Hadrian - Roman Emperor

Hadrian -  Roman Emperor
Hadrian -  Roman Emperor

Hadrian ruled Rome from 117 to 138 c.e. as one of the "five good emperors". He traveled frequently, secured and improved the administration of the empire, and was one of the ablest men of his time. His most well-known achievement outside Rome is Hadrian’s Wall, covering 73 miles of Rome’s northern frontier in Britain.

Hadrian was born January 24, 76 c.e., to a well-connected family. The future emperor Trajan was his father’s cousin and became 10-year-old Hadrian’s guardian when his father died.

Hadrian rose quickly through the military ranks and held major offices. At age 24 he married a grandniece of Trajan, Sabina. Theirs was a childless and perhaps loveless match. Hadrian was legate and acting governor of Syria when Trajan died in 117.

His adoption by Trajan was announced, and the army accepted him as the new emperor under the name Publius Aelius Traianus Hadrianus. His reign began with the execution of four of Trajan’s high-ranking associates, which did not endear him to the Senate of Rome.


Unlike previous emperors, Hadrian sought to secure his borders, not expand them, and to stabilize the empire. He is mainly remembered for his building projects, his administrative improvements, his concern for his armies, and his travels. Trusted representatives in Rome, and possibly a secret police force, allowed him to be absent from the capital for years.

Much information about Hadrian comes from a suspect source, the Historia Augusta, which is full of intentionally misleading information about the Roman emperors. However, he was undeniably a unique, eclectic, and often brilliant man.

It is known that he spent half his reign traveling, mostly in the East, from inscriptions, commemorative coins, and contemporary accounts. Some of Hadrian’s poetry and bits of his autobiography survive.

Hadrian traveled through Gaul and Germany in 121 and commanded an oaken palisade to be built to secure the German frontier. In Britain the next year Hadrian observed the northern frontier separating Roman legions from the troublesome Pictish tribes.

Hadrian wall with signal tower
Hadrian wall with signal tower

Hadrian ordered the wall and fortifications to be built. He then left to suppress revolts in Mauretania and Parthia and never returned to Britain or the western part of his empire.

The wall was built with signal towers of about 20 sq. feet erected first, paced out regularly between castles placed every Roman mile, and then the wall was filled in between them. The original construction included a turf wall in parts, and the width of the stone wall varied from 7.5 to 9.5 feet.

The defense network of Hadrian’s Wall eventually comprised 158 towers, 80 mile-castles, and 16 forts that could house up to 800 men each. The stone wall measured up to 16 feet high—not including the breastworks.

Wherever physically possible, a ditch ran along the north side of the wall, 9 feet deep and 30 feet wide. On the south side a vallum (rampart) made up of a ditch, with mounds of the excavated material on either side, blocked access from the south and may have marked the military zone.

Other building projects completed by the emperor Hadrian included the Pantheon in Rome, started by Agrippa, and the temple to Olympian Zeus in Athens, begun six centuries earlier.

Hadrian also designed his own villa and gardens in Tivoli; he founded cities and built harbors, aqueducts, temples, baths, gymnasiums, and markets throughout the empire. Hadrian’s attempts to build a temple to Zeus on the ruins of the Temple in Jerusalem and his outlawing of circumcision sparked a violent rebellion in Judaea in 132, led by Bar Kokhba.

Hadrian selected Antoninus Pius as his successor and persuaded Antoninus to adopt two further heirs, who did in fact corule Rome after Antoninus’s death: Lucius Verus and Marcus Aurelius. Hadrian died on July 10, 138. By 155 the Roman frontier had fallen back to Hadrian’s Wall and remained there until the late fourth or early fifth century, when the Roman army left Britain.