expelling the former inhabitants,” an early case of ethnic cleansing.

Critics usually failed to specify what was wrong with the Jews. Tacitus remarks that they abstained from pork, buried rather than burned their dead, and avoided sex with non-Jews. The worst he could come up with was the (entirely fictional, so far as we know) erection in a shrine of the statue of a donkey, which “had enabled them to put an end to their wandering.”

There were, in fact, two real, underlying difficulties—one of which marked a collision with Roman imperialism and the other with Greek cultural values. Jews’ sense of themselves as the chosen people and the exclusiveness of their religious beliefs and practices led, among true believers, to an antagonistic nationalism, which prevented or at least hindered them from joining the Roman imperial enterprise.

One of the abiding symbols of being a Greek was the gymnasium and the wrestling ground, or palaestra. Here men and boys stripped naked (the Greek word for naked was gumnos, whence gymnasium) and exercised themselves. They ran, jumped, and leaped, boxed or wrestled, as well as taking part in two-person tugs-of-war or, less energetically, playing ball games in a special building or covered court. While nudity was completely acceptable to Greeks, it was taboo to reveal the tip, or glans, of the penis, and for this reason they found circumcision to be repugnant.

Gymnastics presented the Hellenizing Jew with a particular challenge. Since the beginning of their story, the Israelites stressed the importance of circumcision as a visible sign of the historic covenant with their sole and fiercely jealous God. According to the historian Josephus, Hellenizing Jews as long ago as the second century B.C. “hid the circumcision of their genitals, that even when they were naked they might appear to be Greeks. Accordingly, they left off all the customs that belonged to their own country, and imitated the practices of the other nations.”

“Hiding” circumcision may have been essential, but it was painfully difficult. A Jew whose foreskin had been cut off in the first days of life had somehow to re-create it. This could be done by surgery. What was left of the prepuce was cut round with a scalpel; then the skin of the penis was pulled down as far as its base and then stretched back to cover the glans. The probability of inflammation and infection was high, and there was a nonsurgical alternative, albeit an equally unappealing procedure: weights could be attached to the skin of the penis to extend it over the glans.

True believers remained fiercely opposed to any reform or compromise. It was said: “Cursed be the man that rears a pig and cursed be those who instruct their sons in Greek wisdom.” Paul Johnson sums up the position:

The great Jewish revolts against Roman rule should be seen not just as risings by a colonised people, inspired by religious nationalism, but as a racial and cultural conflict between Jews and Greeks. The xenophobia and anti-Hellenism which was such a characteristic of Jewish literature … was fully reciprocated.

No record exists of Hadrian’s attitude to Judaism, but we can be certain that, as a fully committed Hellenist, he felt nothing but scorn for this unruly community, the only one in the empire whose ideologues openly resented Roman rule and resisted the universal appeal of the Hellenic idea.

Jerusalem was a marvelous sight. It was larger than today’s Old Jerusalem, with a population perhaps of 100,000. From a distance travelers were known to mistake the city for a snowcapped mountain peak, for it perched on two hilltops above which towered the Temple to the one true God with its walls of gleaming white marble. Gold and silver decorations flashed in the sunlight and on a bright day forced onlookers to avert their gaze.

Built on an eminence extended by massive vaults, the Temple occupied a rectangular courtyard, thirty-five acres in area and a mile in circumference, and was lined with long, double-pillared colonnades in the Greek manner. In the center stood a tall building with turreted walls, which only Jews were allowed to enter. Here was a courtyard for women from which a flight of steps led through an arch into an area reserved for men, where they could witness sacrifices on a great altar. Beyond rose the Temple itself, a magnificent keeplike structure, one hundred feet high. Its façade was pierced by a great entranceway. Golden doors were shielded by a veil made from Babylonian tapestry of linen embroidered in blue, scarlet, and purple.

Inside was the Holy Place. This large room contained three fine works of art—a seven-branched lampstand, a table, and an altar for burning incense. The seven lamps represented the planets; twelve loaves on the table the circle of the zodiac and of the year; thirteen fragrant spices for the altar signified that all things were of God and for God. A small, lightless inner recess, measuring fifteen feet square, was screened in the same way as the outer entrance by a veil. According to Josephus,

In this stood nothing at all. Unapproachable, inviolable, invisible to all, this was called the Holy of Holy.

The original Temple had been destroyed in the sixth century B.C. when the Jews were exiled to Babylon, but was rebuilt on their return. Augustus appointed to the throne of Judaea a Hellenizing client king, Herod the Great, who commissioned a wholesale reconstruction on a much enlarged scale. This was one of the great construction projects of antiquity, and only now in the 60s A.D. was the new Temple finally approaching completion.

Judaea was an unhappy place at this time. The economy was weak and there were tensions between rich and poor. Political opinion was sharply divided and religious sects were at one another’s throats—among them the Sadducees, who monopolized the Temple management; the Pharisees, who were willing to render unto Caesar what was Caesar’s; and the ascetic Essenes, who believed that the end of the world was at hand and that Israel would be rescued from tyranny by a militant savior, or messiah.

The province was small, and Rome sent out only the incompetent or (at best) the third-rate as junior governors, or procuratores. A dispute about the civic status of the town of Caesarea led to disturbances. Heavy-handed measures in an attempt to restore order only made the situation worse. In May or June the young captain of the Temple (a post junior only to that of the high priest) persuaded the authorities to halt the then regular sacrifices for the emperor’s well-being. Gang warfare between opposing factions broke out. Leaders of those wanting to avoid war with Rome were killed. The rebels seized city and Temple and a small Roman garrison was massacred.

When the governor of the neighboring province of Syria heard the news of the revolt, he decided on a show of strength and marched down to Jerusalem with a sizable army. But after some indecisive skirmishing he saw that he did not have the resources to take the high-walled, well-defended city, and withdrew. The rebels harried his columns and a retreat became something approaching a rout.

For the first time since the Babylonian captivity, Judaea was a free state.

In Rome, Nero was nervous. The Jewish revolt had to be put down firmly, but whom should he appoint to accomplish this? He was fearful of his generals and provincial governors: the larger the number of legions they commanded and the greater the luster of their victories, the more he suspected them of designs on the throne.

Nero found just the man he needed to recapture Judaea in Titus Flavius Vespasianus, or Vespasian. He had a number of useful qualifications. Most important of all, at fifty-eight he was approaching the end of a successful but not brilliant career. His family background was reassuringly humble and he would pose no political threat if victorious.

By June 67 Vespasian was in Ptolemais (today’s Acre or Akko) at the head of three legions. One of them was commanded by his son Titus, a dashing and handsome twenty-eight-year-old. Another was led by Marcus Ulpius Traianus, the father of the man who was to become Hadrian’s guardian in twenty years’ time. Young Trajan was around fourteen at the time, and probably accompanied his father on the campaign.

Vespasian proceeded south without undue speed toward Jerusalem, methodically capturing and securing every town and strongpoint in his way. A military incident from this time throws light on why the Spanish clan of the Ulpii were doing so well in the slippery world of Roman politics. Traianus was dispatched with a thousand horse and two thousand foot to reduce the large fortified village of Japha. This was not only in a naturally strong position, but was protected by a recently erected double ring of walls.

Luckily for Traianus, some of the inhabitants came out to offer battle, and the Romans charged and routed them. The rebels fled back into the first enclosure, closely pursued by Traianus’ legionaries, who followed them inside. In order to prevent a further break-in, the defenders in the inner enclosure closed the gates, but had to shut out not only the Romans but also their own people. A swarming, desperate crowd banged on the gates and begged the sentinels by name to let them back in. Cooped up and huddled together, they were butchered to the last man. Josephus reports that, abandoned by their friends, they did not even have the heart to resist.

Traianus saw that Japha would soon fall, but instead of proceeding to an easy victory, he paused. He sent a message to Vespasian asking him to send his son to complete the siege. Titus arrived with reinforcements, and the place was captured in short order. Little wonder that father and son valued the services of a man who combined military expertise with the tact of a courtier.

The course of the campaign in Judaea was halted by the second great event that shaped Hadrian’s age. It was an upheaval that shook every part of the empire. A new civil war broke out, imperiling the stability of the entire grand enterprise.

Nero’s worst fears were eventually realized in 68. When some provincial governors rose against him, it was not merely he that was destroyed, but the dynasty too. If he had put up a fight, he might have won the day, but, too soon fearing the worst, he brought on the worst. Anathematized by the Senate and abandoned by all but a few followers, he fled. Suicide was his best option, but, although his pursuers were almost in sight, he could not bear to kill himself. He kept saying, “What an artist the world is losing!” Someone had to help Nero drive a dagger into his throat.

The four emperors after Augustus had all been his familial descendants and so, in a sense, had an entitlement to the purple. Now, with the fall of the domus Caesarum, there was no obvious candidate for the succession, simply claimants with soldiers to back them. The next eighteen months saw three men successively seize the purple—only to lose it and their lives. Roman legions fought each other in murderous battles. In Judaea, Vespasian watched the situation develop, and eventually decided to bid for the purple himself. Troops loyal to him captured Rome, and the latest imperial incumbent was put to death.

No one stood forward to challenge Vespasian, the fourth and final pretender, and, to universal relief, peace returned. The Roman world had had a bad shock. However, it would be wrong to exaggerate. The storm was mercifully brief; peasant farmers in the Apennines, boatmen on the Nile, and fishermen in Attica were not greatly disturbed. Life went on. But much treasure had been wasted and many lives lost; the capital of the empire had been ablaze and blood let in its holy places.

With the elimination of the imperial system’s founding family, it was evident that some means had to be devised not only of ensuring a reliable succession from one emperor to another, but also of identifying a competent man for the job. Rome had had enough of unbalanced despots. When the next crisis came, when in due course another dynasty crashed, Hadrian would be a young man. He and his contemporaries were to look to the decision makers of the day to avoid the errors of the past.

Meanwhile, there was the Jewish revolt to crush. Before Vespasian set sail for Rome in 70 to establish the Flavian regime, he handed over command of four legions to Titus, to which were added auxiliaries and contingents contributed by client kings—all in all between thirty thousand and forty thousand men. He also appointed a consilium, or advisory committee, of tried-and-tested generals and politicians, probably including Traianus, who was relieved of his day-to-day duties as a legionary commander. This was wise, for Titus was dashing and brave, but sometimes careless.

Four years had passed since the insurgency had begun and an independent state had proudly come into being. The Jewish authorities struck their own fine silver coins and bronze small change, some of which have been unearthed by archaeologists: one of these, a silver shekel, bears the image of three pomegranates and the words Jerusalem the holy, and the obverse shows a chalice and the inscription Shekel of Israel Year Two. Other signs of a stable state include the minutiae of public administration, such as the continuation of the law courts and municipal arrangements for pauper burials.

However, the fighting among radicals continued and opposing factions controlled different parts of Jerusalem. With the return of the Romans they joined in mutually distrustful alliance and, whatever their disagreements, resisted their besiegers with ferocity and ingenuity. When Titus rode out to reconnoiter the city’s defenses, he strayed a little too close to the walls and was nearly captured by a sudden sortie of enemy fighters.

He returned to his camp, shaken and now fully seized by the daunting challenge that awaited him. At first sight, Jerusalem appeared impregnable. The walls of the old city (what were called the Upper Town and the Lower Town) stood on the top of sheer cliffs and on the east side overlooked a valley: the Temple itself rose up like a citadel and was defended by a huge four-turreted fort, built by Herod the Great and named the Antonia in honor of his friend Mark Antony.

The weakest part of the city’s defenses was the third wall, around suburbs, and this was where Titus planned the first attack. Battering rams, protected by an artillery barrage from stone-throwing ballistae designed to clear defenders from the walls, took two weeks to create a breach. The rebels rallied and counterattacked, but gradually the Romans overturned every obstacle placed in their way.

At last Titus faced the culminating test—how to take the Antonia. The rebels tunneled out from the fort beneath Titus’ siege towers, set alight the pit props and other combustible material, and withdrew. The towers collapsed in a blaze of flames.

A quite unexpected occurrence followed. The Antonia itself suddenly collapsed, destabilized by the tunneling. For all the rebels’ efforts, the Romans slowly advanced, fighting every inch of the way through the Temple, both sides setting parts of it alight. Finally, a legionary flung a piece of burning timber through a gold-plated window into the central Temple complex. Its sacred contents were looted, and then the Holy Place and the innermost recess, the empty Holy of Holy, burned to the ground.

Titus razed what was left of the Temple and gave his soldiers leave to burn and sack the city. Tacitus estimated the Jewish body count at 600,000, which seems high; but clearly casualties were very numerous. Titus took the veil from the entrance to the Holy of Holy and hung it in his palace.

To underline the fact that the Temple no longer existed and would not be rebuilt, the tax levied on Jews everywhere for its upkeep was replaced by a poll tax payable to a new fiscus Judaicus, or Jewish Treasury, in Rome.

Awards and honors were distributed. Traianus’s services as a legionary commander and later on the general’s consilium had been exemplary, for about the time of, or shortly after, the fall of Jerusalem he was made a patrician. This was a glittering prize indeed for a provincial from Spain: patricians were Rome’s oldest nobility—descended, legend had it, from the original members of the Senate as first established in the time of the kings. Promotion to patrician status indicated very high favor with the emperor.

Resistance in Judaea did not come to an immediate end. Zealots held out in the desert fortress of Masada for some time, eventually committing mass suicide after a long Roman siege. That tragic detail aside, the war was over.

Each of the contestants offered his account of events. In Rome, a commemorative arch was erected at the top of the Via Sacra, or Sacred Way, the street that led into the Forum—where it still stands. The dedicatory inscription reads: “Following the directions and plans and under the auspices of his father, [Titus] tamed the race of the Jews and destroyed the city of Jerusalem, a thing either sought in vain by all commanders, kings, and races before him or never even attempted.”

Among the empire’s Jewish community, the extent of the catastrophe was very hard to understand. As the Babylonian Talmud put it:

Why was the First Temple destroyed? Because of three transgressions: because of idol worship, sexual immorality, and wanton bloodshed. But the Second Temple, [whose generation] studied Torah, observed the commandments, and engaged in charitable works, why was it destroyed? Because of baseless hatred—which demonstrated that baseless hatred is as weighty as three transgressions: idol worship, sexual immorality, and wanton bloodshed.

The Jews had obeyed the Lord, but, like Job, still been punished. The explanation, mysterious except to the divine mind, was that the enmity of others was potent enough to outplay virtue.

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