Emperor Hadrian – Rome’s Absent Ruler

Origin of Emperor Hadrian

Hadrian’s family came from Italica – modern Seville in Spain. The family of the emperor goes back to the Italian colonists who settled in Spain at the end of the Second Punic War . Having become rich in the oil trade and having strengthened their position in the province, they returned to Rome for a public career and honours. The great-grandfather of the future emperor, Marillin, became the first senator in the family. Hadrian’s father, whose name was Publius Elius Afer, also had a successful career in the senate and managed to rise to the rank of praetor.

Emperor Hadrian, Bust from Altes Museum, Berlin

Publius Aelius Hadrian was born on January 24, 76 in Rome and spent his early years here. When the boy was 10 years old, his father died, appointing his cousin Mark Ulpius Trajan, a prosperous young military leader, as guardian. This connection, at first purely formal, later significantly influenced the fate of our hero.

Hadrian’s military career began in 95 with the post of military tribune of the II Auxiliary Legion in Pannonia. The following year, he moved to the V Macedonian legion stationed in Moesia. In the same year, the emperor Domitian died at the hands of the conspirators. Power went to the senatorial protégé Nerva, who immediately ran into opposition from the military. In order to strengthen his power, in early January 97, Nerva adopted Trajan, who was popular in the army, who was at that time in Germany. Adrian joined the delegation of the Danube legions, who arrived at his headquarters with congratulations. In order to continue to serve directly under the command of the emperor, he achieved a transfer to the XXII Primordial Legion stationed here. It was Adrian who informed Trajan of the death of Nerva and his proclamation as emperor at the end of January 98.

Although Trajan at one time regularly performed the duties of a guardian, and later patronized Hadrian during his military service, he apparently did not feel much sympathy for his nephew. Rather strained relations between them remained for a long time, and only thanks to the location of Trajan’s wife Plotina, Hadrian managed to enter the imperial environment. Again, through the efforts of Plotina, Adrian in the year 100 obtained permission to marry Trajan’s great-niece and his favorite Vibia Sabina. This marriage, although not entirely successful, nevertheless contributed a lot to his rapprochement with the imperial family.

 Silver denarius of 119 depicting Hadrian

Heir to the throne

Meanwhile, Hadrian’s career was moving forward successfully. In 101 he became a quaestor in Rome. Speaking before the Senate with a speech of thanks, he was ridiculed for his clumsy provincial Latin. In the future, he managed to cope with this shortcoming, and over time he even acted as the compiler of Trajan’s speeches. In 106, Hadrian became praetor and then legate of the I Minerva legion. During the II Dacian War, he successfully commanded his legion, was twice awarded for bravery and finally won the approval of Trajan. The decisive test of Hadrian’s abilities was the Pannonian governorship he received in 107. The province, agitated by the just concluded war with the Dacians, was subjected to incessant attacks by the Sarmatians. Hadrian repulsed all these attacks and concluded an honourable peace with the Sarmatians. His successes were rewarded by the consulate.

Bartoli, Pietro Santi; Bellori, Giovanni Pietro; Chacon, Alfonso; Louis XIV; Reynolds, Joshua; Rossi, Giacomo De’; Plate 30: Roman soldiers preparing for the fourth battle with the Dacians / engraved plate from Colonna Traiana by Pietro Santi Bartoli, published by Giacomo de Rossi (Rome, 1672); https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/art-artists/work-of-art/O48831 Credit line: (c) (c) Royal Academy of Arts /

In 113, Adrian, following the emperor, went to war with the Parthians and was a legate at his headquarters in Armenia and Mesopotamia. In 117, Trajan appointed him governor of Syria, placing on the shoulders of a relative the care of the logistics of the entire army. In the summer of that year, Trajan fell ill and decided to return to Rome, handing over the main command to Hadrian. The terminally ill emperor managed to get only to Selinunte in Cilicia, where on August 8 he died in the arms of the Dam.

The next day, in Antioch, the adoption of Hadrian and the death of Trajan were announced simultaneously. Two days later, Hadrian was proclaimed emperor by the eastern legions and then recognized by the senate in Rome. Since Trajan postponed the adoption until the last day, and Adrian was not the only candidate from the government, rumors spread that the adoption procedure was staged by Plotina. In Rome, even a conspiracy arose, drawn up by four of the closest associates of the late emperor and former consuls Cornelius Palma, Avidius Nigrinus, Publius Celsus and Lusius Quiet. Only decisive action by Hadrian’s supporter, Praetor Prefect Publius Acilius Attian, made it possible to overcome the crisis and bring the situation under control.

 Emperor Trajan and the Parthians. Ivory carving. Archaeological Museum of Ephesus, Selcuk. © Carole Raddato (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Beginning of the reign

The first measures taken by the authorities were connected with the settlement of the situation in the Middle East. The recently occupied Armenia, Mesopotamia and Assyria were in revolt, the Romans lost control over these territories under Trajan. In 117, the uprising spread to the eastern Roman provinces, where a significant Jewish diaspora lived. Troops were sent against the rebels. Lucius Quiet with the Moorish cavalry brutally suppressed the uprising in Judea, Quintus Marcius Turbo pacified Alexandria, Egypt and Cyrenaica, and Lucius Severus restored order in Cyprus. Approximately half a million people died during the hostilities. Some areas became so depopulated that they had to be repopulated by colonists.

The restoration of control over the provincial territories made it possible to start negotiations with the Parthians. Rome returned all the lands captured by Trajan to King Khosrov II. In the northern part of Mesopotamia, the former system of buffer kingdoms under the control of local dynasts was restored. The Roman garrisons even left Armenia. This decision, difficult in all respects, was made on the basis of a realistic analysis of the situation. It took into account not only the huge losses and fatigue of the army, but also the complete depletion of the available reserves.

Adrian learned the lesson learned from these events so well that he even considered leaving Dacia, but he was held back by the discontent of Trajan’s former associates and the large number of colonists who settled the country. Nevertheless, the Roman garrisons left the territory of Lower Oltenia and Muntenia, the eastern part of the Carpathian Basin and Southern Moldavia. The rest of the country was divided into Upper and Lower Dacia. To protect it, a system of ramparts and garrisons was erected. Adrian observed these events personally. Instead of Gaius Julius Quadratus Bass, who died in the fight against the Sarmatians, the emperor in 118 appointed Quintus Marcius Turbon as the governor of Dacia, who demonstrated his abilities during the suppression of the uprising in Egypt and Cyrenaica. Under his leadership, the attacks of the barbarians were repulsed.

After that, Adrian made peace with the king of the Roxolans. In exchange for monetary subsidies, the barbarians swore not to violate the borders of the empire and, at the request of Rome, to send their soldiers to participate in military campaigns.

 Moorish horsemen on the relief of Trajan’s Column in Rome.

Military policy

In the summer of 118, Hadrian returned to Rome with great pomp. To cut the ground from under the feet of the opposition and demonstrate loyalty to his adoptive father, Hadrian celebrated his posthumous triumph over the Parthians. The place of Trajan in the solemn procession was occupied by his image, which was carried on a chariot. Hadrian ordered the ashes of his predecessor to be buried in the rectangular base of the Column.

Otherwise, the reign of Hadrian was a marked retreat from the expansionist course of Trajan. Those few wars that he nevertheless had to wage were predominantly defensive in nature and served mainly the task of strengthening the external borders of the empire. A visible symbol of this policy was the construction of fortifications along the perimeter of the empire’s border. His biographer writes:

“In very many places where the barbarians are separated from the Roman possessions not by rivers, but by ordinary borders, he separated the barbarians from the Romans with pillars dug deep into the ground like village fences and connected with each other.”

The most famous of these buildings was Hadrian’s Wall, the construction of which began in 122 during Hadrian’s visit to Britain. A stone wall with towers 117 km long, 4 m high and 2.5 m thick ran across the entire island from the shore of Solvay Bay to the mouth of the Tyne River. To the north of the wall stretched a 10-meter ditch. To the south there was a road, along which, at a distance of 1 mile from one another, there were small fortifications, designed for a garrison of 16 people. Larger forces were encamped along the line of fortifications. From here they could be quickly transferred to that section of the border that was in immediate danger. The construction of similar fortifications simultaneously unfolded on the Rhine and Danube borders of the empire, in Cappadocia, Syria and North Africa.

 Hadrian’s Wall in Britain.

Hadrian was a staunch supporter of peace, but by constant inspections and training, he continuously increased the training and striking power of the troops. Demanding strength, endurance and full dedication from the soldiers, the emperor himself served them as a personal example:

“Everywhere he led a harsh lifestyle and set off on a journey either on foot or on horseback, never using a wagon. He never covered his head either in the heat or in the cold, and equally in the middle of the German snows or under the burning Egyptian sun, he walked ahead of everyone with his head uncovered. As a result, by his own example and instructions, he so learned the soldiers that the measures he introduced were successfully applied to this day.

Administration and judiciary

In the state field, Adrian proved himself to be a talented administrator, streamlining the structure of central and provincial government. The Imperial Council, in which elected representatives of the senatorial and equestrian estates sat, under him turned into a permanent body of power. Significant changes took place in the imperial office. Instead of imperial freedmen, leading positions in the apparatus began to be occupied by persons of equestrian origin, often prominent lawyers and administrators of their time. This contributed to the transformation of the chancellery from the emperor’s domestic service into a national institution. Reorganization under Hadrian underwent military and civilian careers, which took shape in a strict sequence of posts. Moving from one post to another

Adrian made the most important contribution to the judiciary. With the help of the eminent jurist Salvius Ulpian, he attempted to codify Roman law. The result of this activity was the publication of a permanent praetor edict, which replaced the legal discord of the previous time. The most important legal body was the emperor’s council, which received the competence to make fundamental changes to the legal system. One of the two praetorian prefects had to be a qualified lawyer. Characteristically, the jurisdiction of the emperor and his decisions also extended to the provinces, and he dealt with them even when traveling. The well-known anecdote about the poor widow, told by Dio Cassius, clearly illustrates such activities:

“Once, when a certain poor widow wanted to convey a petition to Adrian, the emperor, in a hurry somewhere, said that he had no time, and wanted to pass by. The widow replied: Then stop being an emperor! And Adrian accepted her request.

 Roman lawyers. Relief of the 2nd century.

Hadrian’s travels

Hadrian became famous as a tireless traveller, walking around the entire empire. In 121, he set out from Rome on his first trip, which ran through Gaul and the provinces along the Upper Rhine and Danube. In the triangle between these rivers, the emperor strengthened the system of fortifications begun under his predecessors. The following year, Hadrian returned to Germany and then sailed to Britain, where he laid the foundation of the rampart. In the autumn he returned to Gaul, spent the winter of 122-123 in the homeland of his ancestors in Spain, and from there he crossed by sea to Mauritania. Later he travelled to Africa, Libya and Cyrenaica, reached Syria through Crete and reached the Euphrates on foot. Here he met with the Parthian king Khosrov in order to settle the differences that had arisen with him. Having travelled through Asia Minor to Ephesus, he then reached Thrace by sea, inspected the provinces on the Lower Danube and left for Greece, where he spent almost the entire year 124. At the beginning of 125, the emperor went by sea to Sicily, and then returned to Rome through southern Italy after a four-year absence.

In 128, Hadrian set off on a new journey. It began with a visit to Africa, where the emperor observed the teachings of the III Augustus legion in Lambesis. Then he briefly returned to Rome and immediately moved to Greece. Revisiting his beloved Athens, he crossed by sea to Asia Minor, traveled through Phrygia, Cappadocia and Cilicia, and spent the winter of 128-129 in Antioch. Then Adrian crossed Syria, Judea, Arabia and in 130 arrived in Egypt. Climbing up the Nile, the emperor carefully examined its ancient cities and temples. After the tragic death of his beloved Antinous, he returned to Alexandria and from there proceeded by ship with stops along the coast of Syria and Asia Minor. He spent the summer and autumn of 131 in Thrace, then visited Moesia, Dacia, and returned to Greece through Macedonia.

In winter, the emperor paid a last visit to Athens, where he remained until the spring of 132. Here he was overtaken by disturbing news about the beginning of the uprising in Judea. Only in 133 did he return to Rome again. In total, of the 21 years of his reign, Hadrian spent only about nine and a half years in Rome and Italy.

 Relief from the monument to Hadrian. The emperor is greeted by the goddess Roma and the geniuses of the Senate and the Roman people. Capitoline Museum, Rome.© Sailko (CC BY-SA 3.0)


An excellent warrior and intelligent administrator, Adrian was also a subtle intellectual and philhellene. All his life he wrote poetry, was engaged in drawing and was fond of architecture. Adrian even showed a passion for Hellenic culture, even outwardly, differing from the clean-shaven Romans of the previous era with his philosopher’s beard. While still a private individual, Adrian in 112 was honored with initiation into the Eleusinian mysteries and gratefully accepted the honorary position of archon from the Athenians. After becoming emperor, he launched a huge building program in Athens and erected a new city near the historical center, named after him. Under him, the temple of Olympian Zeus, begun 600 years ago, was completed, the height of the columns of which reached 20 meters.

Under Adrian, the Olympic movement received a new impetus. At the same time, the emperor was not alien to the ideas of the Stoic philosophers about the unification of all cultural humanity in one state. The integration of religious, collective and political ideas, the unification of west and east, aimed at the consolidation of the empire, was the program to which he dedicated his reign.

 The most famous building of Hadrian in Rome is the building of the Pantheon, restored (or rather, re-created) between 118 and 128 years.

Bar Kokhba Rebellion

As soon as it began to be implemented, this idea suddenly faced a serious challenge. In 132, major unrest broke out again in Judea. The rebels, led by Bar Kokhba, whom they considered the newly-minted messiah, skillfully applied guerrilla tactics and scored a number of major successes. Vast territories came under their control, and even for a time the capital, Jerusalem.

Realizing the seriousness of the situation, Adrian threw all available forces to suppress the uprising. The best military leader of the empire, Sextus Julius Severus, was called from Britain, who pulled into Judea no less than four legions from neighboring provinces, nine vexillations of other legions, no less than a dozen auxiliary cohorts and three alas of cavalry – a total army of at least 60,000 people. Having withstood 54 battles, Julius Severus locked the rebels in the fortress of Betar and, after a long siege, took the city by storm. Bar Kokhba and his supporters, who resisted to the last, died in battle.

During the suppression of the uprising, the country was completely devastated, Jerusalem was destroyed, the Jews were scattered throughout the provinces of the empire. Under pain of death, they were forbidden to return to their country.

Death and funeral

When, in 136, Hadrian returned to Rome from his last trip, his health was greatly weakened. The 60-year-old emperor was sick, disappointed in life and felt the approach of death. Secluded in a villa in Bayah, he surrounded himself with Persian magicians, Babylonian astrologers and Egyptian fortune-tellers. The disease exacerbated his anger, the victims of which often became people from the immediate environment. Later, Adrian repented of his deed and even tried to commit suicide.

The emperor had no children. Looking for a successor, he initially settled on Lucius Ceionia Commodus. It was rumored that he was the illegitimate son of Adrian. On January 1, 138, the heir died. Then Adrian chose Titus Aurelius Antoninus, a respected senator and former consul. By his order, Antoninus was to adopt the 7-year-old son of Commodus Lucius Elius Verus and the 17-year-old Mark Annius Verus, who became the heirs of the second stage.

 Mausoleum of Hadrian in Rome, now the Castel Sant’Angelo.

On July 10, 138, Hadrian died at his villa. A poem written shortly before his death conveys the atmosphere of loneliness that surrounded the emperor:

“My poor soul, restless, pampered, while you were a guest and companion of the body. Where are you going now, pale, naked and shivering from the cold?

For all the abuses committed by Adrian, the senate was going to declare him a tyrant and curse his memory. However, Antoninus, in a stubborn struggle, managed to defend the good name of the deceased and received the nickname Pius – “pious” for this. The ashes of Hadrian were solemnly brought to Rome and buried in a magnificent mausoleum, erected on the banks of the Tiber during the life of the emperor.