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Who is Hadrian?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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Hadrian was an Emperor of Rome from 117-138 CE. He is perhaps most well known for the construction of a defensive wall in Britain which is known as Hadrian's Wall; the wall was designated a World Heritage Site by the United Nations in 1987. Hadrian has numerous other accomplishments to his name, however, leading people to classify him among the “Five Good Emperors” of Rome.

Hadrian's full name is Publius Aelius Traianus Hadrianus, and he was born in 76 CE. There is some dispute over the place of his birth, with most historians agreeing that he was born in Hispania, now known as Spain, while Hadrian himself contended that he was born in Rome. Hadrian's insistence on Roman birth may have been more related to his desire to appear as Roman as possible, however, as many Romans discriminated against people born in the far-flung reaches of the Empire.

He succeeded to the throne as a result of a deathbed request by the previous emperor, Trajan. Historians believe that Hadrian may owe his succession to Trajan's wife, who was allegedly fond of Hadrian, and it is certainly possible that she smoothed the way to the throne. As a ruler, Hadrian turned out to be relatively peaceful, with a defensive approach to caring for the Roman Empire, rather than an offensive one, and the period of Roman history which he oversaw is marked by a remarkable flowering of the arts and a general sense of peace.

Hadrian was certainly among the best educated and most cultured of the Roman emperors, and he was a great patron of the arts, especially architecture. His intense interest in Greek culture manifested in a fondness for classical statues and architecture, and he supervised the construction of an assortment buildings, including the Pantheon in Rome and numerous temples. He also spent a great deal of time traveling during his time as Emperor, spending more time outside of Rome than in it.

Although Hadrian had a consort, Vibia Sabina, the couple had no children, and historical accounts suggest that their relationship was rather tempestuous. Hadrian preferred the company of a male companion, Antinous, who drowned under mysterious circumstances on the Nile in 130 CE. Ultimately, Hadrian settled on Antonius Pius as a successor, after Aelius Caeser, his first choice, died. Antonius Pius was also known for being a relatively peaceful ruler with a great deal of loyalty to Hadrian, as his sobriquet “Pius” implies.

PublicPeople is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a PublicPeople researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By tigers88 — On Jun 29, 2011

@backdraft - Many ancient rulers were obsessed with monuments as a way to cement their legacy. They knew that no human life can extend beyond 60 or 70 years, 100 at the most. But a giant stone temple, or a pyramid, or a colossal stature could potentially last for millenniums. Building on a massive scale was a way of leaving their mark on the world, of carrying down a legacy at a time when there were no photographs, no movies, no sound recordings and very little recorded in writing. Spectacular structures jog peoples memories and lead to continuing legacies. I can't say that I respect the instinct, but that is what they had in mind.

By backdraft — On Jun 29, 2011

There are a lot of interesting little points included in this article. Was Hadrian gay? This is one of those hypothetical questions that history could never answer but which is fun to mull over. There is so much sensitivity to homosexuality these days that the thought of an openly gay ruler, particularly one who commanded an empire is almost unthinkable.

Also, the article made me think about how many of these ruler we know only from the structures they built, as if that really tells us anything about their skills and abilities as a leader. More so the the number of temples and monuments he built, we should examine the historical record for the effect that Hadrian had on the people of Rome. Did they fest or starve, get smarter or dumber. These are the real measures of a ruler

By nextcorrea — On Jun 28, 2011

I am always amazed by all the machinations that go into court power struggles. According to this article, Hadrian essentially rose to power because the previous emperor's wife had a crush on him. What good luck. It is hard to imagine such arbitrary or corrupt transfers of power here in the United States but maybe we have been spoiled by democracy. It is still the case in many parts of the world that power is seized, stolen or transferred to people of favor without much thought to who would make a good leader.

By ZsaZsa56 — On Jun 27, 2011

This is a little off topic but the article got me thinking about it. One of the best short stories I have ever read is called Hadrian's Wall and it Is by Jim Shepard. It is featured in his collection "Like You'd Understand Anyway."

It tells the story of a lowly scribe working at Hadrian's wall and trying to impress his father and brother. At its heart it is a pretty sad and haunting family drama, but most of the action is set in and around Hadrian's wall. I don't know if the descriptions are accurate, but the story makes it seem like a pretty incredible place. Not as grand as the Great Wall of China but a real feat of engineering and will non the less.

Anyone who is curious should really check out the story. It is amazing how one little wall built hundreds of years ago continues to find its way into the popular imagination.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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