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Now in Paperback: Hadrian

Keeping Up with the Romans

Hadrian: Empire and Conflict

by Thorsten Opper

Harvard University Press, 2012

Thorsten Opper’s Hadrian: Empire and Conflict opens with an appropriately panoramic shot:

For almost twenty years, from AD 117 to 138, Publius Aelius Hadrianus ruled one of the mightiest empires the world has ever seen. The boundaries of this empire enclosed parts of three continents, stretching from the edges of the Scottish lowlands in the north to the Sahara Desert in the south, from the Atlantic Ocean in the west to the River Euphrates in the east.

And yet it’s a testimony to how much this particular emperor lives in our imaginations rather than our history books that not two dozen pages into Opper’s account, under the sub-heading “Written Sources” right next to mentions of the Historia Augusta is a grand black-and-white photo of Marguerite Yourcenar and a dutiful genuflection to her 1951 novel Memoires d’Hadrien. People who’ve never heard of Anthony Everitt or Richard Birley (Opper leans on the latter frequently) – Hadrian’s two most able modern biographers – will stand a good chance of having read Yourcenar’s melodramatic, luridly overwritten novel, and for those readers, Hadrian will always be in part her creation – a fate shared with Robert Graves’ Claudius and Gore Vidal’s Julian.

Opper, whose book was a companion volume to a British Museum exhibit but, now in paperback with the exhibit itself long since shuttered, stands quite well as one of the most visually impressive and clearly written current biography of Hadrian, is aided by Harvard University Press in presenting a suitably opulent view of Hadrian’s splendid, globe-trotting rule. Hadrian famously spent a good chunk of his time as emperor touring the far reaches of his empire, and Opper’s book gives readers gorgeous color photos and wonderfully detailed maps and charts of all that covered ground.

Considerably less covered ground than might otherwise have been the case, since upon his succession Hadrian immediately re-drew the limits of Rome’s reach, ceding vast territories only recently conquered by his predecessor Trajan. Opper’s considered opinions of those conquests is clear:

When Hadrian learnt of Trajan’s death on 11 August AD 117, the military situation in a substantial part of the empire was disastrous. The Emperor had died just before the wider Roman public could fully appraise the actual state of affairs and departed the world with his image as all-conquering hero intact. In truth, his last campaign had been a catastrophic failure. While Trajan, perhaps in May AD 116, stood at the shores of the Persian Gulf and bemoaned the fact that his age prevented him from following in Alexander the Great’s footsteps by conquering India, rebellions broke out behind his back in the territories only just occupied. Yet the Emperor still sent out triumphant despatches to the senate in Rome, confidant of his place in history.

Readers who might prefer Trajan to the far more philosophically attractive Hadrian could point out that ‘catastrophic failure’ in this context is a bit much, and that Roman emperors – most certainly including Trajan – were practiced hands at crushing (or suborning) territorial rebellions. But the main consideration for readers of Hadrian: Empire & Conflict is that Trajan, however interpreted, is vividly alive in these pages, as is Hadrian’s entire supporting cast: every page of the book sports beautiful photographs of the statues commemorating that supporting cast – Hadrian’s wife is here, and his imperial kinfolk, and most of all, a handsome young man named Antinous, Hadrian’s doomed lover and idee fixe. On this point, too, Opper is refreshingly direct:

Hadrian was gay. The exact nature of his sexuality has been the subject of much speculation, ranging from contemporary detractors to enraged Christians and shamefaced modern historians, and it continues to occupy his biographers to this day. Yet to ordinary Romans it mattered little, for in the beginning, at least, Hadrian’s predilections seemed nothing special.

Such matter-of-fact declarations are almost certainly true, yet their frankness here owes as much to Yourcenar as to incremental social enlightenment – sixty years ago, she gave the reading world an intellectual, thoroughly besotted Hadrian in literary terms that world couldn’t ignore. That Hadrian clearly functions as something of a template for the one found in Opper’s book, but there’s so much more in these pages than boggy French theophilizing … regardless of how high your standards are for including yet another book on your already-crowded Classical History shelves, Hadrian: Empire & Conflict will meet and exceed them. Novels may come closer to capturing Hadrian’s celebrated animula vagula blandula (as only novels could), but through clear prose and spectacular visuals, Opper captures his actual waking world – which is hardly the lesser accomplishment.

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