Hadrian was Rome’s Emperor from 117-138. This was a fateful time for the Roman Empire. His predecessor Trajan ruled from 98-117, and was declared by the Roman Senate Optimus Princeps, the greatest leader of Roman history – even surpassing Augustus. Trajan had reformed the empire and brought it to near its apex of power, territory and prosperity. Hadrian would die despised by many, lacking his predecessor’s foresight and diplomacy.
What is fascinating about Hadrian’s rule is that the path Rome took early in that second Century helped program the future decline of what would become the western Empire, and set up the rise of Christianity. It is fair to say that civilization had a level of comfort and prosperity in second Century Rome that was not equaled until the 20th Century.
Hadrian’s foreign policy was a sign of the change. He built fortifications along the frontiers to protect the empire. This was a momentous pivot from ongoing offensive wars to expand the empire in favor of a clearly defensive approach. The empire was comfortable and content – why get involved in costly foreign wars?
Hadrian’s era also began an intensely spiritual part of Rome’s history. Christianity was spreading, especially among women who rebelled against some of Rome’s harsh sexism. Women would convert their husbands and family, and the once Jewish sect became a major force in the Roman world. Most Romans, however, would have probably found themselves more comfortable with the Stoic teacher Epictetus.
Epictetus was born a slave but was later freed. Like Jesus and Socrates before him, he (55-135) never wrote down his words, but simply taught. An example: “There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of our will.” That’s the stoic philosophy. You control your mind and your actions – everything else is beyond your control. You can’t control the twists of fate, the choices of others or even the consequences of your actions. So to be happy you must accept whatever happens to you.
To the stoic, one becomes enslaved if they get enmeshed in trying for wealth or success, pining for a lost love, or even feeling sorrow at the death of a friend or family member. God controls those things, we control only our mind. Later Marcus Aurelius, a late Second Century Roman Emperor (ruling from 161 to 180) and stoic philosopher would say “Someone will irritate me today. I must not let it bother me.” To the stoic a human has the power not to let their happiness depend on anything anyone else does – or anything that happens. That is the will of God.
The stoic philosophy had a natural fit with Christian beliefs, especially with the Greek twist Augustine gave Christian theology in the Fourth Century. That helped assure that Rome would adopt Christianity as its official religion, which has shaped our world to this day.
This also was the start of a shift to a society that would lose itself to the pursuit of pleasure and comfort, no longer embodying the virtues of early Rome. Marcus Aurelius would be a virtuous leader and stoic philosopher who would spend much of this rule trying to defeat the Germans. However his son and successor Commodus would live purely for his own pleasure. Instead of tolerating the gladiatorial games, he embraced them and in fact participated, becoming a reasonably proficient gladiator himself. Most put the start of Rome’s decline with Commodus. And the war with the Germans? Commodus couldn’t be bothered, he signed a peace treaty which emboldened the Germans who saw that as weakness.
Ironically Rome’s success helped program its fall. Though there would be efforts to expand the empire after Hadrian, Rome was at its apex. The people were growing soft due to comfort, and resource use helped deplete Rome’s forests and force them to go to greater lengths to keep up their lifestyles. The Imperial form of government would leave Rome subject to poor rule by power hungry Emperors and increasing political intrigue – with poisonings and other types of assassination common.
Next May I co-lead a travel course to Italy. One focus will be “Rome of the Second Century,” with visits to some of Hadrian’s sites, and discussion of the Emperors of that era – from Trajan to Commodus. We’ll try to get a feel for what life in Rome was like – and how in some ways it wasn’t so unlike our own. In fact, we’d probably feel more comfortable in Second Century Rome than 17th Century Europe. Exploring Rome is always enjoyable. To learn about and experience it through the eyes of the past makes it even more powerful.