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Ancient Roman Emperors Who Loved Greece

Statue of Marcus Aurelius in Musei Capitolini
Statue of Marcus Aurelius in Musei Capitolini. Credit: Livioandronico2013 / Wikimedia commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

Ancient Roman emperors loved Greece and did not keep it a secret. As the Roman Empire consolidated, Greek culture, literature, politics, and art continued to flourish. The elites cultured themselves on Greece and its beauties in order to better fit the role models of the time.

Initially, opinions were divided among patricians. While some saw Greek culture with mistrust, others embraced it. Some Roman emperors and politicians were Hellenophiles beyond what was customary at the time and loved the culture of Greece and all it stood for.

Hadrian, the Ancient Roman Ruler Who Embraced Greek Citizenship

bronze bust of hadrian
Bronze statue of Hadrian, Camp of the Sixth Roman Legion (Legio VI Ferrata) in Tel Shalem, 117–138 AD, Israel Museum, Jerusalem. Credit: Following Hadrian / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0.

Hadrian was nicknamed Graeculus, “the little Greek.” He looked Greek, keeping his hair long and growing his beard as the Greeks did, while Roman politicians and military men kept their hair short and were clean-shaven.

He had spent many of his formative years in Athens, where he excelled in his study of Greek literature and surrounded himself with philosophers, training like a Greek. Upon Emperor Trajan’s death, he was elected a citizen.

When he became emperor and had to go back to Rome, he filled his villa in the Roman countryside with copies of his favorite Greek artworks. He often traveled back to Greece, sometimes to participate in rituals for Demeter. He built a library in his adoptive city as a homage and tried to create Panhellenion, an institutional attempt at placating conflicts between cities and creating a national conscience. Hadrian never gave up the customs he had acquired there. He contributed greatly to the fashion of Hellenization among Roman elites.

He had a lover, Antinous. This young man from Bithynia was sent to Rome to be educated and followed Hadrian in his travels for years until he mysteriously drowned in the Nile during one of their travels. Antinous was only nineteen when he died, and Hadrian is reported by ancient historians to have “cried like a woman” (Historia Augusta).

He founded the city of Antinoopolis in the exact place where he had died and created a cult in his name. This was reserved for emperors and their families, and he never asked for the senate’s vote on it. Egyptians divinized him as an avatar of Osiris, Dionysus, or Hermes. Across Greece and Rome, altars were built in his honor and sacrificial rituals dedicated to Diana started including Antinous. Hadrian commissioned thousands of portraits and artifacts with his likeness (one of the best preserved of antiquity) during his reign.

Hadrian, who had been suffering a mysterious illness, died in Baia close to Naples. Baia was part of Hellenized Southern Italy. He never gave up his beard, a homage to Greek philosophers. Afterward, Hadrian emperors would be captured with a beard in official portraits.

Nero, the Ancient Roman Emperor Who Married Two Greeks

marble portrait of roman emperor neor
Marble portrait of Nero. Credit: bobosh_t  / CC BY-SA 2.0.

Nero was famously passionate about art and literature much more than military expeditions, although myths portray him as an unhinged monster. The myth about the arson of Rome was likely perpetuated by contemporary historians for political reasons.

His education had been placed in the hands of two Greek freed slaves, thanks to whom he developed a passion for the culture. Nero knew the Odyssey by heart, often reciting it, and composed some verses about the myth of Troy himself. He is often quoted as saying: “Only Greeks appreciate my art!” It is true that he was much more appreciated by them than by Romans.

Nero also married men in his life, Pythagoras and Sporus. They were both freed slaves, and after the death of his third wife, Nero had Sporus castrated and married him in Greece, due to his resemblance to the dead empress. According to historian Cassius Dio, “Pythagoras was a husband to him, Sporus a wife.”

In 67 A.D., he went on a Greek cruise on a luxurious boat. He participated in the Olympics in Corinth. Overjoyed, he made the decision to give the Greek poleis their freedom back and gave a famous speech at the stadium:

“Oh! If I could have given this gift when Greece was at the apex of its power, more people could have benefited! […] And now I grant you this favor not out of pity, but out of benevolence and the gods, who I now repay.”

The Roman elites were not too happy about losing taxpayers. This might have contributed to the emperor’s demise and demonization in history.

Scipio Africanus, the Ancient Roman General Who Loved Greek Culture

bronze bust of scipio africanus, with eyes painted white
Roman Bronze bust of Scipio Africanus in a Hellenized style, National Archeological Museum, Naples. Credit: Alex-David Baldi / CC BY-SA 4.0.

Although his epithet was Africanus, Publius Cornelius Scipio came from an ancient Roman family and owed his name to the defeat of Hannibal at Zama. He was not an emperor, but he belonged to the elite at the time of the Republic, and his rank allowed him to set the foreign policy agenda for Republican Rome. He consolidated the expansionist tendencies of the Romans and was the first Roman to begin a military and political exchange with Greek cities. He launched several foreign military interventions when cities were attacked.

He also signed a peace treaty with Philip V of Macedonia, so that he could focus on military campaigns against Spain and Carthage. Without support from the Senate, he garnered approval and military support from Italian allies, launching the conquest of Hellenized Sicily, where he then presented himself as the heir of tyrants that had ruled it. He was a great admirer of Greek culture and attempted to preserve the independence of Greek poleis, which became protectorates.

After his death, many volumes of the royal Macedonian library were transported back to Rome, and around Publius Cornelius Scipio Aemilianus gathered the “School of the Scipii,” an elite club where Greek culture was read, shared, and discussed. Thus began the Hellenization of Rome.

Horace famously commented on this period: “Graecia capta ferum victorem cepit.”

Marcus Aurelius, the Emperor Who Married Greek Philosophy

Bust of Marcus Aurelius
Bust of Marcus Aurelius. Credit: Bob3321 / Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0

Marcus Aurelius is considered to be one of the key Stoic philosophers, the distinctive Roman philosophical school. However, his homeschooling was supervised by Greek tutors, such as Diognetus, thanks to which the emperor learned to reason. As a young man, he liked to wear the typical Greek cloak while he studied, and he slept on the ground until his mother forced him to go to bed. He also enjoyed training, boxing, and wrestling and later followed the fashion of Hadrian by growing his beard. Much like Hadrian, he also participated in the mysteries of Demeter in Ephesus.

He spent many years studying and developing his rhetorical skill. This was during the time of the Sophists when debate was considered vital for a young man of the cultured elite. However, he soon tired of his law studies, considering politics useless in the face of cosmic insignificance, and embraced Stoicism. He experienced the reality of being emperor and ruling by force with great suffering. This was in contrast to his philosophical ideals, but he considered this the duty that destiny had assigned him.

Marcus Aurelius never allowed a cult around his person to form and always practiced humility, austerity, and mercy. In his memoirs, he admonished himself from becoming “another Caesar.” He always considered slaves to be free as humans, and according to some, his moral inclinations concerning servitude (in contrast to Christian beliefs of the time) led to slavery being abolished a century later.

His Meditations were originally written in Greek (original title: “Τὰ εἰς ἑαυτόν,” meaning To Himself) in a style influenced by another one of his tutors, Alexander of Cotiaeum, the greatest scholar of Homer of his time. He wrote his masterpiece during his last ten years spent fighting on the Northern frontier of the empire and in Asia Minor.

During these travels, he also met Aelius Aristides, one of the best-known philosophers of Second Sophism, the best orator of his time. When Smyrne was destroyed in an earthquake, the philosopher wrote to Marcus Aurelius personally, and the emperor rebuilt the city. He paid homage to Athens during his travels, declaring himself “protector of philosophy” by founding and financing four schools in the city (Aristotelian, Platonic, Epicurean, Stoic).

In Meditations, Marcus Aurelius developed a method that could be considered psychology. His reasoning with the irrational side of himself was much like a debate in which reason had to win. As his personal and political life were dotted with tragedies, he found solace in his view that man was powerless and could only work on his inner strength. He sought refuge in writing.

His theory was put into practice and his self-analysis at a time when philosophy was mostly practiced in public distinguished him. He is remembered as the last great Stoic philosopher and the incarnation of the Platonic ideal of the philosopher king.

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