Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2007.01.22

Anthony R. Birley, Hadrian. Der rastlose Kaiser.   Mainz am Rhein:  Philipp von Zabern, 2006.  Pp. 124; ills. 59.  ISBN 13: 978-3-8053-3656-7.  €24.90.  

Reviewed by Joerg Fuendling, Aachen, Germany (
Word count: 770 words

After nine years' waiting a beautiful editio minor of Birley's indispensable biography has emerged, indeed the very first of its kind in over a century that addresses a German readership on solid foundations.1 It is aimed at a general audience but will form a standard resource for students as well. The original's accessibility and quietly absorbing manner has been preserved by Heide Birley's translation, a work of true conjugal pietas. Some very minor snags: "Trapezos (Trebizond)" (p. 51, r. column) should rather be "Trapezous (Trapezunt)"; "Gardekavallerie" for equites singulares Augusti (e.g. p. 74 r.) reads better than "Reitergarde" while "die Prophezeiung Balaams, eines Messias" (p. 99 r.) must mean "die Prophezeiung des Messias durch Bileam". The "Zitrusfrüchte" or "Zitronen" (p. 100 l.), referring to citrons (Citrus medica), are better translated by "Zedraten" or the tautological "Zitronatzitronen".

The necessary condensation of the text has not brought about the cutting out of whole pages; the lion's share of its subject matter persists, thanks to careful and painstaking modifications. Much has been done to produce a coherent new body of writing. The lucky decision to use pre-reform German orthography will give this Hadrian a long-term advantage in a time of anarchic spelling, while too many scholars old and young would be well advised to model the transparency of their own styles on this fine specimen. Non-native speakers of German, too, shall be happy to find a text with a humane use of grammar and no more than reasonable quantities of nouns.

Incidentally, the demand for brevity has led to an unexpected but fortunate result. By taking out part of the 'context' sections and passages on problems under debate Birley has quickened the pace and thus managed to convey something of Hadrian's breathless speed and energy. The original's polyphony has not been cut back in vain. Crucial passages like the events of A. D. 97 appear in their original length while the chapters on imperial visits to Asia and Greece still include both certain and probable stages of the convoluted itinerary. For some stops that are no more than just possible, readers will have to turn to the 1997 version, likewise for second opinions on various controversial issues. Friends of Marcius Turbo may deplore the prefect's reduced role; the colourful Licinius Sura also has to accommodate himself to a narrowed habitat. Hadrian's stay on the Rhine is less compressed, though customer strategy might have advised retention of the whole of the 1997 chapter on Germany -- somewhat more than the actual pp. 120-22. One major feat is the conservation of the endnotes, which are far from being depleted; Birley's command and handling of the sources in all their variety and staggering mass shines out as brightly as before. A considerable amount of the literature originally presented has also survived; in a few cases quotations of modern authors have lost their references (p. 36 l, J. H. Oliver; p. 66 l, Sir Ronald Syme), and the Sententiae et epistulae divi Hadriani, alluded to on p. 36 l, are no longer introduced together with the major sources on p. 5. There is no index -- as the book will most probably see wide use among undergraduate students of Roman history (at the very least) this is one truly regrettable economy.

The publisher's temptation to smother the text with pictures must have been great indeed; yet compared with other von Zabern publications the amount of illustrations is almost ascetic. Again, rightly so; the words are being underpinned, not outshone. No. 7 shows more of the Mercati di Traiano than of the Forum Traiani proper; no. 16 (p. 38f) should have been rendered in reduced size, not as coarse-grained as it appears now. The map at the book's end will arouse many authors' jealousy.

Recent advances in research are introduced on a number of occasions: astrology's additional confirmation of Rome, not Italica, as Hadrian's birthplace; new Vindolanda tablets and insights from dendrochronology in the half-chapters on Britain and Germany, respectively; new readings and editions of the beautiful texts from Lambaesis. Still the book could not possibly be a full-scale second edition of the 1997 Hadrian's four hundred pages; of course, it pretends no such thing itself. Likewise the lonely voice that once complained about the absence of a histoire totale of Hadrian's age, society, and personality will still have to go without the required additional 200 pages or so, for obvious reasons. 2 Hopes to see the masterful original one day rejuvenated to its full extent -- just as its moody protagonist once claimed to be -- will be high after this most welcome translation of its essence.


1.   Original: Hadrian. The Restless Emperor. London/New York: Routledge, 1997. The last state-of-the-art biography of Hadrian in German was, in fact, Der Kaiser Hadrianus by Ferdinand Gregorovius (3rd ed., Stuttgart 1884). World War I continued well into B. W. Henderson's The Life and Principate of the Emperor Hadrian (London 1923), a tribute to the author's grief for his fallen brother; Henderson's anti-"Teutonic" resentments and dismissal of all pertinent scholarship were sadly reciprocated. Part of Henderson's contents reached Germany in the 1966 translation of Stuart Perowne's Hadrian (London 1960), outdated even when first published. By far the most influential 'biography' to date has been Marguerite Yourcenar's Mémoires d'Hadrien (Paris 1951), translated as Ich zähmte die Wölfin by Fritz Jaffé in 1953. Ute Schall's exuberant Hadrian. Ein Kaiser für den Frieden (Tübingen 1986) was no more than a violent attempt at empathy.
2.   Structural history missed by C. Ando, Phoenix 52 (1998), 183-185; attempt in R. Chevallier / R. Poignault, L'empereur Hadrien. (Que sais-je? No. 3280. Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1998), with a skeleton bibliography. For the amount and growth rate of literature to be sifted cf. J. Fündling, Kommentar zur Vita Hadriani der Historia Augusta (Antiquitas 3.4.4). Bonn: Habelt, 2006, XLIII-CXXVIII.

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