Hadrian and the Limits of Empire
The emperor Hadrian presided over the Roman empire at its height, defined its borders and was one of the most cultured rulers of the ancient world. Neil Faulkner revisits his legacy, as the British Museum opens a major exhibition on his life and times.
President Bush’s failure to impose his imperial vision on Iraq and the rest of the Middle East may come to be seen as one of the great turning points in history. He would have been wise to have studied and learned lessons from the experiences in the region of two Roman emperors, Trajan and Hadrian, over 2,000 years ago.
Trajan – Marcus Ulpius Traianus – was one of Rome’s great warmongers. Elevated in AD 98 at the age of 45 after a successful army career, his response to military challenge was invariably pre-emptive aggression. The rich and powerful kingdom of Dacia (what is now north-west Romania) was subjugated in two major wars early in his reign. This victory is celebrated on the column still standing north of the Roman Forum. Aggression, it seemed, paid dividends.
So, while Dacia was comprehensively plundered, ethnically cleansed and resettled with Roman colonists, Trajan’s legions pushed further East. The territory of the Nabataean Arabs – including the ‘rose-red’ caravan city of Petra – was annexed in 108. With a spreading network of Roman roads, forts and legions along the west bank of the Euphrates, the rival Parthian empire, centred on modern Iraq and Iran, grew restive. War broke out, as so often before, over control of the mountain kingdom of Armenia. Alarmed by military build-up, in 113 the Parthian king, Osroes I, invaded Armenia and replaced the pro-Roman ruler with his own nephew. In turn, Trajan with eight legions invaded Armenia the following year. His success there was so quick and easy that his mind turned to a much wider campaign of conquest in the East.
With reinforcements from the Danube, Trajan mustered for his campaign a full third of the entire Roman army. Pro-Parthian puppet kings surrendered, and the area of northern Iraq was overrun. The following year (115) his army crossed the Tigris into eastern Iraq and advanced on the enemy capital at Ctesiphon, just south of modern Baghdad, which was captured after a short siege. It was a victory without parallel in Roman history. Here, surely, was a Roman Alexander. The Senate voted Trajan the right to celebrate as many triumphs as he wished.
That winter, the emperor pushed south to the port city of Spasinu Charax, near modern Basra, to receive the submission of the local potentate and secure Roman control of the rich Gulf trade. He then returned to Babylon to organize the administration of his new conquests. The war seemed over. The East – the fabulous, glittering, multicultural East – was Roman.
The nature of blitzkrieg is that it bursts through the frontline and races across the open territory beyond. But it cannot produce lasting change unless it destroys the enemy’s fighting strength and breaks his will to resist. Trajan’s campaign had been a phoney war. Where were the tens of thousands of enemies slain, the heaps of captured arms, the columns of the newly enslaved trudging west? Where were the marks of broken military power?
During 115 Osroes had been distracted by a revolt elsewhere in his empire. Now, in the winter of 115-116, he returned. The grand army of the Parthian empire emerged from the Iranian steppes and advanced against the Roman lines of communication to the north. The cities rose in revolt and overwhelmed their Roman garrisons. Meanwhile, deep in the Roman rear, a Jewish revolt that had begun the year before in Cyrene in north-eastern Libya spread to Egypt, Cyprus and finally to Palestine. The war that had seemed over a few months before had, in fact, set the Middle East alight.
In the middle of all this was Hadrian – Publius Aelius Hadrianus – Trajan’s nephew, protégé, political intimate and military chief-of-staff. They both came from the Romano-Iberian provincial aristocracy, descendants of Romans who had settled in Spain 250 years before and intermarried with the local Iberian elite. Careers in national politics had been opened to such men by the revolutionary civil wars of the mid-1st century bc, but Trajan and Hadrian were the first provincial Romans to reach the very top. Like Trajan, Hadrian was an army man through and through, cutting his teeth on the Rhine and Danube frontiers, serving on the staff in the First Dacian War, commanding a legion in the Second. When Trajan headed back to Rome in the summer of 117, Hadrian was left in command in the East.
Trajan’s health was already broken before he set out and he dieden route. Hadrian was the obvious successor, but the transfer of power was messy. Trajan had not nominated Hadrian as his successor in advance and the claim that he had made a death-bed nomination was contested. What mattered, however, was the support of the army: Rome was a military dictatorship, where the formal voting of imperial powers by the Senate, though necessary for constitutional propriety, was a formality once the generals had made their choice. This time, matters were not straightforward.
Four top generals were executed in Rome at the beginning of Hadrian’s reign. We are not told why, but can guess. The army must have been split on the central question of what to do in the East. Was it to be a new offensive to restore shattered prestige? Or a permanent withdrawal to the old frontiers? Given Hadrian’s subsequent policy, we can assume that the four generals were pushing for a renewal of the war. The stakes were high. The split in the army – with the succession disputed and the East in flames – threatened national disaster. It had to be ended by a decisive purge to neutralize the hawks.
Hadrian, it seems, had reached profound conclusions from the chaos on the eastern front in 116-118: that the empire was overextended; that it could not conquer the East; that, if it tried, it risked a cataclysmic collapse of military power. Iraq was formed of hundreds of cities, tens of thousands of villages, hundreds of thousands of farms; and beyond, across the great expanses of the Iranian steppes, was the traditional recruiting ground of the armoured heavy cavalry and light horse archers of the Parthian armies. Rome could pull off a momentary coup de main, but she could not hope to create permanent empire here. Not if she aspired still to hold Britain, the Rhine, the Danube, North Africa and Rome itself. Trajan’s eastern war had been a bubble – of arrogance, of fantasy, of glory hunting – and, when it burst, it had almost wrecked the empire. Now, under Hadrian, there would be measured statesmanship.
Hadrian’s U-turn was more than a short-term response to immediate crisis; it reflected a slow but irreversible shift in the balance of geopolitical power at the expense of Rome. In the last two centuries BC, Roman military imperialism had grown exponentially, culminating in Pompey’s conquest of Syria, Caesar’s conquest of France, and Octavian-Augustus’s conquests in Spain, the Alps, the Balkans and the East. Conquest fuelled and financed further conquest. Indeed, so vast were the inflows of booty and tribute that only a fraction was required to sustain the war machine. The rest was con-spicuously consumed. Italy was covered with the luxury mansions of the rich; Rome filled with great monuments built by generals and politicians. The Italian gentry grew fat on army contracts and public service. The citizen poor were bribed with free bread and free games.
Then, in AD 9, in the murk of the Teutoburg Forest in what is now Lower Saxony, an alliance of barbarian tribesmen annihilated an army of 30,000 Romans, killing its general. A great hole was opened in the northern frontier defences of the empire. The ageing emperor Augustus ordered an end to wars of conquest and for the next ninety years his successors largely followed his advice. The great age of conquests was over. Minor buffer states were absorbed; rogue border tribes were neutralized; kinks in the line were ironed out; but there was little appetite for big wars.
The dynamic that had built the empire had exhausted itself. War was profitable where there were towns, villages and farms; where there was a large productive peasantry the fruits of whose labour could be plundered in war and taxed in peace. But beyond the ploughlands and pastures already conquered by the empire, there now lay a wilderness. In Europe, it was formed of undrained marsh, uncut forest, rough hill country and mountains. In the East and in North Africa, it was formed of desert. Almost everywhere, the empire’s frontiers had come to rest at the furthest limit of intensive agriculture. The regions still unconquered were a true barbaricum of scattered and impoverished nomads, pastoralists and crofters. Whole armies might be consumed in these empty spaces – for returns that could never cover the cost. The empire had reached its natural limits.
The exceptions proved the rule. Even Claudius, emperor from 41 to 54 and famous for his conquest of Britain, restricted military adventurism to this single episode, made necessary by a contested accession and an unstable regime’s need for a propaganda victory. Trajan’s Dacian wars were made profitable by the gold and silver of Carpathian mines. Only the route of Alexander – from Syria, down the Euphrates, into Iraq – offered the potential reward in booty and tribute that made war profitable. But Trajan’s invasion had now shown that the way was blocked – by the defensive strength of the Parthian Empire and the impossible cost of trying to crush it. So the engine of Roman military imperialism had hit the geographical buffers.
This was the central reality that shaped Hadrian’s reign and policy. He was fully equal to the demands of the moment. Intelligent, educated and imaginative, he turned out to be a ‘conviction’ politician. Once persuaded that the empire’s very survival depended on a carefully managed defence of existing frontiers, he did not flinch from the policy implications. But how to sell them? The empire was a military dictatorship in which the army absorbed half or more of state spending. The military dominated the ruling class. Rome was full of victory monuments, its streets and shrines regularly packed and garlanded for victory pageants. Its deities were black-hearted gods of empire and battle, its bloody games mock versions of ancient wars. The city’s thuggish elite was deeply imbued with martial values. How was the U-turn to be spun?
The allegiance of the army was critical and the travels for which Hadrian is famous were in large part an opportunity for him to forge direct links with the officers and men of the frontier armies. Visiting the legionary fortress at Lambaesis in North Africa in 128, he was full of praise for the skill displayed in a military tattoo – the mounting, the manoeuvres, the javelin-throwing, the close quarters work with the lance – announcing to the assembled men (as recorded in a rare commemorative inscription put up at the fortress) that ‘You pleased me uniformly throughout the whole exercise’; and singling out for special mention the proud commander, who ‘devotes equal care to all the branches he commands’. The imperial pleasure was, of course, given tangible form: ‘I bestow upon you a largesse’. The historian Dio Cassius gives us to believe that such attentiveness was typical: ‘He personally viewed and investigated absolutely everything, not merely the usual installations of the camps, such as weapons, engines, trenches, ramparts and palisades; but also the private affairs of everyone, both of the men serving in the ranks and of the officers themselves – their lives, their quarters, their habits – and he reformed and corrected in many cases practices and arrangements for living that had become too luxurious. He drilled the men for every kind of battle, honouring some and reproving others, and he taught them all what should be done.’
For, indeed, there was work to be done – not marching and fighting, but building. On the frontiers, open lines controlled by forts, signal stations and patrols were replaced by continuous linear barriers formed of ditches, palisades and walls. Visiting North Britain in 121 or 122, he ordered the construction of the stone wall that bears his name across the island from sea to sea: seventy-three miles long, up to 3 metres thick and some 4.5 metres high, with small forts every mile capable of holding thirty men, with observation turrets every third of a mile. It was fronted by a wide, deep, V-shaped ditch, with a thicket of spikes between. Soon there were regimental forts as well, with 6,000 to 7,000 soldiers to man the castles, the turrets and the battlemented walkway in between. Henceforward, cross-border traffic was funnelled through police and customs checkpoints at the castle gateways.
It was the same elsewhere. Along the German frontline, the soldiers dug ditches, threw up ramparts, and built timber palisades, watchtowers and gateways. In North Africa, walls were built in the mountains to contain the hill tribes and more walls along the desert fringe to block the raids of nomads. This was work to keep the soldiers busy and to make the frontiers easier to police and tax. But it was something else as well: an expression of the new ideology of empire.
The spirit of Trajan’s reign is captured in the reliefs of battle, carnage, the sack of cities and forlorn barbarian warriors in chains on Trajan’s Column. Hadrian felt obliged to honour the memory of his mentor; Trajan, though defeated and dead, still ‘celebrated’ a Parthian war triumph in Rome. Even more was he obliged to uphold the empire’s martial and imperial tradition – many of his surviving sculpted portraits show him helmeted and cuirassed.
Hadrian’s policy, however, was quite otherwise. The emperor built Hadrian’s Wall, we are told by a Roman biographer, ‘to separate the Romans from the barbarians’. Hadrian was solemnly marking out symbolic boundaries. The landscape of the frontiers was being ritually charged with lines of earth and stone. For Romans, boundaries were potent – places of movement, transition and redefinition, hedged with taboo to make them easier to manage. Brother might kill brother when the sacred pomeriumaround a city was violated – as in the myth of Romulus and Remus. Now, as the frontiers of empire were fixed, they too became ritualized. On one side: barbarism. On the other: civilization. The movement across the borders of the empire, from one space to another, was now also a transition from one state of being to another – a passage that was not just physical and political, but also religious.
Hadrian’s vision was of a dichotomous world, with the difference between civilization and barbarism sharper, the boundaries between them more rigid and immutable. He turned his attention to the people within, the subjects of Rome, all of whom were now to become stakeholders and loyalists in an imperial commonwealth. The showcases of the new world order would, of course, be the cities of the empire. Here there would be monumental architecture, great works of art, refined living, good taste, a soaring climax to the classical civilization inherited from the Greeks.
It was not just personal fancy that caused Hadrian to spend much of his reign in the East, to patronize Hellenic culture, and to be the first of the Roman emperors to wear the beard of a Greek philosopher. It was policy. What was it that Virgil had said about Greeks and Romans? That the former were sculptors, orators and scientists, the latter rulers and generals. The strategic turn from war to peace, from making conquests to building civilization, was unavoidably an ideological turn to philhellenism – to the wellsprings of classical civilization in the literature, art, science and philosophy of the Classical and Hellenistic Greeks. Hadrian raised great urban monuments all over the empire, but he built especially in the Greek cities of the East, above all in such iconic centres of Hellenism as Athens, Antioch and Alexandria. Hadrian’s Athens, for example, included a vast new library complex, one of the largest temples in the world, and enough city redevelopment to justify the boast on a stone arch which read, on the inner face, ‘This is Athens, the ancient city of Theseus’, and on the outer, ‘This is the city of Hadrian, not of Theseus’. The past – ‘the glory that was Greece’ – was honoured and then appropriated and monumentalized to serve the Age of Hadrian.
But there was an enemy within. The majority of the empire’s people, of course, were neither rich nor urban: they were peasants, mostly working small plots, barely yielding enough to pay the dues of rent, tax, tithe and interest imposed upon them. They lived, as peasants always have, in fear – fear of flood, drought, disease and disablement; and fear of debt, the bailiff, the tax-collector and the soldiers. Most of the time they grumbled in their villages, but they paid. The principal exception was the Jews. Twice in recent times – between 66 and 73 and between 115 and 118 – the Jews of Palestine and the diaspora had risen against Roman tax collectors, Greek landlords and fellow Jews perceived as traitors. The rebels were sustained by the traditional faith of the common people, a religion of radical messages spread by itinerant preachers – messages about the wickedness of the ‘sons of darkness’, about the breaking of the ‘covenant’ between God and his people and about an imminent apocalyptic settling of accounts in which the ‘sons of righteousness’ would rise up against the rich, cleanse the land of oppressors and restore to the people the fruits of their labour.
To complete Hadrian’s cultural edifice, radical Judaism – like radical Islam in another age – was to be liquidated. Jerusalem, the holy city of the Jews, was re-founded as a Roman colony and re-named Aelia Capitolina in honour of the emperor (whose family name was Aelius) and Rome’s patron deity Jupiter (who was worshipped on the Capitoline Hill). On the Temple Mount, where the Jewish Temple had been destroyed in AD 70, Hadrian inaugurated a new temple for the worship of ‘Hadrian-Jupiter’. The practice of circumcision – the single most distinctive marker of semitic identity – was banned on pain of death. Hadrian declared himself successor to Antiochus Epiphanes, the Greek ruler who had tried to destroy Judaism three centuries before, and he erected a monument to Pompey, the first Roman enemy of the Jews.
Perhaps Hadrian’s expectation was that the oppressed would go meekly to their cultural extinction. Perhaps it was that they would be goaded to fight, but would easily be crushed. In fact, the revolt of Bar-Kokhba between 132 and 136 fully matched in scale, duration and ferocity that of 66 to 73. Bar-Kokhba, ‘Son of the Star’, a new Jewish messiah, proved himself a brilliant guerrilla commander. He was ably supported by the radical nationalist, Rabbi Akiba. The revolutionaries captured Jerusalem, restored the worship of Yahweh, and issued coins announcing the ‘Redemption of Israel’. The countryside around the holy city filled with peasant guerrillas and ‘foreign fighters’ from the diaspora, rallying to the defence of Judaism and the revolutionary homeland.
With local Roman forces overwhelmed, the empire was trawled for fresh legions. With these reinforcements Jerusalem was recaptured, but the guerrilla war raged on in the hills of Judaea and the sandy plains of Idumaea for four years. By the end, the Roman army deployed against the Jewish rebels was as large as that with which Trajan had invaded Iraq twenty years before. According to Cassius Dio, fifty fortresses and 1,000 villages had been destroyed, 500,000 people had been killed or enslaved and Palestine had been reduced to a wilderness of wolves and hyenas feeding on corpses.
No doubt he exaggerates, but the record of those, like Trajan and Hadrian, who approach the Middle East with policies that are a mixture of military force, commercial exploitation and moral homilies is not encouraging.
Hadrian at the British Museum
After the extraordinary success of the First Emperor exhibition at the British Museum last winter, in which over half a million people went to see part of the Terracotta Army of the Chinese emperor Qin Shi Huangdi, another equivalently massive subject was needed as a follow-up. Not surprisingly, the search ended in Hadrian: not exactly the first emperor of the West (that would have been Augustus) but a man whose influence reached right across Europe and the Middle East, who had a special connection with Britain, whose personality remains fascinatingly elusive yet whose legacy is all around us. Indeed, the Round Reading Room, where the exhibition is to be held, is a direct architectural descendant of the Pantheon, his great domed temple to all the gods in Rome.
A great deal of new scholarship and archaeology have gone on in recent years. This will be the first time it has been brought together, allowing for a new, far more rounded portrait of the man and his legacy. Objects are being brought together from twenty-eight countries. Surprises abound. Just a few weeks before the exhibition opened, the British Museum discovered that what it long thought was an iconic marble statue of Hadrian in Greek costume – attesting to his undoubted fascination with Greek culture – was in fact a Roman head on a Victorian body, and so told more of what people have wanted Hadrian to be than what he really was.
Despite the obvious legacy of Hadrian in Britain in the form of his limes, relatively few other signs exist of his presence in Britain, beyond a fine bronze head kept at the British Museum. In July this travelled northwards, visiting the 70-mile length of wall for the first time.
Do we get any closer to Hadrian the man? It is not an easy task to get inside the head of this career soldier who was also an extraordinary aesthete, the man who pulled back from external wars yet tried to wipe Jerusalem off the face of the earth, the man of action who was so devoted to his gay lover that he named a town after him, built by the spot where he died in a drowning accident.
But, like Shi Huangdi, he defined his empire and its culture so decisively that the forms he created linger on, almost two thousand years later, and no doubt we shall be flocking to Bloomsbury to meet him in the coming months.
- Thorsten Opper, Hadrian: empire and conflict (British Museum Press, 2008)
- Anthony Birley, Hadrian: the restless emperor (Routledge, 2000)
- Danny Danzinger and Nicholas Purcell, Hadrian's Empire: when Rome ruled the world (Hodder & Stoughton 2005)
- Neil Faulkner, Rome: empire of the eagles (Pearson Longman, 2008)
Neil Faulkner is Research Fellow at Bristol University and Features Editor of Current Archaeology.
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