Hadrian – the image of a ruler

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Marble bust of Hadrian in military dressIn ancient Rome, official portraits were an extremely important way for emperors to reach out to their subjects, and their public image was defined by them. As hundreds of surviving imperial statues show, there were only three ways in which the emperor could officially be represented: in the battle dress of a general; in a toga, the Roman state civilian costume; or nude, likened to a god. These styles powerfully and effectively evoked the emperor’s role as commander-in-chief, magistrate or priest, and finally as the ultimate embodiment of divine providence.

Hadrian, once a tribune (staff officer) in three different legions of Torso of a statue of the emperor Hadrian wearing a cuirassthe Roman army and commander of a legion in one of Trajan’s wars, was often shown in military uniform. He was clearly keen to project the image of an ever-ready soldier, but other conclusions have been drawn from his surviving statues.

A lover of culture

Hadrian was the first Roman emperor to wear a full beard. This has usually been seen as a mark of his devotion to Greece and Greek culture.

Marble statue of the emperor Hadrian, in Greek dressOne ancient source even calls him graeculus, or ‘Greekling’. Beards had been a marker of Greek identity since classical times, whereas a clean-shaven look was considered more Roman. However, in the decades before Hadrian became emperor, beards had come to be worn by wealthy young Romans and seem to have been particularly prevalent in the military.

Furthermore, one literary source, the Historia Augusta, claims that Hadrian wore a beard to hide blemishes on his face.


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