This article was first published in the April 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine


Fortunately for historians of the Roman world, the emperor Hadrian and his courtiers could not resist the impulse to engrave their names, together with poems about their travels, upon the great monuments of Egypt. It was, you might say, the ancient equivalent of a selfie.

As a result, we have an eyewitness account of a trip to the Colossi of Memnon that Hadrian and his wife Sabina made on 20 November AD 130. The royal couple were joined by their courtiers, including Julia Balbilla, who composed the following poem:

“By Julia Balbilla, when Hadrian Augustus heard Memnon: I had been told that Memnon the Egyptian, warmed by the ray of the sun, spoke from his Theban stone. And when he saw Hadrian, king of all, before the rays of the sun, he greeted him as best he could… Then the lord Hadrian himself also offered ample greetings to Memnon and on the monument left for posterity verses marking all that he had seen and all he had heard. And it was made clear to all that the gods loved him.”

The aim of Hadrian’s visit was to marvel at one of the wonders of ancient Egypt – a colossal statue that ‘sang’ as the sun’s rays struck it each morning. The statue actually depicted Pharaoh Amenhotep III, outside his temple near Luxor, but the Romans believed it was the mythical hero Memnon, son of Dawn, greeting his divine mother. Just as visitors now flock to the Great Pyramids at Giza, so Roman tourists 2,000 years ago were eager to hear this amazing phenomenon.

It was a mark of Hadrian’s favour from the gods that he heard the statue sing not once, but three times. Others were not so lucky. And if you now fancy following in Hadrian’s footsteps to hear the statue sing, be warned: following repairs some years after Hadrian’s visit, the statue fell silent forever.

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While in north Africa, Hadrian made an excursion into the desert along with his lover, Antinous, in order to participate in that most kingly pursuit, lion-hunting. The dramatic moment when a lion charged at the two of them was immortalised by Pancrates, a poet from Alexandria, whose epic-style verses happen to have been preserved on a papyrus found at Oxyrhynchus: “Straight he rushed upon them both, scourging with his tail, his haunches and sides while his eyes, beneath his brows, flashed dreadful fire; and from his ravening jaws the foam showered to the earth as his teeth gnashed within.” Between the two of them, though, Hadrian and Antinous together dispatched the beast, and their valiant deed lived on in verse.

From these two small scraps of evidence – an inscription carved upon an ancient statue and a fragment of papyrus – we gain a vivid impression of an emperor at leisure, taking advantage of a visit of several months to Egypt in order to see the sights.

There’s little doubt that Hadrian, who reigned from AD 117 to 138, travelled around his empire to a much greater degree than most other emperors. According to an ancient biographer, he may even have evoked some of the landscapes he saw on his travels in designing his villa at Tivoli (‘Villa Adriana’): “His villa at Tibur was marvellously constructed, and he actually gave to parts of it the names of provinces and places of the greatest renown, calling them, for instance, Lyceum, Academia, Prytaneum, Canopus, Poecile and Tempe.”

Whether or not actually true, this reflects a perception that Hadrian was unusually influenced by the provinces, and the idea that he deliberately evoked their landscapes within his villa still lives on in the way in which the villa is presented to tourists today.


But Hadrian was not simply a pleasure-seeking emperor. His travels also allowed him to make contact with his troops on deployment in the provinces, and, as commander-in-chief of the Roman army, he took an active interest in inspecting his soldiers and encouraging them to maintain their training to the highest standards.

During a visit to the headquarters of the III Augustan Legion at Lambaesis in north Africa, Hadrian carefully monitored their training exercises and then proceeded to deliver a speech, in which he addressed all the different units in turn with observations about the qualities and shortcomings which they had displayed to him. To one group of men, he offered encouraging words of praise: “You have built a lengthy wall, made as if for permanent winter-quarters, in nearly as short a time as if it were built from turf which is cut in even pieces, easily carried and handled, and laid without difficulty, being naturally smooth and flat. You built with big, heavy, uneven stones that no one can carry, lift or lay without their unevenness becoming evident.”

The troops clearly appreciated the emperor’s words, since the speech itself was inscribed upon a monumental column set up in their parade ground. This reminds us that the Roman army’s power lay not just in its fighting ability, but also in its engineering achievements, one of which – Hadrian’s Wall in northern England – is still so visible today.

Athens reborn

From AD 124–32, Hadrian spent much of his time in Athens, staying there for longer than any other city apart from Rome. At this time, Athens had long lost the dominance that it had won in the days of Pericles. Where once it had been leader of a league of Greek cities, it was now merely one of many cities in the province of Achaea, utterly dependent upon Rome. Nor was it even the capital of that province: that position was now held by Corinth, which had been destroyed by the Romans in 146 BC but refounded as a Roman colony 100 years later.

Despite this, a residual sense remained of Athens’ former importance. Young Romans like Cicero’s son or the poet Horace might still be sent there to enhance their education, and some Romans remained conscious of a cultural debt to Athens. Pliny the Younger admonished a friend about to take up a post in the Greek city:

“Remember that you have been sent to the province of Achaea, to the pure and genuine Greece, where civilisation and literature, and agriculture, too, are believed to have originated… Pay regard to their antiquity, their heroic deeds, and the legends of their past… always bear in mind that this is the land which provided us with justice and gave us laws, not after conquering us but at our request; that it is Athens you go to and Sparta you rule.”

Hadrian’s extended visits to Athens were different in character from his Egyptian expedition. He intervened in the politics, culture, religious life, and economy of the city in order to re-establish Athens as the prestigious centre of the Greek world. He issued a decree taking personal responsibility for increasing revenues for the city from the production of olive oil in the surrounding territory of Attica. He intervened in a dispute about leadership succession within the philosophical school of Epicurus. He built several brand new magnificent structures, including a library, pantheon, gymnasium, and aqueduct. He completed and dedicated the Temple of Olympian Zeus, which had been started some six centuries earlier, but had remained uncompleted despite sporadic interventions by Hellenistic and Roman client kings.

With some justification, then, Hadrian was represented as a new founder for the city, supplanting its mythological hero, Theseus. His achievement was proclaimed on an arch built near the Temple of Olympian Zeus. On one side of the arch, an inscription recorded: “This is Athens, the former city of Theseus,” to which an inscription on the other side replied: “This is the city of Hadrian, not of Theseus.”

Hadrian set up a new league of cities, the Panhellenion, and established Athens as its headquarters. This league included cities from at least five different Roman provinces, and created a sense of shared kinship among them. Its members included cities on mainland Greece that are well known to us for their prominence in the classical period – Athens, Sparta, Argos, and Corinth – but also included remote cities such as Phrygian Synnada in central Anatolia (modern Suhut, in Turkey) and Libyan Cyrene.

The figure of Hadrian himself was central to the Panhellenion: not only did it establish a new cult of Hadrian Panhellenios, but the member cities could now club together in order to send embassies to the emperor with various requests and be guaranteed a favourable reception.

In addition, three new festivals were set up – the Panhellenia, the Hadrianeia, and the Olympieia – alongside the long-established festival at Athens, the Panathenaia. As a result, Athens was now the only Greek city to have an important festival every single year, attracting the best athletes, poets and orators to compete for prizes. This must have completed the transformation of Athens from small provincial city into cosmopolitan metropolis, as competitors and audiences descended upon the city from all corners of the Roman world. (Imagine the London 2012 Olympics being an annual event!)

Famous last words

Hadrian’s interest in the intellectual life of classical Greece extended well beyond Athens itself. As ruler of the Roman world, he was the ultimate arbiter in settling local disputes, and cities constantly sent him petitions requesting his help. Recently published are the last words known to have been issued by Hadrian, probably in early AD 138, shortly before he died, in a letter to the small town of Naryka in Locris (Greece), as inscribed upon a bronze plaque. In this letter, Hadrian responded to a dispute over whether or not Naryka could regard itself as a city. In justifying Naryka’s city status, Hadrian alluded to its role within the Panhellenion he had established.

The fact that Naryka was represented not only within other local leagues but also within the supra-regional Panhellenion was one clear reason to confirm its status. Hadrian also cited as evidence in favour of city-status the political structures in place there – its council, magistrates, priests and tribes. Most striking, however, is Hadrian’s assertion that “You have also been mentioned by certain of the most celebrated poets, both Roman and Greek, as ‘Narykians’, and they also name certain of the heroes as having started from your polis.” This reflects how the mythical past of classical Greece had reverberated through the centuries to become important in the eyes of the ruler of the world.

Travelling around the empire was not a necessity for a Roman emperor; if his subjects wanted help, it was up to them to set off to seek an audience with him. Hadrian, though, has been dubbed “the restless emperor”.

This highlights the fact that he seems to have had an unusually proactive attitude – visiting many parts of the empire to settle disputes, review his troops and act as benefactor towards many provincial cities. Who can blame him if, in the course of his travels, he took some time out to see the sights?

Professor Alison Cooley is a classicist based at the University of Warwick. Her books include Pompeii and Herculaneum (Routledge, 2013).

Hadrian’s travels

Five of the locations that the globe-trotting emperor visited – for duty and pleasure – during his 21-year reign

1) Athens, Roman province of Achaea (Greece)

Hadrian transformed the physical fabric of Athens, as well as its economic and cultural environment, funding grandiose monuments and setting up a league of cities known as the Panhellenion. He spent many months there on several occasions, and reinstated Athens as cultural and intellectual capital of the Greek world. Little wonder that he was reputedly nicknamed Graeculus (‘Greekling’).

2) Antioch on the Orontes, Roman province of Syria (Turkey)

At the time he became emperor in AD 117, Hadrian was governor of Syria, based at Antioch. Hadrian abandoned Emperor Trajan’s conquests along the Euphrates and Tigris rivers – even though it’s rumoured that Trajan’s wife, Plotina (pictured), engineered his succession.

3) Tibur, modern Tivoli (Italy)

Hadrian built himself a magnificent country residence at Tibur, roughly 20 miles to the east of Rome. The architecture of Hadrian’s Villa is striking both for its innovative designs and luxurious multi-coloured marbles. It was a place where Hadrian could retire for privacy, but also where he could entertain guests on a lavish scale or transact official business.
4) Lambaesis, Roman province of Africa Nova (Algeria)
In AD 128, Hadrian inspected the troops of the III Augustan Legion at their military headquarters at Lambaesis. His speech exhorting them to continue training hard, and his praise for the exercises he had reviewed, is preserved as an inscription on a monumental column set up in their parade ground.

5) Palmyra, modern Syria


Hadrian visited in AD 129, in celebration of which the Palmyrenes adopted the name Hadrianoi. This would have taken the emperor into a distinctive cultural environment, where Aramaic was the local language and where distinctly non-Roman deities, such as Baal Shamin, were worshipped. During his visit, a prominent local citizen provided olive oil for visitors and Palmyrenes, and contributed to the upkeep of the soldiers, presumably in Hadrian’s entourage.