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Hadrian, Roman Emperor (AD 117-38)

Bronze head from a statue of the Emperor Hadrian

Born in Rome but of Spanish descent, Hadrian was adopted by the emperor Trajan (reigned AD 98-117) as his successor.


Having served with distinction on the Danube and as governor of Syria, Hadrian never lost his fascination with the empire and its frontiers. Previous emperors had been content to remain at Rome in peacetime. Hadrian, however, travelled throughout the empire for nearly half his reign, building temples, baths and libraries wherever he went.

At Tivoli, to the east of Rome, he built an enormous palace, a microcosm of all the different places he had visited. He was an enthusiastic public builder, and perhaps his most celebrated building is the Pantheon, the best preserved Roman building in the world. Hadrian's Wall is a good example of his devotion to Rome's frontiers and the boundaries he established were retained for nearly three hundred years.

Hadrian openly displayed his love of Greek culture. Some of the senate scornfully referred to him as Graeculus ('the Greekling'). He sported a beard, until then almost exclusively a Greek fashion and was well-versed in Greek culture and philosophy. Hadrian made his male lover, Antinous, a god after his mysterious death in the River Nile. His confidence sometimes became overbearing. For example, the architect Apollodorus of Damascus was banished and eventually murdered for refusing to agree to Hadrian's plans.

Hadrian fell seriously ill, perhaps with a form of dropsy (swelling caused by excess fluid), and retired to the seaside resort of Baiae on the bay of Naples, where he died in AD 134.

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British Museum collections, £12.99

British Museum collections, £12.99