Jan 24

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January 24: Roman Emperor Hadrian

Emperor Hadrian (76 CE)


It was on this date, January 24, 76 CE, that the Roman Emperor Hadrian was born Publius Aelius Hadrianus Augustus in Rome, but perhaps in Spain. From a successful military career, and a quick rise through the political elite of Rome, Hadrian became the adopted son of Emperor Trajan and succeeded him as Emperor, the 14th in Roman history, with the help of Trajan’s wife, Plotina, on 11 August 117. Regarded as one of the Five Good Emperors, Caesar Publius Aelius Traianus Hadrianus Buccellanus Augustus re-built the Pantheon, constructed the Temple of Venus and Roma and marked the northern limit of Roman Britain by building Hadrian’s Wall.

The Stoic-Epicurean Hadrian traveled broadly, inspecting and correcting his legions in the field. Aside from putting down a Jewish revolt in Judaea (the Second Roman-Jewish War), he averted war with Parthia by negotiating a peace. At home he attended to social needs. Hadrian mitigated but did not abolish slavery, had the legal code humanized and forbade torture. He built libraries, aqueducts, baths and theaters. Hadrian had a possibly sexual relationship with a Bithynian Greek youth named Antinous (Ἀντίνοος). When the youth died by drowning in the Nile in 130 CE, the deeply saddened Emperor founded the Egyptian city of Antinoöpolis in his memory, around which a cult of Antinous became very popular.

Hadrian is considered by most historians to have been wise and just: Schiller called him “the Empire’s first servant,” and Edward Gibbon admired his “vast and active genius,” as well as his “equity and moderation.”*

At his imperial villa at Baiae, on the Bay of Naples, Hadrian died on 10 July 138. He was succeeded by Antoninus Pius, adopted as he was. This poem, written shortly before his death, expresses Hadrian’s religious skepticism:

Animula, vagula, blandula
Hospes comesque corporis
Quae nunc abibis in loca
Pallidula, rigida, nudula,
Nec, ut soles, dabis iocos…

Roving amiable little soul,
Body’s companion and guest,
Now descending for parts
Colourless, unbending, and bare
Your usual distractions no more shall be there…

* Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, vol. I, 1776; also, Bernard W. Henderson, Life and Principate of the Emperor Hadrian, 1923; Anthony R. Birley, Hadrian, The Restless Emperor, 1997. NB: An alternative translation of the Latin reads, “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!”

Originally published January 2004.

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Ronald Bruce Meyer

Freethought Almanac was created by Ronald Bruce Meyer, in collaboration with freethoughtradio.com, in March 2003. What started with a brief notice on the birthday of Albert Einstein, grew into almost 250,000 words on not only biography but history, philosophy, theology and politics — one day at a time. Freethought Almanac looks at these daily subjects from a godless point of view, that is, a point of view that is based not on fantasies, delusions or wishful thinking, but a view that is evidence-based.

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