Publius Aelius Hadrianus was born just seventy-six years after the birth of Christ, his birthplace Spain, or what was then the Iberian Peninsula. Member of a patrician family, he was actually the ward of the Emperor Trajan. As Emperor he was a cultivated admirer of Greek civilization and tradition, which helped him unify and consolidate Rome’s enormous Empire. As a poet and writer he was prolific and talented, and his study of the science of architecture produced theories and practices which have endured.
Hadrian married Trajan’s niece (though he was, in the fashion of those times, bi-sexual), and at the age of eighteen became Trajan’s official heir. He was Emperor from 117 to 38 AD. Maintaning Rome on a tight rein, he still travelled extensively, and saw most of the Western Empire between 121 and 126, as well as seeing for himself the Empire of the East (q.v.) from 128 to 34. ‘Travel,’ he said, as many philosophers were to say after him, ‘improves the mind’. He was invariably accompanied on his travels by a young man called Antinoüs; when the latter died in 130, the Greeks responded to Hadrian’s grief by forming various ‘cults’ of Antinoüs.
It was on a visit to Britain in 121 that he sensibly decided that Roman military incursions into Scotland would always be or had been useless; much better to build a wall across the northernmost part of England, well supplied with fortresses and observation posts. The natives of Scotland were thought unconquerable, and therefore it was logic to keep them out of England with such a barrier. The architecture was so perfect that parts of the wall remain today. Scotland had to wait for Edward I of England to do the conquering.
He failed, however, in Palestine. He had planned a Romanized Jerusalem but the Cochba Revolt prevented his starting construction.
He remained faithful to his wife and his long-time male companion, and built a wonderful villa at what is now called Tivoli, parts of which have survived. Hadrian was what one might call an unbloodthirsty soldier, patron of the arts, musician, and diarist. He died at the age of 62 in 138 AD.
Tiberias Claudius Nero Caesar Augustus has always had a bad press, especially in the works of Robert Graves. He started patrician life as a brilliant soldier and strategist in Germania and Pannonia. He was a son of Livia, wife to Augustus Caesar, though the latter usually said that he did not understand his step-son. What did he want? Why did he want to live elsewhere?
He was born in 42 BC, and from 6 BC until 2 AD lived exclusively on the island of Rhodes, as far away from his step-father and mother as he could go without breaking the bounds of politeness. Meanwhile Augustus’ grandsons rose higher and higher in the social and military scale – but both young men died, perhaps mysteriously; many writers feel that the Empress Livia was not very far away when the boys died.
With his grandsons dead, Augustus was obliged to make Tiberius his heir and drag him back to Rome. Tiberius succeeded in 14 AD after the Divine Augustus had succumbed to a surfeit of garden figs offered by his wife Livia. He immediately made stringent economies, and might have made a good Emperor had he not fallen under the spell of a commoner called Sejanus who became his head of the secret police a very long time before such things were thought of. His reign was spoiled by the sheer number of treason trials, orchestrated by Sejanus, and approved by Tiberius.
It is worth noting that Jesus Christ was crucified during the reign of Tiberius. Meanwhile he became a recluse, speaking to nobody except his ever-present mother Livia, and Sejanus, whom Livia cordially loathed. He is said to have hated Rome the city, and said so often. Finally Sejanus suggested that he should leave Rome and live on the island of Capri, which he did in the year 26. His death at more than seventy in 37 AD may well have been planned by Caligula, who succeeded him. There seems little doubt that Tiberius did not live politely and respectably in his last thirty years; indeed ancient sources accuse him of cruelty and perverted vice. This will account for the bad press.
Flavius Claudius Julianus (The Apostate) was born in 331 AD in Constantinople, indeed he nephew to Constantine himself. As a boy he received a thoroughly disciplined and classical Greek education, but in his late teens gave up the Christian belief his tutors had tried to drum into him. This earned him the rather insulting nickname ‘The Apostate’.
He was Emperor for only three years (360-63 AD), but in that time he re-opened pagan temples, reversed the Edict of Milan, and restored paganism as the State Cult replacing Christianity. It did him no good, because when he moved militarily against the Persians he died under mysterious circumstances, still not made clear by historians.
Highly recommended is a historical novel by Gore Vidal called Julian, for students interested in this little known Roman Emperor who defied the Christian Church and tried to paganise Rome after it had officially embraced the new religion under his predecessor.