This Roman emperor spared no expense on his passion for all things Greek

A lover of ancient Greece, Emperor Hadrian transformed Athens into a new cultural center and was worshipped as a god in return.

In life, Hadrian sported a Greek-style haircut and beard, reflected in this marble bust from A.D. 130-140. National Archaeological Museum, Athens
DEA/ALBUM

Any city awaiting a visit from a Roman emperor would have thrummed with anticipation, but for Athenians in A.D. 124, the expectation was even greater. Hadrian, whose realm stretched from Britain to Babylonia, had a well-known passion for Greece, which he had cultivated since he was a child. Out of all the cities under Rome’s control, Hadrian selected Athens as his intellectual home, a city on which he would lavish funds on building monuments.

Hadrian’s relationship with the city of Plato and Pericles was reciprocated by the Athenians, who came to regard the emperor as their city’s new founder and a deity in his own right. The monuments he built in Athens reflected not just its ancient glory but its modern importance too: Hadrian knew that his exaltation and improvement of the city would help stabilize the fractious eastern part of the sprawling Roman Empire he had come to rule.

Born in A.D. 76 in Italica, near the modern Spanish city of Seville, Publius Aelius Hadrianus was born into an aristocratic family. When his father died in A.D. 85, Hadrian became a ward of his cousin (and future Roman emperor) Trajan, who ensured the youth had a fine education, which would have included Greek history and philosophy. Young Hadrian was so fond of these subjects, he earned the nickname “Graeculus,” which means “Greekling.”

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