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CAT 73. Engraved by George Cooke. Adrian. In Historic Gallery of Portraits and Paintings, vol. 3. London: Vernor, Hood, & Sharpe, 1815. Melville Memorial Room, Berkshire Athenaeum.

Hadrian, Roman emperor, 76-138 A.D. From HG 3: “Emperor Trajan . . . adopted him, after having put his talents and his valor to repeated trials.” After “ascending to the throne in the year 111,” Hadrian “abandoned all the conquests that had been achieved by Trajan, and his predecessors, beyond the Euphrates.” He “relinquished” the income of the “imperial treasury” and “began his travels into the several provinces of his empire . . . marching always barefoot, and uncovered, at the head of his troops, and in the most inclement seasons . . . and displaying, only in Rome, the magnificence of an emperor.” He built monuments to his rule in Britain, Rome, Jerusalem, and Athens, returning “to Rome in the twentieth year of his reign.” Hadrian “merited the gratitude of his people, by the continual anxiety he displayed to promote their peace and happiness; and, in a particular manner, for his judicious choice of Antoninus and Marcus Aurelius, as his successors.” His “passion for Antinous, to whom he consecrated a temple,” is one of the few things for which “Adrian may be reasonably reproached” (n.p.).

The frontal view of Hadrian in this engraving, favoring the right side of the face, contrasts with the profile of the left side of the face engraved by George Cooke in CAT 70. Here the powerful emperor is endowed with a massive chest and set within in imperial wreath embroidered with his name. This bust embodies the strength, probity, and rectitude of the emperor who laid the foundation for the era that Melville considered to be the “summit of fate,” the “zenith of time,” and the “Solstice of Man” in his poem “The Age of the Antonines” (NN PP 286). In a letter to John Hoadley in 1877, Melville indicated that this poem was “suggested by a passage in Gibbon’s (Decline and Fall)"; he referred Hoadley to "'Antonine' &c in index.” This passage declared that “in the second century of the Christian Æra, the Empire of Rome comprehended the first part of the earth, and the most civilized portion of mankind. . . . During a happy period (A.D. 98-180) of more than forescore years, the public administration was conducted by the virtues and abilities of Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, and the two Antonines” (NN PP 806-07). Gibbon explicitly praises the “Age of the Antonines” in the opening chapters of his massive history as well as in the later chapters devoted to its successive rulers. As volume 1 of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall was published in 1776, Melville may have intended his own “Age of the Antonines” as a centennial reflection on Gibbon’s History as well as on the American political experiment.

Melville was interested in Hadrian, and his beard, as early as White-Jacket, when he wrote of a captain who “wore a small speck of beard upon his own imperial cheek; which, if rumor said true, was to hide something, as Plutarch relates of the Emperor Adrian” (NN WJ 356).  Melville in his 1857 journal records the day trip from Rome to Tivoli in which he visited “Villa of Hadrian—Solemn scene & solemn guide—Extent of ruin,—fine site” (NN J 113).  A few weeks earlier during a visit to the Villa Albani Melville had encountered an object equally evocative of Hadrian, a sculpture of “Antinous—head like moss-rose with curls & buds—rest all simplicity . . . hand full of flowers & eyeing them—the profile &c” (NN J 107; fig. 1).

CAT 73 fig 1 Robert Macpherson, Antinous, Villa Albani, 1860s.png

Figure 1. Robert Macpherson. Antinous—bas relief. Villa Albani, 1860s. Albumin silver print.

Antinous was the beautiful young Greek male widely known as “Hadrian’s favorite” after the Emperor had brought him back from Trace as his companion, a position in which Antinous remained until his mysterious death on the banks of the Nile in 130 A.D. For Hadrian and Antinous in the context of Billy Budd, see Coffler, “Classical Iconography” (259-65). For reproductions of ancient busts and statues of Hadrian and Antinous, see Lambert, figs. 1-60. For information about the bust of Antinous in Melville’s home on East 26th Street, see my Parting Thought on Ancient Greece and the Near East in Chapter 1.   

One of Hadrian’s great legacies was the infusion of Greek culture into imperial Rome. George Cooke therefore appropriately pairs him and the unknown Roman with two Greek figures in CAT 70. Hadrian’s love for things Greek extended from the Greek gods and philosophers, to the Greek statuary with which he peopled his villa at Tivoli, to his deification of Antinous soon after his death. Even Hadrian’s beard (he was the first Roman emperor to wear one and “all of his successors were to follow suit”) was seen by some as an attempt associate himself with “the heroes of Ancient Greece.”  Following the same hint by Plutarch that Melville noted in White-Jacket, Lambert in Beloved and God suggests that “it simply hid acne or wounds on his face” (Lambert 35).