BMCR 2020.08.27

Zwischen Augustus und Antinoos

, Zwischen Augustus und Antinoos: Tradition und Innovation im Prinzipat Hadrians. Studies in Ancient Monarchies, Volume 6. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2020. 443 p.. ISBN 9783515125864 €72,00.

Hadrian’s reign has been the focus of a good deal of German scholarship since the nineteenth century. This book is a revised and abridged version of the author’s doctoral thesis defended at the Department of History and Sociology of the University of Konstanz in 2013. It assesses the ways in which Hadrian sought to consolidate his power in Rome by invoking traditional Roman and Greek models while utilizing the conception of the past in innovative ways to further his political agenda and public image.

The Introduction, “The Precarious Beginnings of Hadrian’s Principate”, concentrates on two themes related to Hadrian’s controversial accession. The first investigates the so-called affair of the four consuls and Hadrian’s alleged role in ordering their executions. The second theme, closely related to the first, investigates the legitimacy of Hadrian’s purported adoption by Trajan, which both the Historia Augusta and Cassius Dio imply was arranged by Trajan’s wife Plotina while her husband was on his deathbed. After a protracted and rather speculative discussion of the motives behind the executions, Seebacher concludes that Hadrian, together with P. Acilius Attianus, his former guardian and recently appointed Praetorian prefect, ordered the executions of the four consuls before any one of them could become a usurper or the four of them could band together in a conspiracy against the new emperor. Following the event, Hadrian dismissed Attianus from his post, appointed a new circle of advisors, and enacted a series of policies that departed radically from those of his imperial predecessor. The Introduction ends with a brief explanation of the methodology and theoretical approach employed in the book, situating it in the context of recent scholarship, and discussing the application of Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of habitus as a means of explaining Hadrian’s appropriation of past traditions during his reign.

A series of shorter and longer sections then follow in the next 150 pages. The first unit, “Hadrian and Augustus”, aims to interpret how Augustus served as a role model for many of Hadrian’s policies and principles, allowing the emperor to present himself as a champion of peace in the tradition of the first princeps. Augustus styled himself as a restitutor (restorer) who marshalled a new Golden Age; Hadrian emulated the first princeps initially by his assumption of the title Augustus on official coinage and inscriptions early in his reign. A long section discussing the Hadrianic building program in Rome focuses mostly on the Pantheon and supports a late-Trajanic date for its re-building and an early Hadrianic one for its restoration, as argued by other scholars. Seebacher is particularly effective in analyzing the available archaeological and literary evidence and tying it into Hadrian’s desire to connect himself with Augustus rather than with his predecessor and kinsman Trajan by promoting his own image as a restorer and innovator rather than just as a military leader. In this section the author could have made his argument even stronger if he had compared Hadrian’s image as builder and restorer in Rome and the west with that of his image as restorer in the Greek East, since this aspect of the emperor’s policy and image extended beyond Rome. Seebacher then shifts his attention to the reception of Augustus—mainly through coin issues—by his successors up to the reign of Hadrian, emphasizing how the regime of the first princeps became a point of reference to a glorious past that emphasized the security of the empire. Each successive emperor appropriated Augustus and repeatedly negotiated and redefined his image in order to meet the social and political demands of his own time. The chapter closes with a thorough analysis of various mythological personifications depicted on coins struck under Hadrian and discusses how the emperor endeavored to link himself not only with Augustus as his direct successor and “new” founder of Rome, but also with mythological figures such as Hercules and Romulus.

The second and longest unit, “Hadrian and Greece”, is slightly over two hundred pages in length. It examines available historical, archaeological, sculptural, and numismatic evidence in a series of short sections on such topics as Hadrian and the Eleusinian Mysteries, Hadrian and the Athenaeum, and the debate over the origins of Hadrian’s beard. These are interspersed with longer discussions on three broader themes: the architecture and function of the Villa Adriana; the official representations of Sabina on coins and sculptures; and the dissemination of the cult of Antinoos in the west. The title of the unit is misleading as there is not enough in the discussion that pertains to the emperor and Greece per se. The treatment of the Villa Adriana situates it in the broader context of earlier imperial residences and evokes earlier Roman political tradition, stressing its function as a political space where the emperor could negotiate with elites from around the Empire. However, the fact that Hadrian spent most of his reign away from Rome – and thus the villa – is not discussed in any detail (although it is mentioned later in the Conclusion) nor is the point that the emperor is purported to have used at least three other villas (or palaces) in Italy (at Antium, Praeneste, and Baiae); indeed, one ancient author implies that the Villa Adriana was not even his favorite residence.[1] Seebacher concludes that Hadrian’s promotion of Hellenism in Rome stemmed primarily from his desire to present himself and his reign as distinctive from those of Trajan and his other predecessors, and to promote himself as an innovator even though certain aspects of Hellenism threatened Roman mores. The use of the term ‚griechisch‘ in quotation marks throughout this unit and various other parts of the book is curious and the rationale for it is nowhere explained. The author analyses in great detail Hadrian’s role in the proliferation of the cult of Antinoos in comparison with the apotheosis and official representations of Sabina. However, Hadrian’s own background barely gets a mention in the book. The reader is left with an adequate understanding of the emperor’s actions but not of his formative experiences that may have influenced his later choices; for example, there is scarcely any discussion of the princeps’ provincial Iberian origin despite a reference to his Spanish homeland (p. 171) in a brief discussion of the motif of Hercules Gaditanus on coins minted during his reign.

In the concluding chapter, “The Precariousness of Hadrian’s Principate”, Seebacher argues that Hadrian’s long absences from Rome were not necessarily a unique aspect of his reign as his predecessor Trajan had also spent long periods away from the capital due to his frequent military campaigns. This is a valid point, but it does not take into account one of Hadrian’s main personality traits – his insatiable curiosity – that is explicitly alluded to in the Historia Augusta: “so fond was he of travel that he wished to inform himself in person about all that he had read concerning all parts of the world.”[2] In conclusion, Seebacher reiterates that Hadrian’s main motivation for invoking and promoting traditionalism and innovation was his desire to outdo the deeds, and to outshine the legacy, of Trajan, whom the Romans deemed optimus princeps. To achieve this, he appropriated both Augustan and Greek models and values in new ways that served to distinguish him from his much-lauded predecessor.

A short Appendix under the catchy title “Marriage is not a Design Strategy” concentrates on the motivation of Hadrian’s marriage to his second-cousin-once-removed – and Trajan’s great-niece – Sabina. The author contextualizes it by reference to earlier arranged imperial unions and concludes that the marriage did not come with the promise of the succession. One has to wonder what point an appendix on this topic serves and whether the actual question implied by the author is not “why did Hadrian marry a woman”? The answer is rather obvious. Sabina was of the right marriageable age, came from the same provincial background and family, and was attractive enough to serve his public image and, more importantly, to bear him children. One of our ancient sources claims that she took precautions not to become pregnant by him because she had ascertained that his nature was monstrous.[3] Even if this statement is viewed as slanderous gossip, it clearly implies that Hadrian at the very least tried to produce an heir with her and thus fulfill his duty as a Roman husband.

Where Seebacher excels is in dealing in meticulous detail with the ancient sources and modern scholarship (particularly in German) that he cites and in pointing out certain flaws in the arguments of this scholarship. His careful analyses of Hadrian’s role in the renovation of the Pantheon and on the public image of Sabina as a rather passive conduit for Hadrian’s own imperial ambitions are particularly well-structured and reasoned and form the highlights of the book. Nonetheless, the overemphasis on minute details, an overreliance on evidence from coinage, and the jarring non-linear structure of the discussion tend to occlude the larger overarching themes of the book, which are tradition and innovation in the Hadrianic period. This aspect is particularly evident in places where the author segues into topics dealing with much earlier material that are otherwise marginally related to the Hadrianic period, such as a discussion of the Ara Pacis and an overly long treatment of the use of the image and titles of Augustus by earlier emperors.

For a book that focuses on Hadrian’s public image and relies heavily on artistic, architectural, and numismatic evidence, the lack of illustrations will be acutely felt by the reader. Apart from a single line-drawing of an otherwise unremarkable inscription (p. 96), the omission of illustrations, maps, and plans in a book of this length and on this subject makes many of the points made by the author (e.g., his discussion of statues and reliefs of various individuals including first and foremost the emperor himself,  the architectural and sculptural components of the Villa Adriana, representations of Antinoos as various gods, images on imperial coins) difficult to follow. Although the monograph does an admirable job in engaging both ancient sources and modern scholarship, the bibliography would have benefited from additional references to English, Greek, and Italian studies, especially on archaeological and numismatic material.

Despite its flaws and unusual presentation style, Seebacher has produced an admirable and thought-provoking monograph, marked by precision and careful attention to detail. The book will not be a comfortable read for non-specialists and will appeal first and foremost to scholars who specialize on the Hadrianic period and, more broadly, to those interested in the Roman Empire.


[1] Philostratus, Life of Apollonius, 8.20 claims that Hadrian’s favorite palace was the villa at Antium.

[2] Historia Augusta 17.8.

[3] Epitome de Caesaribus 150.8.