Antioch, Hadrian1900, Roman Army, Syria, Turkey

11 August AD 117 – Hadrian is proclaimed emperor in Antioch (#Hadrian1900)

On 11 August AD 117, the news of Trajan’s death in Selinus reached the 41-year-old Hadrian at Syrian Antioch, where he was stationed as provincial governor. The army of Syria immediately hailed its legate as Imperator. 11 August was to be celebrated as Hadrian’s dies imperii (the anniversary of his accession as emperor).

On the third day before the Ides of August he [Hadrian] received the news of Trajan’s death, and this day he appointed as the anniversary of his accession. HA Hadr. 4.7

During the previous night, Dio relates that Hadrian dreamt that he was touched by a fire from heaven but was left unharmed. Hadrian took prophecies and omens seriously and related these to his rise to power.

He [Hadrian] had dreamed before the day in question that a fire descended out of heaven, the day being perfectly clear and bright, and fell first upon the left side of his throat, passing then to the right side, though it neither frightened nor injured him. Dio Cassius, 68, 2

On becoming emperor, Hadrian had serious difficulties to overcome before being accepted as the new ruler of the Roman Empire. In addition to the rumours that had arisen from the murky circumstances surrounding his accession (see here), the new emperor faced instability in the east.

At the time of Trajan’s death, the Roman empire had reached its greatest development with the incorporation of Armenia and Mesopotamia as new provinces. Realising the untenable position that the annexation of Mesopotamia had created, Hadrian decided not to follow in the footsteps of his adoptive father. Indeed, Trajan’s adventures in the East ultimately failed, and the costs involved drained the public finances. Within a few days of assuming power, Hadrian decided to withdraw the troops from Trajan’s new provinces beyond the Euphrates, returning Mesopotamia and Armenia to their client kings. Meanwhile, the last pockets of resistance left over from the so-called Kitos War (the Jewish uprisings in Cyrenaica, Cyprus and Egypt –tumultu Iudaico- that broke out in AD 115) had to be quelled.

The extent of the Roman Empire under Trajan in AD 117.
By Tataryn – CC BY-SA 3.0,

Hadrian took other urgent measures once he became emperor. As reported in the HA, he dismissed Trajan’s favourite, the Moorish general Lusius Quietus, from his position as governor of Judaea because “he had fallen under the suspicion of having designs on the throne”. By removing him from authority, the new emperor probably thought he was securing his own position, but this action later caused civil disturbances in the province of Mauretania (modern-day Morocco). Other potential opponents were disposed of; “[Quintus] Baebius Macer, the prefect of the city, in case he opposed his elevation to power, also [Marcius] Laberius Maximus, then in exile on an island under suspicion of designs on the throne, and likewise [Marcus Licinius] Crassus Frugi“. In addition, Hadrian appointed Catilius Severus, a close friend of Pliny the Younger, as his successor as governor of Syria. These numerous removals and replacements of high-ranking officers later caused anger among the generals most loyal to Trajan, four of whom may have started to conspire against the new Emperor.

Finally, a double donative was paid to the soldiers to ensure their loyalty.

He gave a double donative to the soldiers in order to ensure a favourable beginning to his principate HA Hadr. 5.7

It was only after taking these measures that Hadrian set out from Antioch to view the remains of Trajan, who had died three days earlier on 8th August (read related post here). The news of the events unfolding in the east was conveyed to Rome by letters. It would be another few weeks before the report of Trajan‘s death, and Hadrian‘s acclamation at Antioch reached the Senate in Rome.

Hadrian, AV Aureus. AD 117, Rome.
The reverse type of Oriens may refer to the new emperor who had arisen in the East or viewed as a celebration of the end to the Jewish rebellion that had ravaged the eastern provinces.
© 2017 Trustees of the British Museum

Hadrian had been governor (legatus Augusti pro praetore) of Syria in Antioch (Latin: Antiochia ad Orontem), succeeding Julius Quadratus Bassus, who had assumed the position since the beginning of the Trajan’s Parthian expedition. He was also designated as consul ordinarus for the year 118.

He [Hadrian] enjoyed, too, the favour of Plotina, and it was due to her interest in him that later, at the time of the campaign against Parthia, he was appointed the legate of the Emperor. HA Hadr. 4.1

Antioch was the seat of the Roman governors in Syria, one of the largest, most populated and most economically important provinces. Hadrian was in command of the army of the east, which was said to be the greatest concentration of Roman legions ever known. During the height of the imperial period, Antioch had at its disposal four full legions, plus a detachment of the fleet stationed at Seleucia Pieria.

Antiochia ad Orontem on the Tabula Peutingeriana. Antioch is represented by Tyche, seated on an elaborate throne. Her left-hand rests on the head of a naked youth representing the river god Orontes who is pouring water from a pitcher, perhaps symbolizing the springs of Daphne.

Antioch was founded in 300 BC by Seleucus Nicator, a general of Alexander the Great, on a site chosen by a prodigy (something extraordinary regarded as of prophetic significance). As Seleucus was completing a sacrifice to Zeus on Mount Casius, an eagle appeared from the sky, seized a piece of the sacrificial meat and dropped it at the spot that later became Antioch. As recorded by the 6th century AD chronicler John Malalas, a native from Antioch,  the event occurred on the 22nd day of Artemisius (the month of May) in the first hour of the day.

Portrait of Seleucus I Nicator, king of Syria (358–280 BC), 1st or 2nd century AD, from Syria, Louvre Museum

Referring to the foundation of the city, a tetradrachm of Hadrian struck in Antioch shows an eagle on the obverse holding tight a sacrificial animal in its talons.

Tetradrachm of Antiochia ad Orontem, Syria. Dated consulship 2 (AD 118). Prieur 156.
Coin from my own collection.

The only reminder of the Hellenistic city is a monumental rock carving known to 6th-century AD locals as the Charonion. The stone bust was carved into the mountainside on Mount Starius, looking out over the city under Antiochus IV (175–163 BC). The limestone carving is more than 4.5 metres high and wears a veil. A whole (badly weathered) smaller draped figure stands on Charonion’s right shoulder. According to Malalas, the Charonion was carved in an attempt to ward off a plague afflicting Antioch. After many people had perished from the illness, a seer named Leios commanded that a great “mask” be carved out of the mountain overlooking the city, “and inscribing something on it he put an end to the pestilential death. This mask the people of Antioch call the Charonion.” However, a recent analysis of the monument’s iconography shows that the bust likely depicts the Anatolian mother goddess Cybele with Tyche (the patron deity of Antioch) on her shoulder rather than Charon.

The so-called Charonion.

The city of Antioch was built between the Orontes River and the slopes of Mount Silpius. For almost a millennium, it was one of the most important cities of the Greek, Roman and Byzantine Empires and served as a link between the east and west. Antioch was the Empire’s third largest city after Rome and Alexandria, with a population of about half a million. Thus, the city was referred to as “Queen of the East” (Orientis Opicum Pulcrum).

3D reconstruction of ancient Antioch. In antiquity, the course of the river divided the city and formed an island.

The Roman soldier and historian Ammianus Marcellinus, an Antiochene who lived in the 4th century AD, stated that “…no city in the world can out-compete this city about the fertility of his lands and also the richness in trade” and called the city the “fair crown of the Orient“. Many Roman emperors visited and honoured the city (Augustus, Tiberius, Vespasian, Trajan, Hadrian, Marcus Aurelius, Caracalla, Diocletian). On the occasions of these visits, city walls were repaired, new roads were opened, structures such as the theatre and the hippodrome and various temples were built on behalf of the emperors. At its heart was a three-kilometre long collonaded street (today Kurtulus Caddesi) with porticoes and over 3,200 columns.

The Orontes/Asi River today.

Antioch’s history was marked by a series of catastrophes, particularly earthquakes that damaged or destroyed the city. Efforts to repair or rebuild the city were made with the help of the current emperor of Rome or Byzantium. In the year 115, Antioch suffered one of its most violent earthquakes that almost took the life of Trajan and Hadrian, who were wintering in the city during the conquest of Mesopotamia (read more here). Soon after the earthquake, Trajan started to restore the city. Since the six-kilometre-long aqueduct running between Daphne’s springs and Antioch was seriously damaged, Trajan began the construction of a new aqueduct or possibly repaired an existing one he had built earlier. As Trajan did not live to finish the project, work on the aqueduct was completed by Hadrian.

Trajan/Hadrian’s aqueduct today, locally known as Memekli Köprü.

According to Malalas, Trajan commemorated the rebuilding of the city by erecting a gilded copy of the Tyche of Eutychides in the theatre. Tyche was the patron deity of Antioch. She was a goddess who presided over the prosperity of the city, bringing hope and good fortune to its citizens. The most renowned sculpture of Tyche was a bronze statue by the Greek sculptor Eutychides, a pupil of Lysippos, created for the city of Antioch in the early 3rd century BC, the best extant version of which is in the Vatican Museum (see below). The marble statue shows the goddess crowned with towers and seated on a rock (representing Mount Silpius), with her feet resting on the river Orontes depicted as a swimming youth.

The Tyche of Antioch. Marble, Roman copy after a Greek bronze original by Eutychides of the 3rd century BC.
Galleria dei Candelabri, Vatican Museums, Rome.
Many copies of the huge bronze statue of the Tyche of Antioch were made over the centuries.

Unfortunately, very little of Antioch has survived. The most impressive remains of the ancient city are the ruins of a massive Roman temple which consists today of the cella and the rubble core podium made of opus caementicium (Roman concrete), still standing at a height of 5 m. The high podium measures 110 m long and 75 m wide while the outer cella wall is 79 m long and 48 m wide. Some architectural elements have been found, including one shaft fragment of a grey granite column and two fragments of porphyry granite columns. The monumental size of the podium is quite unique, its closest parallel being the “Donuktaş” (Turkish for “frozen stones”) temple in Tarsus dated to the late Antonine period and dedicated to the Roman Emperor Commodus (AD 177-192).

The remains of the massive Temple’s podium, probably dating to the end of the 2nd century AD.
The excavation trenches.

Antioch on the Orontes is also the city where the name “Christianity” was used for the very first time. The Church of Saint Peter, located some 3 kilometres north-east of the city on the side of Mount Staurin (a continuation of Mount Silpius), is one of the oldest known church buildings in the Christian world.

The Church of Saint Peter in Antakya (Antioch). It is composed of a cave carved into the mountainside of Mount Starius, which is widely believed to have been used by the very first Christians and is one of Christianity’s oldest churches. The stone façade was originally built by Crusaders in ca. 1100 by Crusaders and was rebuilt in the 19th century.
The interior of the cave. The only permanent furnishings are a small altar, a single statue, and a stone throne. On the walls are the barely discernible remains of frescoes, and on the floor can be seen some traces of mosaics. In the back of the church is a tunnel that leads into the mountain interior, popularly believed to be a means of escape in times of persecution.

Most of the other ruins of Antioch are buried beneath the modern Turkish city of Antakya. Although the earthquakes destroyed almost all the buildings of the ancient city, they did cover up a remarkable trove of mosaics -dating from the 2nd to the 6th century AD- which were unearthed by an international team of scholars in the 1930s. For the visitor today, the Antioch mosaics are now the principal reminders of the glory of the ancient city. About half of the mosaics will be housed in the new Hatay Archaeology Museum (currently still partly under development). When the second stage is finished, it will be the world’s largest museum for mosaics display.

Scenes of everyday life in Antioch and nearby Daphne, from the 5th-century Yakto mosaic found near Antakya.
The Drunken Dionysus mosaic, from Antioch (Antakya). This pavement comes from the terraces of Mount Staurin and decorated a room of a house dating to the 2nd century AD.
Hatay Archaeology Museum, Antakya.
River God Statue symbolizing the Orontes river, from Seleucia Pieria, 1st century AD.
Hatay Archaeology Museum, Antakya.
Hatay Archaeology Museum, Antakya.

Hadrian would visit Antioch on two more occasions, in AD 123 and in 129/30. The building projects for which he was responsible at Antioch were related to the city’s water supply. In addition, John Malalas, in his account of the public works of Hadrian, records that the Emperor built public baths which were named after him and the temple of the deified Trajan. Malalas also records the building of a theatron (a theatre-like water reservoir) and a Temple of the Nymphs at the springs of Antioch’s suburb Daphne which contained a great statue of Hadrian. Hadrian also founded games in Antioch, the Hadrianeia, and a Festival of the Springs called the Hadrianeion.

Sources & references:

  • Cassius Dio 69 (link)
  • Historia Augusta, The Life of Hadrian (link)
  • Birley, Anthony R. (1997). Hadrian. The restless emperor (p. 77-80)
  • J. Bennett, Trajan Optimus Princeps, A Life and Times, London – New York,
  • Eusebius, The Ecclesiastical History, Book 4 (link)
  • The Princeton Encyclopedia of Classical Sites: Antioch on the Orontes
  • Glanville Downey, A History of Antioch From Seleucus to the Arab Conquest pp. 218-223
  • Richard H. Chowen, The Nature of Hadrian’s Theatron at Daphne. American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 60, No. 3 (Jul., 1956), pp. 275-277

On one of the bridges crossing over the Orontes river (July 2017).
In the new Hatay Archaeological Museum (July 2017).
In front of the aqueduct of Trajan and Hadrian (July 2017).

2 thoughts on “11 August AD 117 – Hadrian is proclaimed emperor in Antioch (#Hadrian1900)”

  1. Wonderful, evocative account of Hadrian’s accession. I’m always dismayed that his tenure as one of history’s most humane leaders began with the assassinations of four Roman politicians. How much nobler to win respect as Pericles did–through eloquent, inspiring rhetoric and competent, honorable leadership. Hadrian possessed all of that, but obviously other advisers and anxieties ruled the moment. His 21-year reign proved he was the equal of Pericles’ “equanimitas, virtus, ingenium et magnanimitas.”

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