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date: 26 January 2021


, Roman emperor, 117–138 ce
  • Anthony R. Birley

Hadrian (Publius Aelius Hadrianus), emperor 117-38 ce. The Aelii of Italica were among the earliest provincial senators; his mother Domitia Paullina was from Gades (mod. Cádiz). When his father died, Hadrian became the ward of Trajan, his father's cousin, and of P. Acilius Attianus (85). Early devotion to Greek studies earned the nickname, Graeculus (‘little Greek’); a passion for hunting was apparent when he visited Italica (90). After the vigintivirate (see vigintisexviri, vigintiviri), he was tribune in Legio II Adiutrix (95) and V Macedonica (96). Sent to congratulate Trajan on his adoption in 97, he remained in Upper Germany as tribune of XXII Primigenia, under L. Iulius Ursus Servianus, husband of his sister Paulina. In 100 he married Trajan's great-niece Sabina Augusta, a match arranged by Pompeia Plotina, a devoted supporter. As Trajan's quaestor (101) he had to polish his Latin (his ‘rustic accent’ was mocked). He joined Trajan for the First Dacian War (101–2); was tribune of the plebs; then legate of I Minervia in the Second Dacian War (105–6), perhaps being praetor in absentia. He governed Lower Pannonia and was suffect consul (108). When Trajan's closest ally L. Licinius Sura died, Hadrian took over as imperial speech-writer. In 112 he was archon at Athens, where he was honoured with a statue; its inscription (ILS 308 = Smallwood 109) confirms the career in the SHA. When the Parthian expedition began (October 113), he joined Trajan's staff, becoming governor of Syria at latest in 117; and was designated to a second consulship for 118. His position was thus very strong when Trajan died at Selinus in Cilicia on 8 August 117. The next day his adoption by Trajan was announced. A single aureus with the reverse hadriano traiano caesari (BM Coins, Rom. Emp. 3. lxxxvi, 124) cannot dispel the rumours that Plotina had staged an adoption after Trajan died. Hadrian was disliked by his peers and had rivals, but the army recognized him; the senate had to follow suit. Plotina and the guard prefect Attianus took Trajan's body to Rome, while Hadrian faced the crisis in the east. He abandoned the new provinces (Armenia, Mesopotamia, and Assyria), dismissed Trajan's favourite Lusius Quietus from his command in Judaea, and probably wintered at Nicomedia, leaving Catilius Severus as governor of Syria. A rising in Mauretania, no doubt provoked by the dismissal of Quietus, a Moor, was suppressed by Hadrian's friend Q. Marcius Turbo. Britain was also disturbed; Q. Pompeius Falco, governor of Lower Moesia, was probably sent to Britain to restore control when Hadrian reached the Danube in spring 118. He negotiated with the Roxolani and evidently evacuated the Transdanubian part of Lower Moesia annexed by Trajan. C. Iulius Quadratus Bassus, governor of Dacia, had died campaigning; Hadrian summoned Turbo to govern part of Dacia, with Lower Pannonia. Dacia was divided into three provinces. Turbo, an equestrian, was given the same rank as a prefect of Egypt.

Meanwhile Attianus was active. Four ex-consuls, C. Avidius Nigrinus, Cornelius Palma Frontonianus, Publilius Celsus, and Lusius Quietus, were killed for plotting treason. When Hadrian reached Rome (9 July 118), the senate was hostile. He claimed not to have ordered the executions but took steps to win popularity. First came a posthumous triumph for Trajan's Parthian ‘victory’. Crown-gold (aurum coronarium) was remitted for Italy and reduced for the provinces; a new, more generous, largess was disbursed to the plebs; overdue tax was cancelled on a vast scale; children supported by the alimenta received a bounty, bankrupt senators a subsidy; lavish gladiatorial games were held.

Hadrian, consul for the second time for 118, took as colleague Pedanius Fuscus, husband of his niece Iulia: Fuscus was a likely heir. In 119 he was consul for the third and last time, and changed guard prefects. One new prefect was Septicius Clarus, to whom the younger Pliny had dedicated his Letters; C. Suetonius Tranquillus, protégé of Pliny and Septicius' friend, became ab epistulis. The second prefect was Turbo: he was to take charge during Hadrian's absences, together with M. Annius Verus, a senator of Spanish origin, linked by kinship to Hadrian. Verus, consul for the second time in 121 and urban prefect, was rewarded by a third consulship in 126. On 21 April 121, the birthday of the city, Hadrian inaugurated a vast temple of Venus and Roma in the forum Romanum, designed by himself: one of many fields in which he dabbled and claimed expertise (see apollodorus(7)). A poet, he boasted of his cithara-playing and singing, was expert in mathematics—and in military science. A favourite occupation was debating with sophists (see second sophistic). Favorinus yielded: ‘who could contradict the Lord of Thirty Legions?’ To the legions Hadrian now turned, leaving in 121 for the Rhineland. In Upper Germany and Raetia he erected a continuous palisade, Rome's first artificial limes, symbolizing his policy of peace within fixed frontiers. Legions and auxilia—with a few exceptions—were to remain in the same bases, local recruiting became prevalent. Hadrian set out to improve discipline and training—Arrian was to dedicate his Tactica to Hadrian, registering the emperor's innovations. In 122 he crossed to Britain, taking his friend Platorius Nepos, promoted from Lower Germany to Britain, and VI Victrix. The empress Sabina, the prefect Septicius, and Suetonius also went. An obscure imbroglio involving these three led to the men's dismissal. The main business was ‘the wall to separate Romans and barbarians’, as the SHA vita tersely puts it. The wall of Hadrian was far more elaborate than any other limes: the bridge at the eastern end of the wall bore his name, Pons Aelius (Newcastle upon Tyne)—perhaps he designed it. From Britain he made for Spain, via southern Gaul, where he commemorated his horse in verse and Plotina with a basilica (she died early in 123). He wintered at Tarragona, calling a meeting of delegates from the peninsula: military service was on the agenda. Italica was not favoured with a visit, although—showing disdain—he granted it the status of colonia. Conscious perhaps of the coming 150th anniversary of 27 bce, Hadrian now shortened his names to Hadrianus Augustus: a claim to be a new founder of the empire.

A Moorish uprising was dealt with at this time, perhaps without his personal involvement. News from the east determined his next move. Perhaps visiting Cyrenaica en route—he resettled refugees from the Jewish uprising in a new city (Hadrianopolis)—his goal was the Euphrates, to confirm peace with Parthia. After an extensive tour of Asia Minor, he sailed (autumn 124) to Athens. There he was initiated in the Eleusinian mysteries, visiting many other cities before his return to Rome, via Sicily, in summer 125. He stayed in Italy for three years, touring the Po valley for six months in 127; during this period he created four ‘provinces’ in Italy, each with a consular governor. The senate was displeased—Antoninus abolished them (see antoninus pius). In 128 he accepted the title pater patriae; then began his last tour with a visit to Africa and Mauretania, creating another limes; he lectured the troops at Lambaesis, displaying his knowledge of manœuvres (Smallwood 328). Briefly at Rome in late summer, he crossed to Athens, where he wintered again, dedicated the Olympieum and assumed the name Olympius. After participating in the mysteries (spring 129), he went via Ephesus to Syria, wintering at Antioch (1), visiting Palmyra in spring 130, and going through Arabia and Judaea to Egypt. In Judaea he founded a colonia at Jerusalem, Aelia Capitolina; and banned circumcision: measures to Hellenize the Jews—a fatal provocation. Hadrian was accompanied not only by Sabina but by a young Bithynian, Antinous(2): his passion for the youth, embarrassing to many Romans, was a manifestation of his Hellenism. After inspections of Pompey's and Alexander(3) the Great's tombs, debates in the Museum, and hunting in the desert, a voyage on the Nile ended in tragedy: Antinous was drowned. Hadrian's extreme grief was only assuaged by declaring his beloved a god (duly worshipped all over the empire) and naming a new city on the Nile (perhaps already planned) Antinoöpolis. Hadrian went from Egypt to Lycia; by the winter of 131–2 he was back at Athens, to inaugurate the Olympieum and found the Panhellenion, the culmination of his philhellenism.

In 132 the Jews rebelled under Bar Kokhba, rapidly gaining control of considerable territory. Hadrian was briefly in Judaea, summoning his foremost general, Sex. Iulius Severus, from Britain to crush the revolt. It lasted until 135; by then Hadrian had been back at Rome for a year, worn out and ill, staying mostly at his Tibur villa. In 136 he turned his mind to the succession. The aged Servianus and his grandson Fuscus had aspirations; but Hadrian hated both and forced them to suicide. To universal surprise, he adopted one of the consuls of 136, as L. Aelius Caesar. It may have been remorse for the killing of Nigrinus, Aelius' stepfather, in 118. But Aelius died suddenly on 1 January 138. Hadrian now chose Aurelius Antoninus (Pius) and ensured the succession far ahead by causing him to adopt in turn his nephew Marcus (= Marcus Aurelius) and Aelius' young son Lucius (= Lucius Verus). Marcus, a favourite of Hadrian and grandson of Annius Verus, had been betrothed to Aelius' daughter. Hadrian died (10 July 138) with a quizzical verse address to his restless soul. He was buried in his new mausoleum (Castel Sant'Angelo) and deified by a reluctant senate. An intellectual and reformer (the Perpetual Edict, codified by Salvius Iulianus, and the extension of Latin rights were major measures (see edict; ius latii)), by his provincial tours, amply commemorated on the coins, by his frontier policy, and promotion of Hellenism, he made a deep impact on the empire.


  • Realencyclopädie der Classischen Altertumswissenschaft, s.v. “Hadrian 64.”
Ancient sources
  • Literary: Cass. Dio 69

(in epitome and excerpts) and SHA Hadrian (full but garbled), both mainly hostile, are the most important.

  • Philostratus, Vitae sophistarum
  • Coins: British Museum Catalogue of Coins of the Roman Empire (1923– ), 3.
  • Inscriptions: E. M. Smallwood, Documents illustrating the Principates of Nerva, Trajan and Hadrian (1966).
Modern literature
  • E. Groag, A. Stein, and others, Prosopographia Imperii Romani Saeculi I, II, III, 2nd edn. (1933– ), A 184.
  • R. Syme, Tacitus (1958).
  • R. Syme, Roman Papers (1979–1991), 1–6.
  • H. Halfmann, Itinera Principum (1986).
  • A. Birley, The Roman Empire: Augustus to Hadrian (1997).
  • M. Boatwright, Hadrian and the Cities of the Roman Empire (2000) (mainly architectural).
  • T. Opper, Hadrian: Empire and Conflict (2008).
  • R. Turcan, Hadrien (2008).