Hadrian and the Triumph of Rome
Hadrian and the Triumph of Rome by Anthony Everitt is a good book and was enjoyable to read. I am however left somewhat unsatisfied by the text and cannot conclusively identify the cause of this dissatisfaction. The author is very up front about the fact that the existing documentation of this period of Roman history is spotty and of suspect motives at best or non-existent at worst. This of course creates a major stumbling block in the compilation of a meaningful modern history text. So this begs the question, is my dissatisfaction based on the author’s style or is the author’s style effectively dictated by the sporadic and patchwork history from which he is pulling?
You see in my mind I can’t help but immediately compare Anthony Everitt to Adrian Goldsworthy. Both content and style are due for judgment but Adrian Goldsworthy is one of my favourite authors and I am acutely aware that my immediate knee-jerk reaction to compare the two authors is not fair. Goldsworthy hasn’t written about this period of Roman history and so to say that Everitt’s text doesn’t flow in the same manner as say Goldsworthy’s biography of Julius Caesar, would be to completely ignore Everitt’s forced reliance on problematic source documents. Fortunately though, Anthony Everitt is a prolific historian and has written two previous volumes, one on Cicero and one on Augustus, so I’m hopeful about the opportunity for a more balanced showdown between these two heavyweights of Roman history.
Having identified my bias I can now review Everitt’s text with a clean conscience.
Anthony Everitt’s biography of the emperor Hadrian is a substantial work, doing much to clarify and organize many of the previous efforts to biography Hadrian. The emperor was widely traveled and during his time in the imperial court of his predecessor and through his own reign Hadrian traveled to virtual every frontier of the empire. He visited the site in Britain of his famous wall in the Northeast, the Rhine and Danube frontiers in the Northwest and even the middle-east, having actually taken up the post of emperor in Syria. He was also a voracious follower of Greek history, art and philosophy and traveled there several times. Keep in mind too that he traveled these distances in the days before the internal combustion engine and therefore traveled on horseback or in a horse drawn carriage.
What’s more is that his travels resulted massive building efforts across the empire. The architectural record of Hadrian’s reign doesn’t suffer from the difficulties of the written record. From efforts, like his eponymous wall in Britain, to the architectural wonders of the Pantheon in Rome and Hadrian’s own villa in Tivoli, to the gargantuan Temple of Zeus in Athens, to the numerous new cities named Hadrianopolis, his reign saw building on a massive scale throughout the empire.
Everitt does much to capture the grandeur and scale of Hadrian’s empire but also the apparent loneliness and isolation experienced by the emperor. Hadrian was simultaneously a gregarious, heavy drinking, supporter of the arts and a lonely but incredibly competent administrator isolated by his power and intelligence. His unhappy though polite marriage and ill-fated affair with the Bythinian youth Atinous only worsened is loneliness. It is very telling that in the heart of his villa complex at Tivoli lay a round building surrounded by a moat and accessible only by a bridge controlled within the building. Hadrian built a real life fortress of solitude!
What Everitt fails to do is to map out his route through Hadrian’s history and then follow the planned route. The text feels to me like it jumps around, it goes off on to interesting though unnecessary tangents. He routinely handles items in the main text when they’d be perfect has footnotes. A standout complaint of mine, is that even though the author identifies the issues caused by little or poor surviving evidence, he doesn’t do much to ease the journey for the reader. It feels like saying there is a pot hole in the road ahead and then steering into it. My thought is that the author could expose us to the potholes but protect us from the spine-shattering jolts. Alternatively, maybe the author didn’t protect us, the readers, because he wanted to show precisely how disjointed the existing history of Hadrian really is.
There should be no doubt though, Anthony Everitt is a good writer. On page 91 in the text he sums up the emperor Nerva beautifully when he says, “… for most of his life Nerva had subordinated principle to self-interest, but he had common sense and an intelligent understanding of what the imperial system needed if it was to last. He had the tolerance of a man without convictions – a useful quality after two decades of Domitian.”
Coming off of my recent reading of Adrian Goldsworthy’s biography of Julius Caesar, Everitt’s biography of Hadrian fails to live up to the standard. It was good but not great. I’m hopeful of the author’s chances to impress me when I read his biographies of Cicero and Augustus.