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  • Writer's pictureGiorgia Capra, MA

A Brief History of the Arch of Hadrian in Athens

What is the Arch of Hadrian?

The Arch of Hadrian is an iconic monument, that’s also known as Hadrian’s gate, and was built in the 2nd century AD by the Athenian citizens in honour of the Roman Emperor Hadrian.

Arch of Hadrian on a sunny day with traffic going by behind it

Arch of Hadrian History

Here at the centre of the city, this Roman arch, made of gleaming Pentelic marble, was erected on an ancient road connecting the area of the Acropolis with south-east Athens. The Athenians built this impressive monument in honour of the Emperor Hadrian, to celebrate his arrival and thank him for his benevolence towards the city. During his reign the emperor, who was a great admirer of Greek culture, travelled to the eastern provinces of the Roman Empire and intervened to restore the splendour of Athens and other Greek city states, by encouraging their urbanisation, contributing to the revitalisation of their institutions, and promoting the Classical Greek past. According to ancient sources, the emperor even renamed part of the city Hadrianopolis and built several monuments, including a library, a gymnasium and a temple. Archaeological excavations have found numerous statues of Hadrian in various parts of the city, proving how influential he was in the history of Athens.

The Athenians had granted him citizenship during his first visit, when he was not yet emperor, and a couple of decades later decided to commemorate their benefactor with this monument, honouring him as a fellow Athenian citizen rather than as a Roman emperor. This is made clear by the mention in the inscriptions of his Greek cognomen (or surname) only, without the usual Roman names and titles that we expect to find in inscriptions honouring anyone of imperial rank. Originally, the arch was probably decorated with vibrant paintings or painted reliefs, now lost, and traces of colour suggest it was a brilliant red ochre, a colour symbolising victory and strength.

Interesting inscriptions are still visible on both sides: on the western side of the arch, facing the Acropolis and the old city, an inscription reads: ‘This is Athens, the ancient city of Theseus’. While on the other side, facing the east of the city, another reads: ‘This is the city of Hadrian, and not of Theseus’. Since the hero was the legendary founder of Athens, the inscriptions reveal the importance of Hadrian to the Athenians, who seem to equate him with a fundamental figure from the city’s mythological past, or even to honour the emperor as the city’s new founder, replacing its age-old hero. The inscriptions could also mean that the location of the arch had a precise meaning in the plan of the city, dividing the older area from the new one built by Hadrian. Nevertheless, the monument stands as a symbol of the link between the Greek and Roman eras, one that greatly influenced subsequent politics, architecture and history.

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