Updated: Mar 7, 2021
Trajan’s died without leaving a clear acknowledged heir. Through a series of
manipulations attributed to Trajan’s surviving wife Empress Plotina, Hadrian was recognized as the adopted son of Trajan and declared emperor of Rome.
The contrasts in policy between Trajan and his adopted heir to the throne, Hadrian, were glaring.
Hadrian was the very opposite from Trajan for Trajan was a man of war and lived by his sword. Whereas Trajan enraged all of the nations with his wars, Hadrian attempted to make peace with all of the nations and even in Babylon where Trajan prepared his soldiers for war a second time, Hadrian pulled Rome out of the fray.
The Historia Augusta confirms the role of Hadrian as a pursuer of global peace.
On taking possession of the imperial power Hadrian at once resumed the policy of the
early emperors, and devoted his attention to maintaining peace throughout the
world. For the nations which Trajan had conquered began to revolt; the Moors,
moreover, began to make attacks, and the Sarmatians to wage war, the Britons could not
be kept under Roman sway, Egypt was thrown into disorder by riots, and finally
Libya and Palestine showed the spirit of rebellion. Whereupon he relinquished all the
conquests east of the Euphrates and the Tigris, following, as he used to say, the example
of Cato, who urged that the Macedonians, because they could not be held as subjects,
should be declared free and independent. And Parthamasiris, appointed king of the
Parthians by Trajan, he assigned as ruler to the neighboring tribes, because he saw that
the man was held in little esteem by the Parthians.
Instead of expansionism Hadrian placed his efforts elsewhere. Hadrian’s building
projects are perhaps his most enduring legacy. He established cities throughout the
Balkan Peninsula, Egypt, Asia Minor, and Greece. His love for Greece and Greek
literature was such that he was known as `Graeculus’ (Greekling) in his youth and his
philhellenism did not dissipate with age.
At the same time Hadrian was not viewed as a man without ambition. The salient
personality traits of Hadrian are described as follows: Hadrian was a pleasant man to
meet and he possessed a certain charm. By nature he was fond of literary study in both
the Greek and Latin languages, and has left behind a variety of prose writings as well as
compositions in verse. For his ambition was insatiable, and hence he practiced all
conceivable pursuits, even the most trivial; for example, he modeled and painted, and
declared that there was nothing pertaining to peace or war, to imperial or private life, of
which he was not cognizant. All this, of course, did people no harm; but his jealousy of
all who excelled in any respect was most terrible and caused the downfall of many,
besides utterly destroying several. For, inasmuch as he wished to surpass everybody in
everything, he hated those who attained eminence in any direction.
At the beginning of his twenty-year rule, Hadrian exhibited the quality of peace maker
not only to the world at large but also towards the Jewish people.
The early years of Hadrian’s reign appeared like a ray of light for the Jewish people.
Quickly that ray of light disappeared and the sky began to darken until it became a thick
cloud and darkness covered the land.
Dorot HaRishonim explains that the sages saw this initial glimmer of light and moved
quickly to reconvene the great assembly of learning, this time in Usha in the Galilee. The
absence of a central assembly for learning and decision making harmed the Jewish
people. It was from the assembly that the nation received its light and truth and helped
advance communal life. In just the few years that the sages were allowed to openly meet,
they were able to take significant action benefiting the people as recorded in the Mishna.
Dorot HaRishonim continues: In the 47 th year from the Churban Hadrian commanded to
rebuild Jerusalem. This is consistent to what occurred years earlier during Trajan’s rule
when Hadrian ordered that the destroyed Jewish homes in Alexandria be restored. When
Hadrian became Emperor the Jewish people brought their cases in front of him and the
found the Greeks responsible in the claims.
Quickly however the tables were turned.
Casius Dio writes:
At Jerusalem he founded a city in place of the one which had been razed to the ground,
naming it Aelia Capitolina, and on the site of the temple of the god he raised a new
temple to Jupiter. This brought on a war of no slight importance nor of brief
duration, for the Jews deemed it intolerable that foreign races should be settled in their
city and foreign religious rites planted there. So long, indeed, as Hadrian was close by in
Egypt and again in Syria, they remained quiet, save in so far as they purposely made of
poor quality such weapons as they were called upon to furnish, in order that the Romans
might reject them and they themselves might thus have the use of them; but when he went
farther away, they openly revolted.
The cause and effect of the “Jewish revolt” is debated by historians. But the Jewish
people throughout history always had their red lines that were not to be crossed. They
were fealty to God, the Torah and the commandments and the right to freely practice the
tradition while loyally observing the secular laws of the land.
The fact is that what provoked the war and gave it its motive force had nothing to do with
the messianic pretensions of Bar Kokhba. The rebellion probably arose either because
Hadrian had reneged on a promise to rebuild the Temple and instead proclaimed his
intention to build a temple to Jupiter where the Holy of Holies had once stood; or
because of the decree against the mutilation of the body, which implied a prohibition
against circumcision. Whatever the reason, it touched the very heart of Judaism and
endangered the future of the Jewish people.
Rav Hirsch declares: “The indomitable will to freedom shown by the Jews only made the
Romans hate them all the more. In order to break the spirit of the Jews once and for all,
the Romans raged with Antiochus-like violence against any observance of Jewish
religious law and particularly against the dissemination of the Law and Tradition,
Hadrian and his satraps and their underlings decreed torment and torture, death and
destruction for any Jew who observed the Law and especially for any scholar of the Law
who taught the Law and passed on the Tradition”.
That slimmer of a ray of hope present at the start of Hadrian’s rule transformed itself into
the darkest of clouds that led to sweeping gloom and destructive doom. The Shmad /
destruction of Hadrian against the Jewish nation epitomizes the archetype of the worse of
oppressions in the long history of people of Israel. The appellation assigned when
mentioning Hadrian’s name as recorded in the Talmud and other traditional sources
remains to this day: “Hadrian, may his bones be crushed”