Today, Emperor Hadrian of Rome is best remembered for the wall built in his name across Britain. Who was Hadrian, and did he kill anyone?
Hadrian likely ordered the executions of a number of his political rivals on becoming emperor, though he blamed other people. Hadrian was an accomplished military commander and is believed to have had a number of ambitious pretenders executed during his reign.
For more on Hadrian and his reign as Emperor of Rome, read on.
Hadrian was born Publius Aelius Hadrianus on January 24, 76 CE. There is disagreement regarding his birthplace, with some believing that he was born in Italica, his father’s hometown, and others stating that he came from Rome.
In 85, Hadrian’s father died and he was taken into the care of his father’s cousin, who would go on to become Emperor Trajan. He was also cared for by Acilius Attianus, who later became prefect of the Praetorian Guard when Hadrian became emperor.
During his teens, Hadrian traveled to Italica, located in southern Spain, near modern-day Seville. He received a military education and discovered a passion for hunting.
Hadrian’s guardian, Trajan, became a consul of Rome and Hadrian embarked on a political career of his own. He also put his military education to good use and rose to the rank of tribune, commanding three legions.
During his military service, Hadrian was sent to Gaul to meet with Trajan. Trajan had recently been adopted by Emperor Nerva and named as his chosen successor, meaning that Hadrian was suddenly one of the most influential figures in the Roman Empire.
In 98, Nerva died, with Trajan becoming Emperor of Rome. Hadrian’s brother-in-law, Servianus, envied his position as Trajan’s likeliest heir and attempted to prevent Hadrian from being the first to inform Trajan of Nerva’s passing.
Hadrian was an obvious target for plots. However, he was well-liked by Lucius Licinius Sura, Trajan’s closest political ally, who ensured that Hadrian was treated well. Hadrian also had the approval of Plotina, Trajan’s wife, who allowed him to marry Vibia Sabina, Trajan’s grand-niece.
Hadrian continued distinguishing himself in military service to the new emperor and became praetor in 106. He accompanied Trajan to Dacia during times of war and returned home to attain the highest possible position for a Roman senator: consul.
Shortly after Hadrian’s consulate, Licinius Sura died. Despite being one of Rome’s most prominent politicians, Hadrian’s career appears to have halted for approximately a decade. The exact reasons for this are unknown; some have speculated that Servianus was working against Hadrian and his allies, but this could just be a literary invention.
Hadrian spent time in Greece, becoming archon (a type of magistrate) in Athens in 112. The stay in Greece strongly influenced Hadrian, who expressed his admiration for Grecian culture throughout his life.
Hadrian’s mysterious exile from Rome eventually ended and he returned to favor in the capital of the Roman Empire. Hadrian is believed to have resumed his military service under Trajan shortly before the emperor’s death.
Emperor of Rome
On August 9, 117, Hadrian was informed that he had been legally adopted by his former guardian, meaning he was Trajan’s chosen heir. Shortly after the declaration, Trajan died on his journey home to Rome and Hadrian was proclaimed emperor by his troops.
Trajan had granted command of the Roman legions in Syria to Hadrian, aware that his adopted heir would need military support. The Roman Senate ratified the decision and Hadrian became Emperor of Rome.
On his way home, a number of Hadrian’s rivals in Rome were executed at the order of Prefect Acilius Attianus, one of his guardians. Hadrian claimed to have played no part in the killings and soon replaced Attianus.
Emperor Hadrian adopted a policy of consolidation, withdrawing troops from campaigns of expansion, looking instead to secure the borders of the Roman Empire. He ordered the construction of a defensive wall, Hadrian’s Wall, during a visit to Britain.
After numerous tours around the Empire, Hadrian traveled to Palestine in May 134 to suppress a Jewish revolt in Judaea. The revolt was likely caused by Hadrian banning circumcision in the Empire, as a result of his dislike of physical mutilation.
Hadrian’s cause of death is unclear, but it appears to have been the result of a prolonged illness. He died on July 10, 138 CE, at the age of 62. He was not widely mourned, being considered a figure of little affection.