Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.09.35

Elizabeth Speller, Following Hadrian: A Second-Century Journey Through the Roman Empire.   Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2003.  Pp. 352.  ISBN 0-19-516576-4.  $28.00.  



Reviewed by Benjamin Garstad, Columbia University (bgarstad@hotmail.com)
Word count: 651 words

Readers may fairly expect from any work on the classical past articulate and incisive analysis, or, in the case of books intended for a more popular audience, vivid and detailed description. The best works tend to provide both. Rather than either of these, Speller's book offers an impressionistic reflection on the reign of Hadrian. Impressions of the ancient world certainly form the background to some of the most compelling arguments and absorbing recreations, to say nothing of many enjoyable novels, but left to stand on their own, as they are in 'Following Hadrian', those impressions seem rather naked.

All but one of the chapters of 'Following Hadrian' follow the same pattern. Each begins with a brief 'excerpt' from the fictional memoirs of Julia Balbilla, a member of the royal house of Commagene and poet who was, in fact, a member of the court of Hadrian. While S.'s fragmentary contributions to the illustrious sub-genre of imagined Roman autobiography do not stray far from the information found in the sources, they have the ring of the twenty-first, not the second, century. The bulk of each chapter comprises a fairly straightforward account of some incident or period in the life of Hadrian, interspersed with speculation on the influence or effect upon the emperor's character and inner life. Most of what S. includes in these treatments is to be found in the ancient texts and basic studies (although S. provides only sporadic references), but as it is collected in her work it comes across a bit blurred and somewhat undigested. The coverage of these chapter-by-chapter accounts is uneven; they skim briefly over Hadrian's travels in the western provinces and swirl around his time in Egypt and the death of Antinous. S. does, however, recognize the importance of the formative years before Hadrian became emperor, dedicating a whole chapter to this period. It is, therefore, surprising that she does not dwell at greater length on Hadrian's own choice of heirs and his relation to these men. The conclusion to each chapter is in the form of an impersonal travelogue with melancholy descriptions of the present state of the places Hadrian visited and the faded grandeur of the material -- almost entirely architectural -- remains of his rule. Any of these three elements, fictional memoir, popular biography, travelogue, might have been on its own the material for a fine book, but served up here piecemeal and then jostled together they seem incomplete and insubstantial.

Perhaps part of the problem with this book stems from its author's disdain for the scientific approach to history, to which she gives voice in the preface (xiii): "Our present insistence on a history well secured in original sources -- on the supremacy of facts -- derives from the growth of scientific disciplines in the nineteenth century and an optimistic illusion that there existed a clear record of the past to be retrieved by diligent scholars." Of course, the scientific approach is not a misguided effort to reduce and appropriate the past by establishing a set of facts, but it is rather a methodology which gives scholars a modus operandi in the process of moving toward the most likely interpretation of evidence and the most likely reconstruction of past events and past environments. The scientific approach might have provided S.'s book with some much needed structure and clarity.

The results of a vigorous editorial process and high scholarly standards have been evident in every other book produced by the Oxford University Press that I have read; this is an exception. One hears rumours that academic presses are eager to break into the market for 'narrative non-fiction' or 'lyric history', accounts of actual events which give free reign to all of the devices of fiction, as well as the author's imagination. There is an ominous possibility that 'Following Hadrian' might represent the sort of superficially marketable book which academic presses will demand in the future.

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