This map plots the settings and references in Memoirs of Hadrian
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The Second Century AD can be seen, in many respects, as the high-tide mark of Imperial Rome. It was the point at which several centuries of aggressive territorial expansion effectively came to an end, and at which the Roman people themselves seem to have concluded that the benefits accruing from the stability of Imperial rule outweighed whatever nostalgic feelings they might previously have entertained for the days of the Republic.
The Second Century Emperors – Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius – presided, in the words of the historian Edward Gibbon, over an empire "governed by absolute power, under the guidance of wisdom and virtue." Nicolo Macchiavelli, who dubbed these rulers "the five good emperors," claimed that they "had no need of Praetorian Cohorts, or of countless legions to guard them, but were defended by their own good lives, the goodwill of their subjects and the attachment of the Senate." This, of course, reflects an idealised picture of the period (96-180 AD), but it is perhaps not so very distant from the way in which the elite of the Roman world would themselves have seen things. It might have seemed to them that the principle of succession by adoption, consistently applied since the assassination of Domitian, had done away with the arbitrariness of birth without recourse to the unwanted encumbrance of democracy; that Plato's dream of the rule of "Philosopher-Princes" had finally been realised. It was a period, from the point of view of this elite, in which peace prevailed, prosperity triumphed and the arts flourished.
Marguerite Yourcenar was attracted to the period by a comment in Flaubert's correspondence: "Just when the gods had ceased to be, and the Christ had not yet come, there was a unique moment in history, between Cicero and Marcus Aurelius, when man stood alone." For sure, the old gods of the Olympion pantheon were still honoured in ceremonies, but the extent to which people believed in them, as actual beings rather than personified ideals, is questionable. The historical Hadrian fully expected to be "deified" after his death, and indeed he was, but he has left us a poem, Animula, Vagula, Blandula (translated by Grace Frick at the every end of Memoirs of Hadrian) in which he makes it clear that he privately entertained little hope that he would be walking the heavens in the company of Jupiter and Minerva.
The intellectual landscape of the day was dominated by two philosophical systems that were both, in today's terms, humanistic: Epicureanism (which urged its adherents to fear neither the gods nor death, to understand that what is good is easy to get, and that what is terrible is easy to endure); and Stoicism (which emphasised the immortality of the soul - let nature deal with matter, which is her own, as she pleases, let us be cheerful and brave in the face of everything, reflecting that it is nothing of our own which perishes).
It is the intellectual, as much as the physical grandeur of the age, that Yourcenar seeks here to capture.
Tibur is the modern Tivoli, 30 kilometres north-east of Rome.
Hadrian, who is said to have disliked the atmosphere of the palace on Rome's Palatine Hill, had a villa at Tibur, and it is from here that he writes his letter to Marcus Aurelius.
Italica is on the site of the modern village of Santiponce, 9 kilometres north-west of Seville. Much of the Roman town that Hadrian would have known as a boy is covered by the modern village (the buildings of which remains can be seen today were, for the most part, built rather later, during Hadrian's reign as Emperor), but he would have been familiar with the theatre, and with at least one of the surviving bath complexes.
The passage that follows documents Hadrian's role (he was Legate of the V Macedonica Legion) in Trajan's military campaigns (101-106 AD) in Dacia (modern Romania). Although nominally a Roman ally, the local king, Decebalus, sanctioned numerous raids on Roman colonies across the Danube, and Trajan determined to suppress these. The campaign, graphically illustrated by the reliefs on Trajan's Column, ended with the defeat and suicide of Decebalus.
Here, Yourcenar's Hadrian is being self-conciously modest about one of his most significant building projects, for the Pantheon (a temple to all the gods of ancient Rome) is among the most remarkable, influential and innovative buildings of the Roman Empire. The original Pantheon was built by Marcus Agrippa in c31 BC, but the building that stands today is Hadrian's, begun in c126 AD. The portico, with its monolithic columns of grey granite imported from Mons Claudianus in Egypt, leads into an enclosed circular space covered by the most extraordinary feature of the building, a concrete dome with a circular opening or "occulus." The dome itself remains, to this day, the largest unreinforced concrete dome ever built, and from it are ultimately derived all of the most significant domed buildings in the world, from Saint Peter's Basilica to Saint Paul's Cathedral to the circular reading room of the old British Library. Probably Yourcenar took the idea for this modesty from the fact that Hadrian allowed Agrippa's name, rather than his own, to appear on the pediment.
The Olympieion of Athens (or Temple of Olympian Zeus) was completed under Hadrian, but on foundations established under the Athenian Tyrants, Hippias and Hipparchus, in the 6th Century BC. There is an irony about this statement, which can hardly be accidental on Yourcenar's part, in that the Parthenon of the 5th Century BC was placed on the hill in counterpoise to the unfinished temple below, seen as a symbol of the hubris of the Tyrants. Others, including the Seleucid King Antiochus IV Epiphanes in 174 BC, and the Emperor Augustus in the 1st Century AD, had planned to complete the Olympieion, but failed to do so. It was only Hadrian who actually succeeded in doing so, thus redefining what might or might not be seen as hubris.
The Mausoleum of Hadrian, more often referred to as the Castel Sant' Angelo, is a cylindrical stone building on the right bank of the River Tiber, built between 130 and 139 AD. Hadrian's ashes were deposited there, as were those of his wife, Vibia Sabina, and his first adopted son, Lucius Aelius. It was converted into a military fortress in 401 AD, and served as a papal castle in the 14th-16th Centuries.
The reference is to the Villa Adriana at Tivoli, 29 Km from Rome, where Hadrian established his private residence, and from which he governed the Empire in the latter years of his reign. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is in fact a complex of more than 30 buildings, including bath-houses, theatres, temples, libraries, staterooms and quarters for courtiers, praetorians and slaves. Much of it remains unexcavated.
Further information (in Italian) is available at http://www.villa-adriana.net
Here Yourcenar's Hadrian reflects on the British wall which bears his name to this day, a westward extension, in effect, of the Limes Germanicus. It is 80 Roman miles (120 Km) in length and, in its eastern portion, follows the edge of a natural escarpment, the Great Whin Sill. The 2nd, 6th and 20th Legions were all involved in its construction, beginning in 122 AD. Once built, however, it was manned not by legionaries (Roman citizens) but by auxilliaries (who became citizens only upon completion of their service). Along the length of the wall, there are mile-castles 493 metres apart. There are also around 15 larger forts (although these were built a little later than the wall itself), and a number of logistical outposts set behind the wall, of which Vindolanda is the best known. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and there is a footpath that can be followed along its length (http://www.nationaltrail.co.uk/HadriansWall).
Eleusis, near Athens, is the location of an ancient mystery cult dedicated to the goddesses Demeter and Persephone, a myth first written down in one of the Homeric hymns (c650 BC), but arguably extending back into Bronze Age times (c1200-1500 BC). The historical Hadrian was initiated into these mysteries. According to the myth, Hades, the god of the underworld, abducted Persephone, the daughter of Demeter. Demeter searched for her and, eventually, Zeus forced Hades to return her, the reuinion of mother and daughter symbolising the triumph of life over death, of spring over winter. It closely mirrors the Egyptian mysteries of Isis and Osiris, and is reflected in the later Roman cult of Osiris-Antinous. The key to the illustration below is as follows: 1 Demeter; 2 Persephone; 3 Athena; 4 Aphrodite; 5 Artemis; 6 the Eleusinian hero, Triptolemus; 7 the Hierophant (chief priest); 8 a junior priest; 9 a herald; 10. Hecate.
"Mount Casius" is the modern Mount Aqraa (in Turkey, close to the border with Syria). It is referred to as "Zaphon" in the Bible and was known as "Hazzi" by the Hurrians and Hittites, for whom it was sacred to the storm-god, Teshub.
The lighthouse (or Pharos) of Alexandria was, at the time, one of the tallest man-made structures on Earth, and was one of the seven "wonders of the world." Built between 280 and 247 BC, it stood into the Middle Ages, being badly damaged by earthquakes between 956 and 1323 AD. Recent work by the French archaeologist, Jean-Yves L'Empereur, has revealed remnants of the lighthouse beneath the harbour (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/sunken).
The Mausoleum of Alexander the Great, though certainly still visible in Hadrian's time, is now lost, as is the Mausoleum of Antony and Cleopatra (archaeologists Zahi Hawass and Kathleen Martinez were investigating a site at Taposiris Magna which they thought might be the location of the mausoleum, but these investigations have been discontinued, at least for the moment, as a result of the recent political upheavals in Egypt).
There are, in fact, two Colossi, both statues of the Pharoah Amenhotep III (reigned either 1386-1349 BC or 1388-1350 BC), and originally part of his mortuary temple. It is on the foot of one of these statues that Julia Balbilla's poems are inscribed. The association with Memnon (an African prince who went to the aid of the besieged Trojans, and was slain by Achilles) is a later one, and may arise from the sound which was said to issue forth from one of the statues at dawn (Memnon's name means "Ruler of the Dawn"). Strabo stated that this sound was "like a blow," whilst Pausanias compared it to the song of a lyre. It may have been caused by friction between one part of a statue and another, following earthquake damage in 27 BC.
The Theatre of Dionysus Eleuthereus is located on the southern slope of the Acropolis in Athens, to the east of the better known and better preserved Theatre of Herodes Atticus (which post-dates Hadrian's visit). Originally built in the 5th Century BC, most of the surviving structure dates to the 4th Century BC.