Villa Adriana

Some friends and I recently visited Tivoli, a town just outside Rome, to tour Villa Adriana, the summer retreat of Emperor Hadrian, who ruled from 117 to 138 A.D.

Hadrian (Latin name Publius Aelius Hadrianus) was obsessed with all things Greek and studied Greek literature, culture, philosophers, etc. He was the first emperor to wear a beard (a Greek fashion) and filled his summer residence, where he escaped the heat and overcrowding of Rome, with libraries and theatres and art. He, like other Romans, followed the Greek belief that one needs a healthy body as well as a healthy mind. His retreat included a giant, porticoed courtyard, a copy of a structure in Athens, with columns that surrounded a pool. There, people strolled to digest their food and discuss what they’d read in the library.

Hadrian believed in strengthening a society from within rather than conquering other lands. For this reason, his reign was relatively peaceful and he improved the infrastructure of many areas of the Roman Empire. A peaceful, intellectual emperor? Why aren’t all Italians (who call Hadrian ‘Adriana,’ by the way) naming their children after this guy? Perhaps its because he took Greek culture a little too far.

On my tour, I learned that Hadrian, who was married, had a lover. Nothing unusual, I thought. But then our guide said the ‘lover,’ a misnomer, was an 11-year-old boy, at least when they first met. Hadrian was involved with Antinous until the boy was 19 or 20, when he mysteriously drowned in Egypt. Hadrian, distraught, deified Antinous and dedicated a temple to him at his summer home, in addition to naming an Egyptian city, Antinopolis, after him. 

The Maritime Theatre. Hadrian came here to work, think, create and mourn the loss of Antinous. The island in the middle surrounded by an artificial pool was only accessible by swing bridges.

Hadrian’s summer villa eventually fell into ruin after it was plundered by barbarians, the Church and others for its building materials. Some marble remains. Pieces this small survived because they weren’t big enough to be of use to people looting for construction purposes. Aesthetics weren’t important.

It took hundreds of slaves 16 or 17 years to construct Villa Adriana, a place the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) calls, “a masterpiece that uniquely brings together the highest expressions of the material cultures of the ancient Mediterranean world,” and inspired “the architects of the Renaissance and the Baroque period [and] profoundly influenced many 19th and 20th century architects and designers.” Today Villa Adriana is a UNESCO World Heritage site.


Sarah Mikutel