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  • Gareth Harney

Adoptio – The Controversial Accession of Hadrian

Updated: Feb 18, 2021

My latest acquisition highlights not only the insight Roman coins can provide into murky historical events around which contemporary sources are often lacking but also their critical role as socio-political propaganda, affirming an approved historical narrative.


Silver denarius of Hadrian, late 117 AD, 3.24g, Obv: laureate, draped and cuirassed bust of Hadrian (R) IMP CAES TRAIAN HADRIANO OPT AVG GER DAC, Rev: Hadrian and Trajan stand facing each other clasping hands and exchanging scroll as sign of the adoption of Hadrian, ADOPTIO in exergue, PARTHIC DIVI TRAIAN AVG F P M TRP COS PP, RIC 3c RSC 4

The silver denarius bears one of the first numismatic portraits of Hadrian, shown in his early forties, and commemorates his adoption by the Emperor Trajan in 117 AD; a much-scrutinised event that has maintained a tarnish of controversy over the centuries.

After an inconclusive siege of the Parthian city of Hatra (modern day Iraq) in which he suffered a bout of heat stroke and with his gains in the East coming under attack on numerous fronts, Trajan’s health began to fail him. Leaving the situation in the evidently capable hands of Hadrian, his cousin and fellow Spaniard, the imperial entourage boarded yachts at Seleucia Pieria at the mouth of the Orontes and set sail back to Rome in the summer of 117.

The emperor’s condition suddenly worsened as they skirted the coast of Asia Minor, perhaps suffering from a stroke, and soon after pulling into the nearest harbour of Selinus (modern Gazipaşa), Trajan expired. The official account places Trajan’s death around the 9th August, the same day that Hadrian received word of his official adoption in Antioch. Two days later, a blistering pace for news at the time, followed the news of Trajan’s death and his own accession.

It appears rumours quickly began to circulate about the authenticity of the adoption process, not helped by the obscure details surrounding Trajan’s death and documents signed by Trajan’s widow Plotina rather than the emperor himself. An attendant of Trajan’s, Marcus Ulpius Phaedimus, also died at Selinus a few days later, adding to conspiratorial suspicions.

Hadrian had become a favourite of Trajan’s wife, Plotina and some theorised that together they had withheld news of Trajan’s death while adoption documents were forged or backdated. Yet no one could deny the imperial favour Hadrian had clearly enjoyed over the years: command of a legion in the second Dacian War and subsequently the province of Pannonia Inferior, as well as marriage to the emperor’s great-niece. Most objective observers agree that, despite the gossip no doubt peddled by hostile elements in the senate, Hadrian was the clear and logical choice of successor.

Our silver denarius then gives us a privileged view into the social and political landscape in the immediate aftermath of Trajan’s death and Hadrian’s accession. Amid the backdrop of unpopular but necessary withdrawals of all his predecessor’s territorial gains in Mesopotamia and likely being tested by a sceptical senate, the young, energetic new emperor is clearly trying to emphasise the absolute legitimacy of his position.

In a design, not seen before or after, the actual moment of adoption is shown, with Trajan and Hadrian clasping hands and exchanging the necessary documentation; a scene that almost certainly never took place. As if the message wasn’t clear enough to contemporary viewers the scene is emblazoned with the self explanatory declaration “ADOPTIO”. The fact this unique coin design was required at all shows us Hadrian clearly felt the need to publically and definitively tackle simmering conspiracy theories concerning his accession.

The 41 year old Hadrian is shown wearing cuirass armour, emphasising his military background, somewhat in contrast to the intellectual reputation he would later cultivate. He is also encircled by the numerous and, by this stage, excessive titles he has inherited from Trajan such as “Germanicus”, “Dacicus” and “Parthicus”, which again reinforced the official status of his adoption. Such titles would gradually be removed from his coinage as he became more established on the throne, as would other ostentatious symbols of imperial power such as the laurel wreath.

Though minted in a time of great stability and relative peace, the coin reveals an underlying anxiety about the very nature of imperial power and the exact manner in which it could be gifted to a successor, a problem the Romans were never to solve fully. It also shows a clear awareness of what rulers have found out the hard way for millennia; that the critical moment when this power is being passed on, is when it is at its most exposed and vulnerable.

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