Famous travelers to Türkiye: Hadrian, emperor with wanderlust

A. Peter Dore

Visiting the remains of the classical city of Troy, Roman Emperor Hadrian physically changed the landscape of Türkiye’s northwestern Anatolia as a curious traveler, choosing to beautify his empire through grand building projects instead of glorifying it through conquests, yet he conquered the people of his provinces with the force of his personality

In his impatience to uncover Homeric Troy, Heinrich Schliemann, the third traveler to Türkiye of this series, cared little for the highest level of remains that he first came across in his dig into Hisarlık Hill. He knew them to be of classical origin and thus too recent to interest him. Nevertheless, this level of Troy, now known as Troy IX, had been visited reverentially by some of the greatest names of the later ancient world, including the Persian emperor Xerxes, the Macedonian conqueror Alexander the Great, and his last Roman rival, Julius Caesar.

Troy’s ancient visitors

After these eminent figures, in A.D. 124, a Roman emperor set foot on Troy IX. This was Hadrian (A.D. 76-138), and he is the fourth of the famous travelers to Türkiye in this series. He was undoubtedly at Troy due to what his biographer, Anthony R. Birley, calls his “weakness for literary tourism,” even though he did not particularly care for Homer. At that time, Hadrian ruled over most of what is now Türkiye, which was divided into several Roman provinces. It is worth remembering that though Hadrian is a figure of the ancient world to us, the antiquity of the land of Türkiye is attested to by the fact that the deepest level of Troy discovered by Schliemann was inhabited at a greater distance of time from Hadrian than Hadrian is separated from us today. While the Romans represent the last great flowering of the ancient world, in terms of the ancient world itself, they are the upstarts.

Roman ruins near the Hadrian Temple, in the ancient city of Ephesus, Izmir, Türkiye, April 22, 2015. (Getty Images Photo)
Roman ruins near the Hadrian Temple, in the ancient city of Ephesus, Izmir, Türkiye, April 22, 2015. (Getty Images Photo)
Portrait of an emperor

As for the reign of Hadrian, the Enlightenment historian and contemporary of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Edward Gibbon avers in his magisterial “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” that the period of A.D. 96 to 180, was “a happy period of more than fourscore years” in which “the public administration was conducted by the virtue and abilities of” five successive emperors, and which was, in his opinion, “the period in the history of the world, during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous.”

It is true that owing to the distance of time, it is far harder to speculate as to what went on in the mind of Hadrian as it has been for the first three travelers to Türkiye in this series. This is compounded by his being a private, public figure. The historian Colin Wells says of Hadrian that “he remains for us, as he was for his contemporaries, an enigma.” However, he is a worthy figure for this series for reasons about him that are certain. One is that on his travels to Türkiye, he engaged in his mania for building, the passion of his for which he is best remembered. He thus physically changed the landscape here. Another is that he was the most attractive type of traveler – a curious one. He accords with the other travelers so far in this series. Tertullian says of Hadrian that he was “a seeker-out of all curiosities.” Indeed, his penchant for travel is something of an obsession. It is a warming thought that many centuries before numerous other visitors have wandered in wonder across this land, there was a Roman, an emperor no less, who took great pleasure in seeing its cultural beauties.

Moreover, he is one of the most extensive travelers in what is now Türkiye, having crossed the country from south to north and east to west. Lastly, he particularly loved this area. While traveling all over his empire, he was devoted to the eastern Mediterranean.

Remnants of Cyzicus Temple in Bandırma, Balıkesir, Türkiye, Dec. 15, 2006. (Wikipedia Photo)
Remnants of Cyzicus Temple in Bandırma, Balıkesir, Türkiye, Dec. 15, 2006. (Wikipedia Photo)

Hadrian differs from his direct predecessor Trajan in his lack of aggressiveness. One of Hadrian’s first acts as emperor was withdrawing from Trajan’s conquests from the Persian Parthian Empire in Mesopotamia. In giving up Trajan’s conquests, Hadrian effectively restored the traditional borders of his empire and ensured once again that it was not too large to be ungovernable. Moreover, he abandoned not only the actual conquests of Trajan but also his conquering spirit. Here Hadrian’s passion for building has its root in that rather than glorify his empire through conquest; he chose to beautify it with grand building projects. In addition, rather than seeing his people as subjugated subjects, he desired to engage with them. In his travels, and especially those in the east, by being physically present to the populace, by demonstrating his interest in their localities, and by distributing largesse to beautify these places, he engendered in diverse peoples with different cultures and histories a sense of belonging to the empire of Rome. While Trajan had conquered new areas with the force of arms, Hadrian conquered the people of his provinces, including those in Türkiye, with the strength of his personality.

Acclamation as Hadrian

Although this piece will focus on Hadrian’s trip through Türkiye in A.D. 123-124., his connection to this land goes much deeper. This is because it was in Antioch, the modern Turkish city of Antakya, that Hadrian became emperor. He was there to assist Trajan in his campaign against Persia in the East. It is reported that Hadrian had had a prophetic dream on the night of Aug. 10-11, 117, and on a subsequent day, he learned that the emperor Trajan had died. The troops that Hadrian commanded in Antioch then declared him the new emperor.

Despite Gibbon’s comment above, the people of the city of Rome at the time would not have recognized the third of Gibbon’s paragons of virtue as anything of the kind. Moreover, there is a Schliemann-like dubiety surrounding the accession of Hadrian. Hadrian claimed that the emperor had adopted him as his successor while Trajan was dying. This may have been the truth, but there is also speculation that the supposed letter of adoption had been forged to favor Hadrian’s elevation by Trajan’s widow, who was Hadrian’s guardian. Indeed, there was opposition to Hadrian being made emperor by four senators in Rome who were subsequently executed. Thus an image of him as a cruel usurper of power was formed. As historian Charles Freeman notes, this infelicitous start to his reign “permanently damaged his relationship with the senate.”

Remnants of Cyzicus Temple in Bandırma, Balıkesir, Türkiye, Dec. 15, 2006. (Wikipedia Photo)
Remnants of Cyzicus Temple in Bandırma, Balıkesir, Türkiye, Dec. 15, 2006. (Wikipedia Photo)

Moreover, the start of his reign may have been inauspicious, but this demonstrates that events do not necessarily foreshow what is to follow. The senate may have yet to take to Hadrian, but on the broader picture, Gibbon is right. Hadrian is one of the most extraordinary Roman emperors and remains one of the most famous today. In Britain, Hadrian’s Wall is the best-known remnant of the almost 400-year Roman occupation. Hadrian has left a physical and naming legacy in modern Türkiye too. Most significant is indeed Edirne, the largest wholly European city in the country. Its name is a phonetic evolution of the original Hadrianopolis – the city of Hadrian. In Antalya, one of the marvelous ways to pass in and out of the old town is through what is still known as the Gate of Hadrian. Hadrian was not an office-bound designer who ordered these, and many other grand constructions, from the far-off city of Rome. Instead, they were called or inspired by him on his travels.

Travels from Antioch to Thrace

As for the journey of 123-124, Hadrian is the first of the travelers in the series to enter what is now Türkiye from the south. He returned to Antioch in 123. As tragically demonstrated within the last month, Antioch (Antakya) lies in a highly seismic zone. When Hadrian returned, the city still showed the scars of one of its periodic earthquakes, which had struck eight years previously. Hadrian had public baths and an aqueduct constructed to help the still-prostrate city. He had come to Antioch to have a peace summit with the ruler of Persia. Birley notes, “traditionally, these diplomatic encounters took place on the Euphrates, with each side coming across in turn for dinner.”

Following the summit, Hadrian headed northwards into the valley of the upper Euphrates and the Anatolian plateau. He took in Melitene, the modern city of Malatya, and Satala, now the village of Sadak. It is speculated that he did not continue up the Euphrates border but instead headed northwest to Sebastia, the modern Sivas. Finally, Hadrian probably came to see the Black Sea at Trapezus, the modern Trabzon, as his friend Arrian, the historian of Alexander the Great, reports their having followed the ancient Greek Xenophon’s example in feeling delighted upon seeing the great watery expanse before them.

Much like John Dos Passos nearly two millennia later, but in the opposite direction, Hadrian seems to have sailed along the Black Sea coast. He probably recommenced his land-based travels at Heraclea, modern Karadeniz Ereğli; he traveled to Nicomedia, the modern city of Izmit, where he passed the winter, possibly as the guest of Arrian. The seismic vulnerability of Izmit is also well-known. When Hadrian visited, four years had passed since one of its periodically devastating earthquakes. The city, which had been leveled in this natural disaster, had still not recovered, so in Hadrian’s usual generous manner, he assigned funds for its buildings and walls to be rebuilt appropriately, for which the city’s citizens declared him their “Saviour and Benefactor.” This earthquake had also damaged nearby Nicaea, now Iznik, which Hadrian had repaired, and which built two triumphal arches in his honor, both of which can still be seen today. Indeed, the citizens of Nicaea were so grateful for Hadrian’s support that they declared him the second founder of their city.

Details on the temple of Hadrian's arch in ancient city of Ephesus, Izmir, Türkiye, July 17, 2012. (Getty Images Photo)
Details on the temple of Hadrian’s arch in ancient city of Ephesus, Izmir, Türkiye, July 17, 2012. (Getty Images Photo)

Iznik is now part of the province of Bursa, known in the time of Hadrian as Prusa ad Olympus. He may have visited this city too. Birley, referencing Mount Olympus, or the modern Uludağ, which rises like a giant at the back of the town, avers that “the sight of this massive peak might have been enough to attract Hadrian, who is known for his propensity for scaling mountains.” It is a comforting thought that Hadrian was not only the precursor to the modern cultural tourist but also to adventure tours. In 124, Hadrian crossed the Marmara Sea back into Europe into the province of Thrace. Then, he probably had the city of Hadrianopolis founded by bringing together two different towns into one city.

Hadrian in the Roman province of Asia

He next crossed into the province of Asia, whose significance can be gauged from being known as the “land of five hundred cities.” He landed at Cyzicus, the modern Erdek. The earthquake mentioned above also left the Cyzicans in dire condition. In addition to repairing its damage, Hadrian was inspired to complete a massive temple of Zeus which had been commenced centuries before but had never been completed. This was a work he would have relished as he had a particular attachment to Zeus. Moreover, Hadrian himself was to be worshipped in the temple as well. An ancient historian described the finished work as “the largest and most beautiful of all temples,” and as John Freely notes, this temple “was so huge and splendid that in late antiquity it supplanted the Artemisium at Ephesus in lists of the Seven Wonders of the World.”

He then went to Troy, as has already been mentioned above. Additionally, he founded another city in this region, Hadrianutherae, the modern Balikesir. Its foundation came about through his passion for hunting, for it is reported that it was at this place that he killed a female bear. As he headed south, he engaged in more hunting expeditions and visited the cities of Pergamum and Sardis. The latter was another place Hadrian could engage in his penchant for mountain climbing. From there, he headed to the Aegean coast at Smyrna, the modern metropolis of Izmir. Hadrian evinced his generosity here as well. He spent an enormous sum on the building of a grain market as well as the largest gymnasium in the whole region. Furthermore, he had a temple to Zeus constructed in the city.

Details on the temple of Hadrian's arch in ancient city of Ephesus, Izmir, Türkiye, July 17, 2012. (Getty Images Photo)
Details on the temple of Hadrian’s arch in ancient city of Ephesus, Izmir, Türkiye, July 17, 2012. (Getty Images Photo)

Like many tourists today, Hadrian then headed to Ephesus. This city had been dear to the founder of the Roman Empire, Augustus, and Hadrian, as his spiritual, if not his literal heir, would have been drawn to the city because of that fact alone. There he had worked on the harbor carried out. Yet his building program is not only one of the new buildings or the restoration of old ones but also one of improvement. For example, in Ephesus, Hadrian had a gymnasium and bath complex sided in marble. Then from Ephesus, he set sail for Rhodes and left what is now Türkiye. However, it is speculated that he might have landed at either Halicarnassus, now Bodrum, to see the Mausoleum, one of the Seven Wonders of the World, or the highly evocative site of Knidos that marks the meeting point of the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas.

Hadrian’s physical legacy

As for what Hadrian left behind in Türkiye, two buildings on the south coast in Antalya province are particularly representative. They belong to a later visit, for the emperor remained a traveler almost until his death in Italy in A.D. 138, having spent 12 of his 16 years as ruler away from Rome. Yet, it is these rather than his excellent temple building – and it is to be noted that in the case of the great temple of Cyzicus, little now remains as its materials were put to other uses in later centuries – that perhaps best reflect the nature of the emperor. These buildings demonstrate Hadrian’s concern for the practical welfare of the people of his empire in a similar way to his earthquake relief. They are large granaries. The one constructed by Hadrian in the ancient city of Andriake has eight rooms and has a statue of him on an outer wall. The other is at the site of Patara, which is slightly smaller, though it remains in perfect condition.

Also, as with other Roman emperors, we can understand what Hadrian looked like. In the Antalya Archaeology Museum, there is a statue of Hadrian that clearly shows his rounded face. He also has a beard and is the first Roman emperor to have one, becoming a trendsetter for the empire’s elite in this regard. Hadrian’s love of the east also augurs the increasing fixation on the east that would grow in the Roman Empire, and which would lead just over 200 years later to the refounding of Rome itself in the city of Byzantium, which itself would develop over many centuries into the megalopolis of what is now Istanbul.

Courtesy: Dailysabah