Hadrian and Rome

The Pantheon, with a copy of the original inscription.

Hadrian came to power after the death of his adopted father Trajan in 117 AD. In contrast to Trajan, Hadrian wished to consolidate the empire rather than expand it, and this is reflected in how he approached building projects in the city of Rome. A learned man, he sought to ensure stability and did this by attempting to imitate and exceed the emperor Augustus. I’m going to discuss some of the buildings that Hadrian was involved in renovating and building and what they can reveal about the nature of the man and of Rome at this time.

A notable part of Hadrian’s building programme was his dislike of inscribing his name on the buildings and monuments he had built and that he only did it on the temple of Trajan, his father (CIL VI. 31275; Historia Augusta, Hadrian, 9.9). This may seem like an odd thing for an emperor to do, especially since the emperor and imperial family had a monopoly on these large-scale building projects. But in fact, Hadrian was following precedent, since Augustus had done something similar:

“The Capitolium and the theatre of Pompey, both work involving great expense, I rebuilt without any inscription of my own name” (Res Gestae Divi Augusti, 20)

Augustus was attempting to show that he was building for the greater good of Rome rather than personal glory (the irony being that he ensured that this would be remembered forever by inscribing it on his epitaph, I think the modern term is humblebragging). However, the effect of this is important to consider because it preserves the history of original building, creating many layers to Rome’s cultural landscape. Hadrian was attempting to go one further than this in that he wanted to beautify Rome and maintain its links to the past.


The best example of this is the Pantheon. Originally built by Agrippa in 27 BC on the Campus Martius, it was totally recreated by Hadrian in 125 AD. The form for the new building was completely new, with a traditional temple frontage and a central concrete drum that was more inspired from the architecture of baths and palaces. Claridge goes as far as to say that the two parts were “in strong contrast – even conflict with each other.” (Claridge (2010) 226). It certainly makes a statement, but it represents the ways in which Hadrian wanted Rome to be seen, a mix of old and new that encompasses all aspects of empire. The materials used in its construction came from all three continents of the empire (some of the many materials include Pentelic marble from Greece, Aswan granite from Egypt and Purple marble from Phrygia).

But what does this suggest about Rome and about Hadrian’s policies? If we examine Hadrian’ wider policies across the expire, strengthening and attempting to solidify Roman rule throughout the empire. The Pantheon brings the empire to Rome due to wide variety of materials used in it, and one of the functions of this building was as an imperial audience chamber, rather than as a temple (though some religious functions are not out of the question), meant that the business of empire was conducted in a building that was meant to highlight the strengths of it.



In my last post, I discussed how some buildings are in conversation with each other in order to gain prestige and to enhance the standing of the more recent builder. The Mausoleum of Hadrian (now known as the Castel Sant Angelo), did this with the Mausoleum of Augustus, which was 800 meters down the Tiber.


It was a cylindrical tomb, similar in structure to the mausoleum of Augustus. The decoration is also similar, with trees being planted on the top as well as a statue, but rather than just a statue of himself (like Augustus) he was in a quadriga. Further decoration includes a bull skull and garland frieze which was a common motif on large Roman funerary monuments.

Built on the right bank of the Tiber, away from the main city, the Pons Aelius brings it onto the Campus Martius and allows it to be in conversation with the monuments on there. It was the tallest building in Rome and would have eclipsed the mausoleum of Augustus, especially for any visitors coming up and down the Tiber. This type of building is always a focal point in the landscape, as it comes to represent the power and eternity of the imperial family, and by creating a new and taller mausoleum it usurps the power of the old one whilst recognising its importance.


Hadrian wanted to stabilise his position, whilst also building on his power base. The buildings I have discussed show how he wanted to focus Rome as the centre of his world, imitating measures that had been undertaken by Augustus.


Historia Augusta, Vol. I. trans. Magie, D. (Cambridge MA: Loeb 1921)

Res Gestae Divi Augusti, trans. P.A. Brunt and J.M. Moore (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1967).


Claridge (2010, revised) Rome: An Oxford Archaeological Guide (Oxford: Oxford University Press).


Figure 1 Pantheon (from Wikimedia Commons, by Roberta Dragan) (CC BY-SA 2.5)

Figure 2 Castel Sant Angelo (From Wikimedia Commons, by 0x010C) (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Figure 3 Mausoleum of Augustus (Wikimedia Commons, by Soerfm) (CC BY-SA 3.0))


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