Rebuilding the Empire: The Reign of Hadrian
Like his predecessor, Hadrian was a Spanish-born aristocrat who gained power and influence in Rome through his military leadership in the provinces. Hadrian was serving as governor of Syria in 117 CE when Trajan died during his Parthian campaign. The report was sent to Rome that Trajan had adopted Hadrian as his heir shortly before his death, but rumors circulated freely that Hadrian's adoption was the work of Trajan's wife Plotina, who withheld news of her husband's death until after Hadrian's succession was assured (Scriptores historiae Augustae, Hadrian 4.4.9–10). Whatever the details of his coming to power, Hadrian did not waste time in setting his own agenda. Armenia and Mesopotamia, taken by Trajan in the Parthian campaign, were abandoned, and Hadrian attempted to secure the borders of the empire and unite its disparate elements. Central to these efforts was an ambitious campaign of travel, reorganization, and building by which Hadrian left his mark throughout the empire.
Hadrian came to power convinced by his experience in the provinces that the empire had grown too large and complex to be ruled by decree from Rome. Despite his absence from the capital for more than half of his reign, Hadrian did have a significant impact on Rome and its environs. Most notably, he constructed a greatly expanded and redesigned Pantheon in the city and developed a sprawling villa complex near Tivoli. His travels took him throughout the empire, as a rough itinerary for his first extensive tour in 120 (or 121) to 128 CE reveals (Scriptores historiae Augustae, Hadrian 10–13).
Passing through Gaul, he continued into the Germanic regions, where he lived with the troops guarding the borders, reinvigorating discipline among the legion and instituting numerous military reforms. These included regulating leaves of absence, clearing the camps of banqueting rooms and other places of leisure, and ordering that no one should serve as a soldier “younger than his strength allows, or older than humanity permits” (Hadrian 10).
From Germany, Hadrian crossed to Britain, first invaded by Julius Caesar in 55–54 BCE and then partially conquered by the Romans under Claudius in 43 CE. As he had done in the east, Hadrian first withdrew forces to a reasonable point. He then ordered the construction of a frontier wall to protect against barbarian incursion. The wall ran 117.5 kilometers (73 miles) across what is now northern England, and parts of it and an adjacent defensive system are still visible. Returning to the Continent, Hadrian traveled south through Gaul and stayed for some time in Spain before going to Syria, probably by sailing the length of the Mediterranean Sea. The Scriptores historiae Augustae claim that Hadrian's personal intervention in negotiations with the Parthians helped prevent another conflict in the East (Hadrian 12.8). Returning from Syria, the emperor traveled through Asia Minor to Greece and back to Rome. Along his route, material remains and evidence from inscriptions reveal that he founded new towns, built monuments, and made numerous other dedications.
It was in Athens, however, that Hadrian's generosity and love of Greek culture were most vividly displayed. Pausanias, who traveled extensively in Greece during the later second century, marveled at the sanctuary of Olympian Zeus, which was completed by Hadrian (1.18.6). The huge temple, 44 meters × 110 meters (144 feet × 361 feet), featured a forest of over 100 columns, 10 meters (33 feet) high. The gold and ivory statue of Zeus was complemented by statues of Hadrian at the entrance and all around the expansive temple precinct (129 meters × 206 meters [423 feet × 676 feet]). Many inscriptions have been found in Athens dedicated to Hadrian as “founder” by cities from all over the Greek world. These provide evidence for the Panhellenic league, which Hadrian established as a means of uniting Greek cities and cities that had been colonized by the Greeks.
While staying in Athens, Hadrian made a connection with the ancient past of Greek mystery religions by being initiated into the venerable mystery cult for Demeter and Persephone with its shrine at nearby Eleusis. By this time, however, other mystery religions were steadily gaining popularity. Sanctuaries of the Egyptian deities Isis and Serapis and of the youthful Persian god Mithras have been discovered throughout the empire. Because the adherents of these cults were offered mystical access to divine power, they were popular across a wide spectrum of society. The Mithras cult especially appealed to men from the lower strata of society. It is striking that both the Mithras cult and the early Jesus movement could develop strong followings in the religious climate of the first three centuries CE.