How Emperor Hadrian Became Rome’s ‘Absent Ruler’ | History Hit

How Emperor Hadrian Became Rome’s ‘Absent Ruler’

Graham Land

22 Sep 2021
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Perhaps more than any other emperor, Hadrian took a decidedly ‘hands-off’ approach to governing. His reputation as a man of the people helped boost his popularity, as did his enduring building projects, from an arch in Athens to a defensive wall crossing the entire breadth of northern England, just south of the Scottish border.

Taking Rome in a different direction

In contrast to his predecessor Trajan, who greatly expanded Roman territory into Eastern Europe and the Middle East, Hadrian was more concerned about maintaining the integrity of the Empire than gaining more ground.

In fact, Hadrian withdrew from Trajan’s conquests in Parthia and Mesopotamia, and was markedly less warlike than the previous Emperor. Some sources suggest this was a petty act of vengeance against the former Emperor, nonetheless, what is more likely is that Hadrian did not hold these territories in high enough regard to see it worth stationing thousands of troops there.

A skilled administrator, Hadrian spent more of his time outside of Rome than in the capital, visiting the outposts of the Empire and mingling with common soldiers. In fact, a full year had passed since succeeding Emperor Trajan before Hadrian came to Rome in 118 AD.

Hadrian’s wanderlust

Yet in Rome Hadrian felt less than welcome. The Senate was hostile to the new Emperor and despite gaining some public favour by cancelling large amounts of debt, Hadrian’s thoughts were elsewhere: with the defences of the Empire.

So Hadrian left to oversee the borders of Roman territory — from tours of Gaul to Germania to Britannia, where he had soldiers build the famous 80-mile wall.

Neil Oliver visits the Wall - a massive statement of the power of the Roman Empire. Neil looks at recent discoveries which uncover the lives of the people who built and lived along the wall.
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From Britain Hadrian journeyed to Hispania and then northern Africa, where he quashed a Moorish rebellion in Mauretania. He then travelled east to Crete, Syria, Pontus and Asia Minor.

A life-long lover of Greek culture, Hadrian toured the Hellenic territories of Thracia, Greece, Athens, Sicily and Moesia as well as Dacia and before finally returning to Rome in 125 AD.

But it wasn’t long before Hadrian’s feet began to itch again and he went back to Athens in 129 AD. As a dedicated Hellenophile, Hadrian spent a total of three winters in Athens. As a token of his appreciation he had a library, forum and arch built for the city.

hadrian's travels

Hadrian’s Arch in Athens in front of the Acropolis. Image Credit: CC

Following Athens the Emperor visited Pamphylia, Phyrgia, Cilicia, Syria, Cappadocia, Pontus and Antioch before arriving in Judea in 130 AD. It was with the inhabitants of this land that Hadrian would face his greatest struggles.

But first Hadrian continued to travel — from Judea to Egypt, back to Syria, Asia (Western Anatolia) and Athens again before returning to Rome.

Hadrian’s plans for Jerusalem

hadrian's travels

Bust of Hadrian. Image Credit: Public Domain

There had long been bad blood between Rome and Judea, especially since the Great Jewish Revolt of 66 AD and the Kitos War of 115 – 117 AD between Jewish rebels in the diaspora and Roman citizens in Cyprus, Egypt, Libya and Mesopotamia, the latter of which took place under Trajan’s reign. But Hadrian’s dreams for Jerusalem would only make matters worse.

He planned to turn it into a Roman city, replete with a temple of Jupiter on the site of the Great Temple. Moreover, Hadrian’s Hellenistic outlook did not agree with Jewish practices such as circumcision, which he had banned. The final straw was the collapse of Solomon’s tomb due to Roman construction work.

The Third Jewish Revolt

So began the Third Jewish War or the Bar Kokhba Revolt, which lasted from 132 – 136 AD, a bloody conflict that resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths on both sides and the destruction of nearly 100 Jewish cities and almost 1,000 villages.

It all but eradicated the Jewish presence in the Jews’ own homeland and is considered by some scholars to be the start of the Jewish diaspora.

hadrian's travels

15th century representation of Hadrian expelling the Jews from Jerusalem. Image Credit: Public Domain

Hadrian’s Travels and Legacy

When the Roman Emperor Hadrian came to power in 117AD he inherited an empire that was overstretched militarily and creaking at the seams. His task was to unify and consolidate Rome’s power, rather than expand outward.

He was the third of the so-called ‘Five Good Emperors’ and presided over the glory days of the Roman Empire, initiating many building projects across the Empire, including the famous wall across Britain to keep out the barbarians.

Tristan Hughes looks into the construction of Hadrian's Wall and the many mysteries that still abound.
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Yet for a leader who showed less interest in expansion as opposed to internal development, Hadrian spent little time in Rome. Instead, he focused his attention of travelling across the Empire and experiencing different cultures – while at the same reminding those in the provinces who was in charge.

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Graham Land

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