BMCR 2001.08.07

Hadrian and the Cities of the Roman Empire

, Hadrian and the cities of the Roman empire. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000. xviii, 243 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm. ISBN 0691048894 $49.50.

This book follows up the author’s Hadrian and the City of Rome (Princeton, 1987), which used similar methodology to explore Hadrian’s impact on the city of Rome, particularly its buildings. Buildings have a large part to play here, too, as they (and the various evidence for them — inscriptions, coins and the like) are often the most visible manifestation of the emperor’ s involvement with a city.

The first chapter (“Roman Cities and Roman Power: The Roman empire and Hadrian,” pp. 3-17) outlines the project and anticipates some of the observations. B. proceeds from some assumptions, e. g. that the withdrawal from Trajan’s “untenable” borders allowed Hadrian to direct Rome’s resources toward munificence (p. 12); that his interaction with many cities was associated with “renewal, preservation, or promotion of the unique history of that place” (p. 13). For her the direct interaction with the cities can be quantified: “during Hadrian’s twenty-one-year reign more than 130 cities received, in all, more than 210 marks of his favor (p. 15).”

I have to confess to some discomfort with the use of sources, which are dealt with in Chapter 2. A salient example comes from enumeration of the laws, where the evidence for a senatus consultum confirming that legacies could be left to cities comes from Ulpian, but that for the prohibition of demolition of certain buildings from the Vita Hadriani in the Historia Augusta. One of these can be relied upon; the other, in this context, awaits confirmation, despite B.’s claims for the biography’s status as one of the “most veracious” in the HA. One can hardly write about Hadrian without using the HA, but its mendacity is only one reason for caution; one must also recognize the role it has played in creating our image of the emperor. The contrast with the militarism of Trajan and the piety of Antoninus is not based on nothing, as B. shows here; but the evidence she accumulates ought to be the basis of that picture, not the comments of “Spartianus.” The utility of Dio is limited, for her purposes, for in her view his “focus on Hadrian’s personality and its effects on Rome’s elite apparently led him to overlook much that we would like to know” (p. 21). The Epitome de Caesaribus, Philostratus, and Pausanias all make marginal contributions, as does the much later John Malalas; more nearly contemporary sources include Gellius, Arrian, and Fronto.

In Chapter 3 (“Changes of city status and their impact on city life”) B. observes that 34 cities changed status during Hadrian’s reign, about a quarter of the number of cities “witnessing his personal intervention” (p 37). The chapter is centered on a passage in Gellius ( NA 16.13.1-9, text and translation at pp. 55-6) which notes Hadrian’s wish that cities maintain their historic traditions; but, as B. notes, this seems to contradict the increasing resemblance of cities to Roman models as attested in city charters. It is unfortunate that no such charters seem to survive for the cities whose status was changed by Hadrian. Some general patterns can be noted: more than half are North African, mostly in Africa Proconsularis but also in Mauretania; the bulk of the rest are concentrated in the Balkans. The complete absence of the province of Asia is something of a surprise, given Hadrian’s extensive tours there. There is a long section here on municipal organization (pp. 43-53) based on the lex Inritana, the lex Salpensana and lex Malacitana, and the charter of the Colonia Genetiva Iulia Ursonensis, which is not strictly germane to the reign of Hadrian but usefully outlines municipal structures. Here B. lays out her view of the relationship between the emperor and the cities: most civic charters downplay the role of the emperor and others with imperium, leaving local matters to local hands; though the threat of imperial interference was ever present, the charters seem to minimize the involvement of provincial and urban officials. For her this reinforces the importance of the curial class as mediators between local community and central government, obviously promoting the status of the municipal élite.

Chapter 4 is entitled “Changes affecting cities’ daily governance and economy,” (pp. 57-82). This rubric covers the emperor’s assumption of a city’s highest office or priesthood, though he can hardly have carried out the duties attendant to those honors. B. notes that Hadrian is most frequently attested among all the emperors who assumed a chief magistracy: twelve cities were under his local leadership for at least a year, and in four of these he assumed the chief position more than once. In addition he was prophetes at Didyma and may twice have been eponymous priest of Apollo at Ptolemais in Cyrenaica. This information (presented on pp. 58-59) introduces a long discussion of the whole phenomenon which will be useful to students but which distracts from the thrust of the narrative.

Chapter 5 (“Civic benefactions with extramural effects,” pp. 83-107) deals with land attribution and determination of civic boundaries; involvement with taxes, including bestowal of revenues and grain; competitive games and festivals; and names and titles. Of these the first was always a prerogative of the emperor or his administration. The remission of aurum coronarium and of taxes, both arrears and prospective ones, has been interpreted as an economic stimulus, and B. seems to propose the reduced revenue from the provinces as one reason for the limitation of tax remissions to confirmation of existing ones. Validation for this comes, rather anachronistically, from Pliny’s Panegyric, given in quite a different context, and from a rather tortured reading of Augustus’ statement in a letter to Samos that he was ” not (my emphasis) concerned for the money which you pay towards the tribute …”1 There follows a long list of gifts or grants of goods in kind or permissions to purchase from imperially-controlled sources. The latter continue to attest the direct involvement of the emperor in local affairs, but it is hard to imagine that most of these cases constitute more than responses to local requests.

The evidence relating to games is also frustratingly vague. Except for Smyrna, where Hadrian’s concern is well-attested, only coins or honorific victors’ titles give us any clue to imperial attention, active or passive. This category of data is closely linked to “names and titles”, particularly neokoros (the grant of which was extremely selective and often, at least in later times, associated with imperial presence), and Metropolis, granted to Nicaea, Pergamum, Damascus, and Tyre and possibly also to Amasia, Neocaesarea and Nicopolis in Pontus and Tlos, Patara, Myra, and Telmessus in Lycia.

Chapter 6 (“Engineering and architectural donations,” pp. 108-143) is important for its tabulations, of engineering projects or utilitarian structures (p. 109) and of non-utilitarian public works (pp. 110-111); the latter category includes temples, tombs, baths and the like. The first group includes restorations of existing temples and archaic sanctuaries, including many in Italy and a good many to be associated with the imperial cult.

It is claimed (p. 143) that “Although Hadrian’s building donations have long been admired, only with this compilation of the scattered evidence can we begin to discern his choices. The two largest categories, utilitarian constructions and religious edifices, reveal both Hadrian’s adherence to the principle that Roman emperors build for the welfare of their subjects and his particular understanding of his duty. His drainage schemes, aqueducts, roadwork, harbors, and similar work extended the practical benefits of Roman rule while providing an infrastructure that united the far-flung Roman empire relatively well for a preindustrial economy. Hadrian’s temple and tomb restorations, completions, and embellishments impressed cities’ sacred landscapes with the image of an all-powerful emperor, even as they more simply substantiated the imperial presence, particularly in the Greek East. In Hadrian’s day religion was inseparable from Roman politics, culture, society, even economy, as we have seen. More than other emperors of the first two centuries, Hadrian seems to have viewed religion as a unifying force. The material collected here discloses his promotion of the emperor’s role as religious leader of the Roman empire. Hadrian’s building donations pertain to a wide spectrum of religious structures, appealing to many different people.”

This is an expansive claim, from scattered evidence, and it is difficult to put it in perspective. As B. goes on to observe, Hadrian’s religious understanding had its limits, as was illustrated in his treatment of Jerusalem; and one may ask whether he was really quite this systematic in his approach to buildings, or indeed to the cities of the empire.

Chapter 7 consists of case studies: Athens, Smyrna, and Italica. There is a good discussion of the Panhellenion, which has been the object of considerable study in recent years; and a treatment of the great library, which B. proposes was intended for education at Athens, not only education for its own sake but to provide a focus for the scholars, sophists and teachers he saw as essential to the maintenance of the Hellenic past. The discussions of Smyrna and Italica are a good corrective to the Athenocentric cast of much previous discussion.

“City foundations, new and renewed” are the focus of the eighth chapter. Compared to Trajan and earlier emperors Hadrian’s colonies and cities are relatively few in number: Colonia Aelia Mursa and Colonia Aelia Capitolina are the last two such foundations in Roman history (p. 172), and the circumstances of Aelia Capitolina are clearly exceptional. Both it and the foundations in Cyrene were responses to Jewish revolts. In north Africa there had been extensive destruction to which Trajan had responded with the dispatch of colonists, but Cyrene also claimed Hadrian’s immediate attention: the Caesareum was restored in 118, and restorations of baths, porticoes, and the temple of Hecate are attested for 119. In a letter of 134, in which he urges the citizens to come together and repopulate their fatherland, Hadrian also enumerates his benefactions to the city with the apparent intent of inspiring locals to similar acts of generosity. His patronage here established Cyrene as metropolis and it was one of the few cities outside Greece or Asia Minor to participate in the Panhellenion. Its primacy was confirmed by Antoninus Pius in one of the few gestures attesting the long-term effectiveness of Hadrian’s acts.

The remainder of this chapter is devoted to other Hadrianic foundations, the most interesting of which is Antinoopolis; but the one which starkly illustrates the limits of Hadrian’s vision is Aelia Capitolina. Here the reorganization of the city as a colony, the depiction of Hadrian as its founder on coins, the focus on the Capitoline triad, and most of all the prohibition of Jews from entry to the city hardly highlight the emperor’s sensitivity to local traditions. The contrast with his behavior at Cyrene is striking.

A concluding chapter summarizes what has gone before; one of B.’s observations is the rather depressing one that “although Hadrian’s municipal activity furthered the cohesion of the empire, buildings, political practices, and culture were no more uniformly ‘Roman’ in the Mediterranean world after Hadrian’s reign than before it.” In her view the personal ties established by the emperor, as well as the games, cults, and improved urban space, all strengthened the cities which were critical to the empire’s substructure. This conclusion is somewhat at odds with the opening of the chapter, which stresses the structural basis of Hadrianic innovation. Nor do we get much of Hadrian’s personality. The thematic arrangement has the obvious virtue of isolating the elements of imperial patronage the author thinks important in the analysis of Hadrian’s relationship with his empire; but even within these categories the presentation is not chronological, and overall it is impossible to extract from the text any chronological development in Hadrian’s practice, or indeed in the psychology that might have led him to develop his policy toward the cities in the way he did. There is no systematic treatment of the great journeys, though the chronology of both has been worked out, within the limits of the evidence, by Halfmann, Syme and others.

The reviewer may be forgiven for drawing attention to one important omission, the coinage. Though coins are cited as evidence for particular points, it would have been worth addressing this general category of evidence, both as it applies to Hadrian’s reign and as part of setting the larger perspective. First, the number of mints that struck in Hadrian’s name is very large: the von Aulock Index 2 enumerates some 166 authorities for Asia Minor alone, and the total number must well exceed 200. The degree to which cities acted on their own initiative is often not determinable; for an earlier period the authors of Roman Provincial Coinage have concluded that some form of permission must have been granted, perhaps by the provincial governor, but otherwise coinage was probably a local undertaking.3 The important exception in Hadrian’s reign is the cistophori, a silver coinage of Asia that emanated from perhaps 20 mints; the coins depart from the standard pattern of reverse imagery to incorporate local cults and monuments as well as imperial themes. This would have been worth at least a passing mention, as it surely was the product of imperial initiative and integrates so well with the author’s larger observations.

Second, the degree of local coinage is not unique: it is part of an upswing that begins with the Flavians and peaks with Septimius Severus. The von Aulock Index figures for mints in Asia Minor run as follows: Vespasian 66, Domitian 108, Trajan 142, Hadrian 166, Antoninus Pius 188, Marcus and Verus 218, Commodus 177, Septimius and family 242. In so far as the act of coinage represents an interaction between emperor and subject city (or center and periphery) it is worth considering in this context. For ultimately the reign of Hadrian can hardly be considered in isolation; if it had long-term consequences we are entitled to know them, and if it did not that is significant too.

The complaint regarding context may be made in a broader sense about the book as a whole. It is hard to place the Hadrianic innovations in perspective, particularly as his policy in general is not inconsistent with that which emerges from Trajan’s correspondence with Pliny; and a few words on the enduring nature of the imperial relationship with the provinces would have been in order. But that would necessarily have led to a different book.4 The author’s thorough assembly of evidence will be permanently useful (though less so in the absence of an index locorum, astonishing in a work that exploits so many sources). This will be a much-used work, essential reading for students of Hadrian and his reign.


1. J. M. Reynolds, Aphrodisias and Rome (Journal of Roman Studies Monographs no. 1, London: Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies, 1982) p. 104, doc. 13.

2. P. R. Franke, W. Leschhorn, and A. U. Stylow, Sylloge Nummorum Graecorum Deutschland Sammlung von Aulock Index (Berlin: Gebr. Mann, 1981). Though it is not wholly reliable in detail the book is the most useful tool we have for gauging the activity of eastern mints in the empire.

3. A. M. Burnett, M. Amandry, and P. P. Ripollès, Roman Provincial Coinage I (London and Paris: British Museum Press and Bibliothèque Nationale, 1992) p. 3; A. M. Burnett. M. Amandry, and I. Carradice, Roman Provincial Coinage II (London and Paris: British Museum Press and Bibliothèque Nationale, 1999) pp. 1-7.

4. For a very ambitious treatment of the long-term stability of the Roman empire and the elements that held it together see now C. Ando, Imperial Ideology and Provincial Loyalty in the Roman Empire (Classics and Contemporary Thought vol. 6, Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 2000).