An ancient writer described the Emperor Hadrian, “He could be severe or silly, serious and playful, hardly precipitous — yet sometimes hasty — both stingy and generous.” The biographer continues, “He was tall, elegant… and his thick beard hid the battle scars on his face. From robust stock, he loved horseback riding, walking, swordplay, and javelin throwing.”
If architecture can express a patron’s personality, then Hadrian’s Villa is a portrait of its owner. Hadrian’s love of physical fitness shows in different sections of his palace. Named after a 5th century B.C. edifice in Athens’ agora, Hadrian’s Pecile was essentially an outdoor track for strolling or jogging. Near it, archeologists found an inscription that stated in Latin: “the walk around the portico is 1450 feet, seven times around is 2030 steps.” This was the ancient Roman equivalent of 2 miles or 3 kilometers. The Pecile was a grandiose architectural ode to physical fitness!
Likewise, the Villa mirrors the extremes in Hadrian’s temperament. The so-called Maritime Theater, to which guidebooks give lots of coverage, reveals Hadrian’s contemplative or retiring nature. Sumptuous living quarters are squeezed onto a minuscule man-made island – in the midst of a palace bustling with state employees, maintenance crews, and politicians! Here Hadrian could raise the gangplank and enjoy a degree of solitude. Meanwhile, the al fresco dining area commonly referred to as “the Canopus” tells the opposite story: it was the backdrop for boisterous meals with high-ranking personnel and friends.
Hadrian was an insatiable traveler. Both ancient Roman literature and the buildings he commissioned give us an idea of his tours of inspection of the Empire. His Canopus is an excellent example. An outdoor pool which measured almost 120 meters, it imitated the Egyptian channel that connected Alexandria with the city of Canopus, world-famous in antiquity for its Temple of Serapis, its banquets, and orgies. To perfect the recreation, Hadrian had the channel fit out with crocodiles sculpted in white Grecian marble that was laced with seaweedy green veins.