One of the Lads

Mary Beard

  • Hadrian: The Restless Emperor by Anthony Birley
    Routledge, 424 pp, £40.00, October 1997, ISBN 0 04 151654 0

The Emperor Hadrian once went to the public baths and saw an old soldier rubbing his back against a wall. Puzzled, he asked the old man what he was doing. ‘Getting the marble to scrape the oil off,’ the old man explained, ‘because I can’t afford a slave.’ The Emperor immediately presented him with a team of slaves and the money for their upkeep. A few weeks later, he was in the baths again. Predictably, perhaps, he found a whole group of old men ostentatiously rubbing their backs against the wall, trying to cash in on his generosity. He asked the same question and got the same response. ‘But haven’t you thought,’ replied the canny Emperor, ‘of rubbing each other down?’

This anecdote is preserved in an extraordinary ‘fantasy biography’ of Hadrian put together sometime in the fourth century CE, over two hundred years after Hadrian’s death, by a man writing under the pretentious pseudonym of ‘Aelius Spartianus’. It is an anecdote that must have been told about any number of Roman emperors; the fact that here it happens to be attached to the name of Hadrian probably has no significance at all. What is significant is the glimpse it gives of Roman assumptions about what made a ‘good’ emperor. He should be generous, far-sighted (note the grant for the slaves’ upkeep: Romans knew that even free slaves did not come cheap) and, above all, smart, not the kind of man to be taken for a ride. He should also have the nerve to come face to face with his people: not for him the élite seclusion of some private bathing establishment, but mucking in with all-comers at the public baths. The Roman emperor should be one of the lads, or at least pretend to be.

Most of the anecdotes that cluster around Hadrian tell the more ambivalent story of someone who prompted awkward questions about the fragility of imperial virtues. Romans might, for example, admire an emperor who was well versed in the Greek literary classics: one who could tell his Stoics from his Epicureans. It was less clear, however, that their admiration extended to an emperor like Hadrian, who not only grew a beard, Greek-philosopher style, but even flaunted a young Greek boyfriend. And not just a boyfriend, but one whom the besotted emperor embarrassingly made into a god, after his mysterious death on the Nile. Similarly, Romans might admire a ruler who took the trouble to get to know conditions in the provinces. But what of an emperor who became such a professional traveller that he was almost never at ‘home’ (wherever that was)? Could Hadrian get away with breaking the links that bound the emperor to the city of Rome, or not? And what of his passion for hunting? Hadrian was reputedly a master of this ancient sport of kings: according to ‘Spartianus’, he founded a whole town called Hadrian-otherae (‘Hadrian’s hunt’) to commemorate a particularly successful trip. There was a sneaking suspicion, however, that he might have exercised his hunting prowess at the expense of real military virtues: playing at combat, not combat itself. When, for example, his favourite hunting horse died, Hadrian erected a lavish tomb, complete with memorial poem: an elegant reference, perhaps, to the elaborate commemoration that Alexander the Great had laid on for his favourite horse, Bucephalus, but an inevitable reminder also of how things had changed – in the good old days favourite horses were used to conquer the world, not to spear a few boars.

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