What were the consequences of the reign of the Emperor Hadrian

A bust of Hadrian

Hadrian (76-138 AD) is regarded as one of the greatest Emperors in Roman history. He is widely credited with leaving an indelible mark on the Roman World, and his reign is seen as one of the high points of its history. Hadrian’s reign was to set the Roman world's pattern for the next two centuries or even more.

His rule effectively ended any more plans for territorial expansion, and Rome began to concentrate more on defense. Hadrian was a great builder, and he also did much to stimulate urbanization. His influence on the Roman world's provinces was also profound, and he encouraged a Greek cultural flourishing in the east. However, his treatment of the Jews was a dark chapter in his reign.


Hadrian was born in Roman Spain, and his family was one of the most prominent Hispano-Roman families, and his father had achieved senatorial rank. He spent most of his youth in Rome and received an excellent education, and became fascinated by Greek culture. He was nicknamed the ‘Greekling.’ Trajan, became emperor and his wife, Plotina, was Hadrian's relative.[1] This paved the way for the young man to make a rapid advance. Trajan, probably because of his wife's insistence, favored Hadrian and had him appointed to many top posts. He always carried out his duties with great efficiency and won the grudging respect of the Emperor.[2]

Hadrian served Trajan during the Dacian Wars and showed himself to be a competent commander. Later, when Trajan invaded the Parthian Empire, he served the Emperor in a variety of roles. However, their relationship was often strained as the young man often tried to influence the Emperor. In 117 AD, Trajan fell ill, and it appears that he adopted Hadrian as his son and heir. When the conqueror of the Dacians died, Hadrian has proclaimed Emperor, but this was very controversial. Many believe that Trajan did not adopt Hadrian and that his wife, Plotina, had fabricated the adoption document. Many in the Senate opposed the new Emperor, and he executed four of their number to silence any dissent.[3]

The reign of Hadrian

A section of Hadrian’s Wall

Hadrian was faced with several crises. Trajan’s military campaign had greatly overextended the Empire and especially the military. The conqueror of Dacia had found the Parthian Empire very difficult to conquer, and even though he had captured its capital and western provinces, it was still resisting the Roman occupation. At the time of Trajan’s death, Parthia's areas that he conquered were in open revolt, and many feared that the Roman legions would be cut off. Many Roman legions had been diverted to the Parthian theatre, which left many provinces poorly guarded.

As a result, there were serious revolts in North Africa, Pictish incursions into Roman Britain, and a serious insurrection among Jews in North Africa, Cyprus, and Egypt. The Roman World was on the verge of a crisis. Hadrian, upon securing his position in Rome, moved first to Britannia (122 AD) and repelled the Pictish invaders, and ordered the building of a wall between the Picts and Romano-Britons, later named in his honor. His generals were able to subdue the Jews after much violence in the Eastern Mediterranean.

The situation in the east demanded his attention. The legions were still trying to quell the revolts in the former provinces of the Parthian Empire. It appeared that the Parthians were determined to re-conquer their western lands that had been lost to Trajan. Hadrian immediately went to Parthia and realizing the predicament of the Romans. He negotiated terms with the Parthian monarch.[4]

A peace treaty was agreed upon, and Rome evacuated many of the territories conquered by Trajan. This was very unpopular with the Senatorial elite, and according to one source, he pretended that the policy had been ‘enjoined upon him by Trajan’ before his death.[5] In 124 AD, he visited Greece and then returned to Italy. Once more, he angered the Senate with his administrative reforms in Italy.[6]

Hadrian continued to journey around his Empire in the following years. Everywhere he went, he sought to portray himself as a restorer. He would pay out of the Imperial treasury, funds for building temples and other public buildings. This made him very popular with the common people all over the provinces. Hadrian also used his immense personal wealth to rebuild and found cities. By 130 AD, the Roman world was at peace. However, Hadrian was to provoke a terrible revolt in Judea.[7]

The Emperor clearly distrusted the Jews and sought to establish a military colony in Jerusalem. There is speculation that he wanted to integrate the Jewish religion into the traditional polytheistic faith of Rome. This provoked a massive anti-Roman revolt by the Jews under a messianic leader named Simon bar Kokhba. He was a military genius and use guerrilla tactics to drive the Romans from Judea for many years.[8] The Second Jewish Revolt as it became known only ended the year of Hadrian’s death.

By 137 AD, Hadrian’s health was failing, and he returned to Rome, where he amused himself by writing poetry and overseeing architectural projects. He named as his successor Antonius Pius, on the stipulation that Antonius would adopt the young Marcus Aurelius as his heir. Hadrian died in 138 CE, presumably of a heart attack, at the age of 62. His death was mourned by the common people and the nobles in the provinces, but his demise was celebrated by many in the Roman senatorial class.

Hadrian and the consolidation of the Empire

The arch of Hadrian in Athens

Trajan was a great general and conqueror, but he overextended the army and the Roman world's economy. His pursuit of glory and his efforts to emulate Caesar and Alexander the Great did expand the Empire and weakened it. Hadrian was faced with a host of problems resulting, and it seemed that Rome and its provinces were in danger. However, Hadrian recognized this, and his focus was on consolidating the Empire.

This led him to the controversial decision to abandon many of Trajan’s conquest in the east. He knew that they were only a burden on the Empire and would only drain it of precious treasure. That is why he agreed with a peace treaty with the Parthian monarch. This was to bring peace and stability to the area for decades. However, Hadrian retained the most important of Trajan’s conquest, namely Petra and northern Mesopotamia, and these helped strengthen Rome's position in the east. Hadrian was able to extricate the Roman army from potential disaster in the east, and this was a great achievement.[9]

Following Trajan's death, a series of revolts broke out, which Hadrian managed to suppress quickly and effectively. Hadrian avoided war when possible, and this was needed after the turmoil of Trajan. His foreign policy was one that sought peace through strength, and this was largely effective. Perhaps the best example of Hadrian’s efforts to secure peace through strength was the wall he ordered built in northern England. Hadrian’s Wall marked the northern boundary of the Roman Empire in Britain.

It was also a statement of the power of his realm, and as such, it was very effective and secured Britannia.[10] Hadrian also built or re-built other defensive lines, known as limes, all over his Empire.[11] Many have criticized Hadrian for his defensive approach, but it was one that had earlier been recommended by Augustus and was a sound one based on the resources available.

Hadrian as builder

Hadrian went he build temples, monuments, and public buildings and encouraged the building or re-building of towns and cities. The aims of this building policy were complex. They sought to demonstrate the power of Hadrian and to legitimize his authority in the Roman World after the controversy of his alleged adoption by Trajan.[12] The ambitious building projects were also part of a strategy to promote urbanization, to revive the fortunes of many provinces.

The many building projects in Greece were part of an effort to restore that province after many years of perceived neglect. Hadrian rebuilt Athens’, and this greatly helped the local economy. This policy did much to revive the economies of provinces from Asia Minor to Britain. This urban development policy was to benefit all the Empire, especially in the Hellenized provinces, which were the subject of generosity from Hadrian, that great lover of Greek culture. The commitment to urban development was part of his efforts to strengthen and consolidate the Empire.[13]

Hadrian and the Provinces

No Emperor was more interested in the provinces than Hadrian. He personally visited every province and inspected it. He was a capable administrator, and he cracked down on abuses and established efficient provincial administrations. He also sought to integrate local elites further into the Roman system. He encouraged local cities to hold festivals in honor of Rome and the Emperor.

Hadrian respected local cultures and sought to encourage the local government in the Roman World. The best example of this was the establishment of ‘Panhellion’ in Greece.[14]

This was a collection of Greek city-states that had celebrated religious and cultural festivals. This was designed to encourage local elites to take part in the government of cities. The Panhellion and the patronage of Greece by Hadrian are seen as leading to the socio-economic revival of the Greek-speaking provinces in the Roman World and the flourishing of the Hellenic culture known as the ‘Second Sophistic.’[15] Hadrian’s policies were able to successfully foster development in many areas of the Roman World and yet at the same time, integrated them further into the Empire.

Hadrian and the Jews

Hadrian was a cultured man and very cosmopolitan in outlook. However, he shared many of the same prejudices against the Jews as other members of the elite. It seems that Hadrian was determined to ensure that the Jews no longer were able to oppose Rome militarily.[16]

Moreover, they had to assimilate like other groups and tribes to the expected norms, especially when it came to religion. Hadrian provoked a revolt, and his repression of it could be termed genocide. Hundreds of thousands died, and many more were enslaved. In the wake of the defeat of Simon Bar Kochba’s rebellion, the Jews no longer threatened Roman rule.

Hadrian, in the aftermath of the Second Jewish Revolt's defeat, prohibited the Torah, and Jews could not enter the re-named Jerusalem except on one day of the year. These measures and Judea's desolation led to a decline in the Jewish community in and around its traditional homeland. More Jews left to live elsewhere in the Empire, and so many left that some historians date the history of the Jewish Diaspora from the end of the Second Jewish Revolt. The movement of Jews out of Judea was to lead to dramatic religious changes. Judaism became a transportable religion focusing on local synagogues and the Bible, rather than the Temple in Jerusalem. Hadrian’s policies fundamentally changed the Jewish world.


Hadrian is regarded as one of the good Emperors. He helped to avert a crisis in the east and managed to secure the eastern frontier. Hadrian also ended instability and rebellion in the Empire. His emphasis on peace through strength gave Rome many years of stability after Trajan's endless wars. The Emperor also helped to support the provinces' urbanization and encouraged local elites to assume a greater role in the running of their localities. He also adroitly managed to integrate many local notables more fully into the Roman system.

Hadrian greatly strengthened the Roman Empire, and it is a testament to his achievements that his successor Antonius Pius was to have a very peaceful reign. Indeed Rome was not to fight a major war for over a generation after the death of Hadrian. Hadrian’s treatment of the Jews was not typical of his tolerant and peaceful reign. His impact on the history of the Jews and their religion was immense.

Recommended Reading

Birley, Anthony R. Hadrian. The Restless Emperor (London, Routledge, 1997)

Lambert, Royston. Beloved and God: the story of Hadrian and Antinous (London: Phoenix Giants, 1997)

Everitt, Anthony. Hadrian and the Triumph of Rome ( New York, Random House, 2009).

Danziger, Danny & Purcell, Nicholas. Hadrian's Empire: When Rome ruled the world (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2006)


  1. Historia Augusta, Life of Hadrian, 1 10.1
  2. Birley, Anthony R. Hadrian. The restless emperor (London: Routledge, 1997), p 13
  3. Birley, p. 119
  4. Speller, Elizabeth, Following Hadrian: a second-century journey through the Roman Empire (London, Review, 2003), p 34
  5. Historia Augusta, Life of Hadrian, 1 10.1
  6. Danziger, Danny; Purcell, Nicholas Hadrian's empire: Rome ruled the world. (London Hodder & Stoughton, 2006), p 112
  7. Augustus Historia, 2, 4
  8. Danzinger, p 201
  9. Danzinger, p 119
  10. Dobson, Brian Hadrian's Wall (London: Penguin, 2000), p. 102
  11. Birley, p 119
  12. Danzinger, p 198
  13. Birley, p 178
  14. Boatwright, Mary T. Hadrian and the Cities of the Roman Empire. Princeton University Press, 2003, p. 147
  15. Boatwright, p 119
  16. Faulkner, Neil. Apocalypse: The Great Jewish Revolt Against Rome (Stroud, Gloucestershire, Tempus Publishing, 2004), p 114