Hadrian Critical Essays


(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

Hadrian 76-138

(Publius Aelius Hadrianus) Roman Emperor from 117-138.

One of the great emperors of ancient Rome, Hadrian is most famous for building the 73-mile long Hadrian's Wall, which protected Rome's northern border in Britain, as well as building the Pantheon, a temple to the Olympian gods featuring a massive, concrete, hemispherical dome, the first of its kind. Although Hadrian cultivated the arts, no great writer emerged during his reign. His own writings are for the most part lost and what little remains is deemed pedestrian with the important exception of his deathbed poem, “Animula vagula blandula,” a work that has long intrigued critics. Anthony R. Birley writes: “Few short poems can have generated so many verse translations and such copious academic debate as these five lines—a mere nineteen words—of the dying Hadrian, quoted in the Historia Augusta.

Biographical Information

Hadrian was born in Rome in 76 to P. Aelius Afer, who ultimately attained the position of praetor, and the extremely wealthy Domitia Paulina. Upon Afer's death, his cousin, Trajan, became guardian of the 12-year-old Hadrian. Hadrian held low level political positions until Trajan became emperor in 98, at which time Hadrian rapidly advanced in both politics and in his military commands. In 100 he married the 13-year-old Vibia Sabina, the grand-niece of Trajan; their marriage was difficult and unhappy and Sabina aborted her only pregnancy. In 117, while returning from one of his campaigns, Trajan became ill and died; his death was followed by an announcement that he had adopted Hadrian. The army of Syria, which Hadrian had commanded in Trajan's absence, declared Hadrian the new emperor and the Senate had no choice but to confirm the succession. The majority of Hadrian's reign was spent outside of Rome, touring its provinces. He took particular interest in the men who served in his armies, involving himself in every detail of their duties and private lives. Surviving documents bear witness to his military reforms, which endeared him to his soldiers more so than to their leaders. Hadrian's major goal during his reign was to stop the expansion of the Roman empire while at the same time fortifying the boundaries of the territories it already held; in so doing he strove to make his empire one of united provinces, with Rome as its center. After visiting Britain in 122, Hadrian ordered the construction of a huge wall, fifteen feet high, stretching from the Tyne in the east to the Solway in the west, a project that took six years to complete. In keeping with Hadrian's intention of protecting Roman territory from the Barbarians of the north, numerous forts and hundreds of sentry posts were erected along the structure, manned by thousands of soldiers. In addition to military reforms, Hadrian also instituted administrative changes in the government, particularly in the area of promotion, and in jurisprudence, notably with the codification of the unchanging edict, which made the law less subject to the personal interpretations of praetors. His financial reforms included a complete forgiveness of public debt and the expansion of state loans to individuals. Hadrian was one of the so-called Five Good Emperors, who ruled Rome from 96 to 180, and included Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius. Considered the peak period of Rome, this time of relative peace allowed Hadrian to encourage the arts. Although Hadrian popularized Greek versifying at Court, his love for Greek literature is criticized as imitation without substance. Little of Hadrian's own writings survive; critics unanimously agree that his finest work was not delivered until his final moments.

Major Works

All of Hadrian's prose, written in both Latin and Greek, is lost. His Imperial Autobiography, probably written about 134-136, is lost, as is his Catachannae, of which nothing is known but its title. Also no longer extant are the hymns he wrote in honor of the memory of Plotina, Trajan's widow, nor a grammar book, which comprised at least two volumes. Numerous legal documents do survive, but their nature allows little individuality to show, while a quantity of surviving letters demonstrate a keen interest in the municipalities and a respect for the law and justice. His few surviving verses are considered forgettable, with the exception of “Animula vagula blandula,” by far his most celebrated poem.

Critical Reception

Although it is difficult to accurately judge Hadrian's work as a writer when the largest portion of his work is no longer extant, critics unhesitatingly agree that what survives of his work is generally mediocre. Additionally, Hadrian ruled at a time when some of the greatest writers of the time, such as Tacitus, had just ended their careers. Although Hadrian encouraged the artists who surrounded him, it was not enough, and Bernard W. Henderson explains that “poetical inspiration was lacking in his day. No creative spirit moved upon the face of the waters to trouble the placid languorous current of the life and thought of Imperial Rome under this cultured Prince.” Moses Hadas is also highly critical of the literature produced in the second century: “Most exquisite care was taken of assonance, alliteration, balance, and similar niceties, certain ‘classics’ of the fourth century b.c. serving as a canon; not only was the how more important than the what, but the devotees of Second Sophistic studied to eliminate the what entirely. This was a classicism of imitation, not emulation.” Paul J. Alexander studies the surviving documents and speeches of Hadrian, judging them mostly routine, although they demonstrate a concern in appealing to rank and file soldiers. Wynne Williams also examines documents of Hadrian. Unfortunately he finds that although there are a “considerable number of well-preserved texts from this reign, the traces of Hadrian's individual personality which can be distinguished in them are disappointingly meagre.” Critics give little consideration to Hadrian's verse, with the exception of his dying recital. W. den Boer analyzes the religious element of “Animula vagula blandula” and J. Gwyn Griffiths examines the Egyptian influence on the poem. George C. Schoolfield explains Hadrian's appeal to poets, focusing on a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke. Henderson writes of Hadrian's verses: “With one quite extraordinary exception these are mediocre and prosaic, yet respectable effusions by a minor poet who was not seeking notoriety by turgidity or freakishness, or by Cubist, post-Jazz, or psycho-analytical versification, but found a subject or two which he sought to handle briefly, neatly, and effectively.” Lacking the Imperial Autobiography, readers have often turned to scholar Marguerite Yourcenar's best-selling Memoirs of Hadrian as a substitute. Although her book is fictional, Yourcenar is given credit for excellent research and making a convincing attempt to explore the heart and mind of the emperor.