Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 844
In a book-length letter addressed to Marcus Aurelius, his adopted grandson and heir, the sixty-year-old Emperor Hadrian tells of his impending death and meditates upon his life to instruct his heir through his accumulated experience, knowledge, and wisdom. The descendant of wealthy aristocratic administrators, Hadrian had been born in Spain....
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In a book-length letter addressed to Marcus Aurelius, his adopted grandson and heir, the sixty-year-old Emperor Hadrian tells of his impending death and meditates upon his life to instruct his heir through his accumulated experience, knowledge, and wisdom. The descendant of wealthy aristocratic administrators, Hadrian had been born in Spain. After his father’s death, the twelve-year-old boy went to Rome to complete his education, which included science, mathematics, art, literature, and Greek, and to begin his military training. Following his studies, he was named to a series of judgeships, which taught him about human motives and how to listen carefully and organize his time.
Hadrian had been promoted to junior officer rank in the army and stationed in Central Europe, where he was exposed to new experiences and ideas. There, he learned that Emperor Nerva had died and that his cousin, Trajan, had ascended the throne. Although such a family connection, coupled with his own ability and courage, offered new opportunities, advancement was not smooth, for the new emperor and Hadrian often clashed on private and public affairs. Since Trajan wanted to consolidate and increase Roman conquests, he embarked on many campaigns. As a result, Hadrian saw service all over Europe. He acquitted himself daringly and brilliantly and gained both a solid reputation among his colleagues on the battlefield and popularity in Rome. The emperor was so pleased with Hadrian’s contribution that he gave him a ring symbolic of imperial favor.
Increasingly influential in the emperor’s circle, partly because of Trajan’s wife, who shared many of his beliefs, Hadrian performs a variety of administrative functions as well as writing and delivering the emperor’s speeches. Gradually, however, this relationship, further strengthened by Hadrian’s marriage to Trajan’s grandniece, Sabina, begins to arouse irritation and jealousy in the old sovereign, who resents the successes of his subordinate.
Renewed conflicts in the empire make it necessary that Hadrian visit various fronts to impose discipline on the troops. Several bold strokes on his part defeat Rome’s enemies but not without diminishing his humanity and aging him prematurely. With Plotina’s help, he continues to rise in the ranks of the administration and army, becoming first a consul, then governor and military legate in Syria. When the emperor wants to wage war again and conquer Asia, Hadrian advises him instead to sign advantageous commercial treaties with communities along the Silk Road, for he realizes that Asia, despite some early Roman victories, would be difficult, perhaps impossible, to defeat.
Given his age and illness, Trajan should officially designate Hadrian as his heir, yet he hesitates. Plotina works hard to foster his candidacy, however, and shortly before the emperor dies, he names Hadrian his successor in his will. In 117 c.e., at the age of forty, Hadrian becomes ruler. More interested in the betterment of humankind than in the trappings of power, he immediately resolves to seek peace abroad and compromise with senators at home. He institutes reforms to improve life in the empire, ranging from innovative social programs to the granting of new individual freedoms; underlying his reforms is his intent to increase human happiness. To ensure the permanence of Roman peace he encourages commerce, literature, and the arts and fosters the building of new cities all over the Mediterranean basin. In addition, he civilizes Britain and the German plain and continues to experience everything in life to the fullest.
During one of his travels, Hadrian becomes infatuated with a handsome Greek adolescent named Antinous, who begins to accompany him everywhere and with whom he shares an unequaled intimacy. This is the beginning of fabulous years. For Hadrian, there is no activity too demanding, no gift too wonderful, as his passion turned into blissful, though not exclusive, adoration. Out of his own overwhelming love for the emperor, Antinous decides, when just short of his twentieth birthday, to commit suicide so that his unlived years can be added to those of Hadrian. Numb with sorrow and guilt, Hadrian, upon his return to Italy, devotes time to literary and scientific pursuits while he works on modifying laws and constitutions so that they will respect local customs and national character. He also continues to build and to improve city services.
The only serious flaw in Hadrian’s otherwise excellent rule concerns the Jews in Judea who, unlike his other non-Roman subjects, attack Rome for its occupation of their land and its intolerance toward their religious rituals and ways of considering God. Unable and unwilling to accommodate an alternate point of view, Hadrian sends in well-equipped, well-trained troops to crush Simon Bar-Kochba’s guerrilla army. The campaign takes more than four years and results in the resisters’ mass suicide.
Suffering from increasingly ill health and wishing to avoid Trajan’s imprudent delaying, Hadrian names Antoninus, an honest and virtuous man, to be his successor under the condition that he will agree to adopt Hadrian’s grandson, the philosopher Marcus Aurelius. Having settled all public and private affairs, and surrounded by close friends, Hadrian waits peacefully for death.