Happy Birthday Hadrian

Busts of Hadrianus in Venice cropped.jpg

Roman Emperor Hadrian is probably best known for his walls and his beard.  He sits right in the middle of the good times as the 3rd of the five “good” emperors: Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antonius Pius and Marcus Aurelius.

One of the reasons the emperors were considered good is because they chose good successors, not family.  On this measure Aurelius failed and the lot is reduced to four.

Hadrian was the second Spanish emperor after Trajan, he was born 24th January, 76 AD   in Italica, which is just outside modern day Seville in Spain.  I visted in the summer of 1978.  It was hot.  There was no shade and I am no daywalker.  Bring water – wear sunscreen and a hat!

After the expanision of the empire to its greatest extent by Trajan there was a period of consolidation by Hadrian – hence the walls.  The most famous of which spans northern England.  Less famous but equally impressive are the walls erected in Africa.

Hadrian is responsible for naming Palestine.  His reputation amongst the Jews is not very nice and his name in Jewish texts is often followed by “may his bones be crushed”.  This is because Hadrian put down the final Jewish uprising in the Province of Judea – the Bar Kokhba revolt.

If you look at it from Hadrian’s point of view it is clear that the Jews were a major problem and the empire had been fighting revolt after revolt since 66AD and the reign of Nero.

After the Bar Kokhba revolt was put down the Romans pulled down the fortifications from 50 Jewish cities, leaving their populations exposed to danger.  The Roman provinces of Judaea, Galilee and Samaria were reformed and renamed as “Syria Palestina”.  This is seen as a calculated insult, to rename Jewish lands for their ancient enemies; the Philistines.

The Jews date the Diaspora from the end of the war with Hadrian, and it was the spread of the Jewish people accross the Roman Empire that led indirectly to the flowering of Christianity in the Empire.

Hadrian was also openly gay in the modern sense.  He loved all things Greek, earning him the nickname “The Greekling”.  This love extended to his boyfriend Antinous, a Bythinian Greek Youth who was deified by Hadrian when he drowned in the Nile on an Egyptian holiday (not joking).

The poem below is said to have been inspired by a poem of Emperor Hadrian: Animula, vagula, blandula.

Animula; by T.S. Eliot

‘Issues from the hand of God, the simple soul’
To a flat world of changing lights and noise,
to light, dark, dry or damp, chilly or warm;
moving between the legs of tables and of chairs,
rising or falling, grasping at kisses and toys,
advancing boldly, sudden to take alarm,
retreating to the corner of arm and knee,
eager to be reassured, taking pleasure
in the fragrant brilliance of the Christmas tree,
pleasure in the wind, the sunlight and the sea;
studies the sunlit pattern on the floor
and running stags around a silver tray;
confounds the actual and the fanciful,
content with playing-cards and kings and queens,
what the fairies do and what the servants say.
The heavy burden of the growing soul
perplexes and offends more, day by day;
week by week, offends and perplexes more
with the imperatives of ‘is and seems’
and may and may not, desire and control.
The pain of living and the drug of dreams
curl up the small soul in the window seat
behind the Encyclopædia Britannica.
Issues from the hand of time the simple soul
irresolute and selfish, misshapen, lame,
unable to fare forward or retreat,
fearing the warm reality, the offered good,
denying the importunity of the blood,
shadow of its own shadows, spectre in its own gloom,
leaving disordered papers in a dusty room;
living first in the silence after the viaticum.

Pray for Guiterriez, avid of speed and power,
for Boudin, blown to pieces,
for this one who made a great fortune,
and that one who went his own way.
Pray for Floret, by the boarhound slain between the yew trees,
pray for us now and at the hour of our birth.



Where are my legions?


One of my favourite anecdotes from my study of ancient Rome is how Emperor Augustus, in times of stress, would stalk the corridors of his palace crying out  “Publius Quinctilius Varus where are my legions?”

In the year 4 CE Tiberius led a massive army of 13 legions into Germany to subjugate the country.  A revolt in Illyricum (modern day Balkans) caused a huge drain on Roman troops.  Half of all standing legions had to be deployed to the Balkans.  In 6 CE this left Varus leading only three legions in Germany to consolidate it as a province.  Up to this point what Rome wanted Rome got.

Arminius, a Roman trained soldier and Roman citizen brought together a coalition of six German tribes.  Arminius (Herman) was acting as a local advisor to Varus while putting together an alliance of warring tribes to defeat him.  Arminius then informed Varus of a local rebellion and guided the Romans straight into his ambush in the Teutoburg forest.

Arminius knew that the Legions were unbeatable once they deployed in battle array.  His ambush and tactics during the fight were designed to constrict the Romans to narrow forest tracks, and to string them out over a long line of march.  Clearings were further constricted by trenches and ditches.

The Romans were subjected to a series of well organised flank attacks from the forest.  Light German troops moved quickly through the bogs and muddy tracks and rained javelins down upon the heavily armoured Romans.  Despite the desperate situation the Romans managed to establish a defensive camp at the end of the day.  But when they tried to escape they became disoriented in the woods.  Attack after attack eventually wiped out the three legions and their standards were lost.

The Romans retrenched to the line of the River Rhine.  In subsequent years they mounted large scale punitive expeditions against the German tribes.  In 16 CE Germanicus (father of emperor Caligula) recovered two of the three lost eagles and was held to have avenged the defeat.

In truth however the Germans halted the advance of Rome.  From this point on the primary driver of the Roman Empire was maintenance of existing territory rather than expansion.  Exceptions to this were the conquest of Britain under Claudius and the short lived expansion across the Danube immortalised by Trajan on his commemorative column in Rome.

The event became central to celebration of German nationalism in the 19th Century and National Socialism in the 20th Century.  Since WW2 the modern German state has downplayed militaristic national symbols and celebrations to mark the 2000 year anniversary were low key.