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Hadrian, hands down, is my favorite Roman emperor, not only did he build the Pantheon, my favorite ancient monument, but he also contributed to developing roman architecture in a distinct way which was influenced by his travels. Hadrian was a bit of a rule breaker, he always did things his own way and today the Pantheon and hundreds of other buildings stand to show off his bad ass-ness.
Hadrian actually barely spent any time in Rome which was strange for a Roman emperor during times of peace. Hadrian was a wanderer and it is generally thought that he was actually born in Spain and not in Rome (of Italian descent). He traveled to almost every province in the Roman empire and sought to create Athens as the cultural center of the empire. Hadrian was definitely an interesting character known for many things, he was the first emperor to embrace the Greek tradition of wearing a beard (before Romans were clean shaven and believed that only barbarians wore beards and actually thats where we get the world barbarian from, barba or beard), Hadrian was also notorious for his romantic involvement with a younger boy named Antinous.
Relationships between younger and older males were quite common during this time, however Hadrian was known for his involvement with the young Antinous because of his very strong attachment and love for the boy. When Antinous drowned in the Nile in 130CE it is said that Hadrian “wept for him like a woman”(1) and Hadrian even went so far to deify Antinous which was generally reserved for the imperial family.
Hadrian however is definitely remembered today for his architectural pursuits. Even if you know nothing about the Romans, most people have heard of the Pantheon and Hadrian’s Wall (that giant wall built in England to keep the uncultured and dangerous Scots out (I am talking about you Corrie, Erika, JJ and Heather).
Perhaps one of Hadrian’s grandest achievements was the construction of his villa just outside Tivoli. Tivoli is located about half an hour away from Rome (by car) and is where Hadrian spent his time if he was needed back in the capital. Because Tivoli is located outside Rome and some distance away (if you were traveling by horseback or foot) the villa is more of a palatial complex with all the public buildings you need to conduct the business of running an empire without actually stepping foot in the capital. The Villa is over 250 acres and includes bath complexes, theaters, temples, libraries and sleeping quarters of everyone employed and living at Hadrian’s Villa, it is HUGE to say the least. I would say to give yourself at least two hours to explore the complex. Hadrian really saw himself as an architect and the complex was really Hadrian’s architectural playground to try out new techniques and styles.
Perhaps one of the coolest buildings at the Villa is what archaeologists call the Maritime Theater which is believed to have been used solely by the emperor. Inclosed in the theater is a round island which had a small Roman house with an atrium, a library, a dining room and a small bath complex; the island itself is separated from the rest of the theater by a moat.
It is thought that the island had two small drawbridges attached to it and so here Hadrian could basically escape from being an emperor. All he had to do was raise up the drawbridges and he could find peace on the island away from all the court politics. Today the island is inhabited by a lovely turtle who Alex named George.
Hadrian’s villa also has the Conopus and the Serapeum. This section of his villa is based on the Egyptian city of Canopus where they had a temple for the god Serapis and reflects his travels throughout the empire. The architecture of the Conopus and Serapeum are based on Greek influence however with copies of famous Greek statues and Corinthian columns surrounding the oval pool.
The oval pool is capped at the end with a large domed roof that Hadrian is so well known for. You will find domes all over Hadrian’s villa and in most of his architecture throughout Rome, especially the Pantheon and the Temple of Venus and Roma in the Forum. Hadrian’s domes were once famously criticized by the foremost architect in ancient history, Apollodorus. He said to Hadrian “Go away and draw your pumpkins. You know nothing about these [architectural] matters.” Of course once Hadrian became emperor he had Apollodorus exiled and later put to death. You do not insult Roman Emperors, even ones known for ruling in times of peace.
While most of Hadrian’s villa is in relatively good condition some of the most beautiful statues and marble were unearthed in the 16thC by Cardinal Ippolito II d’Este and taken to his nearby Villa d’Este. The Villa d’Este is definitely worth seeing while you are in Tivoli to see not only the beautiful Roman statues from Hadrian’s Villa but also to see the amazing gardens filled with hundreds of fountains. When you see both Hadrian’s Villa and Villa d’Este you can start to see how intricate and detailed these villas were even in the ancient Roman times.
(1) Birley, Pg. 144-That’s right there is a footnote here, I am getting all kinds of scholarly fancy.