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Hills and Valleys

Who was Emperor Hadrian?

Hadrian's Reign

Hadrian was a Roman emperor who ruled from AD 117 to AD 138. Born Publius Aelius Hadrianus in AD 76 in Italica, near modern-day Seville, Spain, he is known for his extensive travels throughout the Roman Empire and his efforts to consolidate and fortify its borders.

Hadrian's reign was marked by a shift from expansion to consolidation. He focused on strengthening the existing borders of the empire and improving infrastructure. His travels across the empire allowed him to address local issues and oversee the administration of various provinces.

Hadrian was a member of the Nerva-Antonine dynasty and was adopted by his predecessor, Emperor Trajan. He was known for his interest in philosophy and literature and had a significant influence on Roman culture and governance.

Hadrian's Wall: Protecting Rome's Northern Border

One of Hadrian's most famous projects was the construction of Hadrian's Wall in northern Britain. This wall marked the northern limit of Roman territory and was designed to keep out the tribes from Scotland. It stretched approximately 73 miles (117 kilometers) across the width of the island and included forts, milecastles, and turrets.


The construction of the wall began around AD 122, during Hadrian's visit to Britain, and took about six years to complete. The primary purpose of the wall was to protect the Roman province of Britannia from the tribes of Scotland, known as the Picts. It also served to control immigration and trade, demonstrate Roman power, and provide a clear boundary for the empire.


Hadrian's Wall stretches from the River Tyne near the North Sea in the east to the Solway Firth on the Irish Sea in the west. The wall was constructed primarily of stone in the eastern sections and turf in the western parts. It stood about 15 feet (4.5 meters) high and 8 to 10 feet (2.4 to 3 meters) wide, though these dimensions varied.

The wall was fortified with a series of forts, milecastles, and turrets. Large forts, such as Housesteads, Vindolanda, and Birdoswald, were built at regular intervals and housed garrisons of Roman soldiers. Milecastles, smaller fortifications, were placed every Roman mile (roughly 1.5 kilometers), and turrets were located between each milecastle. This allowed for effective surveillance and quick communication along the wall.

Military Presence

The wall was manned by auxiliary units of the Roman army, consisting of soldiers recruited from various parts of the Roman Empire. These soldiers were responsible for defending the wall, patrolling the frontier, and maintaining the fortifications. The presence of these troops helped ensure the security of the Roman province and facilitated the control of movement across the border.

Late History

Hadrian's Wall remained an important military installation for nearly three centuries. After Hadrian's death, his successor, Antoninus Pius, constructed a new wall further north, known as the Antonine Wall. However, the Antonine Wall was abandoned after only a few decades, and Hadrian's Wall was reoccupied and continued to serve as the main northern frontier of Roman Britain.

Architectural Accomplishments

  • Pantheon in Rome: Although originally constructed under Agrippa, Hadrian rebuilt the Pantheon after it was damaged by fire. The Pantheon, with its massive dome and oculus, remains one of the best-preserved and most influential buildings from ancient Rome.

  • Villa Adriana (Hadrian's Villa): Located in Tivoli, near Rome, this sprawling villa complex served as Hadrian's retreat and featured numerous buildings, gardens, and pools. It showcased a blend of Roman, Greek, and Egyptian architectural styles.

  • Temple of Venus and Roma: Constructed in Rome, this was one of the largest temples in the city, dedicated to Venus Felix and Roma Aeterna. It was designed by Hadrian himself.

  • Library of Hadrian: Located in Athens, Greece, this library was part of Hadrian's efforts to promote Greek culture and learning. It included a large courtyard, reading rooms, and storage areas for books and scrolls.

  • Arch of Hadrian: Also in Athens, this triumphal arch was built to celebrate Hadrian's contributions to the city and his building projects. It marked the boundary between the old city and the new city founded by Hadrian.

  • Hadrian's Mausoleum: Now known as Castel Sant'Angelo in Rome, this mausoleum was built as Hadrian's tomb and later converted into a fortress. It remains one of Rome's most iconic structures.

  • Baths of Hadrian: Located in Leptis Magna (modern-day Libya), these baths were part of Hadrian's building program to improve the infrastructure and public amenities in the provinces.

  • Hadrian's Arch in Jerash: A triumphal arch built in the ancient city of Jerash (in modern-day Jordan) to commemorate Hadrian's visit to the city in AD 129-130.

  • Temple of Olympian Zeus: Although the construction of this temple in Athens began long before Hadrian's reign, he funded its completion. It became one of the largest temples in the ancient world.

The wall's significance declined as the Roman Empire weakened. By the early 5th century, Roman troops were withdrawn from Britain, and Hadrian's Wall was largely abandoned. Over the centuries, the wall fell into disrepair, and stones were taken for building materials by local inhabitants.

Rediscovery & Protection

Interest in Hadrian's Wall was rekindled in the 18th and 19th centuries as historians and archaeologists began to study and excavate the site. Efforts were made to preserve and protect the remaining sections of the wall. Today, Hadrian's Wall is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a popular tourist destination. Visitors can walk along the wall, explore the remains of forts and milecastles, and learn about the history and legacy of this remarkable Roman frontier.

Photo by Mike Bishop on Flickr

Hadrian's Support of the Arts

Emperor Hadrian was known for his deep appreciation and patronage of the arts, which he supported in various ways throughout his reign.  His support for the arts had a lasting impact on the cultural landscape of the Roman Empire, promoting artistic innovation and preserving the rich artistic traditions of both Roman and Greek cultures.


Hadrian was known for his admiration of Greek culture, and he actively promoted the fusion of Greek and Roman artistic traditions. This Hellenization of Roman art and culture is evident in many of the buildings and sculptures from his time. His travels throughout the Roman Empire also influenced this cultural exchange, as he brought back ideas and styles from different regions.


Hadrian's reign saw a flourishing of sculpture and visual arts. Portraits of Hadrian and his favored companion, Antinous, are notable for their artistic quality and the introduction of a more naturalistic style. The deification of Antinous after his death led to the creation of numerous statues and artworks in his honor, which were spread throughout the empire.

Literature & Philosophy

Hadrian was a patron of literature and philosophy. He was known to engage with and support poets, writers, and philosophers. His court attracted intellectuals from across the empire, fostering a vibrant cultural environment. Hadrian himself was a well-educated man, and his interest in literature and philosophy helped to elevate these fields during his reign.


Hadrian also undertook the restoration of older monuments and buildings, preserving the artistic heritage of previous generations. His efforts to maintain and restore these structures ensured that the artistic achievements of the past continued to be appreciated and celebrated.

His Final Years

Hadrian died on July 10, AD 138. He had been suffering from a prolonged and painful illness, likely involving heart and kidney issues, as well as other health problems that caused him considerable discomfort in his later years. Hadrian's declining health had been apparent for some time, and he spent his final years mostly in his villa at Baiae, near Naples.

Recognizing his failing health and the need for a smooth transition of power, Hadrian adopted Antoninus Pius as his successor in AD 138. Hadrian also arranged for Antoninus to adopt two young men, Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus, to ensure the continuation of stable leadership in the empire.

Despite his efforts to alleviate his suffering, Hadrian's condition worsened, and he eventually succumbed to his illnesses. His death marked the end of his 21-year reign, which had been characterized by consolidation of the empire's borders, extensive travels, and significant architectural projects. Hadrian was buried initially in a mausoleum in Puteoli (modern Pozzuoli) but was later transferred to the Mausoleum of Hadrian in Rome, which is now known as Castel Sant'Angelo.

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