3 – Hadrian (117 – 138)
Like Nerva, Trajan âadopted’ his successor; although this time, the emperor was near death. Born as Publius Aelius Hadrianus on January 24, 76 AD, Hadrian had the advantage of possessing the right connections. His father was Trajan’s cousin, and when he died in 86 AD, the 10-year old Hadrian became the joint-ward of a Roman equestrian named Acilius Attianus and Trajan.
Trajan wanted to help his ward enjoy a career in the military but was not happy to discover that the teenage version of Hadrian enjoyed hunting and luxury above duty. He was even recalled from his station in Upper Germany by the angry Trajan who wanted to keep a closer eye on his ward. Hadrian finally showed some military promise when fighting near the Danube and when Nerva died, Hadrian won the ârace’ to tell Trajan thus ensuring his permanent good grace with the new emperor.
He fought with distinction during the Dacia campaign and became governor of Syria in 114 AD. According to Cassius Dio, Trajan did not name Hadrian as his successor on his deathbed. Instead, the empress Plotina kept Trajan’s death a secret for several days. In the meantime, she sent forged letters to the Senate which declared Hadrian as the new emperor. Regardless of how he became the ruler of the empire, Hadrian was worthy of the role. While Trajan spent much of his time on expansion, Hadrian was more concerned with consolidation.
Hadrian abandoned the recently conquered territories in the East. This decision was in line with former Emperor Octavian’s assertion that the empire should not stretch beyond the natural borders of the Euphrates, Danube, and Rhine. He started his reign poorly by denying his involvement in the deaths of four men who supported Trajan. However, Hadrian soon showed his considerable abilities by tightening the borders and improving army discipline. He also expanded upon Trajan’s program of welfare for the poor, and he personally visited the imperial territories on the frontier. His first journey was to Gaul in 121 AD, and he did not finish these journeys until his final return to Rome in 133/34 AD. He saw more of the empire than any other ruler of Rome.
Unlike so many other emperors, Hadrian was ready and willing to seek advice. He was known for the level of respect he showed the Senate and surrounded himself with learned men. One of his most important achievements was to collate Roman law into a single collection known as the Perpetual Edict. He also gained famed for Hadrian’s Wall in Britain; construction began in 122 AD. By 136 AD, he knew his health was failing so he sought a successor. He initially chose Lucius Ceionius Commodus, but his first choice died suddenly in January 138 AD.
Hadrian adopted Antoninus Pius the following month and retired soon after as he was in terrible pain from his illness. He died at Baiae on July 10, 138 AD. Although he was an excellent administrator who kept the empire steady and stable, Hadrian was an unpopular ruler at the time of his death. Perhaps this is because he had a fearsome temper and was feared by many.