Pericles (Peisistratus) and emperor Hadrian

Published May 2, 2017 by amaic


Damien F. Mackey

“The Panhellenion was devised with a view to associating the Roman Emperor with the protection of Greek culture and of the “liberties” of Greece – in this case, urban self-government. It allowed Hadrian to appear as the fictive heir to Pericles, who supposedly had convened a previous Panhellenic Congress …”.

Some Commonalities

The famous beard

We read about it, for instance, in the book, Rethinking Revolutions Through Ancient Greece (ed. Simon Goldhill, Robin Osborne):

But if Hadrian’s beard is not that of a philosopher, what are we to make of it? Susan Walker has recently refined her answer to this question to describe the beard ‘as worn in the style of Pericles’. …. Pericles’ short, curly beard and moustache put her on safer ground art-historically than those who favour a philosophical reading …. Historiographically it lends him an identity that complements his building in Athens. But the more one pursues the implications of this hypothesis, the more one is made to doubt it. If one reads Plutarch to get a sense of Pericles’ reputation under Hadrian, one encounters an icon whose physical appearance is similar to Pisistratus. …. In some ways this is eminently suitable: Pisistratus is a prolific builder in Athens and inaugurates the Olympeion that Hadrian is to finish. …. But were Hadrian attempting to instigate a revolution, there is danger in even the slightest whiff of tyranny. Rest-assured, there is little additional evidence to support a Pericles-Hadrian parallel, at least not compared to stronger associations with a bearded Zeus or Jupiter ….

[End of quote]

Eleusinian mysteries

Under Pericles

The Eleusinian mysteries attracted many initiates in Athens from about the seventh century BC, and the epics of Homer prove that, even that early, Greeks believed that the Eleusinian rites granted the initiates happiness after death. The citizens of Athens adopted the Mysteries of Eleusis as a feature of the state cult, then, at the time of Pericles, other Greek cities were admitted and later everyone who could speak Greek and had shed no blood or had subsequently been purified.

Under Peisistratus

Since religion was closely interwoven with the structure of the Greek polis, or city-state, many of [Peisistratus’] steps were religious reforms. He brought the great shrine of Demeter at Eleusis under state control and constructed the first major Hall of the Mysteries (Telesterion) for the annual rites of initiation into the cult. Many local cults of Attica were either moved to the city or had branch shrines there. Artemis, for instance, continued to be worshiped at Brauron, but now there was also a shrine to Artemis on the Acropolis. Above all, Athena now became the main deity to be revered by all Athenian citizens. Peisistratus constructed an entry gate (Propylaea) on the Acropolis and perhaps built an old Parthenon under the temple that now stands on the crest of the Acropolis. Many sculptured fragments of limestone from Peisistratid buildings have been found on the Acropolis, and the foundations of a major, unfinished temple can still be seen.

Under Hadrian

Emperor Hadrian was initiated into the Eleusinian Mysteries; he and his successors Antoninus Pius, Marcus Aurelius and Commodus all protected the shrine and contributed to its embellishment ….

In September 128 [sic], Hadrian attended the Eleusinian mysteries again. This time his visit to Greece seems to have concentrated on Athens and Sparta – the two ancient rivals for dominance of Greece. Hadrian had played with the idea of focusing his Greek revival around the Amphictyonic League based in Delphi, but by now he had decided on something far grander.

Panhellenion and Olympeion


Rethinking Revolutions Through Ancient Greece: “Pisistratus is a prolific builder in Athens and inaugurates the Olympeion that Hadrian is to finish”.

Dedicated to Olympian Zeus, the Olympieion was situated on the bank of the river Ilissus southeast of the Acropolis. It was built on the site of an ancient Doric temple, the foundation of which had been laid out by the tyrant Pisistratus, but construction was abandoned several decades later in 510 BC when his son Hippias, whose rule had become increasingly despotic, was expelled from Athens and a democracy established (he would return twenty years later with the Persians at Marathon, Thucydides, Peloponnesian War, VI.54ff). Aristotle cites the temple and the pyramids of Egypt as examples of how rulers subdue their populations by engaging them in such grandiose projects. Kept poor and preoccupied with hard work, there was not the time to conspire (Politics, V.11). Over three centuries later, in 174 BC, Antiochus IV Epiphanes (king of Syria and the “vile person” of Daniel 11:21) commissioned the Roman architect Cossutius to begin work again on the same ground plan. He did so “with great skill and taste,” says Vitruvius, constructing a temple “of large dimensions, and of the Corinthian order and proportions” (On Architecture, VII, Pref.15, 17). Of all the works of Antiochus, the Temple of Jupiter Olympius or Olympian (as the Romans called it) was the “only one in the world, the plan of which was suitable to the greatness of the deity” (Livy, History of Rome, XLI.20). But when the king died a decade later, the temple still was “left half finished” (Strabo, Geography, IX.1.17), although it extended at least to the architrave of the columns still standing at the southeastern corner.


Plutarch writes that Pericles “introduced a bill to the effect that all Hellenes wheresoever resident in Europe or in Asia, small and large cities alike, should be invited to send deputies to a council at Athens.” The aim was to discuss matters of common interest—restoration of the temples the Persians had burned down, payment of vows to the gods for the great deliverance, and clearing the seas of pirates.


More than half a millennium later [sic] Hadrian picked it up where it had fallen. During his previous visit, his attention had been caught by the synedrion, or council, at Delphi for the Amphictyonic League, but it did not include enough Greek cities. He decided to launch a new Panhellenion along Periclean lines. As before, a grandly refurbished Athens was to be the headquarters and Greek cities would be invited to send delegates to an inaugural assembly. Member communities had to prove their Greekness, both culturally and in genetic descent, although in practice some bogus pedigrees were accepted.

The enterprise had a somewhat antiquarian character. So far as we can tell from the fragmentary surviving evidence, Hadrian aimed at roughly the same catchment area as Pericles had done—in essence, the basin of the Ionian Sea. Italy and Sicily were excluded once again, and there was no representation of Greek settlements in Egypt, Syria, or Anatolia. The emperor made a point of visiting Sparta, presumably to ensure that it did not stay away as it had done in the fifth century.

A renaissance of old glories was reflected in the development of archaized language; so, for example, Spartan young men (epheboi) suddenly took on an antiquated Doric dialect in their dedications to Artemis Orthia, a patron goddess of the city. It seems clear that one of the purposes of Hadrian’s policy was to recruit the past to influence and to help define and improve the decadent present.

Hadrian began to call himself the “Olympian,” echoing the example of Pericles as well as reflecting the completion of the Olympieion, the vast temple to Olympian Zeus. He was soon widely known throughout the Hellenic eastern provinces as “Hadrianos Sebastos Olumpios,” Sebastos being the Greek word for Augustus, or indeed “Hadrianos Sebastos Zeus Olumpios.”

What did the Panhellenion actually do? It administered its own affairs, managed its shrine not far from the Roman Agora and offices, and promoted a quadrennial festival. It also assessed qualifications for membership. But Hadrian was careful to give it no freestanding political powers. All important decisions were referred to him for approval. Rather, the focus was cultural and religious, and a connection was forged with the Eleusinian Mysteries. In essence, the task was to build spiritual and intellectual links among the cities of the Greek world, and to foster a sense of community. The Panhellenion also furthered the careers of delegates, who were usually leading members of Greek elites (but not necessarily Roman citizens), and created an international “old-boy network” of friends who advanced one another’s interests. ….


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