Imperium as a sea

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Hadrian – the Emperor who took a different path Emperor Hadrian ruled the Roman Empire between 117-138 AD. His reign is of great interest to scholars as he seems to have sought to establish a more equal relationship between Romans and conquered peoples in the Empire. Why did Hadrian do this? Was it for idealistic or pragmatic reasons? This question lies at the heart of Dr Felix K Maier’s research in a new DFG-backed project. Publius Aelius Hadrianus was emperor of the Roman Empire between 117-138 AD, and he travelled widely during his reign to the outer reaches of the realm, visiting almost every province. While many of his predecessors also travelled to different parts of the Empire, they typically did so if there was a need for their presence during times of conflict; Hadrian had a different approach. “He visited nearly all the regions of the Empire, even during times of peace,” says Dr Felix K Maier, an assistant professor at the University of Würzburg. But Hadrian’s travel record was not the only thing that distinguished him. This Roman Emperor also differed from his predecessors in several other ways, for example in the coins that he commissioned during his reign. “Roman Emperors usually made coins that made it very clear to the viewer that the Romans were the victors, and that the defeated people had been conquered,” explains Dr Maier. “Hadrian broke with this tradition of promoting a clear hierarchy between Rome and the conquered provinces. On his coins, he shakes hands with the conquered people or he is shown raising up a female personification of a province.”

Hadrian’s approach to architecture also differed from previous Roman Emperors. While victory in the Dacian wars under his immediate predecessor Trajan was commemorated in Rome with a monumental column mainly showing the Romans inflicting violence and pain on the conquered peoples, Hadrian came up with a completely different iconography. “He continues to promote the idea that the conquered populations are other people and ‘barbarians’, but he softens the message. The message now is: ‘We are all living in the Empire and we are different people, but our relationship is not mainly characterised by war’,” outlines Dr Maier. This transformation is reflected in the monuments and buildings that were erected during Hadrian’s reign. “Take for example the common reliefs which depict the conquered provinces with the usual female personifications. In contrast to the traditional representation which portrayed conquered people in a mourning or miserable gesture, in Hadrian’s reign, the non-Romans are shown in a relaxed posture, and indeed they sometimes have weapons in their hands. Such a depiction does not show a deep-rooted antagonism,

but rather conveys to the audience that the provinces are defending the Empire as well,” says Dr Maier. “The conquered non-Roman inhabitants of the Empire do not appear – as was usually the case – as fierce, brutal and detestable enemies. They are still considered barbarians but their relationship to the Empire is now different to what previous generations thought of them.” In line with this, Hadrian also made hybrid complexes, combining Greek, Roman and Egyptian styles in temples for example. Although architectural styles had been mixed before, Hadrian pushed this hybridity to a much greater extent than his predecessors.

The Romans and the conquered The question then is: why did Hadrian adopt this approach? Why did he want to establish a more equal relationship between Romans and the conquered peoples within the Empire? And why – through his travels and the other measures he took – was he so keen on showing that the Empire was a hybrid community? Dr Maier is investigating this fascinating problem in a new DFG-funded project. In his research, Dr Maier is looking at the underlying motivations behind Hadrian’s approach to the conquered peoples within the Empire. “From an idealistic point of view, it might be argued that Hadrian wanted to promote the idea of a universal empire which is a place for everyone, and that everyone should feel Ruins from the ancient Roman town Palmyra (picture from 2010), a hybrid spot in the Roman Empire with Roman, Greek and Near Eastern cultural influences.


Bust of Emperor Hadrian - The Arch of Hadrian at Athens, mixing Roman and Greek architectural elements - Mummy of a Greek youth from Egypt, combining Greek, Roman and Egyptian identities.

themselves to be a Roman, or at least as a part of the Roman Empire, even if they did not have Roman citizenship,” he outlines. An alternative hypothesis, which is not incompatible with the idealistic perspective, is that Hadrian was being more conciliatory to people in the provinces to prevent a climate of rebellion fomenting. There were, of course, social elites who cooperated with the Romans and became members of the administrative part of the Empire, while some non-Romans enrolled into the Roman army and – after at least 25 years of

For his part, Dr Maier believes Hadrian was a pragmatic ruler, who combined idealism with an awareness of practical issues and the wider context, such as the geographical extent of the Empire at the time. From this perspective, Dr Maier wants to cast new light on another aspect of Hadrian’s reign – his affinity to Greek culture. As Hadrian wore a beard in the Greek fashion and was famous for his deep interest in Greek literature and philosophy, many scholars have considered these interests to be rooted in personal affection. But Hadrian’s passion for other

Roman coins depicting the traditional motif (Romans dominating the conquered people).

military service – gained Roman citizenship. But there were many local populations which had lived with the perception that they had been defeated by the Romans and so were not part of the Empire, which may have led to unrest. In reconstructing Hadrian’s motivations, Dr Maier is considering whether Hadrian may have realised that he had to do something to avert such a scenario, rather than being motivated by more idealistic visions. “Maybe Hadrian felt he had to break with the traditionally hierarchical relationship between Romans and non-Romans, between the dominant and the conquered. So, in this situation he would have wanted to show that Rome was actually a power for everyone,” he says.


a move which attracted criticism from some quarters. “He was attacked by some senators, while other senators were quite grateful because they knew that the Roman Empire would be over-stretched if it was too large,” explains Dr Maier. A larger Empire meant more administrative and logistical strain, and while the Roman Empire was in general pretty stable during Hadrian’s reign, this may have masked unrest in some areas to a certain degree. “The Romans had military, technical and logistical superiority which helped to maintain stability. However, this perspective neglects more hidden Roman coin depicting Hadrian greeting the female personification of a province.

cultures – not only that of the Hellenistic East – might have had other roots, and might have been inextricably linked with his new policy.

Empire expansion However, there is more to Dr Maier’s project than investigating the possible motivations of Hadrian. The outlined evidence leads to wider consequences and Hadrian’s efforts to unify the Empire might also have been a reaction to another development. Under Hadrian’s predecessor Trajan, the Empire had massively expanded, but it was clear that the newly acquired territories could not realistically be held in the long-term. Hadrian therefore reduced the Roman territory to more realistic borders,

dynamics, such as the views of the subjugated people living in the Empire,” says Dr Maier. “We have to shift our attention more to those who are barely visible in the sources – that is the non-Romans – and to other forms of resistance than violent uprisings or revolts.” It is very difficult for historians to reconstruct the prevailing attitudes and opinions among defeated people, as the ‘winners’ in history usually dominate the discourse in the extant sources. This particularly applies for premodern times. Therefore, Dr Maier draws upon theories and models from Sociology and Political Sciences. One of them is the concept of ‘hybridity and mimicry’ which was analyzed by the Indian-

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English scholar and critical theorist Homi K Bhabha in his book The Location of Culture. While Bhabha mainly developed his concept with reference to the British Empire, Dr Maier believes his ideas – to a certain extent – still hold relevance to the analysis of conquered people in the Roman Empire. “Some of the defeated people behaved very indifferently to their rulers, while other groups and individuals tried to relocate their historical and cultural identity in the contemporary ruling constellation,” he outlines. Such reactions relate to the concept of acculturation, where people adapt to the prevailing cultural and social norms, a process which affected power relations between the Romans and the subjugated people. This is where Bhabha’s hybridity and mimicry come into play to reveal a paradox, but also a powerful effect of colonisation: “The colonised adopted the coloniser’s way of life and tried to imitate it. According to Bhabha, through this mimicry the coloniser’s selfimage gets repeatedly undermined and the identity of the rulers as well, as the colonial discourse that legitimised their power was destabilised,” explains Dr Maier. What exactly does this mean? And how does this relate to the Romans? There were increased levels of immigration of non-Romans to Rome from around the middle of the 1st century AD, as well as a higher degree of mobility throughout the Roman Empire, leading to the mixing of cultures. The foreign presence in Rome for example is described by ancient authors Juvenal or Martial. In their texts, they make fun of those Romans who are bewildered

is a constant mixing of cultures in the Empire and new, hybrid identities are shaped continuously. So you can’t hold to the old, traditional Roman ideas of what is Roman and what is not,” explains Dr Maier. “He wanted to show that the Empire is more than the disconnected identities of the conquerors and the defeated peoples. This is why he changed the traditional iconography of Romans and non-Romans. And with his travels, he symbolically showed that the Empire is everywhere, not just in Rome.” Such policy is reflected in many of the measures he took, even the construction of Hadrian’s wall, which marked the northern boundary of Roman Britain. While a wall of course excludes some people, Dr Maier says Hadrian’s wall also made it clear that the southern part belonged to the Empire. “Walls – until today – have particular significance as spaces, they have an assertive meaning and are dialogic in the sense that they negotiate civic identities. Hadrian’s Wall figured as another expression of the emperor’s focus on a more unified Roman identity, projected through the construction of new buildings and monuments throughout the cities of the Roman empire during the reign of Hadrian.” Loyalty to the Roman Empire did not mean that local identities had to be erased however, and Hadrian was very much aware that every identity is multi-faceted, combining many different elements. This was reflected in his outlook and the way he ruled, believes Dr Maier. “There is evidence that Hadrian fostered local identities as much as the ‘global’ Roman identity of all inhabitants of the Roman Empire. As a historian, I want to gain deeper insights

I want to understand the often paradoxical dynamics of identities in a multicultural empire and to stimulate discussion about hidden aspects of social interactions that we have not properly understood. by hybrid identities, by Greek or Syrian elites who took on a ‘Roman’ appearance or by Roman senators who favoured the Greek way of life. “Established ideas of what was supposed to be Roman, or Greek, or non-Roman, were constantly changing,” says Dr Maier. Traditional ideas of Romanitas were undermined and ‘Being Roman’ could become something different from what it was considered to be previously. Thus, hybridity and mimicry, blurring established boundaries, also subverted the classic binary discourse of the conquering Romans and the conquered non-Romans. Hadrian developed his new policies and approach to the conquered people in the Empire against this background . “He realised that there

Unifying the Roman Empire Hadrian’s approach to new Roman identities.

Project Objectives

The project examines identities in the Roman empire by looking at discourses or ideologies through which an individual sense of self was expressed at around 100 AD. This study also analyses the reasons why the Roman emperor Hadrian established an imperial discourse that did not conceive the relation between Romans and nonRomans as conquerors and conquered but rather promoted the idea of a more equal relationship.

Project Funding

Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG) Project number 384930366

Contact Details

Project Director, Dr. Felix K. Maier Heisenberg-Stipendiat an der Universität Würzburg Institut für Geschichte Lehrstuhl für Alte Geschichte Residenzplatz 2, Tor A (Südflügel) 97070 Würzburg T: +49 931 35830906 E: W: : Dr Felix K Maier

Project Director Dr Felix K Maier is holder of the Heisenberg fellowship at chair for Ancient History at the University of Würzburg (Germany). His main research areas are Greek and Roman historiography, identities in the Roman Empire and imperial representation in Late Antiquity.

into what motivated Hadrian to act in the way that he did,” he outlines. The different strands of research will be brought together in a book which Dr Maier is currently working on, which he hopes will help encourage debate about Hadrian. “But Hadrian’s motivations are just the start. I want to understand the often paradoxical dynamics of identities in a multicultural empire and to stimulate discussion about hidden aspects of social interactions that we have not properly understood. Although Hadrian’s times are completely different to our times, there are some important questions which relate to today’s world in which mechanisms of social and political distinction also lead to open or concealed conflicts,” he says.


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