Imperial symbols and public image

Today it is Emperor Hadrian’s birthday. Born on January 24th, 76 CE, in Italica, Spain, he would become Emperor 41 years later.

Hadrian left his mark all over the Roman Empire, but he was especially partial to the Greek cities that he favored with special decrees and endowed with several buildings.

According to ancient sources, Hadrian was well-educated and showed a particular interest in Greek letters and culture. He was also interested in architecture. However, by far his favorite activities were travelling and hunting.

His era is marked by a stabilization of the Empire’s frontiers and the promotion of greater cohesion within it. Whereas Hadrian is described as a peaceful Emperor, he did not neglect either the training of the Empire’s legionaries or the defense of the Empire.

Authority portraits

Portraits of the Emperor stood in every city of the Empire. In many of those, Hadrian is shown like a military officer, fully armed. Since he was the supreme military leader of the Empire this is hardly surprising; his armed figure served to affirm his ability as a military commander as well as to reassure his subjects of his ability guarantee the security of the Empire.

His symbols – the established theory

In several of his statues, Hadrian wears a cuirass (breastplate) that is easily recognizable as his own, so distinctly unlike those of other Emperors. It shows the Greek goddess Athena in its centre, being crowned by winged representations of Victory. The goddess is shown standing on the she-wolf of Rome, who in turn is suckling the twins Romulus and Remus. As far as I know, statues of this type have been found only in the eastern half of the Roman Empire.

According to the established view, the position of Athena on top of the mythical nurse of Rome’s founders apparently symbolizes the superiority of Greece over Rome, while at the same time demonstrating that the former needs the support of the latter. According to this interpretation, the scene was chosen to represent the Emperor’s Graecophile policies and symbolizes both his relationship with his Alma Mater, Athens, and his policy, which aimed at a harmonious fusion of Greek and Roman culture.

The other view

However, there is another interpretation, according to which the symbolism of Hadrian’s statues is less about his love for things Greek and more about displaying his military prowess in events that caused great turmoil within the Empire during his reign.

For instance, in some of his statues, next to the form of the Emperor one can see a figure in clothes that obviously do not follow Graeco-Roman fashions, such as leggings. The position and bondage of these forms shows them to be defeated enemies. For instance, a statue from Knossos (now in the Museum of Herakleion) cannot be thought of symbolising anything but military success. The winged Victories on the breastplate stand on the bodies of defeated enemies, whereas another such form, next to the Emperor’s right leg, is shown kneeling, a position clearly indicating defeat.


In another statue of the same era, in Thessalonica, which is also attributed to Hadrian, the picture becomes clearer: the winged Victories are shown arranging a battle trophy. Below the trophy, two figures in barbaric garb, with hands tied behind their backs are obviously defeated enemies.

Yet another statue (from Crete, now in Istanbul) is even bolder in speaking of military success. The Emperor is shown actually stepping on a defeated enemy, while his fierce look is probably meant to convey his determination in crushing any and all enemies. Another such statue, in Piraeus, must belong to the same type, as what is left of the left leg is raised, probably stepping on another barbarian.

The reason behind the militaristic symbolism

It seems then almost certain that such statues of Hadrian were meant to convey an impression of military success. Since Hadrian was an Emperor acclaimed as peace-loving and never launched a single campaign to expand the Empire’s borders, what might this success be?

The only major wars that Hadrian faced during his reign were both within the borders of the Empire. The first one was the Rebellion of the Diaspora, also known as the Kitos War. It broke out in 115, two years before the Emperor rose to power and was crushed before that year was out. The second, the Bar Kokhba revolt, broke out in 132 and was crushed three years later. Both uprisings wrought havoc to the eastern parts of the Empire, especially the areas of Egypt, Cyprus, Judaea and Cyrenaica (North Africa). The first resulted in a staggering death toll, rising to several hundred thousand, whereas the second resulted in the exile of the Jewish people from Judaea.

If the theory is correct, then the depiction of Athena crowned by victories, assumes a clear military symbolism. It is no longer about (or merely about) the supremacy of Greek culture, but about the Emperor’s victories against elements within the Empire that refused to embrace Graeco-Roman culture and could thus be considered threats to the cohesion and stability of the Empire.

Seen in this light, there may be yet another symbolism, underlying all the others. Through the presence of Athena, Hadrian may have wished to allude to the Persian wars, in an effort to connect his own struggles against some barbarians from the East with those of the Greeks, six centuries earlier.

We may never learn for certain which particular symbolism (political, military or cultural) the Emperor wished to communicate to his subjects. Yet the fact remains that the permanent presence of Athena in the middle of his breastplate, reveals that her city, Athens, was particularly important to him both as part of his public image and as a symbol of the value system he wished to promote.


Note: the images from the Ancient Agora and from Istanbul are not mine. They have been slightly edited and resized. All rights belong to their owners.


2 comments on “Imperial symbols and public image

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.