Adoptio – The Controversial Accession of Hadrian


My latest acquisition highlights not only the insight Roman coins can provide into murky historical events around which our contemporary sources are often lacking but also their critical role as socio-political propaganda, affirming an imperial-approved historical narrative.


Silver denarius of Hadrian, late 117 CE, 3.24g, Obv: laureate, draped and cuirassed bust of Hadrian (R) IMPS CAES TRAIAN HADRIANO OPT AVG GER DAC, Rev: Hadrian and Trajan stand facing each other clasping hands and exchanging scroll as sign of the adoption of Hadrian, ADOPTIO in exergue, PARTHIC DIVI TRAIAN AVG F P M TRP COS PP, RIC 3c RSC 4


The silver denarius bears one of the first numismatic portraits of Hadrian, shown in his early forties, and commemorates his adoption by the Emperor Trajan in 117 CE; a much-scrutinised event that has maintained a tarnish of controversy over the centuries.

After an inconclusive siege of the Persian city of Hatra (modern day Iraq) in which he suffered a bout of heat stroke and with his gains in the East coming under attack on numerous fronts, Trajan’s health began to fail him. Leaving the situation in the evidently capable hands of Hadrian, his cousin and fellow Spaniard, the imperial entourage boarded yachts at Seleucia Pieria at the mouth of the Orontes and set sail back to Rome in the summer of 117 CE.

The Emperor’s condition suddenly worsened as they skirted the coast of Asia Minor, perhaps suffering from a stroke, and soon after pulling into the nearest harbour of Selinus (modern Gazipaşa), Trajan expired. The official account places Trajan’s death around the 9th August, the same day that Hadrian received word of his official adoption in Antioch. Two days later, a blistering pace for news at the time, followed the news of Trajan’s death and his own accession.

It appears rumours quickly began to circulate about the authenticity of the adoption process, not helped by the obscure details surrounding Trajan’s death and documents signed by Trajan’s widow Plotina rather than the Emperor himself. An attendant of Trajan’s, Marcus Ulpius Phaedimus, also died at Selinus a few days later, adding to conspiratorial suspicions.

Hadrian had become a favourite of Trajan’s wife, Plotina and some theorised that together they had withheld news of Trajan’s death while adoption documents were forged or backdated. Yet no one could deny the imperial favour Hadrian had clearly enjoyed over the years: command of a legion in the Second Dacian War and subsequently the province of Pannonia Inferior, as well as marriage to the Emperor’s great-niece. Most objective observers agree that, despite the gossip no doubt peddled by hostile elements in the Senate, Hadrian was the clear and logical choice of successor.

Our silver denarius then gives us a privileged view into the social and political landscape in the immediate aftermath of Trajan’s death and Hadrian’s accession. Amid the backdrop of unpopular but necessary withdrawals of all his predecessor’s territorial gains in Mesopotamia and likely being tested by a sceptical Senate, the young, energetic new emperor is clearly trying to emphasise the absolute legitimacy of his position.

In a design, not seen before or after, the actual moment of adoption is shown, with Trajan and Hadrian clasping hands and exchanging the necessary documentation; a scene that almost certainly never took place. As if the message wasn’t clear enough to contemporary viewers the scene is emblazoned with the self explanatory declaration “ADOPTIO”. The fact this unique coin design was required at all shows us Hadrian clearly felt the need to publically and definitively tackle simmering conspiracy theories concerning his accession.

The 41 year old Hadrian is shown wearing cuirass armour, emphasising his military background, somewhat in contrast to the intellectual reputation he would later cultivate. He is also encircled by the numerous and by this stage, excessive titles he has inherited from Trajan such as “Germanicus”, “Dacicus” and “Parthicus”, which again reinforces the official status of his adoption. Such titles would gradually be removed from his coinage as he became more established on the throne, as would other ostentatious signs of imperial power such as the laurel wreath.

Though minted in a time of great stability and relative peace, the coin reveals an underlying anxiety about the very nature of imperial power and the exact manner in which it could be gifted to a successor, a problem the Romans were never to solve fully. It also shows a clear awareness of what rulers have found out the hard way for millennia; that the critical moment when this power is being passed on, is when it is at its most exposed and vulnerable.

“From the collection of…” – A denarius with a fascinating provenance.

Collectors of ancient coins soon learn to see themselves, not as owners, but temporary custodians of their beloved miniature works of ancient art. As with all antiquities, when a coin is unearthed a new chapter of its history begins and this modern tale can often be as enthralling as any ancient one. Coins specifically, can make their way through an impressive gallery of caretakers, every step enriching their history and narrative to a modern collector; many a time I have inspected the tag accompanying an ancient coin in the British Museum study rooms to read “from the collection of George III” or “Charles Townley”.

More than ever, a secure, interesting and long term provenance adds huge appeal to the collector. Even a common coin in average condition is elevated in every aspect by a confirmed modern history. Furthermore, thanks to the incredible size of many world renowned collections, it’s perfectly possible for a part of them to find their way to the palm of the most humble collector.


Denarius of Trajan, 114-117 CE, laureate, draped and cuirassed bust (r) Rev: providentia standing l. holding scepter, resting on column and pointing towards globe at her feet. RIC 362, old cabinet tone, from the collection of the Adams Presidential family and later E.E Clain Stefanelli of the Smithsonian.

This week I became the custodian of such a coin; it’s not rare or even in amazing condition but I know it will find a prized place in my collection. The denarius of Trajan began its modern life in the collection of the Adams family, the prominent Massachusetts political family that of course gave us the 2nd and 6th Presidents of the United States, John Adams (1735-1826) and John Quincy Adams (1767-1848).


John Quincy Adams (1767-1848), 6th President of the United States from 1825-1829


The Adams’ coin collection was auctioned by Stacks in March 1971 and like many of the pieces, my coin passed into the hands of Professor John A. Sawhill (1892-1976), a veteran of World War I and teacher of Latin, Greek and German at the James Madison University.



Professor John A. Sawhill (1892-1976) taught Latin, Greek and German language at JMU


Upon his death in 1976, the Sawhill collection was bequeathed to the James Madison University who then auctioned it, again through Stacks in March 1979.

The coin then passed into the hands of Elvira Clain-Stefanelli, long-time curator of the National Numismatics Collection at the Smithsonian. Here is an extract from the 2001 obituary of Mrs Clain-Stefanelli:

“Elvira Eliza Olinescu was an author, curator, critic and, above all, a survivor. Born in Bucharest, Romania, at the beginning of World War I, she and her family were forced to flee their village to avoid invading troops. At the end of the war, she returned home to the disputed territory between Austria and Romania. She would later earn a master’s degree in history from the University of Cernauti in Romania.

In 1939 she married Vladimir Clain-Stefanelli, a postgraduate student in Rome, who specialized in ancient coins. The couple were researching coins in Germany in 1942 when Vladimir was arrested by the Gestapo because his passport had been stolen and “used by an enemy of the state.” He was sent to the Buchenwald concentration camp where he remained “a guest” until the end of World War II. Although pregnant, Elvira chose to join her husband in the camp. She later was released so their child would not be born in prison; however, after experiencing the bombings in Berlin, she returned to the camp, thinking it safer. She didn’t realize Buchenwald, the site of a V-2 rocket factory, was a target for Allied bombings.”


Elvira and Vladimir Clain-Stefanelli have been called “treasures of Numismatics” for their work in developing the National Numismatics Collection.

Starting a new life in America in 1951, the Clain-Stefanellis’ expertise in the field led to them becoming curators of the Smithsonian collection in 1956. They aggressively expanded the holdings of the collection from 60,000 to over 900,000 pieces, securing donations from many benefactors, turning the Smithsonian’s numismatic cabinet into a world class collection. After her husband’s death in 1982, Elvira became executive director, continuing her work developing the collection and going on to win many awards in the field of numismatics. Surely a life worthy of a more official biography?

After her death in 2001, the personal collection of the Clain-Stefanellis was dispersed to be enjoyed and studied by collectors around the world and pieces continue to fill lots at auctions. This is coin collecting is at its most satisfying: holding an already ancient work of art in your hand, now lustrously toned from many decades in the coin cabinet of heroically dedicated historians like the Adams’, Professor Sawhill and the Clain-Stefanellis.

The Curious Case of Claudius’ Missing Denarii

The silver denarius was the workhorse of the Roman numismatic system. The most common denomination minted for many successive centuries and the perfect value coin with which to pay salaries and manage everyday transactions. New arrivals to the “Hobby of Kings”: Roman coin collecting, are often surprised how easy it is to acquire a silver denarius of a well known emperor for their collections.

As a general rule, emperors who ruled for many years had longer to mint their coins, which will therefore survive in greater numbers than an emperor who ruled for months or even weeks. On occasion, an emperor was unlucky enough to have their memory damned – “damnatio memoriae” – and concerted efforts were made by the state to collect and melt down their coins (e.g. Caligula) so rarity of these rulers is understandable.

Yet the coinage of one famous emperor presents a unique conundrum to modern numismatists; a mystery I was reminded of upon seeing a particular numismatic beauty that has recently come up for auction:

Denarius of Claudius in Roma Numismatic’s Auction X.

Denarius of Claudius

Denarius of Claudius in Roma Numismatic’s upcoming Auction X. AD 41-42. TI CLAVD CAESAR AVG GERM P M TR P, laureate head right / CONSTANTIAE AVGVSTI, Constantia seated left on curule chair, feet on stool, raising hand. RIC 14; von Kaenel Type 9; RSC 6. 3.77g, 18mm, 8h.

Another thing new coin collectors quickly learn is that unless they have recently won the lottery or are happy to part with a kidney, they should lower their expectations of ever getting a genuine silver coin of the fourth emperor and conqueror of Britannia: Claudius.

To put it simply and to use a phrase from my father, silver denarii of Claudius are “as rare as hen’s teeth”. Many well established collectors have seen only a handful in shows and auctions over the years and those who dare to attempt the Holy Grail of Roman coin collecting – “The 12 Caesars” – will be accustomed to the frustrating gap between Caligula and Nero.

Why is it far easier to find a denarius of emperors that ruled for mere months such as Galba, Otho and Vitellius, (successive emperors in 69 CE), than it is to find a denarius of Claudius who ruled for 13 years?

Various theories have been put forward to try and explain the tiny amount of Claudian denarii that survived through the ages but none seem to provide a clear answer.

  • Nero’s debasements and “Gresham’s Law” – Claudius’ successor Nero lowered the silver content and therefore the value of the denarius;  1/84 of a pound, or 3.90 grams, was reduced to 1/96 of a pound or 3.41 grams. “Gresham’s Law” that “bad money will drive out the good” could have come into play during Nero’s reign, with those in-the-know hoarding or melting the “good” higher silver content denarii of Claudius and circulating the “bad” lower value coins of Nero. Yet, this fails to answer why earlier high-value denarii of Tiberius, Augustus and even the Republic stayed in circulation often for centuries and survive today in healthy numbers.
  • Moving the Mints – Claudius appears to have minted much of his gold and silver coinage not in Rome but in Lugdunum (Lyon), his city of birth. Did Lugdunum struggle to mint coins at the same rate? Nero brought the minting of these coins back to Rome so perhaps there were problems with the Lugdunum mint? Claudius seems to have had a particular problem with official mints counterfeiting coinage during his reign, minting very convincing “fouree” denarii with cheap copper cores. These fake denarii are actually easier to find today than the genuine ones!

Ancient “fouree” counterfeit of Claudius with visible copper core.

  • Less denarii minted – Perhaps Claudius simply minted far less denarii than his predecessors? Did he hold more trust in the stable value of bronze or just judge that there was enough gold and silver already in circulation when he came to power? On the other hand, Provincial eastern mints such as Ephesus seem to have continued minting in steady numbers in all metals.
  • Nero’s ego – Though his reign was a surprising success and Claudius’ reputation has survived largely unblemished over the millennia, perhaps his successor Nero jealously indulged in an unofficial damnatio memoriae against his grand-uncle. Nero may have melted down the most recently minted and easily collectible silver coins to create his own but there is no evidence for this and again, why just focus on denarii?

It’s a puzzle that will continue to confound numismatists until an all encompassing answer is found, which seems unlikely. In the meantime, I have for sale: 1 kidney in good working order if anyone is interested?

The Didcot Hoard

The Didcot Hoard on display at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

The Didcot Hoard on display at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

This incredible hoard was found by metal detectorist Bill Darley in 1995, near the Oxfordshire town of Didcot.

Whilst hoards of bronze and silver coinage are relatively common from Roman Britain, (with some notable examples found in just the last few years) this hoard instead consists of 126 gold coins or aurei. The aureus (from the latin for “golden”) was the standard gold denomination of the Roman Empire and was valued at 25 silver denarii. Though the aureus was the same size as the denarius, the increased density of gold gave it twice the weight, usually between 7-8 grams in the first century. The aureus is also known for its consistently outstanding purity level, near to 24-carat gold in excess of 99%, putting many more modern “gold” coins to shame.

The practical usage of the aureus in antiquity is still debated but its high value and small size meant that it was:

  • A practical way for the rich to store long-term savings.
  • Used in large scale payments in big business, taxes and government level transactions.
  • Often used to pay wages of the Roman Army.
  • Given as “gifts”, donatives from a new emperor.

The dating of the hoard is another singular aspect that makes it stand out amongst the hoards of Roman Britain. Most hoards were buried in times of economic and military crisis; in an age before modern banking, this was often the most reliable way to store personal wealth, yet in these dangerous days many owners never returned to retrieve their secreted treasure. Such hoards have given us an immense amount of historical knowledge and usually speak of the increasing instability of Britannia through the 4th and into the 5th centuries.

The Didcot Hoard on the other hand, dates from a comparatively much more stable period. Represented are the Flavian dynasty: Vespasian and his two sons Titus and Domitian, as well as the whole span of the “Good Emperors” (& some of their wives), Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian and Antoninus Pius – figures who, though they fought wars in their own right, presided over two centuries of great internal peace.

As the latest coin in the hoard dates from 160 CE, the final year of the reign of Antoninus Pius, it has been proposed that perhaps the hoard represents a donative on the accession of the new emperor, Marcus Aurelius. It had become a tradition for new emperors to inaugurate and cement their new reign with generous gifts to high ranking officials, miltary officers and common soldiers.

The fact that the hoard was equivalent to 10.5 years salary for a Roman legionary of the time (300 denarii per year from the time of Domitian), emphasises the huge loss this hoard must have represented to the person/s involved. We can never know why exactly an individual buried this pot of gold in rural Oxfordshire two millennia ago but we can theorise:

Is this a donative from Marcus Aurelius to an official of Roman Britain, who buried it for safe keeping but died soon after? Is the hoard a result of theft or perhaps “skimming off the top” local corruption? Or are these simply just the savings of a rich local or a very prudent Roman soldier? What do you think?

Silver Denarius of Gaius Caligula Found with Metal Detector!! Joe Geranio

Caligula Denarius Found with Metal Detector

Caligula Denarius Found with Metal Detector

Caligula Denarius Found with Metal Detector

Found with Metal Detector!! Caligula

Frank, a member of our Julio Claudian group was blessed enough to find this silver denarius with Germanicus reverse. I did not want to lose the information so I finally got around to putting into the Juio Claudian pool, Amazing find Frank!!  Could you imagine finding a piece of Julio Claudian history in the terra!

Here are some details of the find. In fact, this denarius of Caligula is part of a small treasure of 20 denarii, scattered over a small area of semi-arid scrub land, near the ancient roman city of Nemausus (today Nimes). Thanks to the calcarious soil the coins did not suffer corrosion. Besides some broken roman tiles, the area was virgin. It was evidently a site where was located a small country house, modest in all ways and deserted ever since the first century AD. Through the wear of the coins…

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Aelius Caesar – Forgotten Prince


“He was a man of joyous life and well versed in letters. In the palace his stay was but a short one but he was considerate of his family, well-dressed, elegant in appearance, a man of regal beauty, with a countenance that commanded respect, a speaker of unusual eloquence, deft at writing verse, and, moreover, not altogether a failure in public life.” – Historia Augusta


Aureus of Lucius Aelius Caesar, 137 CE

In the twilight years of his life, settled back in Rome after travelling the known world and becoming increasingly isolated and irascible, the aging Emperor Hadrian finally faced the question that stalks all ailing rulers: succession.

Like his predecessors Nerva and Trajan, his marriage had given him no natural heirs, so in the praiseworthy tradition of the time he cast his eye about for the most worthy candidate for adoption. Hadrian’s decision was made all the more difficult due to his natural suspicion of all around him and persecution of many a worthy candidate.

Servianus, a three-time consul who had married into the imperial family had all the credentials but was now 90 years of age. Attention was duly turned to his grandson Fuscus who Hadrian promoted accordingly, until to everyone’s surprise and confusion, he was also dismissed by the emperor. Servianus and his grandson felt they had such a right to the throne they may have even attempted a coup; Hadrian quickly ordered both their deaths.

Platorius Nepos – former Governor of Britannia who oversaw the construction of Hadrian’s Wall – seemed the next logical candidate but he also displayed his ambitions too openly and also fell out of favour. It must have seemed that a suitable candidate would never be found as Hadrian “came to hate all those of whom he had thought of in connection with the imperial power.” It appears the ambition and political savvy necessary to gain the emperor’s notice were the very qualities that marked oneself out as an intolerable threat.

So it was that in 136 CE, with perhaps a hint of desperation, Hadrian settled on and publically adopted his chosen successor; a 35 year old senator named Lucius Ceionius Commodus. Lucius was as blue blooded as anyone could hope (his father was consul in 106 CE) but remained a surprising choice. His father-in-law had been the great Gaius Avidius Nigrinus, trusted lieutenant of Trajan, whom Hadrian had executed less than a year into his reign on charges of treason. Lucius also lacked any type of military experience to his name. In a time of great tension at the borders of the Empire, this must have been a hotly debated decision. Yet to the paranoid and envious mind of the emperor, the fact that Lucius was not a dazzling general was likely a point in his favour. Even if the future of the Empire was at stake, Hadrian was not going to let himself be eclipsed.

Hadrian spent 300 million sesterces on publically celebrating the adoption with gifts to the public and military, as well as putting on lavish games in the circus. Lucius Ceionius Commodus became Lucius Aelius Caesarthe conferring of “Caesar” as a title was not yet standard protocol at the time and displays Hadrian’s determination to publically advertise the future of his Aelian dynasty.

Aelius was indeed a bright, young hope. Later historians mischievously remarked the deciding factor in his adoption was his “regal beauty”. Coin portraits of the time show a young man with a strong, handsome profile and a discerning stare, older than his years. The beard of the philosopher, brought back into fashion by Hadrian, is grown out even further, styled with ornate curls. His decadent appearance set the trend for the next 50 years, a clear precursor to the exaggerated opulent appearances of his son Lucius Verus and his co-emperor Marcus Aurelius.

The imagery of his coinage (likely decided upon by Hadrian) celebrates notions of piety, security and harmony of a Roman world with a definite future.

Aelius Comparison

Statue of Aelius, Louvre, with denarius of Aelius from author’s collection.

Yet Aelius’ major shortcoming as an heir quickly became apparent – sources are united in describing his “wretched health”. Even on the occasion of his adoption he was taken ill and unable to give his speech of thanks to the Senate. A concerned Hadrian is said to have consulted the horoscope of his adopted son and been dismayed by his findings, remarking, “I seem to have adopted not a son, but a god”.

Neverthless, Aelius was made consul for 136 CE and packed off to Pannonia to cut his teeth with a governorship. He proved to be a competent statesman and an “average commander” whose decadent leanings were of a trivial nature and did not detract from his overall positive perception. He was by all accounts a fan of the luxurious recipes of Apicius, and enjoyed designing evermore luxurious dishes of his own. He slept on beds of flowers and enjoyed dressing his servants up as cupids; all pursuits that “while not creditable, did not bring about the destruction of the state”.

Author's denarius of Lucius Aelius Caesar, heir of Hadrian, with Concordia holding patera and cornucopia, 137 CE.

Author’s denarius of Lucius Aelius Caesar, heir of Hadrian, with Concordia holding patera and cornucopia, 137 CE.

Meanwhile, word of his continuing sickliness persisted back in Rome, causing Hadrian to remark that he had “leant on a tottering wall” in regards to Aelius and that it wasn’t just some property but the whole Empire that was at stake. It seems these negative remarks found their way to Aelius’ ear, causing him to “grow worse every day from anxiety, as a man does who had lost hope.”

Aelius made it back to Rome from his province but following an overly large dose of medicine, died on January 1st 138 CE. The prevailing modern view is that Aelius had, in fact, been suffering from Tuberculosis, one of the most dominant diseases in the ancient world and one that affected members of all classes.

Hadrian’s reactions to the death of his heir are complex; on one hand he gave him an “emperor’s funeral” and ordered that colossal statues of him be set up around the Roman world. Yet he was not deified, somewhat ironic considering Hadrian’s earlier remarks about adopting a god. It also seems an alternative arrangement for succession was being made whilst Aelius was alive. Hadrian put forward a remarkable new plan for the future of his dynasty, nominating not only his new successor – a mild-mannered senator named Antoninus – but also the two after that, who he demanded should rule concordantly, a first in the Imperial age. One of these future hopes was of course Aelius’ son, Verus. “Let the Empire retain something of Aelius”, said Hadrian, somewhat poignantly.

Lucius Aelius Caesar is an interesting figure in the history of the time, largely ignored by writers. His brief touch with greatness afforded him little chance to make his mark on history but in him we can glimpse an intriguing alternate timeline. In what direction would the Emperor Aelius have steered the Empire? For better or for worse, his reign would surely have been filled with more incident than his ever-dependable replacement Antoninus Pius. Would the philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius have still found his way to the throne? Such are the tantalising questions raised by the short but notable life of this forgotten prince.

Apollodorus of Damascus: Architect of Empire

“But when he came to the Forum of Trajan, a creation which in my view has no like under the cope of heaven and which even the gods themselves must agree to admire, he stood transfixed with astonishment, surveying the giant fabric around him; its grandeur defies description and can never again be approached by mortal men.”

Ammianus Marcellinus (XVI.10.15)

The ascendancy of the Roman Empire is strikingly represented through the architectural wonders conceived during the Pax Romana. The importance of civic and military buildings as both symbols of authority and essential tools in the proliferation of Roman-ness cannot be overstated. These towns and temples, forums and baths are usually synonymous with the emperor that ordered their construction. The Forum of Caesar, Nero’s Golden House, the Baths of Caracalla; all so deeply associated with the names of their patrons it is as though they laid the bricks single-handedly.  Indeed, many edifices from the Roman world seem to modern eyes, so inspired, so eternal, that it is almost as if they sprang into existence themselves or were perhaps gifted to the world by the pantheon of gods they honoured. It is easy to forget the fact that, just like today, every construction was designed by a human hand, and behind the bronze emblazoned names of the emperors, is the name of an architect, all too often forgotten to history.

Architecture, a pursuit much respected today, lacked the same gleam of recognition in the ancient world. In much the same way as the term “artist” would not have been understood by the ancients, the gift of these individuals was in bringing something essential into existence; the finished product was to be celebrated, not so much the author. Sculpture, frescoes and temples were seen more as an expression of the divine than of the creativity of the designer. Furthermore, the whole business of “bricks and concrete” was seen as being beneath the dignity of most emperors.

This is not to say that architects never gained recognition in their own lifetimes, especially those who enjoyed imperial patronage. Vitruvius, author of the multi-volumed On Architecture, began his career as an artilleryman in the forces of Julius Caesar, his design genius eventually gaining him a place in the imperial circle; his epic treatise is dedicated to Augustus and Agrippa. Yet his modern fame is largely due to the fortunate rediscovery of his works in the 15th century and to this day, only a handful of Roman architects are even known by name.

One such name that has crossed the abyss of history is that of Apollodorus of Damascus, chief architect and engineer of the “impetuous and active” Emperor Trajan (98-117 CE), who “resenting that his realm was unlimited”, brought the empire to its greatest ever extent. Indeed, the scale and prolificacy of Apollodorus’ constructions as well as the fact some of them are still standing, has ensured his name defied oblivion.

Apollodorus was born in the Decapolis city of Damascus, part of the Nabatean controlled province of Syria, sometime in the mid 1st Century (he would live to see his homeland fully reclaimed by the Romans in 106 CE). This culturally distinct, semi-autonomous region was a trade crossroad of the ancient world, where hellenism melded with eastern influences, affording the young Apollodorus access to diverse and exotic ideas that would inform his later work.

Apollodorus of Damascus, Munich Glyptothek

Bust commonly identified as Apollodorus of Damascus, Munich Glyptothek, © Gareth Harney

Similarly to Vitruvius, it is theorised that Apollodorus cut his teeth in the Roman Army, designing war machines and siege engines. This is reinforced by surviving extracts from his treatise Poliorcetica (c.100 CE) which, in true Da Vinci fashion, proposes a range of sometimes fantastical battle hardware; from siege ladders and battering rams all the way to armoured rafts and fire hoses made of animal intestines.

His genius soon caught the attention of the popular new Emperor Trajan and when he embarked on his war of conquest in Dacia (modern day Romania), Apollodorus was appointed chief engineer for the campaign. The need for quick passage across the Danube into enemy territory led to one of Apollodorus’ most famous architectural feats. In the words of Cassius Dio:

“Trajan constructed over the Ister a stone bridge for which I cannot sufficiently admire him. Brilliant, indeed, as are his other achievements, yet this surpasses them. For it has twenty piers of squared stone one hundred and fifty feet in height above the foundations and sixty in width, and these, standing at a distance of one hundred and seventy feet from one another, are connected by arches. How, then, could one fail to be astonished at the expenditure made upon them, or at the way in which each of them was placed in a river so deep.” 

Detail from Trajan's Column showing the bridge across the Danube. Apollodorus is likely one of the men surrounding Trajan.

Detail from Trajan’s Column showing the bridge across the Danube. Apollodorus is likely one of the men surrounding Trajan.

Apollodorus’ bridge over the Danube was a mighty 1,135m in length – to give you a sense of scale, two One World Trade Center skyscrapers end-to-end would not meet its length. It was secured at each end by fortified castra affectionately named Theodora and Pontes. The whole project was completed in just 2 years. Though it was only in active use for a few decades, the piers of the bridge were certainly built to last and were still a hazard to shipping well into the 20th century.

Trajan no doubt utilised Apollodorus’s military inventions in the battles of his Dacian campaigns too, with chariot drawn artillery and hand-held Roman crossbows known to have been deployed.

Carroballista, chariot mounted artillery, being deployed in the Dacian Wars.

Carroballista, chariot mounted artillery, being deployed in the Dacian Wars.

With the victorious culmination of the Dacian Wars, Apollodorus likely had a hand in the design of the Tropaeum Traiani (c.109 CE); a grand, victory monument that also commemorates the fallen in its tomb-like design, intentionally echoing the Mausoleum of Augustus.

The Tropeum Traiani and the Mausoleum of Augustus in Rome.

The Tropaeum Traiani and the Mausoleum of Augustus in Rome.

Returning to Rome, Apollodorus essentially became not just Rome’s, but the Roman Empire’s chief civic architect.  With the imperial coffers overflowing with Dacian gold, a slew of ambitious building projects were ordered that must have given Apollodorus the busiest working years of his life. The biggest of these was certainly Trajan’s Forum, likely commissioned soon after the Dacian victory in 106 CE.

This mother of all forums, was more accurately a collection of individual and varied projects that combined to make one of the most impressive complexes of the ancient world; Latin and Greek libraries, a triumphal arch, an equestrian statue, a shopping centre, Apollodorus was tasked with the design and construction of them all.

His designs paid sympathetic tribute to the long-established Republican and Imperial archetypes on display in the city, most notably the Theatre of Pompey and Vespasian’s Temple of Peace. But more than this, the complex was consciously conceived as the “triumphant climax in the series of imperial fora, which would complete and unify the total design” of the Imperial city.

The project offered Apollodorus the opportunity to utilise his geometrical genius in the creation of a truly harmonious structures. The length and width of the plaza, 400 Roman feet, was used as the sacred measurement, divisions of which defined all the structures in the complex.  1½ times gave the length of the Basilica Ulpia and 3/4 gave the width. 1/8 gave the width of the forum’s colonnades and libararies. 1/4 of the basilica’s length gave the height of Trajan’s Column (150 feet) and so on. There was nothing haphazard about the divinely ordered dimensions of the space.

Trajan's Forum

Trajan’s Forum

In the creation of Trajan’s Column, Apollodorus clearly set out to create a new and artistically sophisticated method of spreading propaganda. One can see the inspiration of Persian relief carving and even Mesopotamian cylindrical seals in the presentation of the narrative.

Comparison of the base of Trajan's Column and its depiction on a contemporary silver denarius.

Comparison of the base of Trajan’s Column and its depiction on a contemporary silver denarius.

It almost seems unbelievable but simultaneously to the design and construction of the forum, Apollodorus was spearheading the construction of other major projects in and around the city. The mighty Baths of Trajan took shape on the Oppian Hill, over the last remnants of Nero’s Golden House. The Circus Maximus was rebuilt in stone, the Aqua Traiana brought evermore water into the city and the Via Traiana sped travel from Rome to the eastern coast of Italy. The harbour of Portus was redesigned with a revolutionary hexagonal harbour and canal route to the city, improving the efficiency of Imperial trade. How did one man simultaneously oversee such a range of complex and eclectic projects? Surely, Apollodorus led a team of understudies, perhaps taking on an advisory role with some projects whilst he was consumed in others?

When we begin to consider the sheer scale and number of building projects undertaken in the provinces, it seems increasingly implausible that Apollodorus authored them all, but as the Emperor’s creative partner he was surely on hand to advise. Here are just a few of the other architectural wonders that sprang up around the empire in the years of Trajan’s reign (98-117 CE)

  • Triumphal Arches at Ancona and Benevento
  • Alcántara Bridge, Spain
  • Baalbek Hexagonal Court, Lebanon
  • Colonia Ulpia Traiana (Sarmizegetusa Regia) capital city of Roman Dacia, Romania
  • Timgad, Algeria
  • Petra, Jordan
  • Sanctuary of Trajan, Pergamum
  • Fountain of Trajan, Ephesus

This is not to mention the vast number of restorations and reconstructions of temples, theatres and alike, constantly ongoing around the Empire in Trajan’s reign.

Works completed during Trajan's reign. Top Row: Arch at benevento, Trajaneum at Pergamon, Alcantara Bridge Bottom Row: Arch of Trajan at Timgad, Roman Road at Petra, Fountain of Trajan at Ephesus

Works completed during Trajan’s reign.
Top Row: Arch at Benevento, Trajaneum at Pergamon, Alcantara Bridge, Spain
Bottom Row: Arch of Trajan at Timgad, Roman Road at Petra, Fountain of Trajan at Ephesus

Apollodorus’ emperor, patron and friend, died of natural causes in 117 CE. Unfortunately, he would not enjoy such a successful relationship with his successor, Hadrian. Whereas Trajan respected and trusted Apollodorus’ expertise, Hadrian, an amateur architect himself, saw him as a rival and threat to his own reputation. The two had butted heads in the past – Dio recounts an amusing anecdote –

“When Trajan was consulting him on some point about the buildings he had said to Hadrian, who had interrupted with some remark: “Be off, and draw your pumpkins. You don’t understand any of these matters.” When Hadrian became emperor, therefore, he remembered this slight and would not endure the man’s freedom of speech.”

When Hadrian, now the most powerful man in the known world, proudly presented his own plans for the Temple of Venus and Roma, Apollodorus didn’t mince his words. He stated:

“that it ought to have been built on high ground so that it might have stood out more conspicuously on the Sacred Way from its higher position.. Secondly, in regard to the statues, he said that they had been made too tall for the height of the cella. “For now,” he said, “if the goddesses wish to get up and go out, they will be unable to do so.” When he wrote this so bluntly to Hadrian, the emperor was both vexed and exceedingly grieved because he had fallen into a mistake that could not be righted, and he restrained neither his anger nor his grief, but slew the man.” 

Cassius Dio 69.4

 It seems remarkable that Hadrian would put to death one of the great minds of the age due to such petulant, intellectual jealousy but as Dio further states, he even attempted to ban the works of Homer as he was “jealous of the living and the dead.” We are therefore left unsure as to Apollodorus’ contribution to perhaps the most famous Roman building of them all: the Pantheon. Some recent dating evidence actually suggests that construction of the Pantheon began during the reign of Trajan, in which case Apollodorus would surely have drawn up the plans. Others believe that the overreaching architecture, especially that of the portico which had to be reduced in height in the middle of construction, speaks of a more amateur architectural mind like Hadrian’s – and yet, the Pantheon’s dome was an unqualified success. Perhaps Hadrian threw Apollodorus off the project part way through and attempted to complete the building himself? For now, the designer of the building remains a mystery. Either way, like Socrates or Galileo, Apollodorus’ own brilliance seems to have been his undoing.

Overall, Apollodorus of Damascus is not just the most prolific architect we know from the Roman world but one whose constructions redefined the capabilities of human creativity. Whether it was carving away a 30m hillside to make room for a forum or spanning the 800m wide Danube, Apollodorus’ designs embodied the Roman dominance, of both her enemies and even Nature itself.

Apollodorus initiated a quiet revolution in his designs, which were on the surface a natural extension of previous architectural norms but were in fact thoroughly state-of-the-art, radical and experimental. His cities, forums, temples, ports and roads all paid tribute to a world empire of peoples and cultures, united as never before or since under one cultural banner. His buildings are certainly manifestations of the Vitruvian laws of architecture: firmitas (strength), utilitas (functionality), and venustas (beauty), but even these universal qualities seem to fall short. Perhaps if Apollodorus’ own treatise had survived, he would have added principles of his own, ambition, harmony and most of all, ingenuity.