Gallia Narbonensis, Gaul, Hadrian's travels, Hadrian1900

Autumn AD 122 – Hadrian returns to Gaul and commemorates his horse and Plotina (#Hadrian1900)

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Towards the end of AD 122, Hadrian left Britain and set sail for Gaul, travelling southward to Nemausus (Nîmes) in Narbonensis before crossing the Pyrenees to Spain. His route would have certainly been along the via Agrippa from Bononia (Boulogne) on the North Sea to Lugdunum (Lyon), down the Rhone valley, and then along the via Domitia to Narbo Martius (Narbonne) to the Pyrenees.

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

During his time in Gaul, Hadrian received news from Egypt regarding riots in Alexandria over the bull Apis. He also suffered two personal tragedies; the first near Apta Julia when his beloved hunting horse Borysthenes suddenly died, and the second when he learned about the death of Plotina (perhaps in early 123).

After arranging matters in Britain he crossed over to Gaul, for he was rendered anxious by the news of a riot in Alexandria, which arose on account of Apis;​ for Apis had been discovered again after an interval of many years, and was causing great dissension among the communities, each one earnestly asserting its claim as the place best fitted to be the seat of his worship. During this same time he reared a basilica of marvellous workman­ship at Nîmes in honour of Plotina.​ After this he travelled to Spain​ and spent the winter at Tarragona. HA Hadr. 12.1-3

The Historia Augusta seems to suggest that Hadrian left Britain for Gaul because of the alarming dispatch he received from Governor Haterius Nepos in Egypt, urging an imperial visit. However, this report could be out of chronological sequence. The uprising probably occurred soon after Hadrian’s accession and was quelled by a vigorous letter (Dio 69.8-1a). Traditionally, the sacred bull had been kept in the temple of Ptah at Memphis, so it is unclear whether the Egyptians of Alexandria wanted to supplant Memphis and have Apis housed in their great Serapeum. Whatever the reason for the incident, the finding of a new Apis bull was celebrated on coins minted in Alexandria AD 117/8 (RPC III, 5037). 

The Alexandrians had been rioting, and nothing would make them stop until they received a letter from Hadrian rebuking them. So true is it that an emperor’s word will have more force than arms. Dio 69.8-1a

While in Narbonese Gaul, Hadrian and his considerable retinue would have to be accommodated in some style. Cities like Vienna (Vienne), Arelate (Arles), Vasio Vocontiorum (Vaison), Nemausus (Nimes) and Narbo Martius would have provided suitable accommodation. Two statues, one of Hadrian and one of his wife Sabina, found in the theatre of Vasio are associated with Hadrian’s visit. An inscription (now lost), found in Apt in 1786 (CIL XII 1120), mentions the Colonia Iulia Hadriana Avenniensis, showing that Hadrian elevated Avennio (Avignon) to a Roman colony, perhaps during this tour.

Map of Gallia Narbonensis.
© Historical Atlas of the Mediterranean
Statues of Emperor Hadrian and his wife Vibia Sabina, from the Roman theatre at Vasio Vocontiorum.
Musée Theo Desplan, Vaison-la-Romaine, France.

In the forests of the Luberon surrounding Apta Julia, Hadrian’s favourite hunting horse died during a hunt. Named after the Scythian river Borysthenes (today’s Dnieper River), this well-bred horse became Hadrian’s favoured hunting mount after receiving the animal from Rasparaganus, the king of the Roxolani, in 118 in Moesia Inferior (see here). In the manner of Alexander the Great for Bucephalus (when Alexander’s horse died in India, the great conqueror allegedly founded a city named after him in the vicinity of where he died), Hadrian honoured Borysthenes with an elaborate funerary monument and a poem of praise composed by himself. 

Some light is thrown upon his passion for hunting by what he did for his steed Borysthenes, which was his favourite horse for the chase; when the animal died, he prepared a tomb for him, set up a slab and placed an inscription upon it. Dio, 69, 10.2

His horses and dogs he loved so much that he provided burial-places for them. HA Hadr. 20.12

Two broken marble fragments with just such an epigraph were discovered near Apt at the beginning of the 17th century and the end of the 18th century. They were transcribed by contemporaries and attributed to a tomb that Hadrian would have erected when his horse Borysthenes died. Unfortunately, the marble inscription (CIL XII 1122) has almost completely disappeared today. Only one small fragment remains, which contains the last line of the Borysthenes’ epigraph: [h]oc situs est in agro (“buried here in the field”).

Inscription CIL, XII, 1122 = ILN – Apt, 33 (dessin de Peiresc, ms. 8957, f. 191, Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris)

The epigraph of Borysthenes, as translated from Latin to English by David Camden, reads:

Borysthenes Alanus, the swift horse of Caesar, [who] through the sea and the marshes and the Etruscan mounds who was accustomed to fly, while pursuing Pannonian boars, him to harm with his white tooth not one boar dared: the saliva from his mouth scattered even the meanest tail, as it is custom to happen. But in his youth, his healthy, invulnerable body, killed on its day, has been buried here in the field.

Surviving fragment of the epitaph of Borysthenes. Dated to AD 122. Lapidary Museum, Avignon.
The possible location of the mausoleum of Borysthenes. The main fragment, which includes the first eight lines, was discovered in a field, at a place called Les Tourettes, 4 km south-west of Apt, near the road that linked Apta Julia to Aquae Sextiae (Aix-en-Provence).

The Gallo-Roman town of Apta Julia, a colonia since Caesar’s time, stood on the via Domitia, linking Rome to Spain. It reached its greatest prosperity in the 2nd century AD when it had up to 10,000 inhabitants. The city had a forum, a triumphal arch, a Capitolium, temples, thermal baths and a theatre. The remains of the Roman city lie beneath the modern town. The theatre was located in the 1960s in the cellars of the Archaeological Museum. On top of the cavea, traces of late Roman houses show that the theatre was already out of use in the 4th and 5th centuries AD. The surrounding woodlands and forests stretching into the foothills of the Alps made suitable hunting grounds. Apta yielded many dedications to the hunters’ god Silvanus (AE 1990, 0706AE 1998, 0893AE 1955, 0112). 

The Pont Julien near Apta Julia originally carried the via Domitia, the Roman Road from Italy to Spain, over the Calavon River. It was used by Roman soldiers and traders. It is the best-preserved bridge in France, dating from this era (1st century BC).

Nemausus might have been visited by Hadrian. It was the birthplace of Antoninus Pius, and Pompeia Plotina, the wife of Trajan and Hadrian’s adoptive mother, was also likely from Nemausus. This Roman colony, located on the strategic axis of the via Domitia, was wealthy and thoroughly Romanized. Originally a Celtic centre taking its name from the deity of a local spring, Nemausus was expanded and beautified under Augustus.

The town, covering more than 220 ha., had a ring of ramparts 6 km long with ninety towers and ten gates and was rich in many beautiful buildings. The Maison Carrée dating from the late 1st century BC and dedicated to Augustus’ grandsons Gaius and Lucius, is one of the finest known examples of a Roman temple, while its arena is one of the best-preserved Roman amphitheatres in the world. The town also boasted an Augusteum of the Imperial cult with its associated theatre and possibly a circus within the city walls. The water supply of Nemausus was brought from a source 50 miles away by an aqueduct, part of which survives spectacularly as the Pont du Gard, which still looms 47 meters high as it crosses the Gard River on its way to the city.

The Maison Carrée, a 1st century BC Corinthian temple commissioned by Marcus Agrippa.
Les Jardins de la Fontaine, the location of the Gallo-Roman sanctuary around the spring and the Augusteum, devoted to the cult of the emperor and his family. See a digital reconstruction here.

At some stage during his stay in Narbonese Gaul, the Emperor learned about the death of Plotina. She was in her late 50s. Because he received the news at Nemausus or wanted to honour her native city, Hadrian had a sumptuous basilica (according to the HA), or a temple (according to Dio) built to honour the deceased Empress. Dio also reports that Hadrian grievously reacted to her death by “wearing black for nine days”. Plotina was then deified, but surely not until Hadrian returned to Rome nearly three years later. Hadrian gave her a funeral oration and praised her, saying: “Though she asked much of me, she was never refused anything.” By this, he simply meant to say: “Her requests were of such a character that they neither burdened me nor afforded me any justification for opposing them.”.

Colossal portrait of Plotina, the wife of Trajan. Posthumous, dated AD 129.
Vatican Museums, Rome.

We have proof of the existence of the basilica itself in a dedication to Jupiter and Nemausus from the supervisor of the works of the basilica (CIL XII 3070). This inscription, found in Nîmes in 1739, reads:

DARI – V – S.

“Titus Flavius Hermes, inspector of the works of the basilica, and the marble-workers and stonemasons fulfil their vow to Jupiter and Nemausus.”

The basilica no longer exists, but some decorative architectural blocks (friezes, pilasters and capitals), as well as marble fragments from the pediment and the frieze of a large building of Corinthian order, may be associated with this building.

The inscription of Titus Flavius Hermes and some architectural decor from the public buildings of Nemausus. Musée de la Romanité de Nîmes.

A bilingual inscription (CIL XII 3232) from the Augusteum attests to the presence of a synod of Dionysiac artists (professional theatrical performers) at Nemausus during the reign of Hadrian. The synod assumed the unique title of “the Sacred Thymelic Hadriana Synod of those who compete together for the sake of Imperator Caesar Traianus Hadrianus Augustus, the New Dionysus” (Boatwright, 2000). The inscription confirms that sacred scenic games were held for the Imperial cult in the small theatre adjacent to the Augusteum.

Bilingual dedication to Titus Julius Dolabella, magistrate of Nemausus, which includes a decree of the corporation of the artists of Dionysos.
Musée de la Romanité de Nîmes.

When the time came to move on to Spain, Hadrian’s obvious route would be to proceed along the via Domitia. From Nemausus, the first Roman road built in Gaul in 118 BC by Cnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus, followed the coastal plain along the Gulf of Lion. It met the via Aquitania at Narbonne, which led toward the Atlantic Ocean through Tolosa (Toulouse) and Burdigala (Bordeaux).

A stretch of the via Domitia between Nîmes and Narbonne.
The Roman Bridge at Saint-Thibéry on the via Domitia, dated to the reign of Augustus. The partly surviving structure crossed the river Hérault in Saint-Thibéry, 17 km east of Béziers. The river was known in Latin as Arauris (or Araura by Strabo).

Hadrian certainly visited Narbo Martius, located at a key point on this road. Narbo was Rome’s first colony outside Italy, established in 118 BC and the seat of the provincial governor. Narbo‘s importance as a major trading port is attested by the geographer Strabo who called the city the ‘greatest emporium’ in the south of Gaul, while Martial wrote of “Pulcherrima Narbo” (“most beautiful Narbo”).

At Narbonne, the via Domitia crossed the river Atax and constituted the cardo maximus, leading straight to the town’s forum. Sadly, almost nothing of the Roman city remains, but inscriptions and archaeological finds recovered during the 19th century have permitted a chronological reconstruction of the city’s monuments. The forum and the capitol were constructed during the Augustan period and dedicated in AD 12 when the rules and calendar for the festivities in honour of the Emperor were established (CIL XII, 4333). 

A portion of the via Domitia exposed in the Place de l’Hôtel de Ville Narbonne discovered in 1997.
The via Domitia crossed the Atax (the Aude) by a seven-arched bridge at the site of the Pont des Marchands (Pons Vetus).

The Capitolium stood north of the forum and stood on a podium more than 3 m high and measured 48 x 36 m. It was pseudodipteral, with eight columns on the front and 11 on the sides. From the pieces found, the columns stood 18 m high and were of the Corinthian order. Carrara marble from Luna in Italy was used throughout. Hadrian probably ordered the restoration of the capitol, according to a Hadrianic marble inscription dated to AD 132 (CIL XII 6024). Carrara marble was used for both the inscription and the Capitolium (Fraser, 2006).

Digital reconstruction of the Capitolium of Narbo Martius by Franck Devedjian (CC BY-SA 4.0). The columns of the Capitol at Narbonne were made of high-quality marble from Carrara. It is the only such example in Gaul.

The centre of the town included other monuments; the largest amphitheatre in the province (found in 1838 but poorly excavated), large public baths, a theatre (though its site is unknown) and several temples, including a temple of Cybele. There were also fine urban villas, as wall paintings and mosaics indicate. The city extended over 100 ha and had a population of 35,000. Narbonne suffered from a terrible fire in about AD 145, which destroyed many of its public buildings, including the baths along with porticoes and basilicas. These were restored with the help of Antoninus Pius – Ther[mas incendio] consumptas cum por[ticibus] et (…) basilicas et [omni apparatu] impensa r[estituit] – (CIL XII 4342). It is possible to experience what Narbo Martius looked like in the Narbo Via museum, which opened in May 2021.

Hadrian elevated one of Narbo‘s leading citizens to the senatorial order (amplissimum ordinem), Lucius Aemilius Arcanus, presumably the son of the poet Martial’s friend, the duumvir Arcanus. He was an equestrian legionary tribune in three successive legions, the third being in the II Augusta of the army of Britain. Upon his return to Narbo, Arcanus pursued a municipal career before being granted access to the senatorial order by Hadrian. The pair may have met in Britain or during Hadrian’s stay in Narbo, and the promotion could have resulted directly from their friendship. Aemilius Arcanus was honoured after his death with a statue at Narbo set up by one of his freedmen, the seuir Augustalis Lucius Aemilius Moschus, who donated 4,000 sesterces to the treasury of the augustales for the maintenance of his honorary monument (CIL XII 4354).

CIL XII 4354 – © Arnaud Spani – Narbo Via
L(ucio) Aemilio L(ucii) f(ilio) Pap(iria) Arcano, trib(uno) mil(itum) leg(ionis) XI Gem(inae) et trib(uno) mil(itum) leg(ionis) I Mineru(iae), item trib(uno) mil(itum) leg(ionis) II Aug(ustae), omnib(us) honoribus in colonia sua funct(o), adlecto in amplissimum ordinem ab Imp(eratore) Caes(are) Hadriano Aug(usto), sevir(o) equitum Romanoru(m), curioni, quaestori urbano, trib(uno) plebis, praetori designat(o), L(ucius) Aemilius Moschus, seuir Aug(ustalis), patrono optumo, post obitum eius inlatis arcae seuiror(um) ob locum et tuitionem statuae s(estertiis) n(ummum) IIII (quatuor milibus) ; l(oco) d(ato) d(ecreto) seuiror(um) et sportulis dedicauit (denariis) III (tribus).

After a stay in Narbo, the grieving Emperor would continue to journey south along the via Domitia, traversing the pass of the Pyrenees known as Summum Pyrenaeum (today Col de Panissars), the highest point descending to the plain of the Ebro valley. From the Summum Pyrenaeum, Hadrian would follow the via Augusta, leading to Gerunda (Girona), Barcino (Barcelona) and Tarraco (Tarragona), where he was to spend the winter of 122/3.

The end of the via Domitia and the start of the via Augusta at the Col de Panissars. Tracks from the carts incised into the rocks are still visible. Hannibal probably came through this pass in 218 BC. Pompey (the Great) erected a monument here to commemorate his victories in Spain.

Sources and references:

  • Birley, Anthony R., (1997). Hadrian. The restless emperor, Routledge London New York pp. 142-150.
  • Fraser. Trudie E. (2006). Hadrian as Builder and Benefactor in the Western Provinces. BAR International Series 1484.
  • Bonsangue Maria-Luisa. Les élites de Narbonne et les ordres supérieurs de l’Empire (Ier siècle av. J.-C. – IIe siècle ap. J.-C.). In: Revue archéologique de Narbonnaise, tome 49, 2016. pp. 49-63;
  • Michel Disdero & Patrick De Michèle (2019) Borysthène & Hadrien (pdf)
  • Gascou Jacques, Janon Michel. Les chevaux d’Hadrien. In: Revue archéologique de Narbonnaise, tome 33, 2000. pp. 61-68;
  • Manniez Yves, Pellé Richard. Données nouvelles sur l’enceinte du castrum des Arènes de Nîmes. In: Revue archéologique de Narbonnaise, tome 44, 2011. pp. 125-143;

5 thoughts on “Autumn AD 122 – Hadrian returns to Gaul and commemorates his horse and Plotina (#Hadrian1900)”

  1. This is the most evocative place on the internet. I’m not exactly reading your post, I’m catching up on what our beloved Emperor has been doing this past year. And I feel sad about his step mum’s death 🙁

  2. I love this post. I live in Cavaillon and know Apt and the Pont Julien. I also love Arles and Nîmes and have followed the Via Domitia from Narbonne to Apt and beyond. I had always wondered where Hadrian’s horse was buried and you have now provided me with the information (Les Tourettes). You know I will be traveling there to see the site. I had heard that Borythenes slipped on moist rocks and fell. He struck his head and died and caused Hadrian to weep (although some historians have suggested that he was actually weeping for his adoptive mother, Plotina). Wonderful post. I treasure each of your posts.

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