Hadrian was a dedicated philhellene who admired Greek culture and did his best to be accepted and admired by the Greeks. He visited Greece three times as emperor (AD 124/5, 128/9 and 131/2), and he was especially fond of Athens. The philhellenic emperor did all he could to raise Athens to a special position in the Roman Empire and hoped to restore the city to the greatness of its distant past. Pausanias writes that “the Emperor Hadrian’s generosity to his subjects was bestowed most of all on Athens”, whilst Cassius Dio tells about Hadrian’s generosity in a passage referring to his stay: “He granted the Athenians large sums of money, an annual dole of grain, and the whole of Cephallenia”.
Before becoming emperor, the Athenians gave him Athenian citizenship and elected him archon eponymous, their chief official, in AD 112. The city of Athens honoured him with a bronze statue in the Theatre of Dionysus in Athens.
As emperor, Hadrian returned to Greece in early autumn AD 124, in time to be initiated into the Eleusinian mysteries and again in late summer of 128 together with Antinous. In March of 125, he presided as agonothetes (superintendent of the sacred games) at the Greater Dionysia, the ancient dramatic festival held in Athens in honour of Dionysus. A new era began upon Hadrian’s first visit as emperor, and a thirteenth tribe called “Hadrianis” was added. It is said that twelve statues of Hadrian were set up in the Theatre of Dionysus by the twelve tribes of Athens, one statue by each tribe. The inscriptions on the bases of four of these statues have been found in the theatre.
The Theatre of Dionysus
The theatre of Dionysos Eleuthereus on the south slope of the Acropolis of Athens was first built in the 6th century BC. It is the oldest Greek theatre but was modified and expanded over the centuries. The invasion of the Romans under Sulla in 86 BC caused severe damage to the building. Restoration work was subsequently carried out in the 1st century AD during the reign of Emperor Nero when a new two-storey skene was created in place of the old one. However, according to A. Karivieri in Greek Romans and Roman Greeks, it was Hadrian who built the monumental scaenae frons with reliefs depicting the life of Dionysus we see today. A. Karivieri summarises Hadrian’s benefactions to Athens and the emperor’s association with Zeus, Theseus, and Dionysus through the iconographic program of the scaenae frons of the Theatre of Dionysus. Hadrian assimilated himself with Dionysus in these reliefs. He was the new Dionysus (neos Dionysos), the new founder of Athens.
Many of Hadrian’s benefactions to Athens have been dated to his 3rd visit in AD 131/2. Hadrian added a new quarter to the city of Athens, located to the east of the old city. Ancient authors, like the Greek traveller Pausanias, give a first-hand account of Hadrian’s benefactions to Athens.
The Temple of Olympian Zeus
Among his most ambitious projects was the completion of the vast Temple of Olympian Zeus, a project begun over six hundred years earlier by the Athenian tyrant Peisistratos but soon abandoned when the tyranny was overthrown. Only the platform and some elements of the columns had been completed by this point, and the temple remained in this state for 336 years. It was not until 174 BC that the Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes revived the project with new designs by the Roman architect Cosssutius.
The new temple followed its predecessor’s plan but used the Corinthian order and Pentelic marble instead of poros stone—however, the project ground to a halt again in 164 BC with the death of Antiochus. The temple was still only half-finished by this stage.
Sulla’s sack of Athens inflicted severe damage on the temple in 86 BC. While looting the city, Sulla seized some of the incomplete columns and transported them back to Rome, where they were re-used in the Temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill. Further work was carried out during Augustus’ reign, but it was not until the accession of Hadrian in the 2nd century AD that the project was finally completed about 638 years after it had begun. Hadrian attended its dedication ceremony in the winter of AD 131.
Today, only fifteen of the 104 massive 17.25 meters high columns (57 ft) remain standing. A sixteenth column from the Temple of Zeus was torn down by the Voevode of Athens in 1759 and was left where it fell. According to Pausanias, the cella housed a colossal chryselephantine (ivory and gold) statue of Zeus, which “[exceeded] all other statues in size except the Colossi of Rhodes and Rome” (1.18.6). Pausanias also tells about a colossal statue of Hadrian erected by the Athenians behind the temple.
While the temple was originally dedicated to Zeus, it became a centre for the imperial cult. Zeus and Hadrian were worshipped here as symbomoi theoi (sharing the same altar), and many statues and dedications adorned the enclosure. Hadrian was therefore associated with Zeus and received the epithet “Olympios” (Ἁδριανὸν Ὀλύμπιον). More than 50 bases for Hadrian have been found in Athens, 30 of these in the Olympieion alone.
In addition to statue pedestals, small altars bearing dedicatory inscriptions to Hadrian were also set up in the Olympieion. These altars took different forms, but all had the same brief dedicatory inscription: “To the Saviour and Founder Emperor Hadrian, the Olympian”. This dedication was orchestrated in AD 131/2 when Hadrian inaugurated the Olympieion, founded the Panhellenion and established the Panhellenia Games.
The Roman Bath House
To the north of the Olympeion are preserved the ruins of a large bath complex built at the time of Hadrian, between AD 124 and 131, with superb mosaic floors, coloured marble slabs (opus sectile), and marble revetment on the walls. In the north wing were the entrance, a nymphaeum with a small fountain, waiting rooms, and changing rooms, while the bathing facilities stood in the south wing.
The bathhouse was used until at least the end of the 7th century AD, as is attested by the coins found on its floor, with the octagonal room probably used as a baptistery in association with the basilica built nearby.
Pausanias lists more Hadrianic buildings near the Olympieion; a Temple of Kronos and Rhea and a ground sacred to Olympian Earth, Gaia (1.18.7).
Also mentioned by Pausanias are other Hadrianic constructions in Athens; a gymnasium with one hundred columns of Libyan marble (from Simitthu in Tunisia), a Temple of Hera Panhellenia and Zeus Panhellenios, a new library and a Pantheon, a “sanctuary common to all the gods”. The latter has been partially excavated on Odos Adrianou, some fifty metres east of the Library and the Roman Agora. However, it is also believed to be the Panhellenion, a meeting place of the deputies of city-states, work of Hadrian as well.
The Library of Hadrian
One of Hadrian’s most impressive and luxurious buildings is the so-called Library of Hadrian. Pausanias describes it as “a hundred columns of Phrygian marble, with walls built just like the columns, and pavilions with gilded roof work and alabaster, decorated with statues and paintings. Books are kept in them” (1.18.9).
The complex -which measured about 120 metres long and 78 metres wide (400 x 260ft)- consisted of a square, enclosed garden with an ornamental pool in the middle surrounded by porticoes and a series of rooms at the eastern end which housed a library of papyri and lecture rooms.
The entrance on the west side was richly decorated with Corinthian columns and a four-column propylon. The complex functioned as a library as well as a cultural centre.
The library of Hadrian was seriously damaged during the sack of Athens in AD 267 by the Germanic Heruli tribe. It was subsequently incorporated into the Late Roman fortification wall (post-Herulian city wall).
In the 5th century, a church was built in the courtyard’s centre. During the Ottoman occupation, it became the seat of the Voevode of Athens (Ottoman Governor), and in 1835 it was incorporated into the barracks built by King Otto of Greece.
The library proper was the central room behind the east colonnade with rows of niches holding wooden cases with shelves for the scrolls.
The Roman Agora
The remains of the Roman Agora, the centre of the city’s commercial activity during Roman times, are located a short distance to the south of the Library. All the commercial activities, including the oil trade, were transferred there. The building was almost square in shape, with an internal colonnade that accommodated the shops. It had two entries: the Eastern was of the Ionic order, and the western one of the Doric order is known as “The Gate of Archigetis Athena”. The court of the Roman Agora was paved with slabs during the reign of Hadrian, and various repairs were done on the entire internal peristyle. This restoration and ornamentation of the Agora should be connected with Hadrian’s new constructions at the so-called Library of Hadrian and Pantheon.
A decree of Hadrian regulating the sale of olive oil, an important branch of Attic commerce, is engraved on the north jamb of the doorway of the Gate of Athena Archegetis, which served as the main entrance to the Roman Market. The decree states that oil producers shall deliver 1/3 of their production in taxes. Its aim was also to reassure that the city would always have sufficient olive oil for sale. The top line reads KE NO ΘE AΔPIANOY: “chief points from the law-giving of Hadrian”.
The Arch of Hadrian
A monumental gateway resembling – in some respects – a Roman triumphal arch was erected in AD 131 to honour Hadrian for his many benefactions to the city on the occasion of the dedication of the Temple of Olympian Zeus. It is not certain who commissioned the arch, although it is probable that the citizens of Athens or another Greek group were responsible for its construction and design. Two inscriptions were carved on the architrave, facing opposite directions, naming both Theseus and Hadrian as founders of Athens. The arch was strategically placed so that people coming from the Agora went through the arch and could read the text on the west and the east when returning from the Olympieion.
The inscription on the eastern side of the arch (facing the Olympieion) states: “This is the city of Hadrian and not of Theseus”. The inscription on the western side of the arch (facing the Acropolis) states: This is Athens, the ancient [or former?] city of Theseus.” (IG II² 5185)
Some scholars have traditionally interpreted the inscriptions as meaning that the arch stood at the boundaries of “old Athens” (to the west) and “new Athens” or “Hadrianoupolis” (to the southeast). Other scholars have proposed that the inscriptions, rather than dividing Athens into an old city of Theseus and a new city of Hadrian (Hadrianopolis), claim the entire city as a re-foundation by the emperor, suggesting that the inscription should be read “This is Athens the former city of Theseus”.
The Greek Agora
A headless statue of Hadrian stands in the Greek Agora, the civic heart of Athens, which was originally placed on a rectangular pedestal in front of the Hadrianic Nymphaeum. A striking scene is depicted on the cuirass; Athena standing on the back of the she-wolf suckling Romulus and Remus, an allegory for Hadrian’s vision of the Athenian cultural heritage nourished by Roman rule. Athena is flanked by two winged Victories emphasising the importance of Athens. This statue shows Hadrian’s relation to both Athens and Rome. In addition, around 30 altars have been reported as found near the Agora and the Temple of Hephaestus/Theseion.
To respond to the city’s fundamental need for water, Hadrian commissioned the building of a new aqueduct. The aqueduct consisted primarily of an underground tunnel at a length of over twenty-five kilometres. Its construction started in AD 125 and was completed fifteen years later, in 140, during the reign of Antoninus Pius.
It was designed to transfer water towards the city and collect it through several smaller catchment works along the way. It continued to supply Athens with water until the twentieth century. Archaeological remains may still be found, notably two water bridges in Nea Ionia, underground shafts at the Olympic Village and the water reservoir on Lycabettus Hill in Athens. A dedicatory inscription on the architrave mentioned that Antoninus Pius completed and inaugurated the aqueduct. The left side of the inscribed architrave is kept today in the National Garden.
At Monastiraki metro station, we can admire the archaeological ruins found during the construction work. These are the remains of a stream of the river Eridanos and various settlements dating from the 8th century BC (Geometric period) to the 19th century. In the late Classical period of Athens, the river bed (2.60 m wide) was secured by walls of large blocks of conglomerate. Under Hadrian, the river was roofed by a brick vault, covered with earth and converted into a sewer. The main reasons for its canalisation were the river’s constant flow and unstable route through the centre of the densely populated city.
Hadrian certainly left his mark all over the country, especially in Athens, which benefited greatly from its imperial patron. As a whole, Hadrian’s gifts to Athens united Greece solidly under Roman control while reaffirming the city as a centre of culture and education.
Location of Hadrianic buildings:
- Pausanias, Description of Greece, Volume 1: Central Greece, translated by Peter Levi (Penguin Classics 1971)
- Anthony R. Birley Hadrian: The Restless Emperor (Routledge 1997)
- Boatwright, M. T. Further Thoughts on Hadrianic Athens http://www.ascsa.edu.gr/pdf/uploads/hesperia/147788.pdf
- Boatwright, M. T. Hadrian And The Cities Of The Roman Empire (Princeton Universtiy Press 2000)
- Benjamin, A. S. 1963. The Altars of Hadrian in Athens and Hadrian’s Panhellenic Program. Hesperia 32 (1): 57-86.
- Arja Karivieri Just One of the Boys – Hadrian in the Company of Zeus, Dionysus and Theseus in Greek Romans and Roman Greeks (Aarhus Universtiy Press 2002)
- Christopher Mee and Antony Spawforth Greece An Oxford Archaeological Guide (Oxford University Press 2001)
10 thoughts on “Exploring Hadrian’s Athens”
Very nice. I’ve seen most things in Athens, but this fills in some details I missed.
Your photography is beautiful!
It’s funny, I’ve been to these places many times (I live locally) but without full understanding of some of the sites. Thank you for sharing, your post is very informative! 🙂
excellent work. bravissima!
Hi Carole, Thanks for these superb photo’s. which bring out more detail of what I have many times seen. How long are you in Athens, do you think you will have time to come to Crete ? If so let me know I live Agios Nikolaos area. Maybe we could meet.
Hi Rita, I am already back home from Athens. I am planning to come back to Crete next year. I visited Agios Nikolaos in 2004 so I know the area where you live. I think I might come next Easter. I will keep you updated.
Also, notice the Tower of the Winds in the background of the picture “The colonnade on the east side of the courtyard of the Roman Agora, Athens” which is rather special.
beautiful photography. i’ve been to all these except the aqueduct. would kill to go again. it was a high point of my life. i kissed the Propyleia’s steps and cried up on the Parthenon plateau. not ashamed to admit. lol
Thanks for your detailed article! I travelled to Athens (and Europe) for the first time in my life this June. Here is a poem that I wrote today about my experience at Hadrian’s Library (and the Roman Agora). I’m new to Word Press, and will post all my 2017 travel articles (about England, France and Greece) once I finish writing.
A Scholar’s Morning at the Bibliostasio in Hadrian’s Library
Written by George Wordsworth, 25 Sep 2017
In this building of knowledge, I feel comfortable
To wander among the shelves of books invaluable.
Though not too big and wide
Its serenity convinces me to put my worries aside.
Here is a copy of Hesiod’s Works and Days,
And here is Julius Caesar’s Commentaries on the Gallic War.
Hippocrates’ medicine is well prescribed to heal sores,
In this astronomical book by Ptolemy, coherent points are raised.
Papyri of the rituals of Amun-Ra sit quietly there,
Scrolls of the Torah lying not far as I’m aware.
Phoenician atlas are detailed, with their ‘alpha’ like an ox,
And civil contracts in cuneiform were inscribed on mud and rocks.
If I never had a chance to converse with Plato and Cicero,
This would be the second best place that I want to frequent.
With myriads of information either timeless or current,
That emboldens our belief and sanctifies what we know.
Look! The dusty scroll of Revelation in that corner,
By St. John the Theologian in Patmos, is the document I am after.
Let me transcribe this papyrus in the room next door
Treading the colourful marbles that pave the floor.
How many of the books here can withstand the test of time,
Unlike their hapless fellows in Alexandria, burnt by anger and crime?
Or like Linear A and Linear B, simply being lost and forgotten,
Which will be today’s lecture topic at the Northeast Auditorium.
I will stay here until the Tower of the Winds strikes twelve,
At which time I shall have lunch and bathe at a bathhouse
Outside the Gate of Athena Archegetis;
And then hear the latest court cases at the Basilica.
I visited the National Garden in February of 2018. When I returned home I was intrigued by the inscription on the Fragment from the lintel from Hadrians Reservoir that I had found amongst my photographs. I found this site when researching its history. Many Thanks!