Hadrian according the author of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is one of the five good emperors and ironically he became a Caesar by a fluke. Trajan and his wife, Pompeia Plotina, had no children, and were surrogate parents to the child Hadrian. In mid-summer 117, when Trajan was returning from his Parthian campaigns, he fell ill while at Selinus in Cilicia and died on August 8. The following day his adoption of Hadrian was announced by Plotina and Attianus, the praetorian prefect who had earlier been Hadrian’s guardian. His good relations with his adopted mother helped him grealy.
In 100, largely at the instance of Plotina, Hadrian married Trajan’s grand-niece Vibia Sabina, ten years his junior. This marriage was not a happy one, although it endured until her death in 136 or 137. There were no children, and it was reported that Sabina performed an abortion upon herself in order not to produce another monster. In spite of marital unhappiness, the union was crucial for Hadrian, because it linked him even more closely with the emperor’s family.
He was the one most responsible for changing the character and nature of the empire. He was also one of the most remarkable and talented individuals Rome ever produced.
The sources for a study of Hadrian are varied. There is no major historian for his reign, such as Tacitus or Livy. The chief literary sources are the biography in the Historia Augusta, the first surviving life in a series intended to continue Suetonius’ Lives of the Caesars.
“Once, when a woman made a request of him as he passed by on a journey, he at first said to her, ‘I haven’t time,’ but afterwards, when she cried out, ‘Cease, then, being emperor,’ he turned about and granted her a hearing.” (Casius Deo 69.6.3)
“Hadrian travelled through one province after another, visiting the various regions and cities and inspecting all the garrisons and forts. ..He drilled the men for every kind of battle, honouring some and reproving others, and he taught them all what should be done. And in order that they should be benefited by observing him, he everywhere led a rigorous life and either walked or rode on horseback on all occasions, never once at this period setting foot in either a chariot or a four-wheeled vehicle… both by his example and by his precepts he so trained and disciplined the whole military force throughout the entire empire that even to-day the methods then introduced by him are the soldiers’ law of campaigning.” (69.9.1-4; both passages in the translation of E. Cary in the Loeb edition)
Hadrian’s own military experience was extensive. He had served in provinces in the east, along the Danube, and along the Rhine. Soon after his arrival in Rome, he began the lengthy journeys which took him to almost every province. He was absent from Italy from 121 to 125, from 128 to 132, and from 134 to 136. He spent more than half his reign traveling. He had to quash the Jewish uprising which had begun under his predecessor and spread throughout the diaspora. Late in his reign, after deciding to resettle the site of Jerusalem as the city of Aelia Capitolina and build a temple to Jupiter on the site of the Jewish temple, another uprising occurred.
Hadrian’s goal as emperor was to establish natural or man-made boundaries for the empire. He had realized that its extent had severely strained the empire’s capacity to maintain and protect it. Consolidation was his policy, not expansion.
Much of Hadrian’s life we have through the work of Casius Deo an historian who lived a century after the emperor’s reign. He appears as a conscientious administrator, an inveterate traveler, and a general deeply concerned for the well-being of his armies, and thus of the empire. There was generally peace throughout its lands. He left Pantheon and it stands as a monument to his remarkable reign.
His best known literary work is the short poem which he is said to have composed shortly before his death. These five lines have perplexed many. animula vagula blandula / hospes comesque corporis/ quae nunc abibis in loca /pallidula rigida nudula nec ut soles dabis iocos! (25.9)
“Little soul, wandering and pale, guest and companion of my body, you who will now go off to places pale, stiff, and barren, nor will you make jokes as has been your wont.”For the movie buff this quote appears in Bertolucci’s Il Conformista.