Who was Emperor Hadrian and What Did He Do?

In the twenty-one years of Hadrian’s reign, he focused more on defending his vast empire than governing at home. He was the third of the ‘Five Good Emperors’. He built - or rebuilt - some of Rome’s greatest architectural achievements, as well as being seen as a man of high culture. Here is the remarkable story of the man born Publius Aelius Hadrianus.

History Rulers
3 April 2023

During the reign of Emperor Hadrian, the Roman Empire covered most of Western Europe, parts of North Africa and the Middle East and much of Eastern Europe. It included forty modern countries and around a quarter of the world’s population.

Unlike the expansionist policies of his predecessor Trajan, Caesar Traianus Hadrianus – known to us today simply as Hadrian – preferred to concentrate on unification and consolidation of the empire.

Read on to discover the life and times of Hadrian – emperor, builder, consolidator, Imperator. We’ll also tell you about the famous Hadrian Mausoleum, although you’ll know it by another name…

The Early Years - Publius Aelius Hadrianus

Bust of Hadrian (Photo: clu via Getty Images)

It’s generally accepted that Hadrian was born in Italica – close to modern-day Seville in Spain – in 76 AD. His name at birth was Publius Aelius Hadrianus.

His father was a rich and well-known senator named Publius Aelius Hadrianus Afer and his mother, Domitia Paulina, came from a well-to-do Spanish family. His parents died when Hadrian was a young boy and he was put into the protection of a cousin of his father, Marcus Ulpius Traianus, better known as the Emperor Trajan. As with most children of men from the senatorial class, he received a first-class education and as a young man he was an accomplished hunter. It was around this time that he developed his love for all things Greek.

The Route to Rome (and Beyond)

Battle between the Dacians and Romans (Photo: powerofforever via Getty Images)

Hadrian’s road to the emperorship followed a fairly well-trodden path. He served three times as a military tribune – an officer in the Roman Army – with Legio II Adiutrix, Legio V Macedonica and Legio XXII Primigenia – unusual in itself as most who go onto high office would only usually serve once or twice.

In the year 101, after Trajan had ascended the throne, Hadrian was made a quaestor. This was an incredibly elevated position for a twenty-five year-old and it involved being a liaison between the emperor and the Senate. He served with Trajan during the first Dacian War and later as a praetor and a consul in Lower Pannonia, now part of modern-day Hungary, Serbia and Croatia.

After time spent in various military and civil roles, Hadrian spent some time in Athens before joining Trajan’s campaign in Parthia in 115. While the campaign was initially successful, various setbacks and rebellions led to an eventual Roman withdrawal. Trajan died in 117 while returning to Rome and Hadrian was announced as his chosen successor, becoming Caesar Traianus Hadrianus.

Hadrian - Emperor of Rome

Map showing the Roman Empire (Photo: duncan1890 via Getty Images)

Hadrian’s reign as emperor didn’t get off to the best of starts. The vast majority of the Senate approved his ascension to the throne but four senators who didn’t – for reasons that have been lost to history – were summarily executed.

Interestingly, Hadrian took his time returning to Rome. In fact it took him almost a year and when he got back, he curried favour with the populace by organising lavish games and cancelling treasury debt.

While he garnered a reputation as a man of the people, Hadrian was blighted with wanderlust. In fact, of the twenty-one years of his reign, he spent more than twelve years outside of Rome travelling to the farthest reaches of his empire.

Unlike Trajan, the great empire builder, Caesar Traianus Hadrianus was less concerned with growing the empire and more concerned with ensuring the empire was unified and secure. He went as far as to withdraw troops from Mesopotamia and Parthia, because it’s believed he thought these far-reaching outposts weren’t defendable.

On his travels, it’s said that the Roman Emperor Hadrian spent a lot of time with his armies and endeared himself to his troops by eating with them, sleeping amongst them and dressing as they did without the pomp of his regal regalia.

Emperor Hadrian - The Builder

Hadrian's Wall (Photo: Wellwoods via iStock)

Perhaps Hadrian’s most enduring legacy is the magnificent feats of architecture he had constructed all over the empire. The Parthenon in Rome was rebuilt by Hadrian after it burnt down in a fire, and he built the Temple of Venus and Roma, believed to be ancient Rome’s largest temple and one of the world’s biggest temples.

But Hadrian – Caesar Traianus Hadrianus – is best known for his eponymous wall which marked the northern frontier of the Roman Empire and ‘separated the Romans from the barbarians.’ It runs from Bowness On-Solway in Cumbria to Wallsend on the River Tyne.

Hadrian’s Wall took around six years to build and is interspersed with towers, gates, milecastles and barracks. Even today it remains iconic, and is one of the UK’s most visited tourist sites.

Roman Emperor Hadrian - The Final Years

Castel Sant’Angelo (Photo: Scott E Barbour via Getty Images)

Hadrian visited Jerusalem around 132, and in one of his final acts as emperor, he had to suppress a Jewish revolt. He had grand plans to turn the city into a vision of Rome, complete with a vast Roman temple. The Jewish forces led by Simon Bar Kochba staged a revolt that lasted from 132 until 136.

Hadrian died of an unknown disease in 138, aged 62, at his magnificent villa in the southwest Italian town of Baiae. Before his passing, he commissioned the Hadrian Mausoleum as the final resting places of himself and his family. It is better known today as Castel Sant’Angelo, one of Rome’s most famous buildings.


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