Invaders from the West
. . .
This is a tale of two families and an orphaned boy.
The Aelii and the Ulpii had the usual share of irritations and friendships, marriages and estrangements, and their influence on the child lasted for his entire life. He was called Publius Aelius Hadrianus Afer, and he was born on the ninth day before the Kalends of February in the year when the consuls were the emperor Vespasian and his son Titus—that is to say, January 24, a.d. 76. Hadrian (for this is the English version of his name) first saw the light of day in Rome, but his hometown was far away, on the extreme edge of the Roman empire.
Andalusia, in southern Spain, is well sited, for it is the bridge between Europe and Africa and its coastline joins the Mediterranean Sea to the Atlantic Ocean. For many centuries it has been among the poorest regions of Europe. Farm laborers there are still among the worst paid in the Continent.
Barren lands and snowcapped mountains alternate with fertile fields watered by the Guadalquivir River, which rolls down the wide valley it wore away from rock through prehistoric millennia and pours itself into the main. A few miles upstream of the fine city of Seville is the undistinguished little settlement of Santiponce. Here, way below tarmac, apartment buildings, and roadside cafes, below the feet of its more than seven thousand inhabitants, lie hidden from view the unexcavated remains of Roman Italica. The population then was about the same as that of today, and the Aelii were among the leading families of this provincial backwater. This was little Hadrian’s patria, his place of origin.
On an eminence overlooking Santiponce, the splendid ruins of New Italica, added on to the original town by the adult Hadrian much later in his life, bake in the sun. Wide avenues, lined with the footings of vanished shady colonnades, crisscross a vast scrubby field, once an opulent and busy urban center but now populated only by a few dusty, undecided butterflies. Along a main street are the foundations of a public baths complex and the mosaic floor, displaying the signs of the zodiac, of a rich man’s villa. Through tall trees, the visitor glimpses one of the empire’s largest amphitheaters, all of it still in place except for some fallen upper arches.
Today’s Andalusia is beginning to recover its long-vanished prosperity, thanks to a revived democracy and membership in the European Union. From a viewing platform over which a nude statue of the emperor Trajan presides, new, snaking motorways look as if they are tying a knot around the ancient monuments; and nearby yet another Italica, this time “Nueva,” is rising from the ground. Blinding white high-rises and empty streets await their first occupants.
Two thousand years ago the region was among the wealthiest of the Roman empire. The Latin name for the Guadalquivir was the Baetis, and the province was called Baetica after it. The great geographer Strabo, writing in the first quarter of the first century a.d., had little time for most of Spain, which he found rugged, inhospitable, and an “exceedingly miserable place to live.” But Baetica was a different story.
Turdetania [another name for Baetica, after its aboriginal inhabitants] is marvelously blessed by nature; and while it produces all things, and in large quantities, these blessings are doubled by the facilities for exporting goods, [including] large quantities of grain and wine, and also olive oil, not only in large quantities, but also of the best quality.
Olive oil sold exceptionally well. A staple of the ancient world, it was part of everyone’s diet as well as being used for indoor lighting, cosmetics, soap equivalents, and medicine. Demand from a large city such as Rome was huge (perhaps as many as 5 million gallons a year were consumed), and Baetican landowners sold as much as they could produce.
Evidence for this is provided by the largest rubbish dump of the classical world, Monte Testaccio in Rome—an artificial hill 165 feet high and 1,100 yards wide composed entirely of broken-up amphorae, or earthenware storage jars, perhaps 45 million in all. They were often stamped with their contents and exporters’ names; most of those from Baetica contained oil, and it has been estimated that 130,000 of them, having contained not less than 2 million gallons, were deposited on the hill every year. Among the largest oil producers of southern Spain were the Aelii.
An Aelius first came to Italica when it was founded during Rome’s second long war with the merchant city-state of Carthage; strategically located on the coast of what is now Tunisia, in northern Africa, Carthage had dominated trade in the western Mediterranean for centuries.
For a long time the struggle went very badly. Hannibal, the Carthaginian general and one of history’s great commanders, spent more than ten years marching up and down Italy, winning battle after battle. At the time southern Spain was a Carthaginian colony, and the twenty-four-year-old Publius Cornelius Scipio led an expeditionary force there. After a masterly campaign, the young commander provoked a battle a few miles from Italica. Despite being outnumbered, he won a complete victory, interrupted only by a downpour. The battered and drenched Carthaginians tried to escape, but Scipio followed after and butchered them. Only six thousand men survived from a force of more than fifty thousand.
Scipio went on to invade Carthage itself, where he routed Hannibal on his home ground. The war was over, and the triumphant general was honored with a title to add to his ordinary names—Africanus.
A large number of sick and wounded legionaries were left behind in Spain and were settled in the new town of Italica, named after Italy. This was not, or not just, a case of convenient abandonment of veterans who had become a liability; once recovered, they would make themselves useful by keeping an eye on the locals, introducing them to the Roman way of life, and, in case of unrest, using military force.
Our Aelius, whose hometown was Hadria, about ten miles from the sea on Italy’s eastern coast, was among the human detritus of the war. How happy he was to be deposited permanently in a foreign land far from home cannot be determined. However, his children and his children’s children settled into the agreeable task of making money and rising in the world.
For about 150 years we have no news of the Aelii. Baetica prospered and, attracted by economic opportunity, immigrants from Italy poured in. Then in 49 b.c. civil war broke out in Rome. This was a struggle to the death between a charming, unscrupulous, and farsighted politician and general, Gaius Julius Caesar, and the aristocratic establishment that ran the Roman Republic. Most of the leading personalities in Italica had the ill judgment or the ill luck to choose the losing side. More than ten thousand men with an Italian background joined up to serve in the Republican army. Roman legions twice fought each other on Spanish soil and twice Caesar won; the second of these campaigns won him the war, too.
At about this time Hadrian’s great-great-great-grandfather, a certain Aelius Marullinus, was the first member of the family to become a senator. He was more astute than his compatriots, for the promotion can only have been at the victorious Caesar’s behest, a reward for loyalty.
Hadrian’s father—like him, named Publius Aelius Hadrianus Afer—was born a century later and married a woman from Gades, Domitia Paulina. Gades had been founded and colonized by Phoenicians from Tyre and Sidon on the Palestinian coast, just as Carthage had been. Some passing member of the great Roman clan of the Domitii must have conferred Roman citizenship on an ancestor, but Paulina’s origins were most likely to have been Punic (a Roman term for Carthaginian). The couple had two children, Hadrian and an elder daughter.
Aelius Hadrianus was among the growing number of wealthy Baeticans who decided to pursue political ambitions in Rome. Little has come down to us about his career, but he was evidently intelligent and able. He served in the senior post of praetor, probably in the year of his son’s birth. The authorities must have thought well of him, for he was probably only about twenty-nine or thirty years old, the minimum qualifying age for the praetorship. As praetor he either acted as a judge in Rome or received a commission to command a legion. This may have been followed by a provincial governorship (possibly in Baetica itself).
The Aelii were friendly with the Ulpii, another of Italica’s leading clans. The historian Dio Cassius, writing in the third century a.d., claimed dismissively that the Ulpii were of Spanish origin; they did not even have Italian or Greek blood from southern Italy in their veins, let alone Roman. But they, too, were probably among the town’s first settlers and originated from Tuder (today’s Todi), a hill town in northern Umbria, in those days celebrated for its martial valor.
Hadrian’s paternal grandfather married an Ulpia. This was an excellent match, for her brother was Marcus Ulpius Traianus (the cognomen doubtless derived from a marriage with one of the Traii, a Baetican clan with an interest in the mass production of amphorae). Traianus had once been governor of Baetica, and at the time of Hadrian’s birth was serving as governor of Syria, one of Rome’s most senior provincial posts. He had with him on his staff his talented and affable son—in the Roman way, also Marcus Ulpius Traianus, whom we know as Trajan.
Copyright © 2009 by Anthony Everitt. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.