France, Gaul, Hadrian's travels, Hadrian1900

Spring AD 121 – Hadrian departs for the northern provinces (#Hadrian1900)

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Shortly after celebrating Rome’s birthday (see here), Hadrian departed on his journey to the northern provinces and began his first extensive voyage through the empire. As he intended to be absent for a considerable time with little idea of a return date, it was necessary to leave the control of Rome in trustworthy hands. Annius Verus, the grandfather of Marcus Aurelius (who was just born – see here), and his friend Turbo were to look after the people of Rome and the Senate.

The exact date of his departure and precise itinerary is a little elusive, and the Historia Augusta dismisses his journey with a few words:

After this he travelled​ to the provinces of Gaul,​ and came to the relief of all the communities with various acts of generosity, and from there he went over into Germany. HA Hadr. 10.1-2

So it seems that Hadrian headed to Gallia Narbonensis (southern France), then moved through Gallia Lugdunensis and from there went to Germany. He probably sailed from Ostia to Massalia (Marseille), southern Gaul’s main port, and proceeded up the Rhône River valley in the direction of Lugdunum (Lyon). His entourage included the Guard Prefect Septicius Clarus and his chief secretary, Tranquillus Suetonius, the historian and author of The Twelve Caesars. Sabina was most likely with him as the Historia Augusta places the incident of Clarus and Suetonius’ excessive familiarity with the empress in Britain, which Hadrian was to visit in 122 after he inspected the German frontier (Hadr. 11.3). Hadrian would abruptly fire both men.

Voyage of Hadrian 121-123.
Map created by Simeon Netchev for Following Hadrian (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0). Click to enlarge.

By the Hadrianic era, Gaul was already a rich and flourishing county with well-established urbanisation and well-developed civic centres. It consisted at this time of four provinces; Narbonensis, which was governed by the Senate, and Lugdunensis, Aquitania and Belgica, which were ruled by a proconsul of praetorian rank. Lugdunum was the capital of these last three provinces. Hadrian may have used this important administrative centre as a base for a few months. Unfortunately, his precise movements inside Gaul are highly elusive. His journey possibly began at the port of Massalia (Birley, 1997). This famous Greek colony of the Phocaeans, founded around 600 BC, was still a free city, a reward for its invaluable assistance and loyalty to Rome.

The Hellenistic and Roman vestiges of the ancient port and city walls of the ancient Greek colony of Massalia.
The port of Massalia as it looked in the 2nd century when Hadrian sailed to Gaul.
Janus-faced portrait busts of Euthymenes & Pytheas in Marseille.

Massalia played a major role in distributing Mediterranean goods along the coast of Gaul and Iberia and into inland Gaul on the Durance and Rhône rivers, relying on a series of trading posts. As Carthage’s rival and Rome’s longstanding ally, the city thrived by acting as a link between Gaul and Rome’s insatiable need for new products and slaves. It retained its Greek character for a considerable length of time despite the gradual process of Romanisation. Its Greek legacy lived on in the urban fabric – complete with a theatre, agora and temples – in its constitution and culture.

The Phocaean city also shone with its schools of science and was home to many renowned sailors and explorers. In the 6th century BC, the Massaliote Euthymenes left the city to explore the coast of West Africa beyond the columns of Hercules. In the 4th century BC, Phytheas explored north-western Europe, visited a considerable part of modern-day Great Britain and Ireland, and went as far north as Iceland and the Arctic Circle.

Hadrian probably sailed north from Massalia up the Rhône River (Rhodanus) in the direction of Lugdunum. Two years earlier, in 119, the boatmen of this river, the nautae Rhodanici, had made an offering to Hadrian (see here). They erected a statue of the emperor in the town of Tournus (Tournon-sur-Rhône) between Valencia (Valence) and Vienna (Vienne), at the confluence of the Rhône and the Doux, praising his generosity.

The Rhône with its confluent the Doux in Tournon.

The Rhodanus provided a significant channel for communication and trade between the Mediterranean and central Gaul, and its chief tributary, the Arar (modern Saône), gave access to the Rhineland. The Rhodanus dominated the province of Narbonensis, flowing through Lugdunum (Lyon), Vienna (Vienne), Valentia (Valence), Acunum (Montélimar), Arausio (Orange), Avennio (Avignon), and Arelate (Arles), where the river divides into two large branches. These towns were established on the eastern side of the river’s bank and the via Agrippa.

Part of the Tabula Peutingeriana showing the mouth of the Rhône and the regions surrounding the river in Southern France. (click to enlarge)

Some of these cities, and others, may have received new rights from Hadrian, and at least one new Gallic colony was created at Avennio, perhaps even during this tour (Fraser, 2006). An inscription (now lost), found in Apt in 1786 and wrongly suspected for some time as fake (CIL XII 1120), mentions the Colonia Iulia Hadriana Avenniensis, showing that Hadrian elevated Avignon to a Roman colony. It was the highest status that a city could achieve. The medieval town of Avignon has left very few architectural remains from the Roman city, and none of its vestiges seems to have been dated to Hadrian’s time.

D(is) M(anibus) ./ L(ucio) Volus(io), L(ucii) f(ilio), Vol(tinia tribu), Seue/riano, IIHuir(o) c(oloniae) I(uliae) Apt(ae) II / et flam(ini), item Huir(o) c(oloniae) I(uliae) / Had(rianae) Avenn(iensis) et pontif(ici), / sacerdot(i) urbis Rom(ae) / aetern(ae), Vol(usia) Seueriana / patri incomparabili.

It is rather interesting to note that the funerary inscription from Apt mentions a priest (sacerdos) called Lucius Volusius Severianus (from the Voltinia tribe). They cared for the veneration of the goddess Urbs Roma Aeterna (the personification of the city of Rome). Her cult became official when Hadrian established the new Romaia festival (Natalis Urbis Romae) on the town’s foundation day (21 April 121) and inaugurated the magnificent temple on the Velian Hill, which he dedicated to Roma Aeterna and Venus Felix. The eternity of the city thereby became an integral part of imperial propaganda and a subject of public worship. Sacerdotes of this cult were to be found in Italy (outside Rome) and in the provinces in several towns (Ticinum CIL V 6991, Brixia CIL V 4484, Flavia Solva CIL III 5443).

Although no inscription confirms the presence of Hadrian at Lugdunum, his itinerary along the Rhône Valley can hardly have omitted the capital of the Three Gauls (Tres Galliae). A stay there would have been unavoidable, with some modern scholars even suggesting that he wintered there in 121/122. However, the German frontier was probably his absolute goal. If that was the case, as Birley (1997) argued, there is no reason to believe that he stayed in Lugdunum over such a long period and continued to journey north towards the Rhine only in the spring of 122. That would have left him very little time to inspect the limes before sailing to Britain in the summer of 122.

The Archaeological Site of Fourviere in Lyon.

Lugdunum was founded as a Roman colony in 43 BC by Lucius Munatius Plancus, nine years after Julius Caesar had completed his conquest of Gaul. Thanks to its prime location at the confluence of the Rhône and Saône, the city became a great commercial centre for Gaul and the nodal point of Agrippa’s Gallic road network, at the centre of four converging roads. These radiated west to Aquitania, north to the Rhine and the northern coast, south to Arelate, Narbonne and the Mediterranean coast, and east to Lake Léman. Several decades after its foundations, Lugdunum received the favours of Augustus. He created a great sanctuary dedicated to the Imperial cult and established an imperial mint that supplied gold and silver coins for half a century. As the capital and religious centre of the Three Gauls, Lugdunum was among the cities where the imperial authority was most present after Rome. It was the residence of the governor of the province and many high imperial civil servants from the Equestrian order.

The main Roman routes from Lugdunum.
Eric Gaba, Flappiefh, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Lugdunum was at the height of its prosperity at the time of Hadrian’s visit. It offered all the attractions of a great city and must have provided suitable accommodation for an emperor. The city boasted a forum, a temple of Roma and Augustus, a sanctuary for Cybele, a theatre, an odeon, an amphitheatre and a circus for chariot races.

The majority of Lugdunum’s public buildings were built during the Augustan period. Hadrian is said to have embellished the city and commissioned the restorations of a number of these buildings that required repair. However, the dating of these restorations is mainly due to tradition rather than scientific research. Even stratigraphic excavations and architectural decoration studies have not precisely attributed these constructions or embellishments to Hadrian (Fellague, 2016). For sure, Hadrian had a team of architects, surveyors and builders, and the Historia Augusta refers to imperial favours given during a trip. Still, the dating to Hadrian’s reign remains hypothetical.

Plan of Lugdunum in the 2nd century AD.
© Lugdunum

Tradition has it that Hadrian renovated and embellished the forum and repaired and decorated the theatre. The latter building, which originally had a seating capacity of 5000 spectators, was extended to seat 10,000. The cavea was made bigger with the addition of a third row. The stage building was embellished with columns and statues, and the orchestra floor was renovated with grey granite paving bordered with pink and green marble. A cuirassed statue of Hadrian (of which only fragments remain) was placed in the scaenae frons. An Odeon was built to the south of the theatre at the end of the 1st or early 2nd century AD. Its construction is sometimes attributed to Hadrian. Used for music and recitations, the Odeon was partly roofed and could hold around 3000 people seated in two rows of seats.

The theatre of Lugdunum.
The Odeon of Lugdunum.

The amphitheatre was enlarged and restored later in Hadrian’s reign, c. 130/136, to increase its capacity to 20,000 spectators. Thanks to a building inscription, we know that the original amphitheatre was built during the reign of Tiberius in AD 19 by Gaius Julius Rufus, a priest of Rome and Augustus and a native of Mediolanum Santonum (modern-day Saintes in western France). It was relatively small in size, with a single tier of seating and a capacity of only 1,800 and was located at the sacred precinct at Condate (the Confluence) above the rivers on a hillside. During the reign of Hadrian, two tiers of seats were added around the old amphitheatre, bringing its dimensions to 143 x 117 m, comparable to the arenas of Nîmes and Arles.

The amphitheatre of Lugdunum, partly excavated on the Croix-Rousse hillside.

Near the amphitheatre (probably) stood the imperial Sanctuary of the Three Gauls. Inaugurated in 12 BC by Drusus, this religious complex dedicated to “Rome and Augustus” was the earliest and most important institution of its kind in the western part of the empire. It was here that every year in August, delegates from sixty cities from the three Gallic provinces met together to celebrate religious ceremonies and reaffirm their allegiance to the emperor (Concilium Galliarum). The connection between the sanctuary with the amphitheatre is clear from the seat inscriptions marking places for cult officials and council representatives.

The altar of the Sanctuary of the Three Gauls, on a dupondius issued under Augustus.
© The Trustees of the British Museum

The central element of the sanctuary was an altar that can be reconstructed from ancient written sources and representations on coins. The structure is shown to be rectangular, decorated in front with crowns and laurel branches in bas-reliefs and topped with tripods. It is flanked by two columns supporting statues of winged Victories, each holding a palm branch and garland.

The altar appears to have been rebuilt (or adapted) as a covered temple by Hadrian, while the original columns supporting the Victories statues were replaced by Egyptian Syenite columns (Fishwick, 1972). There is indeed an inscription (CIL XIII 1685) that mentions a donation from Hadrian to the altar of the Three Gauls, but the gaps in the text do not allow us to specify the nature of this favour (Fellague, 2016). Unfortunately, no trace of the monument itself has been found.

…] Tribus Provin(ciis) Galliis | imp(erator) Caesar Traianus | Hadrianus Aug(ustus) dedit | Tres Provinciae | Galliae

Another public building presumably built at the beginning of the 2nd century AD was the circus, the existence of which is confirmed by the magnificent mosaic of a chariot race discovered in 1806 in the Ainay district of Lyon, but also by a number of inscriptions. Its location is still debated, but it most probably stood on the heights of Fourvière behind the great theatre. The edifice would have measured 370 metres long and around 100 metres wide.

The Circus Games Mosaic is a 2nd-century Roman mosaic depicting a chariot race in quadrigas.
Gallo-Roman Museum of Lyon-Fourvière.

The urban development of Lugdunum was intimately connected with the growth of its water supply. Four large aqueducts provided water to the city with a total length of 200 kilometres supplying 39,000 cubic metres per day. This was the second-largest network of Roman aqueducts after Rome itself. During the first decades of its foundation, two aqueducts were built that fed the hill town of Fourvière and Mont-d’Or. A third, built under Claudius, brought water into the low-lying quarter of Les Minimes. A fourth, the Gier Aqueduct, was the longest (86 km) of the four and the most monumental. To protect the water channel, the aqueduct was underground for 95% of its course, and the difference in altitude between the two ends was only 150 metres. Its piers and arcades have been preserved in many places, as have several large reservoirs linked by siphons: the most impressive remains are at Chaponost and Beaunant.

The arches of the Gier Aqueduct at Chaponost.

Roman aqueducts required a comprehensive system of maintenance, cleaning and repair. They were access points at regular intervals (77 metres or 240 Roman feet) where the vault of the channel was cut through by a sort of chimney with small cavities inside to help with the climbing down. About 100 of these access points have been identified along the Gier aqueduct, but there were originally around 1,000. The aqueduct was protected by a series of marker stones that served to delimit the areas where farming and other activities were not permitted. Two Hadrianic stone inscriptions (CIL XIII, 1623) found on the Gier Aqueduct southwest of Lyon refer to a ban on cultivating land near the aqueduct. Hadrian prohibited ploughing, sowing and planting in the grounds reserved for the aqueduct’s protection to protect the channel from any damage and avoid the polluted water. These marker stones must have been posted at regular intervals along the aqueduct’s course as both inscriptions were found 6 kilometres apart.

Ex auctoritate / Imp(eratoris) Caes(aris) Traia/ni Hadriani / Aug(usti) nemini arandi ser/endi pang/endive ius / est intra id / spatium ag/ri quod tute/lae ductus / destinatum / est

“By order of the emperor Caesar Trajan Hadrian Augustus, no one has the right to work, harvest, or plant this piece of land that is intended to provide protection for the aqueduct.”

These two inscriptions have long been advanced as an argument for attributing the construction of the Gier aqueduct to Hadrian. Still, recent observations have led scholars and archaeologists to date the works to the beginning of the 1st century AD. However, these boundary stones teach us that the imperial administration intervened in protecting aqueducts in the capital of Gaul, like those of Rome.

Hadrian’s imperial presence in Gaul was to be commemorated on coins with the legends Adventi Galliae and Restitutor Galliae.

The “Adventus” coin celebrating Hadrian’s arrival in Gaul. On the reverse, Gallia faces Hadrian, who raises his right hand and holds a patera as she sacrifices over a lighted and garlanded altar. The legend reads ADVENTVI AVG GALLIAE S C. Minted in Rome in AD 130-138.
© The Trustees of the British Museum
The “Restitutor” coin celebrating Hadrian’s relief provided to the people of Gallia. On the reverse, the standing emperor, wearing a toga, extends a hand to a kneeling Gallia.
The legend reads “To the restorer of Gallia” (RESTITVTORI GALLIAE). Minted in Rome in AD 134-138.
Coin from the author’s collection.


Hadrian would then continue to the northern frontiers of Germania, where he was to inspect the legions of the Rhineland and the system of fixed frontier defences ordered by him in 120 (see here). He may have travelled to Germania from Lugdunum via Augusta Treverorum (Trier) to Mogontiacum (Mainz), the capital of Germania Superior. Milestones attest to the restoration of this road by Hadrian. The Emperor would return to Gaul in the autumn of 122, passing through this time on his way to Tarraco (Tarragona).

Voyage of Hadrian in 121-125.
Map created by Simeon Netchev for World History Encyclopedia and Following Hadrian (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0).

Sources & references:

  • Birley, Anthony R. (1997) Hadrian: The Restless Emperor, London and New York: Routledge, p. 113
  • Fellague, Djamila. (2016). La difficulté de datation des monuments: À propos des monuments de Lugudunum, en particulier ceux considérés comme hadrianiques. Revue Archeologique de l’Est. 65. 187-214.
  • Christol, Michel and Marc Heijmans. (1992). Les colonies latines de Narbonnaise: un nouveau document d’Arles mentionnant la Colonia Julia Augusta Avennio. Gallia, Vol. 49, 1992, pp. 37-44.
  • Fishwick, Duncan (2002). The Imperial Cult in the Latin West. Studies in the Ruler Cult of the Western Provinces of the Roman Empire, III, part 1, Leiden- New York. p. 142

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