Hadrian Essay - Critical Essays



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.

Principal Works

Imperial Autobiography (autobiography) c. 134-136

“Animula vagula blandula” (poem) 138

Catachannae (genre unknown) date unknown


Bernard W. Henderson (essay date 1923)

SOURCE: Henderson, Bernard W. “‘Rest after Toil’.” In The Life and Principate of the Emperor Hadrian A.D. 76-138, pp. 235-46. London: Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1923.

[In the following excerpt, Henderson examines Hadrian's leisure activities and evaluates his contribution to literature.]


So the day drew towards evening.

Hadrian had returned from Egypt to Rome in a.d. 131. The Jewish rebellion had called him again to the East for a brief time two years later. Except for this interlude he quitted home no more during his last seven years of life.

His Imperial work, other than the routine of...

(The entire section is 5123 words.)

Paul J. Alexander (essay date 1938)

SOURCE: Alexander, Paul J. “Letters and Speeches of the Emperor Hadrian.” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 49 (1938): 141-77.

[In the following excerpt, Alexander presents Hadrian's major concerns as an emperor based on an examination of his extant official documents and speeches.]

The Emperor Hadrian is generally credited with having been the best of the “Five Good Emperors.” The literary sources at our disposal for his reign, however, are particularly scanty; of the sixty-ninth book of Cassius Dio only an epitome is preserved, and the Emperor's biography by the writers of the Historia Augusta, though much more reliable than those of the later...

(The entire section is 11673 words.)

Moses Hadas (essay date 1952)

SOURCE: Hadas, Moses. “The Age of Hadrian.” In A History of Latin Literature, pp. 334-52. N.Y.: Columbia University Press, 1952.

[In the following essay, Hadas surveys Latin literature during the reign of Hadrian.]

Hadrian was the first of the Roman emperors to wear a beard, and the neatly trimmed archaism is a sign manifest of the first full-blown classicizing renascence in European literature, which Hadrian introduced. The sculptors of his age produced the pretty copies of Greek classics which fill our museums, and the pretty productions of the littérateurs are their exact counterpart. Silver Latin was enslaved to rhetorical embellishment and point, as we have...

(The entire section is 7708 words.)

W. den Boer (essay date 1955)

SOURCE: den Boer, W. “Religion and Literature in Hadrian's Policy.” Mnemosyne 8, no. 2 (1955): 123-44.

[In the following essay, den Boer describes some of the difficulties in determining and reconciling Hadrian's views on religion, tracing them to three distinct phases in the emperor's development.]

More than twenty years ago Rostovtzeff stated that the emperor Hadrian's reign, in spite of all that had been written about it, fully deserved a fresh monograph1. The remark still holds good, notwithstanding the many studies, even extensive works, which have been devoted to this ruler since. Whenever Rostovtzeff's suggestion is followed Hadrian's religious...

(The entire section is 8177 words.)

Wynne Williams (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: Williams, Wynne. “Individuality in the Imperial Constitutions: Hadrian and the Antonines.” Journal of Roman Studies 66 (1976): 67-83.

[In the following excerpt, Williams examines edicts and letters of Hadrian as documentary evidence that sheds light on the emperor's personal traits.]


A considerable number of texts of official pronouncements of Roman emperors (which will be referred to, rather inaccurately,1 as constitutions, for the sake of brevity) have been preserved on inscriptions, in papyri and in the writings of the classical jurists and the imperial...

(The entire section is 6218 words.)

George C. Schoolfield (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: Schoolfield, George C. “Hadrian, Antinous, and a Rilke Poem.” In Creative Encounter: Festschrift for Herman Salinger, edited by Leland R. Phelps and A. Tilo Alt, pp. 145-70. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1978.

[In the following essay, Schoolfield surveys assorted nineteenth and twentieth century poetic interpretations of Hadrian's relationship with the youth Antinous.]


The Emperor Hadrian, who is the speaker of Rilke's “Klage um Antinous,” has enjoyed considerable popularity among poets, not least because he belongs to their guild: “Fuit enim poematum et litterarum nimium studiosissimus.” One of his...

(The entire section is 12525 words.)

J. Gwyn Griffiths (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: Griffiths, J. Gwyn. “Hadrian's Egyptianizing Animula.Maia 36, no. 3 (September-December 1984): 263-66.

[In the following essay, Griffiths sets forth the argument that Hadrian may have been influenced by the Egyptian concept of the ba, a bird with a human head, when he describes the soul in his most celebrated poem.]

In Maia 23 (1971) pp., 297-302 Carlo Gallavotti presents an able defence of Hadrian's famous lyric as found in a text of the Historia Augusta:

Animula vagula blandula,
hospes comesque corporis,
quo nunc abibis? In loca
pallidula rigida nudula,
nec ut soles dabis iocos.


(The entire section is 1960 words.)

Anthony R. Birley (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: Birley, Anthony R. “Epilogue: Animula vagula blandula.” In Hadrian: The Restless Emperor, pp. 301-07. London: Routledge, 1997.

[In the following essay, Birley summarizes Hadrian's accomplishments and reviews his reputation.]

animula vagula blandula,
hospes comesque corporis,
quo nunc abibis? in loca
pallidula rigida nubila—
nec ut soles dabis iocos.

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. Even their authenticity has been questioned. But that, at least, seems to have been...

(The entire section is 5426 words.)

Further Reading


Ish-Kishor, Sulamith. Magnificent Hadrian: A Biography of Hadrian, Emperor of Rome. N.Y.: Minton, Balsch & Company, 1935, 214 p.

Biographical work explores Hadrian's homosexual relationship with Antinous.


Cameron, Alan. “Poetae Novelli.Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 84 (1980): 127-175.

Surveys the authors who comprised the poetae novelli school of the second century a.d.

Duff, J. Wight. “Suetonius and Florus: The Reign of Hadrian.” In A Literary History of Rome in the Silver Age: From Tiberius to Hadrian, by...

(The entire section is 325 words.)