Pannonia was as far away from the amenities of civilization as it was possible to reach within the boundaries of the empire. Now a part of Hungary, it was one of a chain of provinces running along the right bank of the wide and strong-flowing river Ister, our Danube, which rises in the Black Forest in Germany and empties itself into the Black Sea. The landscape was wooded and mountainous, with few towns. The vine and the olive did not grow there, and a local beer was brewed in place of wine. Pannonia was famous for a plant called the saliunca, which had a sweet smell and could be used to combat bad breath and “offensive exhalations of the armpits.”
The territory was new to Rome, which had conquered and annexed it only a century previously. It was of no particular interest in itself, but tribal migrations in central Asia were pushing populations west and south toward the imperial frontier. Augustus saw a threat to Macedonia and Greece unless buffer provinces to their north were established, with the Danube as a defensible frontier.
The inhabitants of Pannonia were various Celtic tribes, with a reputation for being warlike and brave, but also cruel and treacherous. They were rumored to use human skulls as drinking cups. However, after the bloody defeat of a great rebellion in A.D. 9, they settled down to foreign rule and were beginning to adopt the Roman way of life, with new urban settlements springing up.
It is a sign of Roman self-confidence that the only fortresses they built lay along the Danube, and that there was no need to garrison the province itself. One such was Aquincum (today’s Óbuda, or Old Buda, in Budapest), the headquarters of one of the province’s four legions (at least), the II Adiutrix Pia Fidelis (the Second “Reserve” Legion Loyal and True). Originally a rectangular camp on the traditional military model, it lay on the riverside with a view of barbarian lands across the water, and was well on the way to becoming a substantial town with stone buildings replacing wooden structures and civilian dwellings spreading beyond the ramparts. The streets were paved and there was a small forum or public square, an aqueduct, and water conduits.
It was in this remote but flourishing outpost that the next phase of Hadrian’s life opened. Having completed a stint with the vigintivirate, he was twenty years old and ready to move on to a new challenge. A spell of military service had once been more or less compulsory for well born young Romans, but it appears that this was no longer the case. Hadrian’s personal wishes have not been recorded, but a lively and adventurous lad would surely have welcomed the thrill of travel to strange places and the scent of danger. In any case, his own inclinations weighed less than the opinion of his guardians. Whoever made the final decision, in 95 Hadrian accepted a commission as military tribune in the army and left Rome for Pannonia.
As I have suggested, Trajan was almost certainly governor of the province at this time, campaigning against the unruly Suebic Marcomanni, a Germanic tribe in central Europe on the far side of the Danube. In his early years of soldiering he had been a tribune himself, and had learned much about the art of warfare, which, according to Pliny, he was only too happy to communicate to the next generation.
A distant look at a camp, a stroll through a short term of service was not enough for you; your time as tribune must qualify you for immediate command, with nothing left to learn when the moment came for passing on your knowledge.
So it was no surprise that Trajan found a tribuneship for his ward with the II Adiutrix.
In its upper reaches, the Roman military system was no more meritocratic than European armies up to the nineteenth century. At the II Adiutrix, as elsewhere, commissions were bought and sold, and political influence counted for more than experience. The legionary commander was a former praetor, or legatus pro praetore, and so possessed imperiutn. He was outmatched only by a former consul with proconsular rank—in practice, his immediate superior, Pannonia’s governor.
Reporting to the legatus were six military tribunes. Hadrian was to be the most senior of them, the tribunus laticlavius. Hadrian was expected to serve for between one and three years. In theory he was the legatus’s deputy, but in practice his duties were undefined. His primary task was to learn the business of soldiering. The other tribunes were equites (tribuni angusticlavi, or “narrow-banded”); they had already seen service and tended to be in their late twenties or early thirties. In essence, tribunes were equivalent to today’s young staff officers.
The II Adiutrix, like other Roman legions, consisted of 5,120 soldiers, although like other Roman legions it may not have been up to full strength, and was subdivided into ten cohorts. A cohort was large enough to be a fairly powerful unit in itself on the battlefield, but small enough to maneuver flexibly to cope with awkward terrain or to respond to the enemy’s tactics.
A legion was actually run by the centurions. These were usually men who had risen from the ranks on merit, although good connections could engineer appointment. They have no exact modern equivalent; if a legatus is similar to a colonel, who commands a regiment, then they resemble both a sergeant-major and, at the most senior levels, a major. There were six to a cohort, each of whom commanded centuries of eighty men, or five in the first cohort. A lead centurion was probably also in charge of each cohort (although our sources do not make this absolutely clear).
The fifty-nine centurions carried immense prestige, especially those in the first cohort. An ordinary private earned 1,400 sesterces a year, but even the most junior centurion received an estimated salary of 18,000 sesterces. The primus pilus, the master centurion and commander of the first cohort, who led the first file, or pilus, on the battlefield and was a valued adviser of the legatus, made as much as 72,000 sesterces annually. No wonder even affluent equites entered the army with an ambition to attain the status of centurion.
Life was tougher for the ordinary soldier. However, the army gave him security in the form of a reliable income in coin, a regular healthy diet, access to good medical treatment, and a sense of common purpose. On the debit side he had to sign up for most of his adult life, a term of twenty-five years (extensions were permitted), and was not allowed to marry, although many acquired mistresses and children with the passage of time. He was usually recruited from coloniae, or veterans’ settlements, in northern Italy, southern Gaul, and Spain. He was meant to be a Roman citizen, but when there was an urgent need for manpower he might be awarded citizenship on joining up.
Legionaries were highly skilled at multitasking. Some were principales, men with particular and highly responsible duties. Others were simply immunes, specialists who had no particular seniority. They might be clerks in the governor’sofficium. Alternatively, they worked in the camp hospital, were armorers and artillerymen, trumpet and horn blowers, bridge builders, construction workers, road makers, butchers, horse trainers, medical orderlies, and so forth. A cavalry contingent of 120 riders provided scouts and messengers.
Soldiers with a record for bravery were standard-bearers for cohorts and centuries, and to be a legion’s aquilifer, the man who carried into battle its precious “eagle,” a pole topped by an eagle emblem surrounded by a laurel wreath, was a high but perilous honor. Almost the most shameful thing that could happen to a legion was to lose its eagle to the enemy.
A soldier was a member of an army, of a legion, of a cohort, and of a century. But the most important institution in his life was the contuberniutn, a fellowship of eight men who shared the same living accommodation, tent or hut, and messed together. He wore a bronze or iron helmet, a scale, mail, or segmented metal cuirass, a rectangular semi-cylindrical shield (the scutum), a heavy javelin (the pilum), a short thrusting sword (the gladius), and in all probability a dagger. In addition, when on the march he carried cooking and digging equipment, provisions for at least a fortnight, and three or four stakes for use when forming the palisade of a temporary, or “marching,” camp. In total, he carried a load weighing at least sixty-five pounds. No wonder legionaries were affectionately called (after one of Rome’s greatest generals) “Marius’ mules.”
Hadrian found Aquincum to be a busy place. In addition to the II Adiutrix, a similar number of auxiliary troops were billeted there: recruited from provincials, auxiliaries did not need to be Roman citizens and played a supporting role for the legions. If many of these soldiers had a partner and offspring, not to mention a slave or two, it is reasonable to suppose a community of fifteen thousand military personnel and family members. In addition, traders and suppliers of various commodities and services, all kinds of camp followers, will have been drawn from both sides of the Danube to do business with the Romans. All in all, Aquincum played host to as many as twenty thousand souls.
As the legate’s deputy, the young laticlavius commanded spacious and ornate accommodation. He had his own house with many rooms, and imported freedmen and slaves from his household in Rome to look after him. If he so wished he could live in grand style and pay little attention to his flock, the gregales. However, we can take it that Hadrian did not follow this course. Later in life he was well known for his unpretentious, informal manner, and was able to converse easily with every class and type of person; he won a reputation for being “an ostentatious lover of the common people.” Following Trajan’s example, he developed an uncanny memory for names, not least among ordinary legionaries and long-serving veterans, and made a point of sharing the soldiers’ simple diet. It was at Aquincum that he laid the first building blocks of this reputation.
Only 120 miles upstream the governor, Trajan (I assume), ruled from the provincial capital, Carnuntum, keeping an eye on his ward and having him visit for the conduct of army business. We hear no more complaints of excessive hunting—despite the fact that Pannonia was famous for its hunting dogs, robust enough to pursue and fight with boars and bison.
A scintilla of evidence suggests that Hadrian was making friends with at least one of the legion’s centurions. A soldier’s gravestone from Aquincum notes that his centurion bore the rare name of M. Turbo; he has been identified as Quintus Marcius Turbo, who years later himself became legate of the II Adiutrix and governor of Pannonia (probably Lower), ending up as prefect of the Praetorian Guard. It was a remarkable career from lowly beginnings, and Turbo became one of Hadrian’s close friends and advisers. It was at Aquincum that the two men must have first met.
Hadrian’s tour of duty came to an end in the summer of 96. He had been a year in Pannonia and learned a good deal. Most military tribunes were only too happy to leave at the earliest opportunity for Italy and all the amenities of city life and country retreats. Exceptionally, though, Hadrian accepted a second posting as laticlavius with one of the legions of Lower Moesia, the V Macedonica. He may have been copying his guardian’s example, for (as we have seen) Trajan had spent a number of years as a military tribune and valued the in-depth professional expertise he had acquired.
Hadrian was based at Oescus, another fortress along the Danube, at its confluence with the river Oescus (near today’s Pleven, in Bulgaria). The province was long and narrow and led to the coast of the Black Sea: hence Moesia’s alternative name of ripa Thracia, the Thracian Shore. Here at the port of Tomis a century before, the fluent and fashionable poet Ovid had dragged out long years of exile for having offended the pitiless Augustus, dying miserable and alone.
But the real point about the Lower and Upper Moesias was that they acted as a cordon sanitaire between the dangerously aggressive kingdom of Dacia and Rome’s Mediterranean lands—Dalmatia, Thrace, and, above all, the cradle of classical culture, Greece. When Hadrian stood on the rampart at Oescus and surveyed the forests and mountains beyond the wide river, he knew that sooner or later a Roman army would be obliged to cross to the other bank and march into terra incognita. The victims of Decebalus had to be avenged.
Toward the end of September extraordinary news arrived from Rome. Domitian was dead, killed by members of his own household. The deed was done behind closed doors in the palace and no bulletin was gazetted. Different versions percolated around the Roman world, but Hadrian and his army colleagues were able to establish the broad shape of what had occurred.
In the last year or so, the emperor’s behavior had become increasingly erratic. Anxious about his future, he consulted his own and other people’s horoscopes and tried to work out the exact hour of his death. Despite the fact that he had occupied the throne for fifteen years, he still feared, or sensed, that he had not been accepted as ruler. He now unwisely began to persecute people within his circle. The most eminent of these victims was Titus Flavius Clemens, Vespasian’s nephew and the emperor’s first cousin. High in favor, Clemens served as consul ordinarius in 95 and was married to Domitian’s niece Flavia Domitilla.
Clemens stayed in office as consul until May 1. Then, soon afterward and without warning, he and his wife faced grave accusations. According to Dio Cassius, “the charge brought against them both was that of atheism, a charge on which many others who drifted into Jewish ways were condemned.” “Jewish ways” could mean that Clemens and the rest were flirting with Judaism; Domitian would have been seriously offended that a member of the imperial family was interesting himself in the religion of a people against whom the Flavians had waged a pitiless war and expelled from their native land. The term could equally mean Christian, for many Romans were unclear about the distinction between Christianity and Judaism. There has been a long tradition that Clemens and Domitilla were, in fact, Christian converts.
Whatever the nature of his spiritual life, Clemens left a poor impression on his contemporaries, who saw him as a “man of the most contemptible laziness.” He was executed, and Domitilla banished to Pandataria, a small island off the coast of Campania with a large imperial palace (today’s Ventotene), much favored by emperors who wished to hide away an inconvenient relative.
What struck the people around Domitian—the amici, the Flavian “party” in the Senate, the freedmen and the relatives—was the lack of substantive evidence against Clemens, who (they felt) had been liquidated “on the slightest of suspicions.” If even members of his inner circle could fall victim to the emperor’s paranoid whims, who was safe?
Some of them began the potentially fatal business of planning an assassination. Two leading conspirators were Stephanus, Flavia Domitilla’s procurator, or business manager, and Parthenius, the emperor’s cubicularius, master of the bedchamber or valet de chambre, with routine access to the imperial presence.
They knew better than to act alone. They did not support an opposition party (and certainly not the Stoic opposition); rather, they wanted to act on behalf of the Flavian establishment of senators and administrators by removing an increasingly unreliable ruler who was imperiling their personal security and the stability of the imperial system. Discreet contact was made with key personalities in the regime.
Of these by far the most important were the two prefects of the Praetorian Guard, Titus Petronius Secundus and Norbanus (this is his only appearance in history and his full name is unknown). The Praetorian Guard was a force of ten thousand highly trained and well-paid troops based in and around Rome. They were the imperial bodyguard, and were also powerful enough to deal with civil dissent. One cohort at a time stood guard in the imperial residence on the Palatine, carrying weapons but in civilian dress.
Gradually the Praetorian Guard came to expect a role in the transition from one emperor to another, especially when no generally accepted heir had been determined in advance. In A.D. 41 when the emperor Caligula was assassinated, the guards found his uncle Claudius hiding behind a curtain in the palace, carried him triumphantly to their camp outside the city boundary, and acclaimed him as Caligula’s successor. The cowed Senate acquiesced in their decision. This proved to be a sinister precedent, and from then onward the Praetorian Guard was only too willing to dictate its wishes when occasion arose. As we have seen, Domitian was popular with the military and the Praetorian Guard was unlikely to approve of his removal, so it was important for it to be neutralized. The two prefects agreed to pacify their men.
A successor had to be identified who would command general support. No more suitable Flavians existed, so the field was open. Doubtless there were ambitious provincial governors in the far corners of the empire who would wish to be considered for the top job, but conspiracies are meant to be secret and widespread discussion was out of the question. So a stopgap candidate was required, one who would not create a dynasty and would last only long enough for a permanent solution to be negotiated. The plotters believed they had found just the man.
He was Marcus Cocceius Nerva, and he was conveniently old, childless, and sick. He was a handsome man, but with a large nose. His health was poor; he had a habit of vomiting up his food and was a heavy drinker of wine. Born in 35 into a family of legal experts, he was descended from Republican nobility and related to the founding house of the imperial system, the Julio-Claudians. He was a poet whose slim volumes of verse had a certain reputation. Martial observed: “Whoever is familiar with the poet Nero’s verses knows that Nerva is the Tibullus [one of Rome’s finest lyric poets] of our time.” Nero was acknowledged to be the worst poet of the age, so the compliment was distinctly double-edged.
Nerva had thrived under Nero, but executed a neat switch of loyalty and became one of the Flavians’ stalwart supporters. He liked a quiet life and knew how to get on in the world without irritating people. A discreet and able balancer of conflicting interests, he was twice consul ordinarius, alongside Vespasian and then Domitian—tokens of high esteem. Nerva was an intimate of the Flavians in another sense, for he is reported to have seduced Domitian, who had been a pretty young man. The affair would appear to have advanced rather than damaged his prospects.
All the pieces on the board were now in place, and it was time to act. Parthenius removed the blade of a dagger that the emperor kept under his pillow. Stephanus, who pretended an injury and had been wearing a bandage on his arm for some days, now secreted a knife inside it.
Domitian spent the morning of September 26 judging in the law courts, and then retired to his bedroom, where he prepared to take a bath. Stephanus, claiming to have uncovered a plot, asked for an immediate audience and entered the room. A boy was also present, preparing an offering for the Lares, or household gods, statuettes in a small shrine. The freedman said, “Your great enemy, Clemens, is not dead as you suppose, but I know where he is and that he is arming himself against you.” He handed over a confirmatory document and while the emperor was reading it struck at him in the groin. Domitian shouted to the boy to get him his dagger and call the servants; but there was only a hilt and the doors were barred.
The emperor put up a fight, pulling Stephanus to the floor and struggling with him. He alternately tried to grab the dagger and pushed his lacerated fingers into his assailant’s eyes in an attempt to gouge them out. Parthenius or one of his men rushed in to lend Stephanus a hand. At last the emperor was dead, with seven wounds on his body. Some other servants entered who knew nothing of the plot, and promptly killed Stephanus before there was a chance for explanation.
Waiting on tenterhooks, presumably in another room of the palace, was the emperor-to-be. At first a rumor came in that Domitian was still alive. Nerva went pale and could hardly stand up, but Parthenius told him that he had nothing to fear.
For Hadrian the news of the fall of the ruling dynasty called for careful interpretation. Signposts pointed in different directions. The Aelii and the Ulpii had done well out of Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian. After his long march from Spain to Germany in response to Saturninus’ ill-judged revolt, Trajan was one of the regime’s most high-profile supporters—and at times like these a high profile could be unhelpful. The fact that the assassination of Domitian was a coup by the Flavian faction did not mean that the future would be as safe and prosperous as the past.
Senators in Rome might congratulate themselves on the overthrow of a despot, but the next year or so promised uncertainty. By definition, the caretaker emperor was ill placed to deliver firm government and stability, and the competition would soon open to identify the leader who would follow him. If past history was anything to go by, provincial governors at the head of their legions would soon be carefully eyeing one another and weighing their chances. How long before civil war broke out again?
From his vantage point in a faraway fortress on the Danube, Hadrian was able to see that opinion in Rome was much too sanguine. Domitian had been well liked by the rank and file, and most legionaries and probably many centurions were furious about his removal. Some units of the Danubian army, perhaps in Lower Moesia, were mutinous. But without support from the general staff, without a commander to lead them, there was little they, or the Praetorian Guard in Rome, could do. For the moment the skies were calm, but a storm threatened.