Winter AD 122/3 – Hadrian stays in Tarraco and rebuilds the Temple of Augustus (#Hadrian1900)

Having returned to Gaul from Britain (see here), Hadrian made his only known visit to his native land as emperor during the winter of AD 122/3. He took up his residence at Tarraco (Tarragona), Rome’s oldest foundation on the Iberian Peninsula and the capital of Hispania Tarraconensis.

Anthony Birley has proposed the identification of some of the members of Hadrian’s retinue. Among them could have been Quintus Ramnius Martialis as prefect of the praetorium, L. Julius Vestinus as new ab epistulis and substitute of Suetonius and perhaps Gnaeus Pedanius Fuscus Salinator and his wife, Julia Sabina, Hadrian’s niece. It is very likely that the emperor was also accompanied by Vibia Sabina, who we know participated in at least some of the imperial trips.

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

Hadrian’s visit to Hispania is not well documented. The Historia Augusta only discusses his presence in Tarraco and does not provide further details on his itinerary or imperial retinue. “After arranging matters in Britain, he crossed over to Gaul […] travelled to Spain​ and spent the winter at Tarraco“, the HA reports. The road from Nemausus to Tarraco passed through Barcino (modern-day Barcelona), the patria (ancestral city) of an elite family closely related to the emperor, the Minicii Natales. The family owned a villa, and the senator and military leader Lucius Minicius Natalis and his son had a large public bath complex with porticoes and an aqueduct built around the early 120s (balineum c[um port]icibus solo suo et / du[ctus aquae] fecerunt (CIL II 4509). This building activity may have also been connected to Hadrian’s trip to Spain (Birley, 1997).

The adventus coin, formally recognising Hadrian’s visit to the Hispanic provinces. Hispania is depicted holding the olive branch, standing by an altar.
© The Trustees of the British Museum

The Iberian peninsula, full of flourishing cities (Pliny the Elder numbered three hundred and sixty cities in Spain during his government as procurator), was completely Romanised in the time of Hadrian. The original Roman provinces in Hispania were created in the 3rd century BC, after the Second Punic War, when the peninsula was divided into two, Hispania Citerior in the northeast with its capital Tarraco and Hispania Ulterior in the south with its capital Corduba. In the late 1st century BC, Augustus reorganised the provinces in Hispania. The larger province of Hispania Tarraconensis replaced Hispania Citerior, and the new provinces of Baetica and Lusitania were created out of Hispania Ulterior. Tarraconensis took its name from the city of Tarraco, south of the Pyrenees on the Mediterranean. Of these provinces, Baetica was under the dominion of the senate. Only one legion, the VII Gemina (of which Trajan was legate in AD 89), was stationed at Legio (León) in the north since Vespasian.

To Rome, Hispania gave two emperors (Trajan and Hadrian) and men of genius like Seneca, the poets Lucan and Martial, the famous farmer Columella, and the orator Quintilian.

Roman Hispania c. AD 125.
Map created by Simeon Netchev for World History Encyclopedia & Following Hadrian (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0). Click to enlarge.

Hadrian certainly knew Tarraco from his youth. The town, located on the via Augusta, was a regular stopping-off point for travellers from Baetica, Hadrian’s patria in the south (modern Andalusia), as they made their way to Italy. The via Augusta formed a major link in a chain of roads connecting the Iberian Peninsula with Rome. It ran along the coast of the Iberian Peninsula between the Pyrenees and Gades (Cádiz), the home of Hadrian’s mother. It was named after Augustus, who instigated a major road reform, which until then had been known as the via Herculia or Heraclia. On the stretch of the via Augusta between Tarraco and Barcino (Barcelona), an honorary arch was elected in the late 1st century BC and was dedicated to Augustus.

The Arch of Berà near Tarragona (Spain) was built by Lucius Licinius Sura (the ancestor of the famous senator and three-time consul under Trajan) around 13 BC and dedicated to Augustus. The honorary arch was located on the Via Augusta and marked the limit of the colony of Tarraco.
Reconstruction of the Arch of Berà with its inscription; “Ex testamento L(uci) Licini L(uci) f(ilii) Serg(ia tribu) Surae consa[-cratum/craverunt]”

Martial and other poets celebrated Tarraco‘s fertile plain and sunny shores. In one epigram, Martial (of Bilbilis) mentions the hunting of boars, hares and deer near the provincial capital. The poet spent long periods of his life in his native rural Hispania with fellow townsman Lucius Valerius Licinianus, an avid hunter.

There you will slaughter deer snared in soft-meshed toils and native boars and run the cunning hare to death with your stout horse; the stags you will leave to the bailiff. The nearby wood shall come down right to your own heart and its girdle of grimy brats. The hunter will be invited; shout from close by, and a guest will come to share your dinner. Mart. Ep. 1.49

Himself a keen hunter, Hadrian would have remembered these lines while in Tarraco. Licinianus, like Hadrian, was a protégé of the influential Spanish consular Lucius Licinius Sura and Trajan’s closest ally mentioned at the end of the poem. According to the Historia Augusta, Hadrian enjoyed Sura’s favour, and he may well have owed his adoption by Trajan and succession to him.

Fresco with a hunting scene that would have decorated the corridor of a luxurious domus in Tarraco and dated to the 2nd – 3rd century AD.
National Archaeological Museum of Tarragona.

Hadrian visited Tarraco at a time when the town had reached its full urban development. From its foundation towards the end of the 3rd century BC, Tarraco played a major role in the Romanisation of the Iberian Peninsula’s way of life and social structure. Tarraco started as a military camp when the legions charged with conquering and pacifying the territory penetrated Hispania through its lands. The chosen emplacement for the camp, close to a river and a port, corresponded to the strategic needs of the time: a rapid maritime and overland connection to the Italian Peninsula. Rome could be reached by sea in just five days.

This outpost would subsequently be made permanent and, over time, become a colony (Colonia Iulia Urbs Triumphalis Tarraco) and a provincial capital (conventus iuridicus) with between 15,000 and 20,000 inhabitants and a commercial port connected with the entire Mediterranean. According to Pomponius Mela, Tarraco became an extraordinarily opulent city, and after a programme to develop the urban periphery, it might have measured as much as 80 hectares in area.

Tarraco urbs est en his oris maritimarum opulentissima (Tarraco, the most opulent town on this part of the coast…) Pomponius Mela, De Chrorographia II, 80

Hypothetical reconstruction drawing of Tarraco in the 2nd century AD.
The Amphitheatre of Tarraco was built at the beginning of the 2nd century AD on the outskirts of the city.
The Colonial Forum of Tarraco, built around 30 BC. Today only a portion of the basilica remains, a building with three naves that once held the court of justice and was sometimes used for meetings of the city council.

Tarraco was given a vast fortified enclosure with a monumental Cyclopean wall 20 metres high. Within its secure walls, sophisticated sewers and water management system, paved streets and porticoes, and residential, commercial and public buildings occupied the urban space. The Tarraco experienced by Hadrian during his stay in the winter of 122/3 was the result of an intensive urban transformation during the Augustan, Julio-Claudian and Flavian periods that equipped the town with a theatre, two forums (a provincial and a colonial one), a capitolium, a basilica, a circus and culminated with the construction of the amphitheatre at the beginning of the 2nd century AD. In its urban layout, architecture, and elements of day-to-day life, Tarraco provided a vision of the power and splendour of Rome.

Hadrian’s stay at Tarraco coincided with the 150th anniversary of Octavian taking the title Augustus, and shortly after this, the first princeps went to Tarraco. The emperor lived in the city during his first extended visit to Hispania in 26–25 BC, convalescing after falling ill during the Cantabrian Wars in the northwestern part of the province. During this period (and perhaps again in 15-14 BC during Augustus’ second Spanish journey), Tarraco was de facto the centre of power and the official capital of the empire (Fishwick, 1996). This exceptional role was symbolised by the dedication of an altar to Augustus, which the rhetorician Quintilian refers to as being in existence during the emperor’s lifetime (Institutio oratoria 6, 3), followed by a temple, the first provincial temple of the imperial cult that Tacitus framed as “precedent-setting.”

A request from the Spaniards that they might erect a temple to Augustus in the colony of Tarraco was granted, and a precedent thus given for all the provinces. Tacitus, Annals, I, 78

Hypothetical 3D reconstruction of the worship area with the Temple of Augustus in the middle of the square.
© Ferran Gris /

The existence of both monuments is confirmed by numismatic evidence. Minted in Tarraco under Tiberius, one sestertius (RPC I, 225) shows on its reverse the altar bounded by a fluted pilaster at either side and a palm tree above it with the legend C(olonia) U(rbs) T(riumphalis) T(arraconensis). The palm tree’s presence originated in the miracle recounted by Quintilian, who told how a palm tree sprouted from the altar (Institutio oratoria 6, 3). Another sestertius (RPC I, 222) from the time of Tiberius shows an octostyle temple with the legend AETERNITATIS AVGVSTAE with either a seated figure of Divus Augustus or the radiate head of Augustus on the obverse.

Sestertius (RPC I, 222) from the Tarraco mint, issued in the third decade of the 1st century AD with the Temple of Augustus depicted on the reverse as an octastyle temple.
Bibliothèque nationale de France (link)
Sestertius from the Tarraco mint, issued in the third decade of the 1st century AD with the altar of Divus Augustus depicted on the reverse.
Roman Provincial Coinage (link)

The archaeological excavations undertaken below the Cathedral in 2003 revealed a large number of marble fragments that came mainly from the architectural decoration of the temple and worship area (see here). Architectonic elements have also been found in situ (see here). Of particular interest was the discovery of a toe of a colossal statue made of Paros marble (see here). The toe may have come from the colossal seated statue of the deified Augustus that would have presided over the hall of worship in Tarraco‘s main temple.

The temple stood on the top level of a large complex of ca. 11 hectares, occupying the three terraces of the upper city. At the highest point, the most northerly component of the complex was a rectangular enclosure measuring 153x136m with porticoed galleries, exedras and, in its centre, the temple dedicated to the imperial cult. A stairway led down onto another larger rectangular enclosure measuring 318x175m, twice as large, on which stood the provincial forum housing the assembly room of the concilium provinciae that met annually to elect the flamen charged with presiding over the imperial worship ceremonies and the provincial administrative apparatus. From the middle level, a huge ornamental stairway gave access to a circus built later under Domitian to host chariot races.

The upper city with the Temple of Augustus, the provincial forum and the circus.
© Jean-Claude Golvin
The location of the worship area with the Temple of Augustus.

It would seem that the Temple of Augustus needed repairs by the winter of AD 122/3, as the first thing that the HA biographer reports about Hadrian’s stay at Tarraco is that ‘he rebuilt the Temple of Augustus at his own expense.” (HA Hadr. 12.3). The temple restoration was Hadrian’s major building project for the city of Tarraco. Work began during his winter stay with the assistance of C. Calpurnius Flaccus, curator templipraefectus murorum, who was responsible for repairing the temple and walls of the city (CIL II 4202). Flaccus was given a statue after his term of office that would have stood on the middle terrace of the upper city along with the numerous other statues of past provincial priests (Fishwick, 1999). In addition, Hadrian drastically abbreviated his name to Hadrianus Augustus to align himself with the Augustan legacy.

Marble head of Hadrian, probably sculpted in a local workshop, discovered in the residential area near the Colonial Forum of Tarraco. National Archaeological Museum of Tarragona, Spain. Catalog No. MNAT 389.

Locals soon began to set up many statues of Hadrian in the sanctuary, and members of the local elite took on the role of flamens (high priests) in the imperial cult. An inscription (CIL II 4230) from a statue base set up in Tarraco, now lost, records that Caius Numisius Modestus received a mandate from the provincial council to oversee and gild the statues of the divine Hadrian (ad statuas aurandas / divi Hadriani). Caius Numisius Modestus was a local aristocrat from Carthago Nova (modern-day Cartagena) in southeastern Spain. After an illustrious career in his hometown, fulfilling all of the municipal magistracies (omnibus / honoribus in re publica sua / functo), Modestus was sent to Tarraco and eventually was elected the chief priest of the imperial cult (electo a / concilio provinciae…flamini).

Fragment of a monumental inscription referring to the construction of a gate in the amphitheatre of Tarraco by a flamen of the Provincia Hispania Citerior. Dated to the time of Hadrian.
National Archaeological Museum of Tarragona, Spain.

An anecdote in the Historia Augusta relates the danger Hadrian encountered at Tarraco. While taking a stroll in his host’s garden, a mad slave suddenly ran upon him with a sword and attempted to kill him. The man was seized, but the emperor showed compassion and did not punish him. Instead, he handed him over to the physicians, who, on examination, found him to be insane. The gardens were possibly those of Publius Rufius Flavius, who, according to an inscription, honoured the memory of his dead wife by handing over the gardens to freedmen and freedwomen (CIL II 4332).

At this same time he incurred grave danger and won great glory; for while he was walking about in a garden at Tarraco one of the slaves of the household rushed at him madly with a sword. But he merely laid hold on the man, and when the servants ran to the rescue handed him over to them. Afterwards, when it was found that the man was mad, he turned him over to the physicians for treatment, and all this time showed not the slightest sign of alarm. HA Hadr. 12.5

Les Ferreres Aqueduct, built in the 1st century AD to supply water to the ancient city of Tarraco.

In the areas nearest to Tarraco, numerous luxurious villas and rural properties with diverse uses and functions were built, especially on the fertile plains. A local magistrate, Caius Valerius Avitus and his wife, Faustina, owned a villa on a small coastal promontory to the northeast of Tarraco (known as the Villa de Els Munts in Altafulla), between the sea and the via Augusta. The villa was first constructed in the 1st century AD but was abandoned and demolished at the beginning of the 2nd century AD to build a new, larger and more magnificent aristocratic villa on the site, possibly on imperial orders. It was a villa designed for the leisure and relaxation of the Tarraco elites and may have been related to Hadrian’s visit. 

During the archaeological excavations in the villa, a large number of sculptures which served to decorate the rooms, gardens, and thermal baths were unearthed, including one portraying Antinous. It would have stood in a porticoed gallery with a mosaic floor, mural frescoes and superb views along the coast. Only the statue’s head, torso and part of the extremities remain. It is now exhibited in the National Archaeological Museum of Tarragona (see here).

The land is fertile in the fields and even more so on the hills, producing wine and wheat as good as those of Italy. P. Annaeus Florus, Vergilius orator an poeta, II, 6-9

Hypothetical reconstruction of the residential area with the porticoed gallery and the garden and the semi-subterranean corridor.
Overview of the cryptoporticus of the residential area of the Roman villa of Els Munts, where the statue of Antinous was found. The covered walkway was decorated with geometric mosaics on the floor and frescoes on the walls.

A major purpose of Hadrian’s visit to Spain was the need for troops. The VII Gemina, the only legion stationed in the Spanish provinces, had already provided 1000 men for service in Britain in 119 to suppress incursions from the north and to build Hadrian’s Wall. The legion, raised in AD 68 by the governor of Hispania Tarraconensis, Servius Sulpicius Galba, was deployed in the city called Legio (modern-day León) in 74 and remained in Hispania until the end of the 4th century AD. Under Vespasian, the legion received its name Gemina.

While in Tarraco, Hadrian held a major conventus, a general assembly of representatives from Spain’s three provinces. Some of them, the “Italici” more vehemently than the rest, seized the opportunity to voice complaints about the military levy (dilectus) that Hadrian introduced to provide provincial citizens recruits for the legions. Trajan had forbidden levies from these Italian colonists, but Hadrian reinstituted them, possibly to provide emergency troops to Mauretania, where a Moorish revolt had broken out. The outcome of the conventus is uncertain, but a levy was likely held.

To this place, too, he called all the inhabitants of Spain for a general meeting, and when they refused to submit to a levy, the Italian settlers​ jestingly, to use the very words of Marius Maximus, and the others very vigorously, he took measures characterized by skill and discretion. HA Hadr. 12.4

Hadrian most likely took a trip to the legionary base at Legio (Birley, 1997). His presence there seems guaranteed by the exercitus Hispanicus coins depicting him addressing the troops.

The exercitus coin may represent Hadrian’s address to the legion at Legio. On the reverse, Hadrian stands on a low platform holding a sceptre in his left hand and addressing an officer and three soldiers.
© The Trustees of the British Museum

Legio (or Castra Legionis) was founded in the 1st century BC and developed from a legionary fortress for Legio VI Victrix, which took part, among other troops, in Augustus’ campaigns against the Cantabrians. During the reign of Vespasian, it became the headquarters of Legio VII Gemina, and a civilian settlement developed around the fortress. Rectangular in shape and measuring 570 x 350 m, the fortress enclosed an area of slightly under 20 ha (see plan here), comparable in size with many other legionary bases. The fortress’s most substantial survival is of sections of fortification walls restored and repaired in later periods and the eastern gate (porta principalis sinistra) in the ‘Cripta arqueológica de Puerta Obispo‘ along with remains of latrines and a bath house.

Model of the legionary fortress of Legio in the Centro de Interpretación del León Romano.
Author: VIATOR IMPERI (image cropped)
Remains of the porta principalis sinistra, the east gate of the Roman legionary camp of Legio VII Gemina.

The route from Tarraco would have taken the emperor to Ilerda (Lérida), Celsa and Caesaraugusta (Zaragoza). From there, he could proceed west up the River Ebro via Calagurris (Quintilian’s hometown) and Segisama (Sasamón), where Augustus established the headquarters of the legions that fought during the Cantabrian wars before withdrawing to Tarraco. While Hadrian’s exact journey is not known, Birley maintains that he probably followed the route of Augustus.

Caesaraugusta was founded by Augustus between 25 and 12 BC as a civilian colony for veterans of the legions IV Macedonica, VI Victrix, and X Gemina, discharged after the wars against the Cantabri. It became an imperial administrative centre of great importance. The best-preserved Roman structure is the theatre, built in the first half of the 1st century AD, in the Age of Tiberius and Claudius. The theatre had a capacity of 6,000 spectators in a city with only 18,000 people.

Where the emperor went after staying in Tarraco and visiting Legio cannot be ascertained, but it is difficult to believe that Italica was not on Hadrian’s itinerary. The Historia Augusta only mentions Tarraco, and Cassius Dio wrote that “he did not see his native land, though he showed it great honour and bestowed many splendid gifts upon it.” (Dio 10.1). However, in early 123, news of a rebellion in Mauretania (modern-day Morocco) arrived. This was an ongoing problem as there had already been a revolt of the Mauri (the Berber population of Mauretania) five years earlier when Q. Martius Turbo was sent to deal with the troubles there (HA Hadr. 5.2), and the Moorish general Lucius Quietus was dismissed (HA Hadr. 5.8).

Hadrian’s movements at this time have generated considerable speculation and disagreement. Birley argues that Hadrian did indeed journey to Baetica after his sojourn in Tarraco but that he avoided his native Italica, as Dio explicitly states. He then intended a personal inspection of the North African provinces, particularly the frontier. On the other hand, Juan Manuel Cortés Copete, Professor of Ancient History at the Pablo de Olavide University in Seville, rejects the fact that Hadrian refrained from visiting his home town based on a mistranslation of Dio’s passage. In his view, Dio seems to imply that the emperor did see Italica at some point and may even have attended the inauguration of the new buildings and monuments he bestowed upon the city. This is reflected in the map of Hadrian’s Travels shown at the 2017 ‘Hadrian Metamorphosis: The birth of a new Rome‘ exhibition at the Archaeological Museum of Seville, curated by Cortés Copete.

Map of the western provinces showing Hadrian’s journey in 121-123.

The cities of Baetica could reasonably have expected an imperial visit after his stay in Tarraco. One statue base of Hadrian set up in Singilia Barba in AD 122 (CIL II2/5, 775) could possibly have been inspired by the prospect of a short stay. What is certain is that Hadrian rebuilt his ancestral home on the scale of an imperial city. Under his rule, an entirely new quarter was laid out, and the city enjoyed a period of splendour during which its architectural development flourished. The new amenities included an amphitheatre with a seating capacity of 25,000 and vast baths, a temple dedicated to the deified Trajan (Traianeum), luxurious houses with a rich variety of mosaic floors, a new water supply system and a drainage network. Hadrian also granted Italica the elevated status of a Roman colonia under the new name of Colonia Aelia Augusta Italica. If Hadrian did go to Baetica and Mauretania, he may have wished to visit Gades, his mother Paulina’s hometown.

Italica expanded to cover 30 ha (75 acres) under Hadrian, comparable to the capital of a whole province. In Hispania, only Corduba, Tarraco, and Emerita surpassed Italica. The whole plan of the city was lavish, the main avenue being nearly 15 metres wide with porticoed pavements. The amphitheatre was one of the largest in the Empire and could accommodate some 25,000 spectators.

Two early coins minted in Gades in AD 119 show how Hadrian celebrated his Hispanic heritage through coinage by associating himself with Hercules Gaditanus. The famous temple of Hercules Gaditanus, known as Melqart in Phoenician times, was a key pilgrimage site in ancient times. It is said to have been a columned temple with an eternal flame, maintained day and night by priests. Archaeologists have been looking for the site of the temple for centuries. They believe they have located it in a shallow channel in the Bay of Cádiz between Chiclana de Frontera and San Fernando. The team used LIDAR and found a structure that fits the measurements of the island where the temple once stood (see here).

Gold coin of Hadrian with the image of Hercules standing in a temple on the reverse. AD 119-122.
© The Trustees of the British Museum

The later commemorative coins celebrated Hadrian as the ‘restorer’ of the three Spanish provinces. In addition to his rebuilding of the Temple of Augustus at Tarraco and the numerous benefactions upon his native town, there is considerable epigraphic evidence of road works, repairs and maintenance (Fraser, 2006). Hadrianic milestones, all bearing the word restituit, inform us that the roads in Lusitania were reinforced and renovated shortly before Hadrian’s visit (120/1) and were all imperially funded.

At least 25 milestones are attested in the Lusitanian provincial territory, including 16 from the so-called Vía de La Plata (Silver Route), which linked Legio to Augusta Emerita in the North-South direction. These road repairs could be linked to preparations that were made in response to the imperial visit announcement. There is also evidence of road repairs in Tarraconensis later in Hadrian’s reign.

Hadrian as ‘restorer’ of Hispania.
© The Trustees of the British Museum

Hadrian’s inspection journey of the western provinces may have ended with a brief excursion into Mauretania in order to crush the Moorish uprising, for which the Senate voted supplicationes (HA Hadr. 12.7). For Birley, the ‘thanksgivings’ ordered by the Senate Hadrian meant that he personally conducted a campaign against the rebellious Moors. However, other scholars have argued that the emperor’s presence was not absolutely necessary in order to receive credit for a victory.

This country, the ancient kingdom of Juba II, had been added to the empire by the emperor Claudius. It was divided into Mauretania Tingitana (with its capital at Tingis) and Mauretania Caesariensis (with its capital at Caesarea). At the beginning of Hadrian’s reign, it was governed by an imperial procurator or prefect, like Martius Turbo. Peace in the two Mauretanian provinces was maintained with only one legion, III Augusta, assisted by a number of auxiliary units. By the early 2nd century AD, the bulk of the army was distributed along a single east-west routeway with a system of forts and fortlets along the route. Hadrian created two new forts; Praesidium Sufative at Albulae (AE 1913, 0157) in 119 and Rapidum (CIL VIII 20833) in 122.

However, Hadrian’s later coinage shows that the emperor visited at least one of the two Mauretanias and pacified the country (see adventusexercitus, and province coin types for Mauretania). The African visit of 123 may be disputed, but there can be no doubt that Hadrian was there in 128 by way of Sicily (ILS 1069). The coins bearing the legend ADVENTVI AVG MAVRETANIAE could well be referring to his AD 128 visit.

The Roman provinces in Africa.
Map created by Simeon Netchev for World History Encyclopedia & Following Hadrian (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0). Click to enlarge.
An Hadrianic inscription shows that Rapidum was the camp of Cohors II Sardorum (AE 1975, 00953), around which a civilian settlement subsequently developed.
© Jean-Claude Golvin

The Historia Augusta then mentions that Hadrian received news of troubles in Parthia and decided to go to the east (HA Hadr. 12.8). Tiberius Claudius Quartinus, who was in Spain as legatus iuridicus of Tarraconensis (CIL XIII, 1802), was ordered to collect two of the eastern legions, II Traiana and III Cyrenaica, and to take them to the Euphrates frontier. The new Augustus would have to journey back to Antioch, where his rule had begun.

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