Hadrian, the man who built the wall


THE third talk of the season was another high-quality one, given by Professor John Derry about the Emperor Hadrian.

There are many references to the emperor on Tyneside, from the Hadrian Stores and Hadrian Paints to street names and a Metro station. His name is well-known, but much less is known about the man who gave the famous wall its title.

Historians think that Hadrian was probably born in Rome in AD 76, though they used to believe that he was born in Italica, near Seville in Spain.

Although a Roman citizen, he was a provincial and spoke with a strong Spanish accent.

At the age of nine, when his father died, Hadrian was adopted by Trajan, a Spanish general and his father's cousin. He was probably educated in Rome, but during the holidays he returned to Spain where he undertook hard military training.

Contemporaries believed he was second only to Julius Caesar in his wide general knowledge, interests and abilities. He was very ambitious and when his provincial accent was mocked in the Senate, he took lessons to remove it.

On January 24, AD 96, the Emperor Domitian was murdered. He was replaced by Nerva, who chose General Trajan to assist him. Nerva was an old man and when he died two years later, Trajan took his place.

Hadrian was a good soldier and administrator and helped Trajan expand the empire to its maximum extent, especially in the east and in Dacia. He was also an excellent swimmer and rescued two soldiers from the River Danube.

When Trajan died in 117, his wife said he had nominated Hadrian to replace him. Though Trajan had never written this, Hadrian became emperor, a post he held for 21 years.

For 14 years, he toured the empire, consolidating what Trajan had won and withdrawing to stronger borders. He travelled to the Danube and the Rhine and in 122 visited northern England.

He probably visited Vindolanda as the foundations of a large pavilion have been discovered there and he founded the settlement of Newcastle, north of the newly-built Roman bridge. He named the settlement Pons Aelius after his Spanish tribe.

He chose to consolidate the empire's northern boundary by building a wall, which took seven years.

Hadrian showed considerable political skill, overcoming Rome's dislike of him as a provincial emperor. After the removal of four senators who opposed him, he gave the citizens a tax amnesty and held several Games. He paid soldiers well and equipped them properly.

As a young man, he had a fascination for all things Greek. He grew long hair and a beard, which he curled in the Greek style. This style became the fashion for all emperors until Septimius Severus.

After visiting England, Hadrian travelled to Gaul, Spain, Egypt and Greece. He founded a new town near Athens which he named after himself, Hadrianopolis.

Although he was married to Sabina, a woman chosen for him by Trajan's wife Poppeia Plotina, the couple were never close and Hadrian later fell in love with a young man. Hadrian’s partner Antinous travelled the Empire with him, though his wife did not very often.

Antinous died in a drowning accident in the River Nile, which devastated Hadrian.

Later, he visited Jerusalem, which the Romans had destroyed in AD 70 after a rebellion. He determined to rebuild it in the Greek style and he forbade circumcision.

These two unpopular acts led to the second Jewish rebellion against Rome and the destruction of a legion.

Eventually the Romans won, half a million Jews were killed and the Jews were driven from Jerusalem, permitted only to return on one day each year.

Hadrian re-named Judaea as Syria-Palestrina and the name Palestine was used on British maps until the 1950s when the area became Israel.

Although by current standards Hadrian would be thought almost a megalomaniac, Gibbon the historian believed that he was one of the five best Roman Emperors.

Hadrian died in 138 and is buried in a large mausoleum beside the River Tiber in Rome.

l The next meeting of the Antiquarian Society is members’ night. There will be a few short talks and a pooled supper. The meeting will be held in St James’s Centre on Friday, January 29 at 7.15pm.