What makes biographies of great men so invaluable is that they are essentially lessons in leadership. British historian Anthony Everitt’s compelling portrayal of the Roman emperor Hadrian in Hadrian and the Triumph of Rome is no exception.
Hadrian was an intriguing man. Not only was he a Roman emperor, but he was also an architecture enthusiast, a poet, a hunter, a hard drinker, and a climber of volcanoes to boot. The most important things we can learn from him, though, are his lessons in leadership: 1) A leader is not over the people, but with them; he is their greatest servant. And, 2) a leader does not need to pursue groundbreaking change to make a difference; it enough and more to put limits on one’s own power and to consolidate and perfect existing practices and standards.
The notion of servant-leadership is nothing new to Catholics, since we see it so clearly in Christ in the Gospels. Hadrian, too, demonstrates this type of leadership. Consider this famous anecdote:
When Hadrian was on an imperial tour of the provinces, a woman asked him to consider her appeal. When Hadrian answered, “I haven’t the time!” the woman responded, “Then stop being emperor!” This struck home for Hadrian, who dropped all he had to listen to the woman.
Such a compelling reminder of what it means to be a leader! Hadrian, moreover, made sure to live among the people, whether with senator or soldier. He also reminds us that to have power doesn’t mean you have to flaunt it: When he was on the march with soldiers, Hadrian wore the same armor and ate the same food as everyone else; the only luxury he allowed himself was a sword with an ivory hilt.
The second lesson in leadership that Hadrian shows us is the foolishness of imperium sine fine, or “power without end.” Hadrian, unlike his predecessor Trajan who nearly expanded Rome out of existence (through his Pyrrhic Parthian expedition), sought to consolidate Rome’s power by putting an end to her expansion. Hadrian saw no need to add glory to his name by expanding Rome; the greatest glory was to be found in stabilizing Rome as she was. Too often, today, we see amateurish leaders who think they need to do something extreme or innovative to make a difference (whether by creating unnecessary programs for school clubs, or by passing national laws with dire consequences). They can learn a thing or two from Hadrian, who was comfortable enough in his leadership to perfect things as they were rather than pursuing things that were impractical and impossible.
Hadrian was a man of his times. But what made him a great one were his principles in leadership. He had the integrity to limit his own power, as well as the courage to make himself the Roman empire’s greatest servant.
Content: Though sources on Hadrian are woefully spotty, Everitt uses nifty detective (and sometimes, guess) work to paint a credible picture of Hadrian’s life and times. The focus of the book is, of course, Hadrian’s reign, though close to half of it deals with the political landscape leading up to Hadrian’s accession.
Style: Part biography and part-social history are combined into a nifty narrative that reads like a novel. However, there are times when Everitt attempts at irony and wit, yet they failed to make an impression on me.
Catholic?: Catholics be warned – Everitt has a decided dislike for Christianity (as well as a grave misunderstanding). However, it’s Hadrian’s example we are meant to examine; Everitt’s religious opinions are easy to overlook and dismiss.