Hadrian1900, Rome, SPQR

The early reforms and economic policies of Hadrian (#Hadrian1900)

Upon his return to Rome (see previous post here), Hadrian’s first task was to regain the people’s favours after the killing of four ex-consuls who were accused of plotting against him. To boost his popularity and win over public opinion in Rome, the new princeps introduced a number of important financial reforms, such as distributing largesses and remitting debts.

Hadrian’s best-known and most important reform was the cancellation of all unpaid debts owed by individual citizens to both the fiscus (state treasury) and the aerarium (Senate’s treasury). He issued a proclamation announcing the remission of unpaid taxes worth 900 million sesterces going back fifteen years. The debt records were burned in a public ceremony in the Forum of Trajan, and this decree was so popular that a monument was erected on the site of the ceremonial pyre. The inscription celebrating the wise generosity shown by Hadrian has survived (CIL VI 967, ILS 309).

…the first of all principes and the only one who, by remitting nine hundred million sestertii owed to the fiscus, provided security not merely for his present citizens but also for their descendants by this generosity.

The Sestertii of Hadrian issued in AD 118 confirms the sum given on the inscription with their reverse legend RELIQVA VETERA HS N[OVIES] MILL ABOLITA. One of the reverse types shows a lictor setting fire to a heap of records lying on the ground in the presence of three citizens.

Sestertius commemorating Hadrian’s remission of taxes due both to the imperial treasury and to that of the Roman people (RIC2 592b). AD 118.
©Trustees of the British Museum.

Another version of the debt-burning event appears to be represented on a carved relief discovered in Rome in 1844 and known as the “Chatsworth Relief”. The scene shows soldiers of the Praetorian Guard with Hadrianic beards carrying containers full of debt records against the remains of an architectural backdrop which is thought to depict the porticoes of the Forum of Trajan where the event took place.

Relief showing the cancelling of debts that may come from the same monument as the inscription (CIL VI 967, ILS 309).
© Devonshire Collection, Chatsworth. Reproduced by permission of Chatsworth Settlement Trustees.

Another carved relief, found in 1872 in the Roman Forum near the Column of Phocas and now on display in the Curia, also appears to depict the destruction of records of unpaid taxes. Formerly thought to be of the time of Trajan and consequently named Anaglypha Traiani, this relief is generally accepted as dating to the early Hadrianic period based on stylistic grounds. The sculptured panel is part of two balustrades carved in Greek marble, which portray sacrificial animals (suovetaurilia) on the outer sides and historical events in the interiors. These balustrades are thought to have stood on each end of the rostra, a large platform in the Forum Romanum on which magistrates, politicians, advocates and other orators stood to speak to the assembled people of Rome.

Anaglypha Hadriani A – Cancellation of arrears
By Cassius Ahenobarbus (CC BY-SA 3.0 from Wikimedia Commons).

The relief depicts a line of Praetorian Guards carrying up bundles of records and throwing them on the heap to which a lictor is putting the torch. The scene appears to be taking place in the Forum Romanum, as shown by the architectural background, which includes the Basilica Julia, the Temples of Saturn, Vespasian and Concord, the rostra, and a representation of the statue of Marsyas and the fig tree. However, the scene on the anaglyph is problematic as the ancient sources locate the burning of the records in the Forum of Trajan, not in the Forum Romanum. M. Hammond (1953) suggests that the records were possibly “burned in more than one place; those affecting the fiscus in Trajan’s Forum and those affecting the senate’s treasury, the aerarium Saturni, in the Forum Romanum near the Temple of Saturn, as shown on the anaglyph”.

The other interior scene appears to commemorate the alimenta, the organised charity system for supporting poor and orphaned children instituted by Trajan and continued by Hadrian. According to Ulpian, a Roman jurist writing in the 3rd century, Hadrian increased the age at which children could receive alimenta (dig. XXXIV 1.14.1). Poor parents would now receive financial support for girls up to the age of fourteen and boys up to the age of eighteen.

Anaglypha Hadriani B – Alimenta group
By Cassius Ahenobarbus (CC BY-SA 3.0 from Wikimedia Commons).

Unlike the debt relief, the alimentary relief shows two distinct actions. On the left, a toga-clad emperor (Hadrian?), accompanied by lictors and standing on the rostra, addresses an assembled crowd (adlocutio) consisting of senators, equestrians and poor people of Rome. The temples of Divus Julius and Castor, the Arch of Augustus, and the Basilica Julia of the Forum Romanum serve as the backdrop. On the right, another togate emperor sits on a chair with his feet resting on a footstool. Before him stands a woman who holds a child and places her right hand on another child’s head (missing). Both scenes are thought to celebrate Hadrian’s extension of the alimentary program of Trajan, as the Historia Augusta recalls. However, some scholars hypothesise that the adlocutio scene celebrates the congiarium (distribution of money) of Trajan of AD 103 or 107, while the other scene celebrates Trajan’s alimentary program, not Hadrian’s, on the basis that sestertii of Trajan minted between AD 109 and 111 show on the reverse a very similar group with the legend Alim. Ital.

He made additional appropriations for the children to whom Trajan had allotted grants of money. HA Hadr. 7.8

Hadrian then donated six gold aurei to all Roman citizens on top of the three aurei that had already been given while the Emperor was away. Further measures included a law reform assigning the property of condemned people to the public treasury (aerarium publicum) instead of the Emperor’s treasury (fiscus privatus). Hadrian also decreed a law that prohibited the killing of slaves except after a juridical condemnation (HA Hadr. 18.7).

To spread the good news around the world, Hadrian’s acts of generosity were commemorated on coins. The reverse of one of such coins had Hadrian on a platform, seated in his chair of state, while an official distributed money with the legend liberalitas Aug (imperial generosity) in exergue.

Sestertius commemorating the distribution of largess by Hadrian (RIC2 552). AD 118.
©Trustees of the British Museum.


Another way of establishing better relationships with the Senate was to consecrate his predecessor and adoptive father, Trajan. Soon after the optimus princeps’ death in Selinus, and while still in the East, Hadrian requested from the Senate that a ceremony of deification (divanos honores) be carried out.

This request he obtained by a unanimous vote; indeed, the senate voluntarily voted Trajan many more honours than Hadrian had requested. HA Had. 6.1

The new Emperor was offered a Triumph (cum triumphum) to mark Trajan’s victories in the East but declined the offer. Instead, Hadrian authorised one for his deceased adoptive father, who would be represented as an effigy carried in a triumphal chariot.

When the senate offered him the triumph which was to have been Trajan’s, he [Hadrian] refused it for himself, and caused the effigy of the dead Emperor to be carried in a triumphal chariot, in order that the best of emperors might not lose even after death the honour of a triumph. HA Had. 6.3

Relief with a scene of Trajan’s posthumous Parthian triumph in 118 AD from Praeneste. Palestrina, Museo Archeologico.

Trajan’s triumph and the official ceremony of his apotheosis had to wait until after the return of Hadrian to the capital (9 July AD 118). The recording of Trajan’s deification was to appear on a reverse aureus of Hadrian with the legend Divo Traiano.

RIC 24b. Gold coin.
© The Trustees of the British Museum

Trajan’s posthumous triumph was commemorated on a very rare aureus bearing on the obverse the head of Trajan with the legend Divo Traiano Parth(ico) Aug(usto) Patri. The reverse bears a four-horse chariot driven by the deceased Emperor, who holds a laurel branch and a sceptre, with the legend Triumphus Parthicus.

Aureus of 117–18 AD. The triumph of the Parthian victory, which Trajan did not live to celebrate in Rome, is accorded in a posthumous record.
© The Trustees of the British Museum

The package of reforms would be a success. The lavish donatives to the troops and the people would help boost the economy and stabilise the new regime. As a result, Hadrian became more popular than he had ever been before.

Sources & references:

  • Birley, Anthony R. (1997). Hadrian. The restless Emperor (pp. 93-100)
  • Everitt, A. (2009). Hadrian and the Triumph of Rome. Random House Publishing Group.
  • Boatwright, Mary T. (1987). Hadrian and the City of Rome. Princeton University Press.
  • Opper, T. (2008). Hadrian: Empire and Conflict. The British Museum Press. (pp. 100-9)
  • Hammond, M. (1953). A Statue of Trajan is Represented on the “Anaglypha Traiani”. Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome, 21, 125-183.
  • Kleiner, D. (1992) Roman Sculpture. Yale University Press

3 thoughts on “The early reforms and economic policies of Hadrian (#Hadrian1900)”

  1. Thank you Carole, what a fascination you have for this most interesting emperor. So much of detail and beautiful photos. I for one would like to see more of you. Regards and best wishes for your next Hadrian journey. Anthony, Freiburg

  2. An unusual and wonderfully interesting post, as being on matters economic. gratias tibi, ut semper, maximas.

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