Emperor Hadrian Brings the World to Rome

When designing his magnificent residence at Tivoli, Emperor Hadrian drew on his travels to bring the empire home with him. Combining Eastern and Greek elements, his villa showcased the Roman Empire at the peak of its power.

The emperor Hadrian was well known for building monuments across the Roman Empire, a territory that had reached its widest extent when his reign began in A.D. 117. Hadrian’s Wall in Britain “and a host of other monuments, attest to his taste, activity, and power,” French romantic writer Chateaubriand noted in 1803 on a visit to the emperor’s villa at Tivoli near Rome. Hadrian’s Villa’s size, opulence, and design touches from the far-flung corners of the empire are “entirely becoming for a man who once possessed the world.”

Although more carefully preserved since Chateaubriand wandered through its crumbling ruins (it’s been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1999), Hadrian’s Villa astounds visitors with its sheer size. Starting around A.D. 125, he oversaw the creation of 31 structures and extensive gardens, spread across a terrain of some seven square miles.

Constructing elaborate rural houses away from the heat and bustle of Rome was nothing new among members of the imperial aristocracy. Their villas were designed for the all-important Roman activity of otium—leisure—encompassing eating and reading, as well as that quality preserved in modern Italian as la dolce far niente: the sweetness of doing nothing.

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