Marcus Aurelius on Hadrian

Hadrian

In book one of The Meditations, Marcus Aurelius lists the traits and virtues he most admired in sixteen of his tutors and family members. The person he has by far the most to say about is his adoptive father, Emperor Antoninus Pius, who served as his main role model as emperor. However, Marcus has nothing to say about the virtues of Emperor Hadrian, his adoptive grandfather.

I talk in more detail about the ways in which Marcus apparently sought to be different from Hadrian, and more like Antoninus Pius, in my book How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius. Many of the things Marcus says he admires about Antoninus can be viewed as implicit criticisms of Hadrian, despite the fact he’s passing over him in silence.

Nevertheless, Marcus does mention Hadrian elsewhere in The Meditations, albeit mainly to illustrate the transience of all things including human life. Hadrian died over three decades before the time when The Meditations was presumably written.

Although Marcus knew Hadrian as a child, his name now sounds old-fashioned as if it refers to a bygone era.

The everyday expressions of earlier times are now archaic; and likewise the names of those who were highly acclaimed in earlier ages are now, in a sense, archaic; Camillus, Caeso, Volesus, Dentatus, and a little later, Scipio too and Cato, and then Augustus also, and then Hadrian and Antoninus. For all things are swift to fade and become mere matter for tales, and swiftly too complete oblivion covers their every trace. And here I am speaking of those who shone forth with a wonderful brightness; as for all the rest, the moment that they breathed their last, they were ‘out of sight, out of mind’. And what does it amount to, in any case, everlasting remembrance? Sheer vanity and nothing more. What, then, is worthy of our striving? This alone, a mind governed by justice, deeds directed to the common good, words that never lie, and a disposition that welcomes all that happens, as necessary, as familiar, as flowing from the same kind of origin and spring. (4.33)

Here again, Hadrian is used along with Augustus as an example of a man of great importance who is nevertheless now dead and gone.

First of all, be untroubled in your mind; for all things come about as universal nature would have them, and in a short while you will be no one and nowhere, as are Hadrian and Augustus. And next, keep your eyes fixed on the matter in hand and observe it well, remembering that it is your duty to be a good person, and that whatever human nature demands, you must fulfil without the slightest deviation and in the manner that seems most just to you; only do so with kindness and modesty, and without false pretences. (8.5)

Here Hadrian’s death is mentioned and that he was buried by a man called Celer. Domitia Lucilla was Marcus’ mother and Marcus Annius Verus his father.

Lucilla buried Verus, and Lucilla’s turn came next […] Antoninus buried Faustina, and his own turn came next. And so it goes on, ever the same: Celer buried Hadrian, and Celer’s turn came next. […] All creatures of a day, and dead long ago; some not remembered even for a passing moment, others becoming the stuff of legend, and others again fading from legend at this very time. So remember this, that either this compound which makes you up must be dispersed, or else your breath of life must be extinguished or be removed from here and stationed somewhere else. (8.25)

Here Marcus refers to men called Chabrias and Diotimus mourning the death of Hadrian.

Pantheia or Pergamos, are they still sitting by the coffin of Verus? Or Chabrias or Diotimus by that of Hadrian? What an absurd thought. And even if they were, would the dead be aware of it? And if they became aware of it, would it bring them any pleasure? And if it brought them pleasure, would their mourners be immortal? Or were they not fated like others first to become old women and old men, and then to die? So what would the dead do afterwards, when their mourners had passed away? (8.37)

Finally, Marcus actually encourages himself to visualize the court of Hadrian and notice how the same things come about over and over again throughout history, albeit in different guises.

Constantly reflect on how all that comes about at present came about just the same in days gone by, and reflect that it will continue to do so in the future; and set before your eyes whole dramas and scenes ever alike in their nature which you have known from your own experience or the records of earlier ages, the whole court of Hadrian, say, or of Antoninus, the whole court of Philip, or Alexander, or Croesus; for in every case the play was the same, and only the actors were different. (10.27)

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  1. Hadrian’s wall, like many similar devices, was a failure, interesting but not as spectacular as the Great Wall of China. There just wasn’t the manpower to emulate that. It’s only fuctionnwas to partially demarcate the border between Scotland and England which couldn’t keep the barberous Picts and Scots out of Roman territory. The Roman army was left to do that. Now ascots have no very good reason to go south.

    As far as Marcus Aurelius was concerned, he was close to the “philosopher king” Plato dreamt of but his politics were faulty as far as the imperial succession was concerned. So hard to control a spoiled child after one is dead.

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