From The Spectator 'Hadrian' Supplement, July 26 2008
When Diana, Princess of Wales, was killed and the royal family failed to offer its immediate tribute of tear-soaked teddy-bears, the tabloids were outraged. ‘Where Is Our Queen?’ rapped the Sun. ‘Show Us You Care’ moaned the Express. The family jumped to attention and were soon publicly caring as they had never cared before.
There is a golden rule here. For power to be wielded effectively, there must be a quid pro quo between ruler and ruled, a return on the relationship for both sides. Romans with political ambitions well understood this. For example, they spent fortunes providing the public with the aristocrat pleasures to which the public felt entitled – chariot races, gladiatorial games, theatrical spectacles – and (whatever they actually thought of these shows) turned up personally to see and be seen, and demonstrate their enthusiasm for the public’s pleasures.
But what if you did not live in Rome? In the early 5thC AD Synesius from Cyrene in Libya wrote to a friend saying that it was only because of the annual tax demand that people knew the empire was still functioning and the emperor alive. He goes on: ‘But who the emperor may be is not at all clear. In fact, some of us think Agamemnon is still on the throne’. In admitting to these feelings, Synesius was putting his finger on a serious problem. The emperor ruled territory from Britain to Syria, from the Rhine-Danube to North Africa and Egypt. The emperor’s face on a coin was probably the closest a provincial could ever get to him. What sense of mutual interest could possibly exist between such a distant figure and fifty million disparate subjects rattling round this vast area?
No Roman emperor understood the significance of this problem better than Hadrian (emperor AD 117-138). The use of force was taken for granted across the ancient world and, ultimately, Rome ruled the world only because it could enforce its decisions on it subjects. The army was its enforcer, none more effective (to the fury and grudging admiration of its enemies everywhere). But an army required to be paid, and it was only the taxes raised across the empire that paid for it. Let those taxes dry up, and the empire was at an end: no one need pay attention to orders from the centre any more. So the security of the empire outweighed every other issue with which the emperor had to grapple.
Hadrian was a pragmatist. If he felt, for whatever reason, that the empire was under threat and that the big stick needed to be wielded, he had absolutely no compunction about wielding it. At the same time, he saw more clearly than most that the empire was the sum of its parts, and that one effective way of helping to keep those parts together was to provide the political, social and communal glue of his own physical presence. Queen Elizabeth I was of the same persuasion: every spring and summer for 44 years she toured the realm, ensuring her subjects had the chance to see her in person.
The result was that Hadrian spent more than half of his 22 years as emperor on the road. His agenda was a wide one. One of his purposes in visiting far-flung places was military. He came to Britain because it had always been trouble, and trouble on the edges of empire was not to be taken lightly. The purpose of his famous Wall was to do in the West what he had earlier done in the East – redefine the limits of empire by cutting away areas where the cost-benefit ratio of remaining was unfavourable (‘they must have their freedom, because they cannot be protected’ was Hadrian’s delicious comment). Coinage of the time typically shows Hadrian in full military uniform on horseback, addressing the exercitus Britannicus. Farewell, then, Scotland.
Another purpose was judicial. The emperor was the source of all law, and thousands of petitions a year from all over the empire reached him in Rome, asking him to give judgement on issues great and small. Here is the personal reply from Marcus Aurelius to a woman who innocently married her uncle forty years ago and wanted the children legitimised:
‘We are moved by the length of time during which, in ignorance of the law, you have been married to your uncle, and the fact that you were placed in matrimony by your grandmother, and by the number of your children. So, as all these considerations come together, we confirm that the status of your children who result from this marriage shall be as if they were conceived legitimately.’
As Hadrian toured the provinces, part of his duties was to sit, day after day, at the local assizes and show what Roman justice was like in cases like these – trivial to him, maybe, but far from trivial to those bringing them. On one such occasion, we are told, Hadrian was stopped by a woman demanding to be heard. Hadrian said he was too busy to listen. ‘Then don’t be emperor’, said the woman. He stopped and listened. Caveat emperor.
Nevertheless, the specific military and legal agenda was not the main feature of his travels. The Restitutor (‘Restorer’) series of coins summarises perfectly what Hadrian was for the most part about. In these he is dressed not as a soldier but in civilian toga, extending a friendly hand to the personification of a grateful, kneeling Province, often with a cornucopia or ears of grain or some other indication of prosperity close at hand – Hadrian as great benefactor, dispensing revitalizing largesse wherever he went, showing the provincials what it really meant to be part of the mighty Roman empire.
And did he dispense them. In Athens, for example, he sponsored the construction of a complete new quarter; a magnificent library, filled with paintings and rare statues, featuring gilt ceilings and a quadrangle surrounded by a huge colonnaded portico (precious marble from Asia Minor); and the completion and inauguration of the temple to Olympian Zeus, started 600 years earlier. An arch commemorating his generosity was built. On one side, there was the inscription ‘This is Athens, the former city of Theseus’, on the other ‘This is the city of Hadrian, not Theseus’. So, though Hadrian was a passionate Hellenophile, this was not benefaction merely for the love of it: it was politics too, ensuring the loyalty of vital Greek East, while appropriating its history for Roman purposes and making it quite clear who was actually in charge.
In all, no fewer than 122 cities acquired new, splendid public buildings, while others were granted regular sponsored games, guaranteeing huge crowds, and therefore revenue, for years to come. As a result of this incessant networking, a contemporary wrote that ‘one could see memorials of Hadrian’s journeys in most cities of Europe and Asia’.
Hadrian showcased his rule in his villa at Tivoli, where he spent the last years of his life, naming its rooms after countries and sights of the empire. There was even a Hades, of which Hadrian may well have been thinking when, on his death-bed, he composed this touchingly appropriate poem:
/animula vagula blandula, / hospes comesque corporis, / quo nunc abibis? in loca / pallidula rigida nubila, / nec ut soles dabis iocos./
‘Little soul, little wanderer, little charmer, / body’s guest and companion, / where will you be off to now?’ ‘To places / dim, frozen and shadowy - / nor will you make your usual jokes.’
The great traveller, ‘guest and companion’ of so many, was about to make a journey to yet another distant outpost, but one in which no mutual interests were at stake and from which there was no ‘return’ – in any sense.