An Essay about Hadrian
It's not fiction... but it was really interesting to me!
Because Fire Rained From the Sky
October 22th, 2010
Publius Aelius Hadrianus (117-138) was born on January 24th, 76.
It was probably cold the day in Rome. January is often cold, even though cold is a subjective term. Being born in the month of Janus could have been taken as an omen, but omens like weather leave different impressions on those that experience them. January is named for the God Janus, the door between worlds, between winter and spring. The baby that would become Hadrian would preside over the deification of the last effective pagan god and walk with the Empire as it embraced a value shift as great as that from Republic to Empire - that of Empire to Congregation.
While the Historia Augusta asserts that Hadrian was born in Rome, other sources hadn't been as sure of that fact.
Herbert W. Benario, professor emeritus at Emory University, does not accept Rome as Hadrian's birth place without question.
There are other possible locations, but the Historia Augusta lists Rome as Hadrian's birth place. It is entirely possible that Rome was Hadrian's birth place. The location of Hadrian's birth matters because a person's status in the religious hierarchy, their relation to myth, and meaning in people's lives drew validity from the accepted birth place, among other things. A Jewish carpenter named Jesus might well have been a heroic figure, a miracle worker, and a prophet of God, but he won't have been the Messiah if he'd been born in Athens. The Historia Augusta declares that Hadrian was born in Rome, as a good Roman emperor made God should have been, but the point of view of the author lines up rather well with aristocratic Senatorial culture in Rome, with pagan values.
Later writers would focus on Hadrian and the important people in his life through the lens of a different value system. Hadrian strode through his life loyal to his own reason and passions, just outside the norms for both Pagan culture and Christian culture.
Early in Hadrian's life, in 79, when he was three years old, Vesuvius swallowed Pompeii and Herculaneum. Pliney the Younger wrote, "Soon ash was falling on the ships, hotter and thicker as they drew nearer; soon there were lumps of pumice and rocks, scorched and shattered by fire."
At three years old, fire rained from the sky and swallowed a popular Roman town. Small children don't have the ability to care about disasters in far away places, but small children grow into adults who remember adult's fearful words about fire raining from the sky and the death of heroic Roman generals. No where in Pliny the Younger's letter are the wishes or will of the gods discussed. His letter gives an excellent description of the eruption and of human behavior in a very secular tone. He wrote, "I believed that the whole world was perishing as wretchedly as me and this was a great consolation to me in my mortality."
Other settlements were rebuilt after the eruption, but both Pompeii and Herculaneum remained buried, visited only by clandestine tunnelers.
Rome was not known for abandoning property, not trying to fix and improve things. Survivors of Pompeii and Herculaneum carried fantastic stories that could easily have contributed to fears of hell, of the gods' failure to protect. Looters crawling through the buried cities would have found human shaped bubbles, time frozen over and humans tell stories. The level of taboo and fear surrounding these lost cities and those that died there could have fueled the growing Christian movement. If there was a Christian population in Pompeii, it was not substantial.
Whatever stories were told about Pompeii and Vesuvius, life in the empire continued. At eighteen, in the year 94, Hadrian began his political career.
Before becoming emperor he was a military tribune with three legions, tribune of the people, quaestor principis, praetor, a commander, governor, consul, served as archon in Athens, and comes with Trajan.
Accomplishment and effort graced his life. August 11, 117 saw him proclaimed emperor of Rome. His reign would last twenty-one years. Whatever the nightmares of his childhood, Hadrian confronted the world with the same Roman humanity that took Pliny the Elder towards Pompeii and not away to safety.
As time brought change to the people of the Roman Empire, the practical and willful life that Hadrian lead did not sustain tradition, even though through his efforts the administration and borders of the Roman Empire became more secure.
He carefully released lands that the Empire did not have the power to hold.
With the Edict of the Praetor he stabilized private law until the sixth century. Such a shift brings law more inline with modern concepts, with both law and God being unchanging. This was a shift from each new Praetor having to renew the law and the gods having the moods and appetites of mortals.
Hadrian's deft administration and relationship with the military contributed to peace in the empire during his reign and leave strong impression of his personality and values. He shared hardships with his troops, addressed them with a presence that gave them confidence and boosted their moral.
Roman military made or broke many emperors. They were not tolerant of incompetence. Hadrian was particularly competent. Dio states:
In fine, both by his example and by his precepts he so trained and disciplined the whole military force throughout the entire empire that even today the methods then introduced by him are the soldiers' law of campaigning. This best explains why he lived for the most part at peace with foreign nations; for as they saw his state of preparation and were themselves not only free from aggression but received money besides, they made no uprising.
War did color Hadrian's reign, even if he did not seek out wars, the war with Judea erupted in any case. Religion fueled the war with Judea. Simon Bar Kokhba, a name which means "Son of the Star", obviously drew on Messianic tradition to validate his authority. Being the son of the star, to a person of non-Jewish religion could express hints of the rising Greek mystery traditions as well. To be successful a religious movement or even a military campaign must attract the greatest number of supporters. Whatever else Rome was during its history, it was also very violent. Those that did not relinquish their cultural identities and rights where they conflicted with Rome faced the weight of the consequences of losing to the greatest military the world had seen to that point. Rome did not invite a voluntary consensus and collaboration with other cultures. Rome took what it wished, granted dispensation when it wished, and liquidated resources at it's convenience, both physical and living.
While the Bar Kokhba revolt initially proved successful, giving the rebels enough time to strive to legitimize their own authority, as shown by a Roman coin showing Hadrian's profile with the rebel's symbol imprinted over Hadrian's face, the weight of Rome's victory is still felt today. One aspect of Roman victory is that the province suffered a name change. What had been Judea became Syria-Palestinia. The city of Jerusalem became Aelia Capitolina. The Temple of Solomon, destroyed in 71 under Vespasian and Titus, would be rebuilt as a Temple of Jupiter Capitolinus. The struggle to assert dominance of social norms cost many Roman and Jewish lives, but with victory would come the stabilization of the world, the affirmation of world view, in addition to control of material resources.
The Jewish population that survived the direct conflict and avoided being sold into slavery disbursed into the world. Just like survivors of Pompeii, survivors spread and talked about their experience. The challenge to the Roman world view had been a spectacular volcanic eruption. The challenge to Jewish world view was the Romans. Each group worked towards finding equilibrium and comfort within a dangerous and unpredictable world. The disaster of Vesuvius could even have been an affirmation of the Jewish world view that saw unbelievers, sinners, those that displeased a monotheistic god as being punished, a world view that would be internalized by the rising Christian movement.
The Emperor Hadrian had a lover. His lover's name was Antinous. Love also provides solutions to life's difficulties. Fear, hurt, community, hope, all of human emotions are nurtured and cared for with love. When love and relationships fail a person, religion is the closest proxy. When the gods fail, new gods emerge. Pliny the Younger's description of Vesuvius' eruption is observational, talking about color, density, duration. His descriptions of people's behavior is universal. In a disaster of that scale, a parent calling for a child, a husband for his wife, these are behaviors that are as human in 79 as they would be in 2010. What is descriptions lack is preemptive problem solving via supplication of the god(s). What the Pompeiian diaspora and the Jewish Diaspora had in common was a fear of overwhelming and uncontrollable disaster and the very human need to solve the problem by negotiation with a higher power.
While the Emperor Hadrian could not have been ignorant of the eruption of Vesuvius and the psychological trauma that caused, and he took a personal interest in reshaping the world view of Judea, the challenge to his own world view came with the death of his lover. On October 24th 130, Antinous' body was found on the bank of the Nile. He had drown. The recovery of his body coincided with the traditional celebration of Osiris' death. While Hadrian's autobiography has not survived, references to it point to Hadrian's belief that the death was accidental. Whatever the actual cause of death, the impact of Antinous' death on Hadrian caused a grievous psychological trauma as evidenced by the length that the emperor went to to resolve his grief. Antinous became the last pagan god, but a god who lived in Olympus, but still touched the more personal Greek Mystery religions.
Religions are groups of people who compete for members, for status and to provide their members with proofs of the validity of the group's beliefs. The Christian Saint, Justin Martyr (103–165), writes, "And it is not out of place, we think, to mention here Antinous, who was alive but lately, and whom all were prompt, through fear, to worship as a god, though they knew both who he was and what was his origin."
Justin would have been twenty-seven when Antinous died and was deified. While the First Apology was written between 150 and 160, Justin would have been an adult during the rise of Antinous' cult.
Justin's opinion was written years after the Bar Kokhba rebellion, but it is not unreasonable to extrapolate that his opinions formed earlier in his life and reflected opinions of other members of his group, as he came to be a respected and referenced member of his social group. Roman perception had difficulty distinguishing Christians from those of Jewish faith. As recently as 95 Clemens and Domitilla were condemned for "Jewish ways", but it is unclear if they were practicing Judaism or Christianity.
It is without doubt that Christianity had roots in Judaism and that the Bar KoKhba rebellion's leader, Simone Bar Kokhba (132-135 reign), claimed messianic powers. The elements of struggle between Judaism, Christianity, and other religious options such as the worship of Antinous generated a powerful dynamic.
Hadrian's reign did not include great wars of conquest. He seems to have valued peace and discipline above triumphal processions, building cities above destroying them. When the Bar Kokhba revolt erupted in 132, Antinous had been a god for nearly two years. Less than a year after his death, a delegation had already approached Hadrian for permission to conduct worship of Antinous in Thessaloniki.
That the cult of Antinous became deeply important to Hadrian is evidenced by the number of sculptures of Antinous at Hadrian's Tivoli villa, the small temple buildings at the entrance to his villa that were found in 2000, and the inscription on the Pincio obelisk, "The god who is there, he rests in this place, which belongs to the Lord of Prosperity, [the ruler] of Rome".
The changes in religion and values that would sweep through the Empire stirred in the sentiment directed towards Antinous, both from supporters and detractors. Hadrian's power to create his lost love into a god is a deeply human behavior, drawing the lines of what religion has always done for individual humans, but on a grand scale that invited the participation of all humanity. The terribly violent suppression of the Bar Kokhba revolt, possibly with Hadrian actually going to Judea personally, bringing maybe as many as thirteen legions into Judea, could represent an emotional investment on the part of Hadrian to suppress religion and values that competed with the rising cult of his lover.
Emperors and messiahs are both people attempting to solve problems, either problems on a societal scale or problems on a more intimate level. When cherished solutions conflict with the solutions of other groups violence often results. It would be hard not to argue, even with the Diaspora, that Christianity and Judaism proved to be very enduring solutions for many people through the ages. There is a bust of Hadrian, discovered in 1995, where the traditional image of Medusa on his breast plate has been replaced by a very slightly smiling Antinous. In America, in 2010, the view point of many writers is observational and rational, more like Pliny the Younger than Saint Justin Martyr. It is not possible to know with certainty a great many motivations and or private thoughts of historical figures. Often an individual will believe what brings them comfort will bring comfort and safety to others. The greatest cruelties can be committed while trying to help the victims that the oppressors are in the process of trying to save. There is nothing in Hadrian's preserved record to indicate that he was not well intended and reasonable. On July 10, 138 Publius Aelius Hadrianus left the world of mortals, politics, and religious strife. A coin was showing Hadrian being lifted to heaven on the back of a great eagle was minted.
On his arrival, perhaps he was greeted by Antinous, Sabina, and Trajan.
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