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(24 January 76 - 10 July 138 CE)

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)


Publius Aelius Hadrianus

Ruled as

Imperator Caesar Divi Traiani filius Traianus Hadrianus Augustus


11 August 117 – 10 July 138 CE


24 January 76 CE


10 July 138 CE

Coin of Hadrian

Hadrian was born on January 24, 76 CE in Italica (Spain) or Rome as Publius Aelius Hadrianus. He came (like Trajan) from Spain. He was related to the emperor – as the grandson of his aunt. When he lost his father, the future Emperor Trajan took charge of him. And so the young man climbed the career ladder; he was the commander of the troops fighting against the Dacians, later a consul, to finally get the governorship of Syria. He was the third of the so-called five good emperors.


He was the son of Publius Aelius Hadrianus Afer and Domitia Paulina. His father was a senator and praetor who held his office mainly in Rome. The mother, in turn, came from a noble senatorial family with Spanish-Roman roots. Hadrian was thus brought up in a well-placed family. Familia originally came from Picenum in Italy, then settled in the province of Hispania Baetica (Hispania Ulterior during Republic) in the city of Italica – near the present-day Seville. In turn, “The History of August” tells that Hadrian was born in Rome. It seems, however, that the first version of the biography is justified. His only sister and siblings were Aelia Domitia Paulina, married to a triple consul, Lucius Julius Ursus Servianus.

At the age of 10, he lost his father and mother and was taken care of by the later Emperor Trajan and Publius Acilius Attianus (later Trajan’s praetorian prefect). Young Hadrian was brought up like other Roman patricians – carefully and comprehensively. The young man showed the greatest interest in Greek literature – hence his later nickname “Graeculus”. Hadrian made his last visit to his native Spain when he turned 14. Later, despite the fact that he travelled a lot, he never came to the city of Italica again.

In 100 CE Hadrian married Vibia Sabina (who was 12 at the time) – the granddaughter of the Emperor’s sister.
Hadrian was also known for his loving relationship over 30 years with Antinous, a Greek young man who accompanied the emperor on his travels. After Antinous drowned in the Nile, Hadrian deified it. The cult of Antinous lasted several centuries.

Antinous was a Greek young man from Bithynia who was taken in by Hadrian’s court when he turned 12. The emperor did not hide his feelings for the boy. Their relationship was even accepted by the empress.

Hadrian also became famous in history as the first Roman emperor to wear a beard. This fashion was to last until the reign of Constantine the Great in the 4th century CE.


His first military post was a tribunate over the II Adiutrix legion. Later he transferred to legio I Minerva in Germania. When Emperor Nerva died in 98 CE, young Hadrian personally went to inform Trajan. In time, he also became the legate of the legion in Upper Pannonia and possibly the governor of this province.

Before assuming power, Hadrian held the following offices:

  • decemvir stlitibus iudicandis;
  • sevir turmae equitum Romanorum;
  • praefectus Urbi feriarum Latinarum;
  • tribunus militum legionis II Adiutricis Piae Fidelis (95 CE, Pannonia Inferior);
  • tribunus militum legionis V Macedonicae (96 CE, Moesia Inferior);
  • tribunus militum legionis XXII Primigeniae Piae Fidelis (97 CE, Germania Superior);
  • quaestor (101 CE);
  • ab actis senatus;
  • tribunus plebis (105 CE);
  • praetor (106 CE);
  • legatus legionis I Minerviae Piae Fidelis (106 CE, Germania Inferior);
  • legatus Augusti pro praetore Pannoniae Inferioris (107 CE);
  • consul suffectus (108 CE);
  • septemvir epulonum (before 112 CE);
  • sodalis Augustalis (before 112 CE);
  • archon Athenis (112/13 CE);
  • legatus Syriae (117 CE);

In addition, Hadrian took part in the Dac War (as legate of the legio V Macedonica) and reportedly received awards from Trajan for his victories. Later, he also took part in the military campaign against the Parthians, in which he was legate to the emperor. He also replaced the governor of the Syria province, where he had an independent command.
It’s hard to clearly define what kind of commander Hadrian was. He participated in many campaigns, neither during the reign of Trajan nor during his imperium, but seems to have been familiar with military tactics and themes, and showed leadership and strategic skills.

Complicated relationship of Hadrian with Trajan

Trajan’s dislike of Hadrian grew gradually. It could have resulted from the defiant and disobedient youthful behaviour of Hadrian, which displeased Trajan, who was known for his modesty and moderation. Moreover, the information coming to his ears about the unsuccessful relationship between Sabina and Hadrian certainly limited Hadrian’s promotions.

Apart from agreeing to marry a member of his family, Trajan gave no clear signals to prove that Hadrian was in his opinion particularly favoured or planned as a successor. Hadrian, despite some military experience he had, did not receive any commanding powers in the initial phase of the war with the Parthians. Moreover, in the years 111-113 CE an adult Hadrian, instead of receiving important posts and public offices, with Trajan’s consent, stayed in Athens in order to further explore the Greek world. Trajan did not grant Hadrian the status of a patrician or the title of the first consul – as Cassius Dio says.

Coming to power

When in 117 CE seriously ill, Trajan decided to return to Rome, Hadrian remained in Syria as provincial governor. Trajan, who was dying on the west coast of Turkey, did not explicitly say who would be his successor. Cassius Dio explicitly claims that Hadrian did not receive any clear support from Trajan. Plotinus, strongly supporting Hadrian – with whom she could even have a love relationship – probably sought to recognize him as the heir and adopted son of the emperor. Attianus, who was on his hand to proclaim an allied and known to him man from childhood, could certainly have been involved in the conspiracy.

Cassius Dio’s father, Apronianus, who was the ruler of Cilicia, reported that Trajan’s death was kept secret for several days so that Hadrian’s adoption would be carried out smoothly and his right to the throne would be properly secured. This indicates that Plotinus and Attianus – the wife of the former emperor and the praetorian prefect respectively – supported Hadrian, which was to give him sufficient legitimacy. It is possible that Plotinus encouraged or forced Trajan to sign the adoption document, or that the document was simply forged.
With the support of Plotinus, Attianus and the Syrian legions, the only formal issue was to send a letter to the Senate asking for recognition of his authority.

Roman emperor

Hadrian’s Wall was a great achievement of Roman technical thought and military.
Creative Commons Attribution license - On the same terms 3.0.

Hadrian became Roman Emperor at the age of 41. The new emperor took power without major problems or riots. He quickly established and strengthened his power over the legions. His only potential rival was the Judea legate, Lucius Flower, whom he quickly recalled. The new ruler, however, did not go to the capital, and remained for a long time in the East, claiming that he had to stabilize the situation in Judea (the uprising broke out under Trajan) and on the eastern border. He decided to hand over Mesopotamia and Armenia conquered by Trajan to the Parthians, with whom there was almost another war in 121 CE. It may seem that this decision revealed the emperor’s cowardice, but more a sensible explanation is a fact that Hadrian noticed the weak defence values of the captured regions and the need to strengthen other regions of the empire – especially on the Danube. At that time, a conspiracy of Quietus and four important senators, who, at the emperor’s request, were sentenced to death was discovered in Rome.

In 118 CE, Hadrian visited Rome, where he stayed for three years. In the following years, he focused mainly on strengthening permanent military fortifications on the borders of the Roman Empire (limites).
In 121 CE he went to Gaul, where he started to strengthen the fortifications. Strong border forts, watchtowers and wooden fortifications were built on the Rhine and Danube. In 122 CE he went to Great Britain, where he commissioned the construction of the Limesian fortifications – Hadrian’s Wall – who had to separate the Romans from the barbaric world. The wall was primarily to secure Roman gains in Britain, to control trade on the border and migration. Due to the fact that the area where the rampart was built was devoid of wood (unlike the Germanic limes), it was decided to build a stone structure.

Hadrian’s Gate in Antalya (southern Turkey) was built in 130 CE to celebrate the Emperor’s visit.
Creative Commons Attribution license - On the same terms 3.0.

The emperor improved communication on the fronts and strengthened the sense of security. In order to raise the morale of the soldiers and eliminate their uncertainty, he tried to carry out inspections and commissioned hard training and discipline in the army. Although Hadrian was often depicted on military-style coins, his policy was to peace at the frontiers, romanize conquered lands, and consolidate gains. The main assumption of his foreign policy was the resignation from further conquests and securing the borders of the Roman Empire.

Hadrian travelled extensively throughout the empire, inspecting the legions, introducing reforms where he felt required it. He rarely stayed in Rome, where his interests were represented by a group of supporters from high society and the military veteran Marcius Turbo – the praetorian prefect and a close friend of Trajan and Hadrian. There are also reports that the emperor set up a special unit – frumentarii – whose main task was to control and spy on any conspiracies in the capital in advance.

In 123 CE, Hadrian visited the eastern Roman provinces. He visited Mauritania, where he personally led a military campaign against the rebels. He visited, among others Anatolia, Claudiopolis, Nicomedia and many more.
In the fall of 124 CE, he came to Greece to then visit Sicily and Rome.

During numerous inspections, Emperor Hadrian commissioned many constructions. Buildings erected in Rome on the initiative of Hadrian include the monumental tomb of the emperor and his family (Hadrian’s Mausoleum – the present temple of Saint Angel) and the Temple of Venus and Roma at the Forum Romanum from the Colosseum. He also rebuilt the Pantheon, which was destroyed in a fire in 80 CE.

Hadrian and his architect Apollodorus from Damascus they are watching a model of the new Temple of All Gods – the Pantheon. The building was destroyed in a fire in CE 80
Author: George Schmidt

In addition, Hadrian reformed the tax system softened the laws on slaves. He commissioned Salvius Julian to issue legal instructions for praetors called the perpetual edict (edictum perpetuum).

In CE 128, Emperor Hadrian again visited Greece, Asia, and Egypt. From 129 CE Hadrian was called: Hadrianos Sebastos Olympios. In 130 CE Hadrian visited Judea, specifically Jerusalem, which was still full of ruins after the Jewish War I.. The emperor decided to rebuild the city to be more “Roman”. Many temples were built in honour of Roman gods, often in places holy to the Jews. Such anti-Jewish policy of the emperor led to a rebellion and the outbreak of another Jewish war, the so-called uprising of Bar-Kochba. During 132-136 CE, the emperor suppressed an uprising in Judea and changed the name of the capital, Jerusalem, to Colonia Aelia Capitolina.

Pantheon was rebuilt by Hadrian after a fire in CE 80
Creative Commons Attribution license - On the same terms 3.0.

Hadrian also became known as a patron of arts and science. He paid special attention to Greek culture. He wrote the unpreserved “Various Rhetorical Exercises” (Meletai), was the author of many poems, speeches, autobiography, sculpted and painted. One of the few surviving poems by his “Animula vagula, blandula” reads:

Little soul, you charming little wanderer, my body’s guest and partner,
Where are you off to now?
Somewhere without colour, savage and bare;
Never again to share a joke.

The famous statue of Hadrian, shown here in Greek robe. For years, the statue was considered to be evidence of the emperor’s admiration for Greek culture. However, it turned out to be false: Hadrian’s head was attached to the body of a Greek figure.
Creative Commons Attribution license - On the same terms 3.0.

Hadrian spent the final years of his life in Rome. In 134 CE, he received the triumph that ended the Second Jewish War (in fact it did not end until the following year). In 136 CE he commissioned the construction of the Temple of Venus and Roma on the site of Nero’s former residence – the Golden House.
At that time, due to his poor health, he began to pay attention to possible successors. In 136 CE, he adopted one of the consuls of that year, Ceionius Commodus. Due to his death, however, he adopted a man named Titus Aurelius Fulvus Boionius Arrius Antoninus – a four-time legate of Italy and proconsul of Asia (future emperor Antoninus Pius).

Towards the end of his life, severely ill Hadrian (he suffered from water drops, among other things), began to make controversial decisions that mainly harmed the aristocracy. The adoption of Ceionius Commodus met with opposition from a prominent politician of that period (nearly 90 years old) Lucius Julius Ursus Servianus, whose grandson, Gnaeus Pedanius Fuscus Salinator was initially supposed to take the office after Hadrian. The emperor, fearing problems with the later succession of power, ordered both Servianus and his grandson to be killed. Both, according to some accounts, were to prepare a coup in Rome. The death of such personalities, at the behest of the dying ruler, was met with great criticism from the senate and aristocracy. This event cast a shadow on Hadrian’s reign.


He died on July 10, 138 CE in his villa in Baiae (Italia) at the age of 62. It is believed that the cause of death was heart trouble. Cassius Dio and the History of Augustus mention the health problems of the ruler in more detail. The emperor was initially buried in Puteoli, near Baje, in the property that once belonged to Cicero. Soon after, his remains were transported to Rome and buried in the Gardens of Domicja. In 139 CE, when the Hadrian’s Mausoleum was completed, Emperor Antoninus Pius had the emperor’s cremated body placed next to his wife Vibia Sabina and their first adopted son, Ceylon Commodus (died in 138 CE) in a tomb.

Hadrian was also counted among the gods as Divus Hadrianus, and a temple was built in his honour on Mars Square. All this with great resistance from the Senate, which remembered the emperor’s recent decisions.

  • Birley Anthony, Hadrian, Warszawa 2002
  • Krawczuk Aleksander, Poczet cesarzy rzymskich, Warszawa 2004
  • Ziółkowski Adam, Historia Rzymu, Poznań 2008

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