Publius Aelius Hadrianus, known as Hadrian, served as Emperor for twenty-one years, from 117-138 A.D. At his succession, the Empire was in turmoil. Trajan's last Parthian campaign ended poorly, so Hadrian had no choice but to reverse course on Rome's expansion, renouncing recently acquired territories in order to solidify the Empire's borders. He travelled extensively to achieve this goal, and for political and dynastic reasons, Hadrian initiated an unparalleled building program throughout the Empire. His legions built impressive walls in Britain and Algeria, and vanquished the Jewish revolt led by Simon Bar Kokhba. He created a Panhellenic League and completed the Temple of Zeus in Athens in order to secure the loyalty of the Greek aristocracy. During a trip to Egypt in 130 A.D., his companion Antinous drowned in the Nile. His death inspired Hadrian to encourage the local population to venerate his friend as the god Osiris, and the Emperor founded the city of Antinoopolis in his honor. In Rome he built the celebrated Pantheon in the Campus Martius, the Temple of Venus and Rome in the Forum, another to the deified Trajan, and his own Mausoleum (now Castel Sant'Angelo).
Due to the length of his reign, combined with his enduring popularity throughout the Empire, a great quantity of his portraits survive, more than for any other emperor save Augustus. As Hadrian was forty-one years old when he came to power, his portraits show him as a middle-aged man. He was the first emperor to wear a beard, a trend that would persist for several centuries. His beard was once thought to illustrate his philhellenic outlook, but is now recognized as a demonstration of his connection to the Roman legions, since beards were sported by young men on campaign in this period. The present lot once belonged to a monumental over-lifesized statue of the emperor, most likely set up in a civic centre such as a marketplace. The style suggests it was executed in the Eastern empire, probably after the emperor's death. Hadrian's immediate successors, the Antonine dynasty, strove to associate themselves with him, both to harness his popularity and to solidify and justify their own rule. Antoninus Pius, who succeeded upon Hadrian's death, fought to have his adoptive father deified and, upon deification in 139 A.D., held a spectacular consecration ceremony where he 'recounted his great deeds on the forum...built a splendid temple to his deified adoptive father in the Campus Martius and instigated a cult with dedicated priests, as well as a five-yearly festival, to keep alive his memory' (T. Opper, Hadrian: Empire and Conflict, London, 2008, p. 221). From an unpromising beginning Hadrian had succeeded in passing on 'a strengthened and revitalized empire', and thus quickly came to symbolise prosperity and stability, an important message in the age of the adoptive emperors (ibid., p. 21).