1902 Encyclopedia > Hadrian

Roman emperor (117-138 AD)

HADRIAN, Roman emperor (117-138 A.D.), distin-guished for the peace and beneficent energy of his govern-ment, was born at Rome 76 A.D. His full name was Publius ZElius Hadrianus; his ancestors, originally' from Picenum, had been settled at Italica in Spain since the time of the Scipios. He lost his father at the age of ten, and was placed under the guardianship of Trajan, a cousin of his father and also a native of Italica, who was already a conspicuous man in the Roman army. We know little of Hadrian's youth; but he gave early promise of the readiness and versatility which distinguished him in later life, for he was so ardent a student of Greek that men nicknamed him Graeculus. At fifteen he entered on the practical career of war and government which befitted a Roman, and grew fond of the chase even to excess. Patronized by Trajan and assisted by powerful friends he rose rapidly, filling successively all the civil and military offices, which now, as under the republic, were open to young men of good birth. On Trajan's elevation to the empire Hadrian was the first to congratulate him. He served with distinction in both the Dacian campaigns; in the latter Trajan presented him with the ring he had received from Nerva, a proof of his regard which justified him in aspiring to be his successor. If Trajan was not always favourably disposed towards Hadrian, the good-will of the empress Plotina never failed him, and was particularly helpful in some of the most criti-cal turning points of his career. She it was who secured his alliance with Sabina, granddaughter of the emperor's sister, a marriage, however, which proved anything but happy. She, it was thought, did him still more effectual service at Trajan's death, even determining the question of the succession in his favour. When that emperor returned from his victorious war in Parthia, the succession was still undecided; and we are assured on the express testimony of Dion Cassius that Plotina and her friends concealed his death for several days in order to facilitate the elevation of Hadrian. Whatever may have been the truth of such stories, Hadrian's claim to the empire rested on the unquestionable fact that he was the fittest man. His position as prefect of Syria, and commander of the legions with which Trajan had prostrated the Parthian empire, made him supreme in the army, while his peaceful disposition and civil demeanour must have made him acceptable to the senate. Yet he was not unconscious of the insecurity of his position; for he hastened to propitiate the army by a donation of twice the usual amount, and to excuse his abrupt elevation to the senate by alleging the impatient zeal of the soldiers and the welfare of the state, which could not exist without an " imperator." The first important act of Hadrian was to abandon the late conquests of Trajan, and again to make the Euphrates the eastern boundary of the empire. At his elevation the provinces were unsettled, and the barbarians on the frontier restless and menacing. He was convinced that the old limits of Augustus offered the most defensible frontier, and that the energy of the emperor was sufficiently occupied in governing the provinces already won. This policy of renunciation was ascribed to jealousy of Trajan; but history has recognized its wisdom. While arranging the affairs of the East, Hadrian had an opportunity of pardoning some eminent citizens who were accused of hostility to him, and after his return to Rome he confirmed his popularity by many gracious acts. Modestly declining the honours heaped upon himself, he carefully rendered the last offices to the deceased emperor, and considerably lightened the burdens of the citizens. During an absence in Mcesia, where he had gone to compose some troubles with the Sarmatae and Roxolani, a formidable conspiracy was formed against him. The details are obscure ; but four consular men, among the most eminent of Rome, were accused of being concerned in it, and were put to death. Some, however, went so far as to say that the con-spiracy was a scheme devised by Hadrian for getting rid of dreaded rivals. It was a dark transaction which threw a suspicion on his character. On his return to Rome he exerted himself to undo the evil effects of it by a generous and popular policy. Towards the senate he expressed the utmost deference and consideration ; he admitted the most eminent of its members to familiar intercourse, raised them to the highest honours, and supplied the indigent with means to maintain their position. He was equally liberal to the body of the people, granting them a large donation of money, remitting the arrears of taxes for the last fifteen j/ears, and increasing the funds which Trajan had devoted to the alimentation of poor children. These measures of Hadrian might be criticized as the calculating policy of one who felt his position to be insecure, and who could afford to be generous to the city out of the revenues of the empire But such a theory could not apply to what is most characteristic in his rule,—his unwearying' care for the provinces and for the empire as a whole. He understood the true task of a Roman emperor better per-haps than any of his predecessors. More clearly than any of them he saw that the period of conquest was past, that an extension of the frontiers would only weaken the defen-sive power of the empire, that the time for consolidation and for softening the distinction between Rome and the provinces was come. While Trajan had been guilty of the anachronism of rivalling Alexander the Great, Hadrian made it the work of his life to become acquainted with the provinces, to learn their needs and resources, to improve and benefit them; he sought to be the effective ruler of the empire as a whole, and so was the first to realize the cosmopolitan task which his position im-posed. For this end he sought to obtain a personal knowledge of the people he had undertaken to govern. Leaving Rome in 119, he visited probably every pro-vince of the empire. After traversing Gaul he inspected the legions on the Rhine, and then crossed to Britain, where he built (121) the great rampart from the Tyne to the Solway which bears his name. He returned through Gaul into Spain, and then proceeded to Mauritania, where he suppressed an insurrection. We next find him in the East averting a war with Parthia by a timely interview with the king. From the Parthian frontier he travelled through Asia Minor and the islands to Athens, where he sojourned a considerable time, and so returned by Sicily to Rome, having made the circuit of the empire. After some stay at Rome he resumed his travels. It is impossible to fix the details of this second progress with any exactness. It was chiefly in the East; and he did not finally return to Rome till 134. Everywhere he left lasting traces of his restless and beneficent energy ; he built aqueducts and temples, and raised fortifications in suitable places; he inspected the details of the administration, learned to know the officials, and made himself at home in the military encampments. He was accompanied by a body of architects and artizans organized like a legion, whom he employed to gratify his passion for building in a truly imperial manner. Athens was the favoured scene of his architectural labours ; he added a new quarter to the city, and finished the temple of the Olympian Zeus. While Hadrian spent his life in inspecting the provinces, and was not disinclined to purchase peace by a subsidy to the restless tribes on the frontiers, he did not neglect the army. All along the frontier his legions stood in constant preparation for battle. He maintained a rigorous discipline ; the rules he drew up for the army long served as a kind of military code. He trained them to the severest exercises, and anticipated all complaint by sharing in their fatigues, walking bare-headed on a march of 20 miles a day, and partaking of their coarse fare of cheese, lard, and sour wine. The only important war in which this army was tested was the great rebellion of the Jews, which broke out in 131, and lasted for several years. The founding of a Roman colony on the site of Jerusalem, and an order of Hadrian forbidding the rite of circumcision, were the causes of the war. The Jews fought with the most resolute despair, and they were crushed only by a powerful army commanded by the best general of the empire. According to Dion, 580,000 Jews fell in battle. The whole country was reduced to a wilderness. But the loss of the Roman legions was so severe that in writing to the senate Hadrian omitted the customary formula :—" If you and your children are well, it is well; I and the army are well." In the later years of his life Hadrian discon-tinued his travels, and lived at Rome or near it. His health, which had been impaired by long exposure to the extremes of heat and cold, began to fail; and, what was worse, the dark and suspicious moods which had broken out occasionally in his earlier years became more frequent and fatal. His aged brother-in-law Servianus fell a victim to his jealousy ; his wife Sabina died, not without a rumour of poisoning. Most of those who had been his familiar friends, and had been raised by him to the highest offices, were superseded, or banished, or put to death. But his passion for architecture did' not abate. He built for his residence the great villa of Tibur, which was eight miles in circuit, and was a kind of epitome of the world, with miniatures of the most celebrated places in the provinces, and even of Hades. He built a splendid mausoleum, which has been the nucleus of the castle of St Augelo, and rebuilt several edifices at Rome. In these years he had to choose a successor. His first choice was iElius Verus, who did nothing to justify such a distinction. The next was Antoninus Pius, so called from the filial assiduity with which he cherished the last days and the memory of his adopted father. Antoninus saved him from suicide, to which his physical sufferings imj elled him, and from imbruing his hands in the blood of many noble Romans, who had provoked his moody and fickle temper. Hadrian died at Baiae, 138 A.D. The cruelty of his later life had so eclipsed the lustre of his early rule that the senate at first refused him divine honours, and were prevailed upon to grant them only at the urgent solicitation of Antoninus. In the travels and administrative energy of Hadrian we see only one side of his character. He had a versatile and many-sided mind, in which the faculty for command, specu-lative curiosity, and literary ambition were strangely blended. Not satisfied with the toils imposed on the laborious autocrat of the world, he sought to excel the Greek professors and artists each in his own special walk. In painting, sculpture, and music, in rhetoric and philo-sophy, he considered himself the competent rival and critic of men who had made these pursuits the work of a lifetime. The architect Apollodorus atoned for his frankness with his life. The more politic Favorinus, when reproached for yield-ing too readily to the emperor in some grammatical discus-sion, replied that it was unwise to dispute with the master of thirty legions. The product of Hadrian's pen which has been most celebrated is the dying address to his soul:—

" Animula vagula, blandula,
Hospes comesque corporis,
Qua? nunc abibis in loca
Pallidula, rigida, nudula ;
Nee, ut soles, dabis jocos ? "

Under Hadrian Salvius Julianus composed a " perpetual edict," which is supposed to have been a fixed code of some kind, but the exact significance of the edict is disputed. Still there can be no doubt that Boman law owes much to Hadrian.

The sources for Hadrian's life are unsatisfactory ; the chief are Spartianus in the Scriptores Historicae Augustae, and Dion Cassius as abridged by Xiphilinus, lib. lxix ; see also Aurelius Victor De Caesaribus, and Eutropius; for modern works consult Merivale's History of Oie Romans under the Empire ; Gregorovius, Gesch. Hadrians; and W. W. Capes's "Age of the Antonines" in the series Epochs of Ancient History. (T. K.)

Search the Encyclopedia:

About this EncyclopediaTop ContributorsAll ContributorsToday in History
Terms of UsePrivacyContact Us

© 2005-17 1902 Encyclopedia. All Rights Reserved.

This website is the free online Encyclopedia Britannica (9th Edition and 10th Edition) with added expert translations and commentaries