The Roman Emperor, Hadrian

Front view of Ponte Sant'Angelo in Rome, Italy
Hadrian's Mausoleum in Rome. joe daniel price / Getty Images

Hadrian (r. A.D. 117-138) was a Roman emperor known for his many building projects, cities named Hadrianopolis (Adrianopolis) after him, and the famous wall across Britain, from Tyne to Solway, designed to keep the barbarians out of Roman Britain.

Hadrian was one of the 5 good Roman emperors. Like Emperor Marcus Aurelius, he was influenced by the philosophy of the Stoics. He did not add to Trajan's expansion of the Roman Empire but traveled around it. He rectified tax situations and is said to have defended the weak against the strong. He was emperor during the Bar Kochba revolt in Judaea.

  • Official Title: Imperator Caesar Traianus Hadrianus Augustus
  • Known as: Hadrianus Augustus
  • Dates: January 24, 76 - July 10, 138
  • Place of Birth: Italica, in Hispania Baetica, or Rome
  • Parents of Hadrian: P. Aelius Afer (whose ancestors had come from Hadria in Picenum) and Domitia Paulina (from Gades)
  • Wife: Trajan's grand-niece Vibia Sabina

Hadrian's Family

Hadrian was probably not from the city of Rome. The Augustan History says Hadrian's family was originally from Pompey's hometown of Picenum, but more recently from Spain. His mother, Domitia Paulina's distinguished family was from Gades, in Hispania.

Hadrian was the son of a former praetor, Aelius Hadrianus Afer, who was a cousin of the future Roman emperor Trajan.

Hadrian was born January 24, 76. His father died when he was 10. Trajan and Acilius Attianus (Caelium Tatianum) became his guardians.

Highlights of Hadrian's Path to Emperor

Towards the end of Domitian's reign, Hadrian was made a military tribune. He became quaestor in 101 and then became curator of the Acts of the Senate. He then went with Trajan to the Dacian Wars. He became tribune of the plebeians in 105 and became praetor in 107. As praetor—and with a healthy gift from Trajan—Hadrian put on games. He then went to Lower Pannonia as governor and first became consul in 108.

Hadrian's Rule

Hadrian Ruled the Roman Empire From A.D. 117-138. Cassius Dio says that it was through Hadrian's former guardian Attianus and Trajan's wife, Plotina, that Hadrian became emperor when Trajan died. Trajan probably had not designated Hadrian as successor, so it is possible that a plot was concocted. Before Trajan's death was made public, but possibly after the actual event, an announcement was made that Hadrian had been adopted. At the time, Hadrian was in Antioch, Syria, as governor. He apologized to the Senate for not having waited for their approval before taking on the important job of governing the Roman Empire.

Hadrians Travels

Hadrian spent more time traveling throughout the empire than any other emperor. He was generous with the military and helped to reform it, including building garrisons and forts. He traveled to Britain where he initiated the project of building a protective wall (Hadrian's Wall) across Britain to keep the northern barbarians out.

When his supposed lover Antinous died in Egypt, Hadrian mourned deeply. The Greeks made Antinous a god and Hadrian named a city for him (Antinoopolis, near Hermopolis). He tried to settle the Jewish War but started new problems when he built a temple to Jupiter on the site of the temple in Jerusalem.

Hadrian Was Generous

Hadrian gave large sums of money to communities and individuals. He allowed the children of proscribed individuals to inherit part of the estate. The Augustan History says he wouldn't take legacies from people he didn't know or from people with sons who could inherit. He wouldn't allow maiestas (treason) charges. He tried in many ways to live unassumingly, like a private citizen.

Hadrian outlawed masters' killing their slaves and (an important point for historical fiction writers) changed the law so that if a master was murdered at home, only those slaves who were nearby could be tortured for evidence.

Hadrian's Reforms

Hadrian changed the law so that a bankrupt would be flogged in the amphitheater and then released. He made the baths separate for men and women. He restored many buildings, including the pantheon, and moved Nero's colossus—he also removed Nero's image from the enormous statue. When Hadrian traveled to other cities, he implemented public works projects. Hadrian created the post of treasury counsel. He granted Latin rights to many communities and took away their obligation to pay tribute.

Hadrian's Death

Hadrian became ill, associated in the Augustan History with his refusal to cover his head in heat or cold. He had a lingering illness that made him long for death. When he couldn't persuade anyone to help him ​commit suicide, he took up indulgent eating and drinking, according to Dio Cassius. After Hadrian died (July 10, 138), the bad points of his life—possible murders in the early years and then the final years—kept the Senate from automatically granting him honors, but Antoninus, his successor, persuaded the Senate to award them. Antoninus is thought to have earned the name "Pius" for this act of (adopted) filial devotion.

Hadrian in Historical Fiction

Hadrian is an appealing figure for historical fiction writers. Starting with his rise to the imperial purple through the presumed backstage machinations of those interested in his advance to his presumed romantic involvement with Antinous to his famous wall against the Picts to his bearded visage, there are lots of plot points in the emperor's life. In 2010, Steven Saylor made Hadrian one of the major emperors covered in his historical fiction novel Empire, but he is hardly the first to do so. In 1951, Marguerite Yourcenar wrote the Memoires d'Hadrien (Memoirs of Hadrian). A novel about the wall came out in 2005.


  • Cassius Dio - 69
  • Lives of the Later Caesars (Augustan History)
  • "The Legal Policy and Reforms of Hadrian," by Fritz Pringsheim. The Journal of Roman Studies, Vol. 24. (1934), pp. 141-153.
  • DIR Roman Emperors Hadrian