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The Wall at the End of the Empire

The long and varied history of life along Hadrian’s Wall

May/June 2017

Hadrians Wall Sunset


When the emperor Hadrian visited the province of Britannia in A.D. 122, he was in full command of the entire Roman Empire, which stretched some 2,500 miles east from northern Great Britain to modern-day Iraq, and 1,500 miles south to the Sahara Desert. He had become emperor five years earlier, after a controversial postmortem adoption by his predecessor and guardian Trajan, and he ruled until his death in 138, at the age of 62, likely of a heart attack. In just over 20 years, he became, according to an anonymous ancient source, the “most versatile” of the Roman emperors. He was a battle-tested solider who fought with Trajan in Dacia, a skilled politician who masterminded the consolidation of the empire’s territory, a faithful patron and lover of the arts, and a tireless traveler who visited nearly half the empire during his reign.


Hadrian is perhaps best known, however, as one of Rome’s most prodigious builders. In this he followed in the emperor Augustus’ footsteps as a ruler who grasped architecture’s inherent ability to express ideology and power. For most of Hadrian’s reign, the empire was at relative peace—the Pax Romana, or “Roman Peace,” was at its height. Thus he didn’t achieve the notable military victories of some of his predecessors. Instead, he turned to art and architecture as a way of legitimizing his rule, demonstrating Roman dominion, solidifying his legacy, and leaving his enduring stamp on the landscape of the empire.


In Rome itself, the emperor sponsored numerous building projects, both to enrich the lives of its citizens and tie himself to the city’s past. At the site of the Pantheon, the spectacular domed temple in the heart of Rome that Hadrian is credited with completing, he linked his own rule to one of Rome’s most revered men, the first-century B.C. consul Marcus Agrippa—a great builder in his own right. Hadrian chose to retain the facade of Agrippa’s much earlier temple on the front of the Pantheon, while at the same time providing a new venue for the worship of all the gods. Hadrian also designed what is thought to have been the largest temple in ancient Rome, an enormous edifice honoring the goddess Venus Felix, a “bringer of good fortune,” and Roma Aeterna, or “Eternal Rome,” a double dedication whose symbolism, like the immense temple itself, was impossible to miss. Outside Rome, Hadrian displayed his personal love of all things Greek, and he combined it with the clear message that Rome was now in charge. In Athens, for example, he restored the Greek Olympieion, or Temple of Olympian Zeus, and erected a new gold-and-ivory statue to the god, but also placed four statues of himself in front of the main shrine and a large Roman-style arch at the entrance to the temenos, or sanctuary.


Hadrians Wall MapIn the provinces, as in Rome, architecture served symbolic as well as utilitarian purposes. Hadrian sponsored the renovation of ancient cities such as Smyrna, now Izmir in modern Turkey, founded entirely new ones such as Antinoopolis in Egypt, and commissioned the construction of public architecture—theaters, temples, arches, municipal buildings, and countless statues and inscriptions—everywhere he went. These sites often exhibit a mix of local and imported styles and tastes, and brought what Duke University historian Mary Boatwright calls a “‘Roman’ visual vocabulary” to much of the empire, uniting the vast territory in a way that proclamations and policy often could not. But there was one place where the emperor thought something entirely different was required.


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