Emperor Hadrian of Rome: Facts, Biography & Accomplishments

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  • 0:01 Five Good Emperors
  • 0:51 Early Life & Career
  • 1:53 Hadrian as Emperor
  • 5:27 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Explore the life and accomplishments of the Roman Emperor Hadrian in this lesson. Then, test your understanding of Roman culture, the Empire and classical architecture with a brief quiz.

Five Good Emperors

Hadrian was an emperor of the Roman Empire from the years 117-138. He was a powerful ruler committed to strengthening the Empire. Hadrian oversaw several important building projects, including the Temple of Venus and Roma and Hadrian's Wall.

Hadrian was one of the 'Five Good Emperors' of Rome, a termed coined by philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli in 1503. The 'Five Good Emperors' were the ideal rulers who earned their respect from their good works, their care for the people and respect for the power of the Senate. They were also all adopted by the previous emperor, meaning that they were chosen for their virtues, rather than being naturally born into power. The 'Five Good Emperors' are Nerva, Trajan, Antoninus Pius, Marcus Aurelius and Hadrian.

Early Life & Career

Publius Aelius Hadrianus (who lived from 76 AD to 138 AD) was born to a senator of the Roman Senate. His family settled in Spain, which was then part of the Empire, and he spent lots of time there. Hadrian joined the Roman military at a young age and worked his way up the ranks. He showed a mind for strategy in the military and became a governor of Syria.

Hadrian was well known, respected and liked. The Emperor Trajan knew and trusted him very well. When Trajan became very sick, he officially adopted Hadrian as his heir, meaning that Hadrian would become the next emperor. Successions of power are always tricky, but they can be especially rough if the new ruler is not the actual son of the old one. However, Hadrian had full support of the military, and soon the Senate in Rome officially recognized the legitimacy of his adoption.

Hadrian as Emperor

Hadrian had a good mind for military strategy, but had not actually fought much and didn't care for war. He abandoned the conquest to include Mesopotamia in the Empire, which Trajan had started, and averted rebellion in Iran with peace negotiations. He also kept the army intact, well-supplied and well-trained. Hadrian actually increased soldiers' training, personally inspected them and even ate and slept amongst the soldiers.

Hadrian's policy was to maintain peace through strength. In this attitude, he built a series of fortifications and walls all around the Empire along strategic areas like the Danube and Rhine rivers. The most famous of these is Hadrian's Wall, an 80-mile wall that spans the entire latitudinal width of Britain from sea to sea. The Roman army had been fighting the Celtic people of Britain for some time, and the wall served to keep the Celts north of Roman territory.

Personally, Hadrian was an intellectual man who loved the arts and architecture and cared deeply for his people. He was obsessed with Ancient Greek culture and had many statues carved of him wearing Greek clothing.

Hadrian commissioned lots of art for Roman public spaces and sponsored many building projects, including aqueducts for fresh water, bath houses, amphitheaters and temples. He had the Pantheon rebuilt (it had previously been destroyed by a fire in 80 AD). The new Pantheon was built with a dome, an engineering marvel that had been nearly impossible to create before because domes must support their own weight and require a perfect combination of light but strong materials and skill.

Hadrian was an amateur architect himself and reportedly developed a type of half-dome called a 'pumpkin dome' because the vertical braces give it a pumpkin-like shape. The architect that called them that used it as an insult and was allegedly exiled and killed after Hadrian became emperor.

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