“The City of Hadrian and not of Theseus": A Cultural History of Hadrian's Arch

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Book Chapter

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Hadrian’s Arch (also known as Hadrian’s Gate) is one of the most iconic and accessible antique monuments in modern Athens. Built in the 2nd century CE by the Athenians in honor of Hadrian, the landmark contains two inscriptions that appear to equate the emperor with the city’s legendary founder, Theseus. By the time the arch was dedicated in c. 131 CE, Hadrian had been an Athenian citizen for two decades and I argue that, by dedicating the arch to him and including the two inscriptions, the residents of the polis were honoring him as an Athenian first and as the reigning Roman emperor second. But how and why did the monument survive in such good condition through nearly twenty centuries and multiple ruling regimes? This chapter discusses the motivation(s) behind the dedication of the arch and traces its cultural history from the 2nd century CE until the present. Throughout the centuries, it has served various purposes, including that of an honorary arch, a city gate, probably as a bell tower to a Byzantine-era church, and has even been replicated in an 18th-century estate in England. The arch has also featured in art, literature, poetry, music, and, in recent years, has been illuminated in bright colors in order to raise awareness for various social causes. Nevertheless, its most enduring function since the naissance of the Modern Greek state in 1830 has been that of a rendezvous point for both locals and tourists. Hadrian’s Arch is a testament to how the Roman past is not a closed chapter of the history of Athens but very much alive and a vibrant part of the capital’s contemporary cityscape.


ISBN 9781003178828 (ebook); 9781032014852 (hardcover).



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