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Assess the Reign of the Emperor Hadrian

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Hadrian, born on the 24th of January, 76 AD, was the adopted son of the emperor Trajan. An emperor of the Nervan-Antoine dynasty, he adopted the title Caesar Traianus Hadrianus Augustus, ruling from 117AD until his death in 138AD. During his reign he worked towards bringing peace and prosperity to the empire through a public works program, games and protectionist military policies. However, during his time in office Hadrian’s place in history as the third of the five good emperors is marred by his ineffectual economic policies, political ruthlessness in his bid for power and his part in instigating the second Roman – Jewish war (Bar Kochba).

Emperors required popularity to efficiently rule, particularly for their policies and influence to be welcomed by the people. Hadrian’s popularity and image never recovered following the political assassinations that characterised the beginning and end of his reign. Due to controversy surrounding the legitimacy of Hadrian’s accession he ordered the execution of four senior members of the imperial council, ‘The four consulars’ whom he viewed as competitors for the imperial office due to their close association with Trajan, political influence and support of expansionary policies he planned to abandon. In 137 Hadrian’s, Servianus and his grandson Fuscus were executed for a conspired coup due to his adoption of Aelius Caesar as heir. Their murders in conjunction with those of the four consulars proved unpopular as ratified by Cassius Dio, “Hadrian was hated by the people …on account of the murders committed by him at the beginning and end of his reign”. The lack of faith in the empire concerning their leadership is evidenced by the assassination attempt and Aurelius Victor who cited Hadrian’s anti-expansionary policies and consolidation of the empire as a ‘jealous belittlement of Trajan’s achievements’. Constant questioning of political decisions and policies manifested in political instability and undermined the emperor’s relationship with the senate and people of Rome.

Economic prosperity was essential to the survival of the empire and was traditionally ensured through expansionary conquests of plunder and a stable currency. The abandonment of Trajan’s expansionist policies led to an ‘under-stretch’ of the Roman empire cumulating in a halt of economic scale and labour specialisation, limiting the sustainability of the empires lifestyle. Hadrian’s cancelling of debts as evidenced by Cassius Dio, “He cancelled the debts that were owing to the imperial treasury and to the public treasury” allowed bribing of threats to stay at peace creating a moral issue and a reliance on debt to enter the Roman economic culture, debasing the currency. Contemporary historians Hubbard and Kane highlight the economic issues sprung by the anti-expansionary policies and the emergence of a debt culture which are viewed as significantly contributing to the economic collapse of the Roman empire in 476 AD. These actions gained Hadrian temporary public support in exchange for the economic prosperity of the future empire, cumulating in economic depreciation, contraction of power and associated decline in living standards. Therefore, regarding economic sustainability Hadrian’s policies were ineffective and lacked the vision required of a successful leader.

Due to the popularity of the games and spectacles patrons of these actives gained, political support and gratitude. Emperors who were interested in the manifestation and conservation of popular support provided and attended events held at the amphitheatre. Hadrian was one such emperor as Cassius Dio highlights, “He gave the usual spectacles free to the people and slew many wild beasts…he distributed gifts by means of little balls which he threw both in the theatres and in the Circus”. Hadrian’s enthusiasm and participation in the games ensured the contentment of the people and attributed Hadrian the characteristics of wealth, power and generosity in his reclamation of the people’s respect to ensure political stability and positive implementation of policies.

Hadrian embarked on numerous public works schemes consolidating the empire and raising the living standards of the provinces as highlighted by the coin issues of Hadrian’s later reign which illustrate the emperor as ‘raising up’ the personified provinces, further emphasised by Aelius Aristides account of Hadrian, ‘extending over his subjects a protecting hand, raising them as one’. Hadrian’s efforts to develop



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