The Institute for the Study of Ancient Cultures of the University of Chicago possesses a papyrus with the inventory number E8349, which contains the only surviving copy of Hadrian’s lost autobiography. Written toward the close of his life, Hadrian’s autobiography appears to have taken the form of a series of letters to Antoninus Pius. Its purpose was to contradict the rumours spread by his critics, which he considered defamatory, and to present himself in a more favourable way. According to the Historia Augusta, Hadrian then instructed his freedmen to attach their own names to his autobiography.
So desirous of a wide-spread reputation was Hadrian that he even wrote his own biography; this he gave to his educated freedmen, with instructions to publish it under their own names. For indeed, Phlegon’s writings, it is said, are Hadrian’s in reality. HA Hadr. 16,1
This papyrus (E8349), which is not on public display, was found at the site of Backhias (Umm el-Athl) in Egypt by the English papyrologists Bernard P. Grenfell (1869-1926), Arthur S. Hunt (1871-1934), and David G. Hogarth (1862-1927), who excavated in the Fayum at the end of the 19th century. On 14 September 2023, the Institute for the Study of Ancient Cultures of the University of Chicago published on their Facebook page an image of the papyrus fragment with the following text:
The papyrus fragment measures 22 by 10.3 cm and is damaged on the left and right sides, so the beginning and the ends of the lines are lost. The document is written in Greek on the back of a 2nd-century AD tax list and consists of twenty lines written in two different hands. The first fifteen lines are written clearly, while the last five (which repeat the first five lines) are written far more irregularly, which shows this was a school text. The 1st hand was written by the schoolmaster, and the 2nd hand by a pupil. The Roman students in Egypt learned Greek by copying the Greek classics, including the Iliad, as shown on another papyrus fragment in the collection of the Institute for the Study of Ancient Cultures (E2058) and found at the site of Oxyrhynchus in Egypt (published as P. Oxy. 1 21).
The papyrus text seems to be the opening of Hadrian’s epistolary autobiography. J. Bollansée published a text translation in the journal Ancient Society 1994 in “P. Fay. 19, Hadrian’s Memoirs, and Imperial Epistolography” (https://www.jstor.org/stable/44079744).
Imperator Caesar Hadrianus Augustus to his highly-esteemed Antoninus, greeting. Above all, I would like you to know that I am being released from life neither untimely nor unreasonably, pitiably, unexpectedly or with faculties impaired, though – as I have perceived – I thus may appear to do you wrong, you who sites at my bedside, never ceases to comfort me and urges me to hold on. Consequently, I feel compelled to write you the following, not, by Zeus, to cunningly paint some vulgar picture stretching the truth, but to give a straightforward and accurate account of the facts themselves (…)
My natural father was taken ill and died as a private citizen at forty, hence I have survived him by more than half his age; I have approximately reached the same age as my mother, who lived to be sixty. I am presently in my [sixty-third] year…
This text is thought to form part of Hadrian’s autobiography, which was probably written in epistolary form to his successor, Antoninus Pius. Other Romans had written their political memoirs in this form, such as Sulla, who wrote his own achievements to his lieutenant L. Lucullus and Augustus, who wrote his autobiography in the mid-20s BC to Agrippa and Maecenas. Several literary sources explicitly note that Hadrian wrote his autobiography (Dio Cassius, the Historia Augusta). Hadrian seems to have published the Latin version under his own name, and his freedman, Phlegon of Tralles, possibly edited the Greek translation.
Backhias (or Bacchias), where the papyrus fragment was discovered, was a Greco-Egyptian town in the northeastern part of the Fayum Oasis. It was identified by Grenfell and Hunt with the Kōm Umm el-Athl archaeological area near the modern village of Gorein, based on papyri found on the site. The archaeological site forms a hill approximately 400 × 300 meters in circumference. The ruins of temples have been found, including a large Ptolemaic mud-brick temple dedicated to the crocodile god Soknobkonneus (see plan).
In this video, Professor Brian Muhs examines E8349 to find out whether the text copied on the papyrus is really a bit from Hadrian’s life history and explains how the papyrus fragment ended in the collection of the Institute for the Study of Ancient Cultures in Chicago.