Friday, January 1, 2010

Hadrian By Anthony Everitt

Within a few days of assuming power, the emperor took the two most important, and bitterly controversial, decisions of his entire reign. One of them was tactical and the other strategic. neither was improvised, but must have been the product of hard thought.

Long imperial frontiers required a large standing army, and paying for this was extremely expensive, and new provinces meant new garrisons. The army was the state's largest single cost. There was also a limit to the available manpower that could be safely withdrawn from economically productive activity. The technology of warfare, the logistical difficulty of maintaining extended supply chains, and the slowness of long-range communications placed limits on the size of territory that a central government would find manageable. It is true that Rome ruled with a light touch and expected local elites to manage the day-to-day affairs of provincial towns and cities. However, government business seems to have grown inexorably.

In addition, it was not at all obvious that the benefits, the profits, that would accrue from new conquests would make the effort entailed worthwhile, at least in the medium term. Much of the land contiguous with the empire was ecologically marginal and, with the exception of the Parthian and Dacian empires, economically unrewarding- neither worth the trouble of annexing nor the expense of administering. What, one might ask, would be the point of taking over little populated Scotland?

The historian Appian, who lived through the reigns of Trajan and Hadrian, made the point well: The Romans have aimed to preserve their exercise by the exercise of prudence, rather than extend their dominion over poverty-stricken and profitless tribes of barbarians.

Emperors, needing to balance their books, settled for the minimum military establishment consistent with safety. They felt he could not afford a a mobile reserve ready to meet crisis as and when they occurred. (Such a reserve, when unemployed, would also present them with a potential threat to their own power). Any aggressive expedition in one region of the Empire, whether resulting in victory or defeat, imperiled the stability in others. The enemies of Rome were ready to seize any opportunity for rebellion. In fact, just to maintain the status quo was almost too much for the legions. So military and financial reality argued against further enlargement of the empire.

It was against this background that Hadrian issued orders to immediately abandon his predecessor's three new provinces- Armenia, Mesopotamia, and Assyria- and to regroup permanently behind Rome's traditional borders, the Euphrates. Rome was to abjure military expansion of any kind in the future. Negotiation was to replace ultimatum.

The withdrawals are evidence of Hadrian's clear-sightedness and political courage, but they deeply angered many senior personalities. Opinion in Italy had fed on a diet of victories and even at the time of his ascension had no clear idea that Trajan had not, after all, conquered Parthia. And even though Trajan's failure was common knowledge in leading circles, the ethos of aggression was too ingrained to accept that the days of imperium sine fine were over. After all, as often happens, military adventures abroad lend stability and popularity to governments at home- provided they bring victory. Lack of success in this regard helped seal the fate of Domitian. Would it do the same for Hadrian?


  1. What are we to make of Hadrian? Perhaps the judgment of his contemporaries was much too harsh. Whatever the truth about the killings at the beginning and end of his reign, he governed humanely and equitably. He was immensely industrious- traveling constantly through-out the Empire- and exercised good judgment. He loved the arts and was an enthusiastic and not ungraceful poet.

    However, his personality puzzled people; he was gregarious and friendly in manner, but he dropped intimates easily and without apparent regret. In specialist fields such as architecture, he was that annoying person, the self-taught (if talented) amateur who insists on competing with the professional.. A Christian poet, Tertullian, called him 'omnium curiositatum explorator', a "seeker-out of every kind of curiosity." A hostile witness notes and overstates his faults, but cannot help sounding a note of admiration: Hadrian was

    "diverse, manifold and multiform... He adroitly concealed a mind envious, melancholy, hedonistic, and excessive with respect to his own ostentation; he simulated restraint, affability, clemency, and conversely disguised the ardor for fame with which he burned. With respect to questioning and likewise answering in earnest, in jest, or invective, he was very skillful; he returned verse for verse, speech to speech, so you might actually believe that he had given advance thought to everything."

  2. Hadrian cuts a lonely figure. His moated refuge in the heart of the villa-city at Tibur suggests an emotional self-sufficiency into which few were allowed to intrude. It is a curious feature of Hadrian's protracted death that no close family members or friends are recorded as having been at the patient's bedside. They had died, or been killed or dropped.

    It is impossible to assign a definite cause for Hadrian's death at this distance in time, but one clear possibility is reduced blood flow to the heart through coronary blood vessels. If reports of Hadrian's heavy drinking with Trajan are correct and reflect a long-standing habit, this may have led to alcoholic cardiomyopathy, a weakening of the heart muscle or a change in its structure, leading to retention of fluid which descends to the legs when the sufferer is standing or sitting. Hence the symptoms of dropsy.

    Hadrian would have found temporary relief by lying down, but that risked fluid gathering in his lungs and shortness of breath. Sometimes he would have awoken at night, gasping for air. He would have experienced nausea, stomach pain and loss of appetite. He felt as if he was dying every day, and came to long for an immediate end. He asked for poison or a sword, but nobody would give them to him even if he promised money and immunity from prosecution. The curse of Servianus (" may he long for death, yet be unable to die") had come to pass.

    Hadrian enjoyed periods of remission, or at least quiescence, for he managed to muster the energy to write an autobiography during his last months. He also wrote a poem, a short address to his soul as it quits its body and sets out for the unknown:

    Little soul, you charming little wanderer,
    my body's guest and partner,
    where are you off to now? Somewhere
    without color, savage and bare;
    you'll crack no more of your jokes once you're there.

    The failing emperor retreated from Rome to an imperial villa at the sea-side resort of Baiae. He abandoned his medical regimen and ate and drank whatever he liked. This precipitated a final crisis and he lost consciousness after shouting out loud: "Many doctors killed a king."