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Hadrian – life and legacy
An emperor in love
Hadrian married in about AD 100, but we do not know much about the life of his wife and empress, Vibia Sabina. Sabina's image was put on the official coinage and there are many statues of her.
However, ancient sources make it very clear that Hadrian formed a homosexual relationship with a young Greek male called Antinous. Homosexual relationships were not considered unusual in ancient Rome, but the intensity with which Hadrian mourned Antinous’ premature death was without precedent.
A Roman man was free to choose sexual partners of either gender and there is no word for homosexuality in Latin. As long as he remained the active partner in any sexual encounter, his masculinity was not in question. Romans believed that men should always be dominant, both socially and sexually. A concept of sexual transgression, defined by the term stuprum, did exist. However, this only included sexual relationships between adult male citizens or relationships with other citizen men’s wives, which were considered unacceptable.
Hadrian visited Egypt in AD 130 along with the imperial entourage, including his wife and Antinous. They embarked on a voyage up the River Nile and on 24 October Antinous drowned in the river, on the same day the locals were commemorating the death, by drowning in the Nile, of the Egyptian god Osiris.
Although Hadrian maintained Antinous’ death was an accident, malicious rumours soon spread. Some thought he had committed suicide or that he had been sacrificed. Others claimed Antinous sacrificed himself to prolong the life of the emperor.
Literary sources tell us that Hadrian was profoundly affected by Antinous’ death and mourned him with unusual intensity. While Hadrian did not pass any official decree ordering Antinous’ deification, he gave encouragement to those who wanted to make Antinous the object of a new cult. He also founded a new city on the banks of the Nile, and named it Antinoopolis. There he built a large temple and set up a festival in Antinous’ memory.
Other Greek cities began to establish their own cults and festivals in honour of Antinous, led by local and senatorial leaders, who wished to express their loyalty to Rome and to Hadrian. The Antinous cult became popular among the common people, where it seems to have competed with Christianity.
Building a legacy
Hadrian had a keen personal interest in architecture and some of the most famous buildings of the ancient world were constructed during his reign. He transformed the city of Rome and many places throughout the empire. New public buildings and religious monuments helped to spread prosperity and create a common identity throughout the empire. In other words, Hadrian built to unite the people of his empire under his rule.
His predecessor Trajan had been successful on the battlefield, but also transformed the centre of Rome by building baths, markets and a spectacular forum. The military situation at the beginning of Hadrian’s reign did not allow him to repeat Trajan’s success in that arena. Building provided an alternative, and, in consequence, architecture became one of the lasting legacies of Hadrian’s reign.
The Pantheon in Rome
Among the most recognisable of Hadrian’s buildings is the Pantheon in Rome. One of the most iconic buildings of its age, it is the product of the great leaps forward made in Roman construction technology at this time. One of these innovations was in the use of concrete, which made it possible to design types of buildings never seen before in human history. The Pantheon’s magnificent dome has a span of 43.3 metres and remains the largest un-reinforced concrete dome in the world.
Literally a ‘temple to all the gods’, the Pantheon appears to have been used for the veneration of previous emperors and Hadrian was known to hold court there. The original temple was built by Marcus Agrippa during the reign of the emperor Augustus after 27 BC, but it burned down in AD 80, as did its successor in AD 110. Hadrian rebuilt it completely.
Its core was made from brick and concrete and its front porch is supported by massive columns. Their granite shafts were quarried in the remote deserts of Upper Egypt and brought to Rome at great expense. Similarly, coloured marbles and other rare stones from many parts of the empire were used to decorate the interior surface of the Pantheon’s brick walls. Inside, the rotunda contained niches and small shrines for statues of the gods and perhaps also members of the imperial family. It was lit by a large circular opening at the top of the dome.
It has since influenced many other spectacular buildings, from the most important church of the Byzantine Empire, Hagia Sophia in Constantinople (Istanbul) (sixth century) and the Suleymaniye Mosque, Istanbul (sixteenth century), to the dome of the Basilica of St Peter in Rome (fifteenth century), which was partly designed by Michelangelo who had closely studied the Pantheon.
The British Museum’s own Round Reading Room (nineteenth century) was itself inspired by the dome of the Basilica of St Peter.
Hadrian’s villa at Tivoli
Almost straight after taking power, Hadrian began work on a magnificent new country residence near Tivoli, which was a popular resort close to the city of Rome. At the time it covered around 120 hectares and is the largest villa known from the Roman world.
A small country house on the site dating to the second or early first century BC may have already been owned by Hadrian’s family and the emperor began by remodelling and expanding this existing villa.
He added many elaborate buildings and filled it with exquisite works of art. It became an extensive palace and alternative seat of government, almost like a small city, perhaps even like the empire in miniature.
Daring experiments in the design and construction techniques of its buildings turned the site into a vast architectural playground, with some structures that had no equal in the ancient world. Here, he carried out government business and entertained large numbers of guests drawn from the empire’s elite. Through the richness of this built heritage and the splendour of its decor, the villa shaped the way Rome’s most powerful citizens viewed Hadrian and his vision of empire.
The impact of actions and the lasting legacy of buildings, ensures that a rulers name lives on, but many great leaders aim to continue their work after their deaths by creating a dynasty.
Hadrian died on 10 July AD 138, aged just 62 – not particularly old for a man of his social class. His achievements as a ruler testify to a leader who devoted himself to the task of revitalizing and securing the future of his empire. In the end he died exhausted, but in a position to pass on a strengthened and revitalized empire to his chosen successor.
Hadrian made sure there would be a smooth transition of power to his chosen successors. In a bold political statement he built himself a large tomb in the centre of Rome. It was modelled on the nearby mausoleum of Augustus, Rome’s first emperor, and a role model for Hadrian. This bold political statement highlighted Hadrian’s regard for the city and underlined his ambition to establish a new and lasting dynasty. In the Middle Ages, Hadrian’s Mausoleum was converted into a fortress and survives to this day as the Castel Sant’Angelo.
Hadrian and Sabina did not have any children and just as he had been adopted by Trajan, Hadrian decided to adopt a worthy successor. His great nephew, Pedanius Fuscus, had hoped to succeed him, but Hadrian ignored his own family and adopted first Aelius Caesar, who died just 18 months later, and then Antoninus Pius.
On Hadrian’s orders Antoninus Pius adopted the young Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus, securing the succession for two generations.
For almost 21 years Hadrian had ruled over one of the mightiest empires the world had ever seen, containing 40 modern countries spread across three continents. He left the empire transformed and the legacy of his rule is still with us today.
More information about the objects featured here (from top):
- Bust of Antinous
- The Warren cup
- The Pantheon in Rome
- Marble pilaster capital from the Pantheon in Rome
- William Lake Price, The Reading Room under construction
- Discobolos (discus-thrower)
- Head from a statue of the god Dionysus
- Gold aureus commemorating the consecration of Hadrian
- Bronze as of Antoninus Pius