Biography of Hadrian, Roman Emperor

Front view of Ponte Sant'Angelo in Rome, Italy
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Hadrian (Jan. 24, 76—July 10, 138) was a Roman emperor for 21 years who unified and consolidated Rome’s vast empire, unlike his predecessor, who focused on expansion. He was the third of the so-called Five Good Emperors; he presided over the glory days of the Roman Empire and is known for many building projects, including a famous wall across Britain to keep out the barbarians.

Known For: Roman Emperor, one of the five "good emperors"

Also Known As: Imperator Caesar Traianus Hadrianus Augustus, Publius Aelius Hadrianu

Born: Jan. 24, 76, possibly in Rome or in Italica, in what is now Spain

Parents: Aelius Hadrianus Afer, Domitia Paulina

Died: July 10, 138, in Baiae, near Naples, Italy

Spouse: Vibia Sabina

Early Life

Hadrian was born on Jan. 24, 76. He probably was not originally from Rome. The "Augustan History," a collection of biographies of the Roman emperors, says his family was from Picenum, but more recently of Spain, and moved to Rome. His mother, Domitia Paulina, came from a distinguished family from Gades, which today is Cadiz, Spain.

His father was Aelius Hadrianus Afer, a magistrate and cousin of future Roman Emperor Trajan. He died when Hadrian was 10, and Trajan and Acilius Attianus (Caelium Tatianum) became his guardians. In 90 Hadrian visited Italica, a Roman city in present-day Spain, where he received military training and developed a fondness for hunting that he kept for the rest of his life.

Hadrian married Vibia Sabina, grand-niece of Emperor Trajan, in 100.

Rise to Power

Toward the end of Emperor Domitian's reign, Hadrian started out on the traditional career path of a Roman senator. He was made a military tribune, or officer, and then became a quaestor, a low-ranking magistrate, in 101 and later curator of the Acts of the Senate. When Trajan was consul, a higher magistrate's position, Hadrian went with him to the Dacian Wars and became tribune of the plebeians, a powerful political office, in 105.

Two years later he became praetor, a magistrate just below consul. He then went to Lower Pannonia as governor and became consul, the pinnacle of a senator’s career, in 108.

His rise from there to emperor in 117 involved some palace intrigue. After he became consul his career rise stopped, possibly triggered by the death of a previous consul, Licinius Sura, when a faction opposed to Sura, Trajan's wife, Plotina, and Hadrian came to dominate Trajan's court. There is some evidence that during this period Hadrian devoted himself to studying the nation and culture of Greece, a long-held interest of his.

Somehow, Hadrian’s star rose again shortly before Trajan died, probably because Plotina and her associates had regained Trajan’s confidence. Third century Greek historian Cassius Dio says that Hadrian's former guardian, Attianus, then a powerful Roman, also was involved. Hadrian was holding a major military command under Trajan when, on Aug. 9, 117, he learned that Trajan had adopted him, a sign of succession. Two days later, it was reported that Trajan had died, and the army proclaimed Hadrian emperor.

Hadrian's Rule

Hadrian ruled the Roman Empire until 138. He is known for spending more time traveling throughout the empire than any other emperor. Unlike his predecessors, who had relied on reports from the provinces, Hadrian wanted to see things for himself. He was generous with the military and helped to reform it, including ordering the construction of garrisons and forts. He spent time in Britain, where in 122 he initiated the building of a protective stone wall, known as Hadrian's Wall, across Britain in to keep the northern barbarians out. It marked the northernmost boundary of the Roman Empire until early in the fifth century.

The wall stretches from the North Sea to the Irish Sea, 73 miles long, eight to 10 feet wide, and 15 feet high. Along its length the Romans built towers and small forts called milecastles, which housed up to 60 men. Sixteen larger forts were built, and south of the wall the Romans dug a wide ditch with six-foot-high earthen banks. Though many of the stones were carried away and recycled into other buildings, the wall still stands.

Reforms

During his reign, Hadrian was generous to citizens of the Roman empire. He awarded large sums of money to communities and individuals and allowed the children of individuals charged with major crimes to inherit part of the family estate. According to the "Augustan History," he wouldn't take the bequests of people he didn't know or of people whose sons could inherit the bequests, contrary to earlier practice.

Some of Hadrian's reforms indicate how barbaric the times were. He outlawed masters' killing their slaves and changed the law so that if a master was murdered at home, only slaves who were nearby could be tortured for evidence. He also changed laws so that bankrupt people would be flogged in the amphitheater and then released, and he made the baths separate for men and women.

He restored many buildings, including the Pantheon in Rome, and moved the Colossus, the 100-foot bronze statue installed by Nero. When Hadrian traveled to other cities in the empire, he implemented public works projects. Personally, he tried in many ways to live unassumingly, like a private citizen.

Friend or Lover?

On a trip through Asia Minor, Hadrian met Antinoüs, a young man born about 110. Hadrian made Antinoüs his companion, though by some accounts he was regarded as Hadrian's lover. Traveling together along the Nile in 130, the young man fell into the river and drowned, Hadrian was desolate. One report said Antinoüs had jumped into the river as a sacred sacrifice, though Hadrian denied that explanation.

Whatever the reason for his death, Hadrian mourned deeply. The Greek world honored Antinoüs, and cults inspired by him appeared across the empire. Hadrian named Antinopolis, a city near Hermopolis in Egypt, after him.

Hadrian became ill, associated in the "Augustan History" with his refusal to cover his head in heat or cold. His illness lingered, making 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. He died on July 10, 138. 

Legacy

Hadrian is remembered for his travels, his building projects, and his efforts to tie together the far-flung outposts of the Roman empire. He was aesthetic and educated and left behind several poems. Signs of his reign remain in a number of buildings, including the Temple of Rome and Venus, and he rebuilt the Pantheon, which had been destroyed by fire during the reign of his predecessor.

His own country residence, Villa Adriana, outside Rome is considered the architectural epitome of the opulence and elegance of the Roman world. Covering seven square miles, it was more a garden city than a villa, including baths, libraries, sculpture gardens, theaters, alfresco dining halls, pavilions, and private suites, portions of which survived to modern times. It was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1999. His tomb, now called the Castel Sant’Angelo, became a burial place for succeeding emperors and was converted into a fortress in the 5th century.

Sources

Birley, Anthony. "Lives of the Later Caesars: The First Part of the Augustan History, with Lives of Nerva and Trajan." Classics, Reprint Edition, Kindle Edition, Penguin, February 24, 2005.

"Roman History by Cassius Dio." University of Chicago.

Pringsheim, Fritz. The Legal Policy and Reforms of Hadrian. The Journal of Roman Studies, Vol. 24.

"Hadrian." An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Emperors.

"Hadrian: Roman Emperor." Encyclopaedia Britannica.