Thursday, 18 September 2014

it happened on the way to the forum: honey-badger or non-plus-ultra

Regarded as one of the Five Good Emperors for his civic-planning and long reign of peace and prosperity—only with the hallmark bookends that of violence and paranoia that attend most transitions of power, it is a regrettable commentary on the history books that Hadrian is nearly exclusively remembered only for his eponymous wall that separated the province of Britannia from the untamable wilds of Scotland.
The travelling emperor and Grecophile visited nearly every part of his realms, and on his grand-tour, left many public institutions improved and was a real bread-and-circuses kind of leader.  Other borderlands were fortified as well, and inasmuch has the Limes afforded a measure of protection from the barbarians, they also served an important propaganda purpose, white-washed and gleaming when new, the walls and towers were visible from great distances as a hearty deterrent and reminder that Rome ruled these lands. Though currying favour again with a Senate that was formerly reduced in esteem through the refusal of recent regimes to submit to protocols (despite their emptiness and the fact that the Senate’s role was almost purely ceremonial), Hadrian managed to chafe their elite sensibilities by being an unrepentant individual. 

Against the style at the time, Hadrian wore a beard, was an open homosexual, when most had the decency to stay in the closet, valued Greek culture and mannerisms over copy-cat Roman ones—which were usual poor and prudish imitators, was a big-game hunter (the Romans thought safaris were unseemly for nobility, though they had few qualms with being spectators for brutal gladiatorial bouts)—and to top it all off, he was a provincial hailing from Hispania, the first non-native emperor Rome had seen, and probably would have been its last had  not Hadrian’s tenure not been on-balance a successful one and the broader pool of talented and skilled leadership from beyond Italy would have been hence excluded from the highest echelons.  While those walls did much to help quell insurrections in much of the Empire, Judea with these radically un-Roman Christians still posed a problem, and Hadrian, towards the final years of his reign took a more tyrannical turn on the province—merging it with another entity, outlawing monotheistic worship—the Romans not yet really recognising the distinction between Christian and Jew yet, and reflagging the combined provinces as Syria-Palaestina, hoping to incorporate the Middle East into Hadrian’s envisioned Pan-Hellenic state.
The naming-convention endured through modern times and was a serious matter as the colony was renamed for an adversarial tribe. The peaceful years were surely ones hard fought for and Hadrian was no pacifist, with revolutions being staunched in many lands; the emperor’s detractors merely said that his lashing out—Rome did not care about the suffering and suppression in Jerusalem but the attendant crimes of political purges in the forum were—and that Hadrian was showing his true colours and held the Senate in contempt all along and his efforts at maintaining stability within the Empire were derided.  Though Hadrian had always demonstrated a nature that was pre-emptive rather than reactive, his change in character could have been attributed to the sudden and mysterious death of his long-time companion and lover, a Greek youth from Asia Minor called Antinous.  Antinous was accompanying the Emperor on a cruise down the Nile when his lifeless body was discovered in the water.  Theories about, including that Hadrian was growing weary with the boy—or that Antinous was off bears or even that emperor’s astrologer advised Hadrian that he would be rejuvenated and attain an advanced age—which he did—by sacrificing a youth.   I don’t know whether it was foul-play or not but I am sure that the two really did love one another. Hadrian never recovered from this tragedy, it seems, and dedicated many honours to the memory of Antinous. Somewhat outside imperial purview (the Senate conferred Godhead and although usually granted, they would have like to have been consulted first), he had his lover deified as a god and included among the Caesar family pantheon. A city in Egypt near the site where his body was recovered was demolished and rebuilt in Hellenistic style and named after Antinous, as was a constellation of stars. And as in life, Hadrian commissioned hundreds of statues of Antinous had them distributed to all corners of the Empire. Their story may not be familiar but you, gentle reader, have most likely seen his likeness already, the youth's image being the most reproduced one of the first century and the most widespread.
For a time the cult of Antinous (being conflated with Osiris who embodied similar graces) was bigger than Jesus, with more adherents than this new Christianity. The reign of Hadrian continued for several more years, and ever the architect and civil-engineering, the travelling emperor returned home and his ashes were enshrined in the mausoleum he designed, now known as Castel Sant'Angelo (the one-time home of the papacy and their jail, acquired after the Arch-Angel Michael appeared atop this tallest building in Rome and delivered the city from a medieval plague outbreak), across the Tiber from Vatican City.