Art and Culture Under the Nerva-Antonines

Learning Objective

  • Describe trends in art and culture under the Nerva-Antonines

Key Points

  • Trajan was known for his philanthropic rule, overseeing extensive public building programs and implementing social welfare policies, as well as hosting major public festivals in the Colosseum.
  • Emperor Hadrian had a major influence on Roman culture through his love of Greek culture.
  • He patronized the arts, building and rebuilding important and influential structures, such as Hadrian’s Villa. He also introduced Greek styles into public use, such as wearing a beard instead of being clean-shaven.
  • As a cultural Hellenophile, Hadrian was familiar with the work of the philosophers Epictetus, Heliodorus, and Favorinus, and used their ideas to improve social welfare in Rome.



Used to describe both non-Greeks, such as Romans, who were fond of Greek culture, and Greeks who patriotically upheld their culture.

Hadrian’s Villa

A large Roman archaeological complex at Tivoli, Italy, built by Emperor Hadrian and based on Greek architectural styles.

Several of the Nerva-Antonine emperors are known for their support of the arts and culture of Rome.


Trajan was known for his philanthropic rule, overseeing extensive public building programs and implementing social welfare policies, which earned him his enduring reputation as the second of the Five Good Emperors who presided over an era of peace and prosperity in the Mediterranean world. During a period of peace after the Dacian wars, he initiated a three-month gladiatorial festival in the great Colosseum in Rome (the precise date is unknown). Combining chariot racing, beast fights, and close-quarters gladiatorial bloodshed, this gory spectacle reputedly left 11,000 dead (mostly slaves and criminals, not to mention the thousands of wild animals killed alongside them), and attracted a total of five million spectators over the course of the festival. The care bestowed by Trajan on the managing of such public spectacles led the orator Fronto to state approvingly that Trajan had paid equal attention to entertainments as well as to serious issues. Fronto concluded that “neglect of serious matters can cause greater damage, but neglect of amusements greater discontent.”


Hadrian has been described—first in an ancient anonymous source and later echoed by Ronald Syme, among others—as the most versatile of all the Roman emperors. He also liked to demonstrate knowledge of all intellectual and artistic fields. Above all, Hadrian patronized the arts. Hadrian’s Villa at Tibur was the greatest Roman example of an Alexandrian garden, recreating a sacred landscape, albeit lost in large part to the despoliation of the ruins by the Cardinal d’Este, who had much of the marble removed to build Villa d’Este. In Rome, the Pantheon, originally built by Agrippa but destroyed by fire in 80, was rebuilt under Hadrian in the domed form it retains to this day. It is among the best-preserved of Rome’s ancient buildings, and was highly influential to many of the great architects of the Italian Renaissance and Baroque periods.


The ruins of Hadrian’s Villa in their present state.

Another of Hadrian’s contributions to popular Roman culture was the beard, which symbolised his philhellenism; Dio of Prusa had equated the generalized using of the beard with Hellenic ethos. Since the time of Scipio Africanus, it had been fashionable among the Romans to be clean-shaven. Also, all Roman emperors before Hadrian, except for Nero (also a great admirer of Greek culture), were clean shaven. Most of the emperors after Hadrian would be portrayed with beards. Their beards, however, were not worn out of an appreciation for Greek culture, but because the beard had, thanks to Hadrian, become fashionable. This new fashion lasted until the reign of Constantine the Great and was revived again by Phocas at the start of the 7th century. Notwithstanding his philhellenism, however, in all other everyday life matters, Hadrian behaved as a Roman civic traditionalist, who demanded the use of the toga by senators and knights in public, and strict separation between the sexes in the public baths and theaters.

Hadrian wrote poetry in both Latin and Greek; one of the few surviving examples is a Latin poem he reportedly composed on his deathbed . Some of his Greek productions found their way into the Palatine Anthology.

As a cultural Hellenophile, Hadrian was familiar with the work of the philosophers Epictetus, Heliodorus, and Favorinus. At home he attended to social needs. Hadrian mitigated slavery; masters were forbidden from killing their slaves unless allowed by a court to punish them for a grave offense. Masters were forbidden to sell slaves to a gladiator trainer or to a procurer, except as justified punishment. Hadrian also had the legal code humanized and forbade torture of free defendants and witnesses, legislating against the common practice of condemning free persons in order to have them tortured as a means of gathering information on their supposed activities and accomplices. He also abolished ergastula—private prisons for slaves in which kidnapped free men could also be kept.