The December 8, 1832 edition of “The Mirror of Literature, Amusement, and Instruction” recounted the Roman historian Cassius Dio’s account of the dispute between Hadrian prior to his assuming the purple as Roman Emperor, and Apollodorus, the Roman Empire’s foremost architect under Hadrian’s predecessor, Trajan. Below, we will recount the Mirror’s write-up of Cassius Dio’s account and add some additional context on Hadrian’s confidence in his own expertise on many matters.

Go and paint gourds.

Apollodorus to Hadrian, allegedly

Because this story involves the young Hadrian’s supposed hobby of painting gourds, we will also tie it to some of our recent gourd-content here at The New Leaf Journal.

The Dramatic Personae: Hadrian and Apollodorus of Damascus

Before reprinting the Mirror’s story, we must first establish the characters. Hadrian, written “Adrian” in the story, was the Roman Emperor from 117-138 A.D. He had been adopted as his heir by Trajan, who was the Roman Emperor from 98-117. Hadrian was the third of British historian Edward Gibbons’s five “good Emperors” – Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius.

Bust of Hadrian seen on cover of A Ræder's "Keiser Hadrian" (1897)
Bust of Hadrian seen on cover of A Ræder’s “Keiser Hadrian” (1897)

Apollodorus of Damascus was an engineer from Roman Syria. During the reign of Trajan, he oversaw the several grand construction projects in Rome, including the forum, markets, and the Temple and Column of Trajan.

The Chronicler: Cassius Dio

Although the Mirror does not say so specifically, its account of the dispute between Hadrian and Apollodorus derives from the work of Cassius Dio, a Greek Senator in the Roman Empire who wrote his influential Roman History, which survives in fragmentary form, during the late second and early third centuries.

The Mirror’s Account of the Dispute Between Hadrian and Apollodorus

The Mirror’s retelling of Cassius Dio’s version of the story of Hadrian and Apollodorus of Damascus begins during the reign of Trajan and ends in a rather unfortunate way for the great architect during the reign of Hadrian. As I noted above, the Mirror spells Hadrian as “Adrian.”

Below is the text of the Mirror piece, reprinted in its entirety:

The Emperor Adrian and the Architect Apollodorus.—When Apollodorus was conversing with Trajan on some plans of architecture, Adrian interfered, and gave an opinion, which the artist treated with contempt. “Go,” says he, “and paint gourds” (an amusement which Adrian was fond of), “for you are very ignorant of the subject on which we are conversing.” When Adrian became emperor, the affront was remembered, and it prevented Apollodorus from being employed. Nor was the opinion which Apollodorus gave with respect to the plans of a sumptuous temple of Venus forgotten: viz.—upon seeing the statues sitting, as they were, in the temple (which, it seems, wanted much of its due proportion in height), he said, “if the goddesses should ever attempt to stand upon their feet, they would assuredly break their heads against the ceiling.” Adrian, meanly jealous and inexcusably revengeful, banished the architect, and having caused him to be accused of various crimes, put him to death.

On Hadrian’s Gourd-Painting Hobby

Cassius Dio’s account begins with Apollodorus discussing architecture plans with the Emperor Trajan. Hadrian, confident in his architectural insights, offered an opinion. Apollodorus, less impressed with Hadrian’s opinions, dismissed Trajan’s successor by telling him to “go, and paint gourds.”

The Mirror’s account tells us that Hadrian was fond of painting gourds. Cassius Dio’s original text was more specific – stating that Hadrian was painting gourds at the time he offered his opinion to Apollodorus.

I do not know whether painting gourds was a common hobby in Rome in the early second century. All things considered, I suppose it was a less exotic hobby than those of some of Hadrian’s predecessors and successors. Cassius Dio provides no further details, so we cannot be sure whether Hadrian also put masks on his gourds.

(I do hope, however, that either Hadrian or someone connected to him remembered to dispose of the painted gourds before they began to decompose, something that many people fail to do in modern times.)

On the Danger of Mocking Emperors

After Hadrian was told to paint gourds, he succeeded Trajan as Emperor, and in that capacity commanded Rome’s many legions. The Mirror, citing to Cassius Dio, tells us that the Emperor Hadrian did not let bygones be bygones, ensuring that Apollodorus would not find employment instead of availing himself to Apollodorus’s considerable talents. In this account, Apollodorus did not refrain from articulating his negative view of Hadrian’s architectural sensibilities. Regarding plans for a Temple to Venus, Apollodorus opined that were the sitting statutes in the temple to stand up they would hit their heads on the ceiling. Cassius Dio tells us that Hadrian had enough of Apollodorus, banishing him based on false allegations of criminal conduct and eventually having him executed.

Whether Cassius Dio’s account is true is a matter of debate. For example, some historians doubt that Hadrian played a role in Apollodorus’s death and observed that some of Apollodorus’s advice regarding major construction under Hadrian was accepted. It is possible, for example, that Cassius Dio lumped Apollodorus’s death in with other executions that Hadrian did order. As we will see, however, whether Cassius Dio’s account of Hadrian executing Apollodorus is true, Hadrian did have a reputation for having a high opinion of his artistic knowledge and sensibilities.

Hadrian’s Myriad Talents and Legions

Herbert W. Benario, a historian from Emory University, described Hadrian as “a man of extraordinary talents, certainly one of the most gifted that Rome ever produced.” Citing to various historical sources, he noted that Hadrian studied philosophy and wrote both literature and poetry. Furthermore, Hadrian played an active role in major construction during his 21-year reign.

While Hadrian was a sort of renaissance man of his day, Mr. Benario cited to several sources describing how his opinion of his own abilities brought him into conflict with others. For example, Mr. Benario offered an anecdote about an argument that Hadrian had with the sophist philosopher Favorinus, wherein Favorinus, although correct in a disagreement with the Emperor, gave way rather than contesting the matter further. Mr. Benario tells us that Favorinus was then rebuked by friends for having given in to Hadrian when he in fact had the better of the argument. To this, Favorinus reportedly had a witty reply ready:

You advise me badly, friends, since you do not permit me to believe that he who commands 30 legions is the most learned of all.

Flavorinus on why he conceded a debate to the Emperor Hadrian – credit DIR

Editing Notes

October 21, 2022: Swapped in optimized images in place of originals. Made a couple of minor edits to beginning and middle. Added a pullquote to the introduction section.