Hadrian: Biography, Roman Emperor


Hadrian’s biography presents the life story of one of Rome’s most influential emperors, born on January 24, 76 AD. Ascending to the throne in 117 AD, Hadrian’s reign lasted until his death on July 10, 138 AD. His rule is characterized by efforts to consolidate the empire’s vast territories and his passion for architectural innovation. This biography aims to shed light on the accomplishments and challenges Hadrian faced throughout his 21-year reign.

Biography Summary

Early Life and Rise to Power

Hadrian, formally known as Publius Aelius Hadrianus, ascended to the Roman throne in 117 and ruled until 138. He was born on January 24, 76, in Italica, a settlement near modern-day Seville, Spain. He descended from the Aelia gens, specifically the Aeli Hadriani from Hadria in eastern Italy, marking his place within the Nerva-Antonine dynasty.

Marriage and Early Reign

Early in his career, Hadrian married Vibia Sabina, a grandniece of Emperor Trajan. This alliance, likely backed by Trajan’s wife, Pompeia Plotina, set the stage for his future as emperor. Shortly after assuming power, Hadrian executed four senators under questionable circumstances, which permanently soured his relationship with the Senate. He also distanced himself from the Senate by abandoning Trajan’s aggressive territorial expansion, opting instead to consolidate and fortify the Empire’s borders and integrate its varied populations under a unified cultural identity centered on Rome.

Architectural and Cultural Contributions

Hadrian was deeply involved in the administration and architectural initiatives across the Empire. His most renowned construction, Hadrian’s Wall, delineated Britannia’s northern boundary. He rebuilt the Pantheon in Rome and erected the vast Temple of Venus and Roma. His commitment to Greek culture was evident in his support of Athens as the Empire’s cultural hub. Hadrian’s relationship with the Greek youth Antinous, who died prematurely, led to the establishment of a cult in Antinous’s honor, popular throughout the Empire.

Later Years and Legacy

The final years of Hadrian’s rule were challenged by the Bar Kokhba revolt, which he viewed as a personal failure of his policy to unify the Empire under Hellenic values. His life ended in 138 after a prolonged illness marked by an unhappy, childless marriage. Hadrian chose Antoninus Pius as his successor under the condition that Antoninus would adopt Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus as his heirs. Despite Senate opposition, Antoninus deified Hadrian posthumously.

Hadrian’s governance earned him a place among the “Five Good Emperors,” he is often called a “benevolent dictator.” However, the Senate perceived him as remote and authoritarian. His complex character showcased a blend of generosity and severity, driven by ceaseless curiosity and ambition.1

Why is Hadrian so famous?

During his reign, Emperor Hadrian changed the Roman Empire’s strategy by focusing on strengthening the empire within its current borders instead of expanding further. Hadrian’s Wall, built during this time, is a significant symbol of this approach. Even today, almost 1,900 years after its construction, the Wall continues to impact the landscape of northern England.

Early Life

Publius Aelius Hadrianus, better known as Hadrian, was born on January 24, 76, in Italica, now modern Santiponce, near Seville. This town, founded during the Second Punic War by Italic settlers, lies in the province of Hispania Baetica, initiated by Scipio Africanus. Although one biographer suggests Hadrian was born in Rome, this is a minority view. Hadrian’s family, the gens Aelia, originated from Hadria, an ancient town in Italia’s Picenum region, giving the family its name.

Hadrian’s father, Publius Aelius Hadrianus Afer, was a senator of praetorian rank from Italica, while his mother, Domitia Paulina, came from a distinguished senatorial family in Gades (now Cádiz). Hadrian had one elder sister, Aelia Domitia Paulina. His early years were also influenced by his wet nurse, Germana, a slave likely of Germanic origin, to whom he remained close throughout his life. Germana was later freed and outlived Hadrian, evidenced by her funerary inscription found at Hadrian’s Villa at Tivoli.

Tragedy struck in 86 when Hadrian was just ten years old, as both his parents passed away. He and his sister then came under the guardianship of Trajan, their father’s cousin, and Publius Acilius Attianus, later Trajan’s Praetorian prefect. A physically active child, Hadrian enjoyed hunting and was called to Rome at the age of 14 by Trajan, who arranged for his education in subjects befitting a young Roman aristocrat. His passion for Greek literature and culture earned him the nickname Graeculus, a term of endearment that highlighted his enthusiasm for Greek culture.

Public Service

Early Career

Hadrian began his public career in Rome as a member of the decemviri stlitibus judicandis, one of the many initial positions in the cursus honorum that could pave the way to higher office and a senatorial career. He first served as a military tribune with the Legio II Adiutrix in 95, followed by a stint with the Legio V Macedonica. The aging Emperor Nerva adopted Trajan as his heir during his second tribunate. Hadrian was reportedly one of several messengers sent to deliver this news to Trajan. He later joined the Legio XXII Primigenia for a third tribunate, providing him a career advantage over peers who typically served fewer tribunates.

When Nerva passed away in 98, Hadrian promptly traveled to inform Trajan, beating the official envoy sent by the governor, Lucius Julius Ursus Servianus, Hadrian’s brother-in-law and rival.

Rising Through the Ranks

Returning to Rome in 101, Hadrian was elected quaestor and then quaestor imperatoris Traiani, acting as a liaison officer between the Emperor and the Senate. He was responsible for reading and possibly composing the Emperor’s communications and speeches, stepping into the shoes of Licinius Sura, Trajan’s influential friend and adviser. His subsequent role was as ab actis senatus, managing the Senate’s records.

During the First Dacian War, Hadrian was part of Trajan’s entourage and later served as tribune of the plebs in Rome in 105. Following the war, he likely ascended to the position of praetor. In the Second Dacian War, he rejoined Trajan’s service, then served as legate of Legio I Minervia and as governor of Lower Pannonia in 107, tasked with managing threats from the Sarmatians. Between 107 and 108, Hadrian repelled an invasion by the Iazyges, leading to a peace treaty that retained Oltenia for Rome in exchange for concessions, likely involving a tribute payment.

Cultural and Military Leadership

In his mid-thirties, Hadrian traveled to Greece, where he was granted citizenship and briefly served as the eponymous archon of Athens in 112. The Athenians honored him with a statue in the Theatre of Dionysus, which detailed his public service achievements. His career paused until he was called to join Trajan’s campaign against Parthia as a legate. Following disturbances in Dacia, Hadrian was appointed governor of Syria with independent command. Trajan fell ill and began his return to Rome but passed away in Selinus, Cilicia, on August 8, 117. Trajan’s death marked the end of the reign of one of Rome’s most respected and beloved emperors.

Marital Ties and Political Alliances

In the early years of the 2nd century, around 100 or 101, Hadrian married Vibia Sabina, who was then seventeen or eighteen years old and the grandniece of Emperor Trajan. Despite Trajan’s apparent lack of enthusiasm for the marriage, it may have been orchestrated by Empress Plotina. She was a cultured and influential figure who shared many of Hadrian’s ideals, particularly the vision of a Roman Empire underpinned by Hellenic culture. This marriage favored Hadrian within the imperial family, potentially securing his succession to Trajan. Additionally, Hadrian had the backing of his mother-in-law, Salonia Matidia, the daughter of Trajan’s sister Ulpia Marciana. After Marciana died in 112, Trajan deified her and bestowed the title of Augusta on Matidia.

Complex Relationships

Hadrian’s relationship with Trajan was multifaceted and possibly strained. There are indications that Hadrian tried to influence Trajan or his decisions by currying favor with Trajan’s younger companions, leading to tensions around the time of Hadrian’s marriage. Despite his efforts and position within the imperial circle, Hadrian only attained the rank of suffect consul in 108, a status that gave him equality with other senatorial elites but did not distinguish him as a likely successor. Trajan had the opportunity to elevate Hadrian to patrician status, which would have facilitated a faster rise to the consulship, but they chose not to pursue this path. Instead, Hadrian was granted the role of tribune of the plebs slightly earlier than usual, though it required him to leave Dacia—and Trajan—suggesting that Trajan might have preferred to keep him at a distance.

Notably, the Historia Augusta mentions an important gesture by Trajan: the gift of a diamond ring, originally from Emperor Nerva, which bolstered Hadrian’s aspirations for the throne. While Trajan supported Hadrian’s career, he proceeded with measured caution.2

Transition of Power

The process of appointing a successor in ancient Rome was fraught with risks. Failing to name an heir could lead to chaotic power struggles and even civil war, while naming one too early might be perceived as an abdication, disrupting the smooth transition of authority. As Emperor Trajan’s health declined, he was cared for by his wife, Plotina, under the watchful eye of Prefect Attianus. In theory, Trajan could have lawfully named Hadrian as his heir with a simple declaration on his deathbed in the presence of witnesses. However, the adoption document that emerged was signed by Plotina, not Trajan, which raised questions about its authenticity.

This irregularity was compounded by Hadrian being in Syria at the time, an apparent deviation from Roman adoption laws that required both parties to be present. The circumstances surrounding Hadrian’s succession were shrouded in rumors and speculation. Some sources suggest that Trajan’s young servant Phaedimus, who died shortly after Trajan, was involved in a scandal related to the succession. Historical accounts differ on the legitimacy of Hadrian’s adoption: Dio Cassius claimed it was fraudulent, while the author of the Historia Augusta regarded it as legitimate.

An aureus—a gold coin—minted early in Hadrian’s reign depicted him as Trajan’s “Caesar,” indicating the official stance that he was the designated heir. This portrayal aimed to solidify his legitimacy and quell doubts about the succession process.

Emperor Hadrian’s Early Reign (117)

Consolidating Power

When Hadrian became emperor in 117, he promptly informed the Senate of his accession through a letter, justifying the rapid acclamation by the troops as necessary for the stability of the state. He followed tradition by rewarding the legions’ loyalty with a customary bonus and received the Senate’s approval of his leadership. Various public ceremonies celebrated Hadrian’s rise to power, praised as a “divine election” by all the gods, including the newly deified Emperor Trajan, whom Hadrian had requested to be honored as a deity.

Hadrian initially stayed in the East to suppress the Jewish revolt that had commenced under Trajan. He replaced Judea’s governor, the distinguished Moorish general Lusius Quietus, removing his personal guard. Subsequently, Hadrian addressed disturbances along the Danube frontier. In Rome, Hadrian’s former guardian and then Praetorian Prefect, Attianus, reported a conspiracy involving Lusius Quietus and three other senior senators. Without a public trial, these men were executed after being tried in absentia. Hadrian distanced himself from these actions, claiming Attianus acted independently, and later rewarded him with senatorial status and consular rank before retiring him by 120.

Controversial Actions and Senate Relations

The reasons behind the executions of these four senators remain unclear. Although officially recognized as Trajan’s successor, Hadrian faced potential threats from other claimants, notably Trajan’s close friends and senior advisors, who might have preferred continuing Trajan’s expansionist policies. Among the executed were individuals who had been openly critical of Hadrian or were seen as potential rivals for the throne, including the intellectually and politically influential Gaius Avidius Nigrinus, who Hadrian once considered a potential heir.

Reforming Governance

In 125, Hadrian appointed Quintus Marcius Turbo as his Praetorian Prefect, a trusted friend and high-ranking official of the equestrian order. Hadrian’s reforms also prohibited equestrians from adjudicating cases against senators, ensuring the Senate retained complete legal authority over its members and remained the supreme court of appeal. These measures attempted to mend the strained relations with the Senate, which the earlier events had damaged. Nonetheless, Hadrian’s reputation with the Senate remained tense throughout his reign, partly due to his use of informers, known as frumentarii, to discreetly monitor the elite, including senators and his own close associates.

Extensive Travels

Hadrian spent more than half of his reign outside of Italy, distinguishing himself from his predecessors, who primarily relied on reports from imperial representatives to manage the empire. While previous emperors had also traveled extensively, their journeys were usually connected to military campaigns, and they typically returned to Rome once conflicts were resolved. In contrast, Hadrian’s frequent travels seemed to mark a deliberate shift from traditional views that only saw the empire as a domain under Roman control. He aimed to foster a sense of unity among the provinces by promoting a shared civilization under Roman governance, which he envisioned as a blend of local customs with a common Hellenic culture.

Hadrian was proactive in supporting the establishment of municipal towns rather than imposing new Roman colonies. These towns maintained a degree of autonomy, preserving their local customs and laws. This approach was reflected in the coinage from the latter part of his reign, which depicted Hadrian uplifting the personifications of various provinces, symbolizing his role in their elevation and integration into the imperial framework.

The emperor’s travels did not sit well with all, particularly Roman traditionalists. They drew parallels with Nero, whose extensive and peaceful tour of Greece was criticized for neglecting the responsibilities expected of an emperor. Nonetheless, Nero remained popular in the eastern provinces and, to some extent, in the west, with legends of his return persisting after his death.

Awareness of these sentiments, Hadrian might have sought to tap into Nero’s enduring popularity during his travels. This strategy, however, led to critiques of Hadrian in the Historia Augusta, where he was described as “a little too much Greek” and overly cosmopolitan for a Roman emperor, highlighting the tension between his global outlook and traditional Roman expectations.3

Britannia and the Western Provinces (122)

Hadrian’s Wall: A Strategic Defense

Upon Hadrian’s arrival in Britannia in 122, he was met with the aftermath of a rebellion from 119 to 121. Military movements during this period included the deployment of approximately 3,000 troops in a vexillatio to address the unrest. The historical record, including inscriptions and writings by Fronto, confirms these efforts and notes military losses in the province around that time. In response to the ongoing challenges and as part of a broader strategy to halt the expansion of the empire, Hadrian initiated the construction of a wall in 122, famously known as Hadrian’s Wall, described as a measure “to separate Romans from barbarians.”4

Why did Hadrian build a wall?

The rationale for building the wall likely extended beyond immediate military threats, serving multiple strategic purposes. It was seen as a more cost-effective defense than maintaining a large border army, helping control cross-border trade and manage migration effectively. Additionally, a shrine dedicated to Britannia, symbolizing the divine embodiment of Britain, was erected in York, and coins featuring her image were minted during this period.

Continued Travels and Governance

After his time in Britannia, Hadrian traveled through southern Gaul. In Nemausus, he is believed to have commissioned a basilica in honor of his late patroness Plotina, who had passed away in Rome and was worshiped at his behest. Around the same time, Hadrian changed his administrative staff; he dismissed his secretary ab epistulis, the biographer Suetonius, citing “excessive familiarity” with the empress. Similarly, Gaius Septicius Clarus, a praetorian prefect, was also removed from his position under similar allegations, which may have served as a pretext for their dismissal.

Hadrian spent the winter of 122/123 in Tarraco, Spain, where he restored the Temple of Augustus, continuing to enhance and honor cultural and historical sites throughout the empire.

Africa and Parthia (123)

In 123, Hadrian traveled across the Mediterranean to Mauretania to personally oversee a minor campaign against local insurgents. His stay was abbreviated when he received news of war preparations in Parthia, prompting him to travel swiftly eastward. During this period, he also visited Cyrene, where he took a personal interest in the military training of young men from prestigious families, funding their preparation for service in the Roman legions.

Cyrene had previously seen benefits from Hadrian’s governance; in 119, he sponsored the reconstruction of public buildings damaged during the Jewish revolt under Emperor Trajan. Such investments in infrastructure and local communities were typical of Hadrian’s approach to governance, reflecting his commitment to enhancing the prosperity and stability of the regions under his rule.

Anatolia and Antinous (123–124)

Upon reaching the Euphrates, Hadrian negotiated a settlement with Parthian King Osroes I and inspected the Roman defenses before traveling westwards along the Black Sea coast. He likely spent the winter in Nicomedia, the central city in Bithynia, which had recently suffered from an earthquake. Hadrian allocated funds for its reconstruction and was hailed as the restorer of the province.

During this period, Hadrian may have visited Claudiopolis, where he possibly first encountered Antinous, a young man of humble origins who would later become his companion. The precise details of their first meeting remain unclear, but Antinous was likely around 13 or 14 years old at the time. It is speculated that Antinous might have been sent to Rome for training as a page in the imperial household, eventually gaining the emperor’s favor. The specifics of their relationship, including its development’s exact nature and timing, are largely undocumented.

Throughout his travels in Anatolia, Hadrian’s presence is noted in various local traditions. He is credited with founding the city of Hadrianutherae in Mysia following a successful boar hunt. During this time, efforts were made to complete the Temple of Zeus in Cyzicus, which the kings of Pergamon had initiated. The temple was adorned with a colossal statue of Hadrian. Key cities such as Cyzicus, Pergamon, Smyrna, Ephesus, and Sardes were elevated as regional centers for the imperial cult, affirming their strategic and cultural importance.

Greece (124–125)

In the autumn of 124, Emperor Hadrian arrived in Greece, engaging deeply with local culture by participating in the Eleusinian Mysteries. He was particularly devoted to Athens, having previously been granted citizenship and an archonate there. Responding to a request from the Athenians, he revised their constitution and added a new tribe named after him.

Hadrian’s approach to governance was a balance of direct involvement and restraint. He chose not to interfere in a dispute between Athenian olive oil producers and the city’s Assembly, which had imposed production quotas. However, he supported the local economy by providing an imperial subsidy to enhance the grain supply in Athens. Recognizing the need for consistent support for public events, he established two foundations to ensure funding for games, festivals, and competitions should local sponsors be unavailable.

In terms of infrastructure, Hadrian emphasized durable investments like aqueducts and public fountains. He commissioned the construction of two significant nymphaea in Athens, which included an elaborate system to transport water from Mount Parnes to the Athenian Agora, a project planned to span several years. Additionally, he addressed a chronic water shortage in Argos by enhancing its aqueduct system, an issue so severe it was legendary in Homeric epics.

Cultural Patronage and Political Integration

During the winter months, Hadrian toured the Peloponnese. His journey included Epidaurus, where new temples were erected, and the local citizens placed a statue in his honor as a gesture of gratitude. During this time, his relationship with Antinous, believed to have already begun, influenced his generous contributions to Mantinea. Here, he restored the Temple of Poseidon Hippios and reverted the city’s name to its classical origin, from Antigoneia back to Mantinea, correcting a change made in Hellenistic times.

Additionally, Hadrian took essential measures to incorporate Greek leaders into Roman political institutions. He persuaded Eurycles Herculanus from Sparta and Herodes Atticus the Elder from Athens, prominent figures from these historically rival cities, to join the Roman Senate. This was a strategic move to encourage Greek participation in Roman governance.

In March 125, Hadrian actively participated in the Athenian festival of Dionysia, wearing traditional Athenian attire. He also committed to completing the long-standing project of the Temple of Olympian Zeus in Athens, which had been under construction for over five centuries. By allocating extensive resources, Hadrian aimed to finalize this grand temple, reinforcing his role as a patron of Greek culture and heritage.

Return to Italy and Journey to Africa (126–128)

After returning to Italy, Hadrian traveled to Sicily, where his efforts to revive the island were celebrated on coins that named him the restorer of Sicily. Upon his return to Rome, he oversaw the completion of major projects, such as the reconstruction of the Pantheon and the development of his extensive villa at Tibur in the Sabine Hills. In March 127, Hadrian set off on a tour across Italy, leaving behind records of his donations and contributions. Throughout this journey, he renovated the shrine of Cupra in Cupra Maritima and improved the drainage of Fucine Lake.

However, not all of his actions were well-received. In 127, he reorganized Italy into four regions, each overseen by an imperial legate with a consular rank serving as governor. These legates had jurisdiction over Italy, excluding Rome, leading to the transfer of many legal cases away from Roman courts. This restructuring, effectively diminishing Italy’s status to that of other Roman provinces, was unpopular with the Roman Senate and was soon discontinued after Hadrian’s death.

During this time, Hadrian became ill, but it didn’t stop him from continuing his travels. In the spring of 128, he went to Africa and arrived just in time to see rain that ended a drought, which was seen as a good sign. While in Africa, he continued to help and restore, checked on the troops, and gave a speech. He didn’t stay long in Italy after returning from Africa; by the summer of 128, he had started another extensive tour, which lasted three years.

Greece, Asia, and Egypt (128–130); The Death of Antinous

In September 128, Hadrian revisited the Eleusinian Mysteries, focusing his attention primarily on Athens and Sparta, the two cities historically known for their rivalry over the control of Greece. Initially intrigued by the idea of revitalizing the Amphictyonic League centered in Delphi, Hadrian envisioned a more expansive project—the Panhellenic, a council aimed at uniting Greek cities. After initiating the preparations and deliberating which cities qualified as genuinely Greek, Hadrian traveled to Ephesus. From there, he moved through Asia to Egypt, escorted by an Ephesian merchant named Lucius Erastus, whom Hadrian later endorsed for town councilor of Ephesus.

Hadrian’s Activities in Egypt

Arriving in Egypt before the Egyptian New Year on August 29, 130, Hadrian began his visit by restoring the tomb of Pompey the Great at Pelusium. He honored Pompey with a sacrifice and an epigraph, recognizing Pompey’s role in establishing Roman dominance in the East—a move likely aimed at reinforcing Roman authority following periods of unrest during Trajan’s reign. During this time, Hadrian and Antinous engaged in a lion hunt in the Libyan desert, an event captured in a poem by the Greek poet Pankrates, marking one of the earliest accounts of them traveling together.

Tragedy struck while Hadrian and his entourage were sailing on the Nile; Antinous drowned under mysterious circumstances that remain unclear to this day. Theories regarding his death include accident, suicide, murder, and religious sacrifice. The Historia Augusta records that Hadrian mourned deeply for Antinous and, amid various rumors, some believed Antinous had sacrificed himself for Hadrian. Following his death, the Greeks, at Hadrian’s behest, deified Antinous with claims that oracles delivered messages through him—though these were rumored to have been crafted by Hadrian.

In memory of Antinous, Hadrian founded the city of Antinoöpolis on October 30, 130. He continued his journey down the Nile to Thebes, where inscriptions from Julia Balbilla documented his visit to the Colossi of Memnon. Afterward, Hadrian traveled north to the Fayyum in early December, continuing his extensive and influential travels through the Roman Empire.

Greece and the East (130–132)

In 130, Hadrian visited Jerash in Transjordan, commemorated by the Arch of Hadrian built in his honor. His activities after traveling down the Nile remain less certain, though he did not linger long in Rome, if at all. During 130–131, Hadrian focused on establishing his new Panhellenion, centered around the Athenian Temple to Olympian Zeus. After failing to base a Hellenic league in Delphi due to local conflicts, he created a comprehensive league encompassing all Greek cities. Membership in this league required cities to demonstrate their Greek heritage, often through mythologized or even fabricated historical ties, and to affirm their loyalty to imperial Rome. This approach was part of Hadrian’s broader vision of himself as a protector of Greek culture and civic freedoms, positioning himself as a modern successor to Pericles.

The Panhellenion, however, did not attract much interest from the wealthier, Hellenized cities of Asia Minor, which were wary of Athenian and European Greek dominance in Hadrian’s plan. Hadrian’s definition of Hellenism was narrowly focused on classical antiquity, dismissing the broader Hellenistic culture encompassing a wider region. Despite this, some cities with less clear ties to ancient Greek culture, like Side, were recognized as Hellenic members. The German sociologist Georg Simmel described the Panhellenion as a cultural and ceremonial association, emphasizing its focus on games, commemorations, and preserving an idealized, non-political form of Hellenism.5

During his travels, Hadrian honored many regional centers with titles and visits. Palmyra, for instance, received a state visit and was renamed Hadriana Palmyra. Hadrian also recognized various local dignitaries, including Soados, who had contributed to protecting Palmyrene trade routes between the Roman Empire and Parthia.

Hadrian spent the winter of 131-132 in Athens, dedicating the now-finished Temple of Olympian Zeus. In 132, he traveled to Judaea, continuing his extensive engagement with the empire’s diverse cultures and regions.

Third Roman–Jewish War (132–136)

Background and Causes

During his visit to Roman Judaea, Hadrian encountered Jerusalem, still in ruins from the First Roman–Jewish War of 66–73. He considered rebuilding Jerusalem as a Roman colony, similar to Vespasian’s reconstruction of Caesarea Maritima, which would include various privileges but no obligation for the non-Roman population to participate in Roman religious practices. It’s believed that Hadrian aimed to integrate the Jewish Temple into the Roman civic-religious imperial cult, a common practice in other provinces that generally met with success. However, the strict monotheism practiced by the Jews proved resistant to such integration, unlike their Samaritan neighbors, who had already blended their rites with Hellenistic customs.

A tradition from the Historia Augusta attributes the revolt’s trigger to Hadrian’s ban on circumcision, which he reportedly viewed as mutilation. However, scholar Peter Schäfer notes that there’s no reliable evidence for this claim, considering the unreliable nature of the Historia Augusta. The uprising was probably driven by Roman bureaucratic insensitivity, land conflicts, and a belief in a messianic prophecy that the Temple would be reconstructed seventy years after it was destroyed.

You don’t win battles with hate. Anger and hate can make you brave, make you strong, but they also make you stupid. You end up tripping over your own two feet.



The uprising, led by Simon bar Kokhba, erupted into a conflict, though the exact start date is uncertain, estimated between the summer and fall of 132. The revolt was marked by its intense anti-Hellenistic and anti-Roman sentiment. Rome’s initial response was inadequate, prompting Governor Tineius Rufus to request military reinforcements. The Romans, initially overwhelmed by the fierce organization of the rebels, suffered heavy losses, prompting Hadrian to summon additional troops from as far as Britain and the Danube. The conflict continued with severe casualties on both sides until the Romans subdued the rebellion by 135, with the key stronghold of Beitar falling after a lengthy siege.

What happened in the year 135?

In 135 CE, the Romans suppressed another rebellion led by Bar Kokhba, a prominent Jewish leader. After four years of conflict, it ended in a devastating result, causing the remaining Jews to flee Judea.

Aftermath and Persecutions

The Roman campaign resulted in approximately 580,000 Jewish deaths and the destruction of numerous towns and villages. The aftermath saw enslavements and punitive measures, though the full extent is debated. To erase Jewish ties to the region, Hadrian renamed Judaea to Syria Palaestina and rebuilt Jerusalem as Aelia Capitolina, styled in Greek architecture. He strategically positioned the city’s main forum at the main Cardo and Decumanus Maximus intersection and erected a temple for the Samaritans to Zeus on Mount Gerizim.

What did Hadrian do to the Jews?

After quelling the rebellion, Hadrian issued a set of religious decrees to eradicate Jewish nationalism in Judea. He banned the observance of Torah law and the Hebrew calendar and ordered the execution of Jewish scholars.

Hadrian’s Itinerary

In 133, Hadrian personally led his troops against the rebels before returning to Rome, likely passing through Illyricum based on inscriptions. This marked a momentous period in Hadrian’s rule, characterized by his direct military engagement and substantial changes to the region’s geopolitical landscape.

Final Years (134-138 AD)

Hadrian spent his last years in Rome, addressing the outcomes of the Third Jewish War, which officially ended in 135, though he took a premature imperial salute in 134. Limited celebrations and acknowledgments marked this period, as Hadrian viewed the war as a disappointment to his vision for a cosmopolitan empire.

Empress Sabina, who had been granted the title Augusta around 128, died in 136 after a long and strained marriage with Hadrian, which was maintained mainly for political reasons. The Historia Augusta reveals Hadrian’s candid views on her difficult temperament, suggesting he might have sought a divorce if he were a private citizen. Following her death, rumors circulated that Hadrian had her poisoned, though she was deified shortly after that, maintaining imperial tradition.

Securing the Imperial Succession

With no children of his own and suffering from poor health, Hadrian faced the challenge of securing a successor. In 136, he adopted Lucius Ceionius Commodus, who took the name Lucius Aelius Caesar. Aelius, despite being perceived more as a refined aristocrat than a leader, was connected to significant senatorial families, potentially as an attempt by Hadrian to reconcile with those still influential from earlier political purges. Aelius served jointly as governor of Pannonia and held a consulship in 137 but died on January 1, 138.

Subsequently, Hadrian adopted Titus Aurelius Fulvus Boionius Arrius Antoninus (later Emperor Antoninus Pius), who had a solid administrative track record in Italy and Asia. To ensure stability, Hadrian stipulated that Antoninus adopt Lucius Ceionius Commodus and Marcus Annius Verus, who was already engaged to Aelius’s daughter. This arrangement highlighted dynastic planning, though Antoninus Pius later influenced further familial alliances, which shaped the future imperial line.

Adopting Aelius Caesar was unpopular, especially with Hadrian’s brother-in-law, Lucius Julius Ursus Servianus, and his grandson, Gnaeus Pedanius Fuscus Salinator, both of whom harbored imperial ambitions. In 137, following a suspected coup attempt involving both, Hadrian ordered their execution. According to reports, Servianus cursed Hadrian before his death, wishing him a long life filled with the desire for death. Hadrian’s final years were plagued by illness, during which he reportedly contemplated suicide multiple times but was prevented from doing so.

Death and Legacy (138 AD)

Hadrian died on July 10, 138, at his villa in Baiae at the age of 62, after ruling for 21 years. His health had been deteriorating, as historians like Dio Cassius mentioned and described in the Historia Augusta. Modern interpretations of his later portraits, like the Townley Hadrian, suggest visible ear creases could indicate coronary artery disease.

Initially, Hadrian was buried at Puteoli, near his villa, on a property that had previously belonged to Cicero. Shortly after, his remains were moved to Rome and temporarily placed in the Gardens of Domitia, near his nearly completed mausoleum. In 139, Antoninus Pius, his successor, completed the Mausoleum of Hadrian, where Hadrian was cremated. His ashes were laid to rest alongside those of his wife, Vibia Sabina, and his first adopted son, Lucius Aelius Caesar, who also died in 138.

The Senate hesitated to deify Hadrian, but Antoninus secured divine honors for him by threatening to decline the emperorship. A temple dedicated to Hadrian was built on the Campus Martius, adorned with reliefs depicting the empire’s provinces. Acknowledging Antoninus’s efforts to honor Hadrian, the Senate gave him the title “Pius.” Despite this posthumous recognition, the Senate’s lingering resentment toward Hadrian was reflected in the minimal commemorative coinage issued to celebrate his deification.

Military Strategies and Activities

Philosophy and Realignments

Hadrian’s approach to military leadership focused on maintaining stability and mutual support within the Empire rather than seeking new conquests. This shift reflected a broader trend towards reducing expansion, deemed unsustainable due to the Empire’s vast reach. During Hadrian’s reign, the Empire reached its greatest territorial extent under the Severan dynasty, marking a move towards consolidation. Although this strategy benefited the Empire’s overall health, it was unpopular among military careerists who missed opportunities for glory and advancement.

Tactical Withdrawals and Diplomatic Maneuvers

Critics like the 4th-century historian Aurelius Victor interpreted Hadrian’s withdrawal from territories in Mesopotamia, previously conquered by Trajan, as motivated by jealousy of his predecessor’s successes. More realistically, these regions were logistically challenging to hold. Evidence suggests that even Trajan had considered these eastern gains indefensible. During his reign, Hadrian strategically ceded parts of Dacia to the Roxolani Sarmatians in exchange for peace, offering their king, Rasparaganus, Roman citizenship and client king status. Hadrian maintained control over Osroene through the client king Parthamaspates and negotiated a peace treaty with Parthia around 123. The validity of this treaty, as recorded in the Historia Augusta, is debated.

Military Engagements and Border Security

Later, in 135, Hadrian faced an attack from the Alani on Roman Cappadocia, secretly supported by Pharasmanes, king of Caucasian Iberia. The assault was repelled by Arrian, Hadrian’s governor and a noted historian, who then placed a Roman advisor in Iberia to strengthen imperial influence.

Hadrian invested in permanent fortifications and military posts along the Empire’s frontiers to enhance border security. He developed a robust network of forts, outposts, and watchtowers along the Danube and Rhine, emphasizing disciplined military drills. His policies aimed to maintain peace through a strong military presence encapsulated in his construction of Hadrian’s Wall in Britannia, built using ordinary troops.

Innovations and Recruitment

Addressing a decline in Italian legionary recruits, Hadrian systematized recruiting numeri, specialized non-citizen troops such as Eastern mounted archers, for low-intensity defensive roles. He also introduced heavy cavalry units, cataphracts, into the Roman army, enhancing its defense and rapid response capability.

Despite these efforts, Hadrian faced criticism for perceived declines in military standards during his reign, as noted by Fronto, who argued that Hadrian preferred war games and eloquent speeches over actual combat engagements.

Codification of Roman Law

Under Emperor Hadrian, significant strides were made in formalizing Roman law, largely through the efforts of the jurist Salvius Julianus. This culminated in the Perpetual Edict, which standardized the legal pronouncements of praetors into fixed statutes, thereby removing their previous flexibility and limiting alteration by any magistrate other than the Emperor himself. Concurrently, Hadrian transformed the Emperor’s legal advisory board, the consilia principis, into a permanent institution with salaried legal aides, primarily drawn from the equestrian class rather than the previously employed freedmen of the imperial household. This marked a clear departure from Republican institutions, signaling a move towards a more openly autocratic political system, where the reformed bureaucracy functioned independently of traditional magistracies, purportedly serving the state rather than the Emperor’s interests.

Class Distinctions and Legal Privileges

Hadrian also codified the legal privileges for the empire’s most influential citizens, known as splendidiores or honestiores. These high-status individuals traditionally had the right to pay fines for minor, non-treasonous offenses. In contrast, lower-status persons, referred to as humiliores, faced harsher punishments for similar crimes, including forced labor and other severe penalties. This system underscored the deep societal divisions within the Roman Empire, where offenses were judged not only on the act but also on the social standing of the involved parties. Treason, or maiestas, carried the maximum penalty of beheading for high-status individuals, while those of lower status could face crucifixion or other brutal executions.

Social Policies and Humanitarian Reforms

Regarding social policy, Hadrian aimed to clarify the status of different classes in Roman society. In civil law, local officials, also called decurions, along with soldiers, veterans, and their families, were considered honestiores. This designation meant that most of the empire’s population fell into the humiliores category, resulting in fewer rights, higher taxes, and increased burdens.

Although Hadrian viewed slavery as a morally acceptable institution, he implemented reforms to mitigate some of its harsher aspects. He restricted the conditions under which enslaved people could be killed or tortured. He prohibited the sale of enslaved people into gladiatorial or prostitution roles unless as a legal punishment. Furthermore, he banned torture for free defendants and witnesses and abolished private slave prisons (ergastula), which had been used unlawfully to detain free citizens.

Prohibition of Castration and Enforcement of Social Norms

Hadrian also issued a rescript against castration, treating it as a serious crime equivalent to conspiracy to murder, with severe penalties for those involved. Despite his appreciation for Greek culture, he maintained conservative Roman values in other aspects of societal conduct. He enforced traditional dress codes for senators and knights, imposed regulations on public behavior, such as gender segregation in public baths and theaters, and restricted their operating hours to discourage idleness.

Hadrian’s Religious Engagements and Activities

Deification and Religious Duties

Upon becoming Emperor, one of Hadrian’s first responsibilities was to secure the deification of his predecessor, Trajan, and key members of Trajan’s family. Matidia Augusta, Hadrian’s mother-in-law, passed away in December 119 and was subsequently deified. Hadrian also oversaw religious constructions in honor of his patroness Plotina, who had died and been revered by his request, during a stop at Nemausus on his return from Britannia.

As Rome’s pontifex maximus, Hadrian was in charge of all religious affairs and the functioning of religious institutions across the Empire. His origins and strong affinity for Hellenism influenced the imperial cult, shifting its focus from Rome to the provinces. While traditional coinage continued associating him with genius populi Romani, other issues highlighted his connection with Hercules Gaditanus and the imperial protection of Greek civilization. He notably promoted Sagalassos in Greek Pisidia as a major imperial cult center and extolled Athens as the spiritual hub of Greek culture through his Panhellenion.

Cult Centers and Promotion of Greek Traditions

Hadrian established numerous imperial cult centers, particularly in Greece, where intercity rivalries were leveraged to enhance local and imperial prestige. These centers attracted festivals and sacred games and boosted local economies through tourism, trade, and investment. Officials and local elites were encouraged to gain prestige by serving as cult officials, thus strengthening reverence for Roman authority.

Architectural Contributions and Personal Cult

During his third and last visit to the Greek East, Hadrian experienced significant religious devotion directed towards himself, reflecting the period’s syncretism. Monuments and civic tributes elevated him to a divine status. He potentially commissioned the reconstruction of the great Serapeum of Alexandria after it had been damaged during the Kitos War in 116.

In 136, two years before his death, Hadrian dedicated the Temple of Venus and Roma in Rome, constructed on Nero’s Golden House site. This temple, the largest in Rome and built in a Hellenizing style, symbolized the blend of Roman and Greek architectural elements. It uniquely connected the cult of Venus, Rome’s divine protector, with that of Roma, a figure initially conceived in Greek culture to underscore the Empire’s universal scope.

Antinous: Deification and Legacy

Emperor Hadrian deeply mourned the loss of Antinous, his favored companion, and took significant steps to honor his memory. Antinous was deified as Osiris-Antinous by an Egyptian priest at the Temple of Ramesses II, close to where he died. Hadrian established a new temple-city complex named Antinoöpolis near this site, built in a Graeco-Roman architectural style. Antinoöpolis was designed as an authentic Greek polis and benefited from a food distribution program similar to Trajan’s alimenta. Its residents could intermarry with the local Egyptian population without forfeiting their citizen status, effectively intertwining Antinous’s cult with Roman governance symbols.

The cult of Antinous gained considerable popularity, especially within the Greek-speaking regions, and also found a following in the West. Within Hadrian’s Villa, statues portraying the Tyrannicides depicted a bearded Aristogeiton and a clean-shaven Harmodios, drawing a parallel between Antinous and revered figures of Greek tradition. Antinous was even associated with the Celtic sun god Belenos in the Western provinces.

Despite facing criticism for the intensity of his grief and the delay in deifying his sister Paulina, Hadrian faced little resistance to the establishment of Antinous as a cult figure. Antinous served as a symbol of community between the emperor and his subjects, transcending the official Roman imperial cult. His likeness appeared on medals, and statues in his honor were erected throughout the empire in diverse attire, including Egyptian garb.

Temples dedicated to Antinous were constructed in places such as Bithynia and Mantineia in Arcadia. Athens celebrated festivals in his honor, and oracles were delivered under his name, affirming his status as an “international” cult figure. His fame persisted well beyond Hadrian’s reign, with local coins bearing his effigy still produced during the reign of Caracalla. Even centuries later, Antinous was celebrated in literature, including a poem commemorating Diocletian’s accession.

Policy on Christians

Hadrian maintained the approach of his predecessor, Trajan, regarding the treatment of Christians within the Roman Empire. Under his rule, Christians were not to be actively persecuted or sought out by authorities. Instead, legal actions against them were only to be taken for specific violations, such as their refusal to swear oaths, which were required to prove loyalty to the Roman state.

In a rescript directed to Gaius Minicius Fundanus, the proconsul of Asia, preserved in the writings of Justin Martyr, Hadrian emphasized judicial fairness in dealing with accusations against Christians. He mandated that those who accused Christians of crimes must provide proof of their claims. If they failed to substantiate their accusations, they could face penalties for calumnia or defamation.

What were Hadrian Accomplishments?

Hadrian’s significant accomplishments include the construction of Hadrian’s Wall, rebuilding the Pantheon, legal reforms, administrative reorganization, and military consolidation. He also promoted Hellenic culture, established religious tolerance, and led economic and social projects to improve life across the empire.

Hadrian’s Timeline

  • 76 AD: Born on January 24 in Italica, near modern Seville, Spain.
  • 86 AD: Orphaned at age 10; becomes a ward of Trajan and Publius Acilius Attianus.
  • 95 AD: Begins public career as a military tribune with the Legio II Adiutrix.
  • 98 AD: Emperor Nerva dies, and Trajan becomes emperor; Hadrian is one of many emissaries who inform Trajan.
  • 100-101 AD: Marries Vibia Sabina, Trajan’s grandniece.
  • 101-106 AD: Participates in Trajan’s Dacian Wars; holds various military and administrative positions.
  • 105 AD: Appointed tribune of the plebs.
  • 107-108 AD: Serves as Lower Pannonia’s governor and Legio I Minervia’s legate.
  • 112 AD: Becomes archon of Athens; honored with a statue and inscription.
  • 117 AD: Trajan dies; the army declared Hadrian emperor on August 11.
  • 118 AD: Executes four leading senators perceived as threats; secures his position as emperor.
  • 122 AD: Initiates the construction of Hadrian’s Wall in Britannia.
  • 123-125 AD: Travels extensively throughout the empire, visiting nearly every province.
  • 128-130 AD: Visits Egypt; Antinous, Hadrian’s beloved companion, drowns in the Nile in 130 AD. Hadrian founds the city of Antinoöpolis in his honor.
  • 132-135 AD: Suppresses the Bar Kokhba revolt in Judaea; renames the province Syria Palaestina.
  • 136 AD: Adopts Lucius Ceionius Commodus as heir, who dies shortly after.
  • 138 AD: Adopts Antoninus Pius as heir, stipulating that Antoninus adopt Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus. Hadrian dies on July 10 in his villa at Baiae.
  • 139 AD: Hadrian’s Mausoleum in Rome is completed by Antoninus Pius, who also deifies Hadrian.

Final Reflections

Hadrian’s biography provides a detailed exploration of the emperor’s life story, highlighting his impact on the Roman Empire. Ending with his death on July 10, 138 AD, the biography examines Hadrian’s efforts to stabilize and enhance the empire. His legacy in architecture and governance remains an influential part of history, demonstrating the complexities of his rule. Hadrian’s life story continues to be a subject of interest for those studying the ancient world and its leaders.

Reference List for Hadrian’s Biography

  1. Ando, Clifford. “Hadrian: The Restless Emperor by Anthony R. Birley.” Phoenix, vol. 52, 1998, pp. 183-185. JSTOR, 1088268. ↩︎
  2. Fündling, Jörg. Kommentar zur Vita Hadriani der Historia Augusta. Antiquitas. Reihe 4: Beiträge zur Historia-Augusta-Forschung, Serie 3: Kommentare, Bände 4.1 und 4.2, Habelt, Bonn, 2006. ISBN 3-7749-3390-1, p. 351. ↩︎
  3. Goldhill, Simon. Being Greek Under Rome: Cultural Identity, the Second Sophistic and the Development of Empire. Cambridge University Press, 2006, p. 12. ISBN 0-521-66317-2. ↩︎
  4. Scriptores Historiae Augustae. Hadrian, xi, 2. ↩︎
  5. Georg Simmel, Sociology: Inquiries into the Construction of Social Forms. Leiden: Brill, 2009, ISBN 978-90-04-17321-7, p. 288 ↩︎

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