Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Hesitant Homage to Hadrian

Publius Aelius Hadrianus Augustus is generally considered to be one of the "Five Good Emperors" along with Nerva, Trajan, Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius, who governed the Roman Empire for a good chunk of the Second Century CE or AD, which ever you may prefer--with some effort I could come up with the appropriate years A.U.C., ab urbe condita, from the legendary founding of Rome, but I am tired. 

I'm uncertain why Nerva appears among the Fantastic Five.  His reign was very short, though not as short as those of the unfortunates who succeeded Nero before Vespasian.  I suppose it may be he does because he had so little time and did so little harm, or had the wisdom to accept Trajan as a successor.  Others may be uncertain why Hadrian has the place he does.

Some of those others are likely to be Jews.  It was during Hadrian's reign that the second great Jewish revolt against Rome took place, and it was an even fiercer affair than the first, lasting about three years.  Under Bar Kokhba the Jews had considerable success, at first.  Success against Rome "at first" was not all that unusual during the time of its greatness; consider Hannibal's many successes.  But Rome, once thwarted, was relentless, ruthless and efficient in retribution, and Hadrian's legions eventually nearly exterminated the Jewish people.  It's thought by some that Hadrian brought the revolt about because he sided so much with the Greeks in their several disputes with the Jews throughout the Empire and because for reasons not entirely clear to me at least he insisted on imposing a Greco-Roman city on Jerusalem, Aelia Capitolina.  This colony was placed more or less over the site of the Jews' ancient Temple, which had been conveniently razed by the Romans in the first revolt.  It's difficult to imagine conduct more likely to enrage the Jewish people.

Hadrian certainly was a great fan of the Greeks and Greek culture, but not quite in the scandalous manner of Nero.  Hadrian didn't pretend to be an actor or a musician, but tried, sometimes, to be a poet.  He would put on Greek dress when in Greece, and was most comfortable when among the Greeks.  And, of course, he was inordinately fond of a particular Greek from Bithynia named Antinous.

The Romans were not as concerned by homosexual relationships as many of us are, though they never seemed to idealize such relationships in the manner of the Greeks; except, perhaps, in the case of the Hellenophile Hadrian.  Antinous died during one of Hadrian's many tours of the Empire, while in Egypt, in the Nile itself, and the circumstances of his death are unclear.  It's been suggested that Hadrian had a hand in the death, or that Antinous killed himself in an effort to secure the health and safety of the aging and increasingly superstitious and death-obsessed emperor.  However, it may simply have been an accident.  What was most remarkable about Antinous was not his death but his worship after his death.

Emperors had been becoming gods on their deaths for some time by then, and in some cases were worshipped as such before their deaths, sometimes in association with the genius or spirit of Rome.  But an emperor's favorite had not been deified for some time, since the reign of Gaius Caligula, who was deemed insane by most who came after him.  Temples to Antinous and statutes of him increased and multiplied throughout the Empire.  It seems some actually took his worship seriously and his worship continued for quite some time.

So why this homage to an emperor who it seems went mad on the death of his lover, like Alexander did on the death of his (or perhaps in imitation of Alexander), and was stupid enough to profane the holiest ground of some of the least cooperative of Rome's many conquered peoples, leading to a great revolt brutally suppressed?

Well, but for the Bar Kokhba revolt, the Empire enjoyed uninterrupted peace during Hadrian's principate.  He wisely withdrew from the territories newly conquered by Trajan which would have been very hard to maintain, and this probably facilitated and extended the pax Romana to the benefit of all inhabitants of the Empire.  He was a multi-talented individual, and in his fashion remarkable as an architect, being responsible for the still-impressive Pantheon, his incredible villa in Tivoli, his wall in Scotland.  He could have taken credit for these achievements in the way typical of emperors and others who caused monuments to be built--by having his name inscribed in the stone--but did not do so.  The name of Marcus Agrippa, who was responsible for the original Pantheon, appears there instead.  He was concerned with all parts of the Empire as his travels showed.  And he assured a safe transfer of power, choosing a solid successor in Antoninus Pius and even assuring that Marcus Aurelius would one day succeed him, thus providing for the rule of two more "Good Emperors."

An unusual and extraordinary man, worthy of respect despite his flaws, in spite of his flaws.

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