By Heritage Auctions …..
The Roman empress Vibia Sabina (83 CE – 136/137) was both the wife and second cousin, once removed, of Roman emperor Publius Aelius Hadrianus (Hadrian). The path that took her to that exalted perch, and put her face on our gold coin, was long and winding.
Sabina’s mother was Salonina Matidia, the niece of Roman emperor Trajan. Her father was suffect consul Lucius Vibius Sabinus, whose death in 84 CE resulted in Sabina’s shift in residence to the household of Trajan, then an up-and-coming Senator of a prominent Spanish family. All were among the elite of Italica, a city in Spain so named because it abounded with transplanted Italians. Matidia was part of a “corseted cabal” of women who were held in close confidence by Trajan, which also included his wife Pompeia Plotina, his sister Marciana, Matidia’s mother and Sabina’s grandmother.
Another member of Trajan’s household was his distant nephew and young ward Hadrian. The ladies of the court appeared to have adored the polished philhellene youth, particularly Plotina, although Trajan himself was more reticent about him, thinking him overly fond of frivolous pastimes. Perhaps to prove himself worthy, Hadrian entered the military as a Tribune in the Legio II Augusta. When the elderly emperor Nerva died in 98 CE after naming Trajan as his successor, Hadrian leapt on horseback and raced across Gaul and Germany to bring the news to Trajan, and was the first man to hail him as Augustus.
This did the trick and Hadrian was now firmly in the new Emperor’s good graces.
At the age of 17 and at the urging of Plotina, Sabina married Hadrian, which guaranteed that Hadrian moved to the front of the succession queue. However, Trajan never formally adopted him and made it widely known that he had other options. Hadrian’s position was never formalized until just after Trajan suffered a massive stroke in mid-117 while returning to Rome after an arduous Eastern campaign. The aptly named PLOTina took over the emperor’s affairs and stage-managed the adoption of Hadrian (then governor of Syria) as Caesar and successor.
Upon the announcement of Trajan’s death on August 8, 117, Hadrian moved quickly to secure his position, which required the execution of four potential rivals. He returned to Rome on July 9, 118 to a rather subdued reception (partly due to Trajan’s public funeral, partly due to the executions and uncertainty about his plans as emperor). Sabina was no doubt part of the proceedings but was kept in the background and not immediately made Augusta (“Empress”), perhaps because Trajan’s widow bore the title and was still very much alive.
Sabina may have bristled at Hadrian’s long delay in having her named Augusta, even after Plotina’s passing in 122 CE. Her elevation finally took place in 128, perhaps to coincide with Hadrian receiving the title of Pater Patriae from the Senate. At long last, she now had the privilege of placing her portrait on Rome’s coinage.
Our gold aureus of Sabina depicts her shortly after the announcement, wearing a rather innovative hairstyle, piled up in a semi-pompadour at her forehead held in place by a diadem-like headpiece called a stephane, and gathered into a long, thick plait down her neck. It’s rather less “structured” than the elaborate coiffeurs of Trajan’s ladies and more keeping with the austere faux-Greek Augustan imagery adopted by Hadrian as the regime entered its second decade.
The reverse places Sabina at the seat of civic mythos. As Vesta, she is depicted seated with a scepter in her left hand and a Palladium in her right. The Palladium, an antique carven image of Minerva said to have been housed in the Citadel of Troy, was brought to Latium by Aeneas and was now housed in the Temple of Vesta. It was said to retain mystic powers that preserved Rome’s dominant position in the world.
Sabina’s relations with Hadrian remain obscured by the haze that covers most of Hadrian’s private life. His homosexual orientation is well-known, but whether Sabina suffered stoically as her husband squired around the beautiful Bithynian Greek youth Antinous, raged at him for humiliating her or retaliated by having affairs of her own we will never know. However, rumor had it that she was rather “Suet” on the biographer Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus, Hadrian’s secretary, and the two had an affair sometime around 119 CE. Suetonius was one of two courtiers dismissed by Hadrian for being on overly intimate terms with his wife; however, for reasons lost to history, he didn’t see it as necessary to dismiss her.
If Sabina suffered in her gilded cage, she seems to have made the best it. She accompanied Hadrian on many of his famous world tours and sometimes had a feminine entourage of her own. On a journey to Egypt in 130, she brought along a pair of “pen pals” – the poetesses Julia Balbilla and Damo, one or both whom inscribed a pentameter in the Aeolic dialect on the Colossi of Memnon in Thebes. The verses, written in the Sapphic style, reflecting her appreciation of the monuments, are not so important for their content as they are as a reflection of the rarified tastes of the Roman elite during the Hadrianic era.
On the same trip, Hadrian’s lover Antinous died, presumably by accidental drowning in the Nile, though rumors swirled that he had sacrificed himself in an Egyptian rite to preserve Hadrian’s failing health, or that the Emperor had ritually sacrificed him. A recent book posits the intriguing theory that Sabina did the dastardly deed herself, perhaps with the help of Balbilla and Damo.
Whatever happened, Hadrian’s grief was enormous, heartfelt, and empire-wide.
Though formal Roman deification for Antinous was unthinkable, Hadrian induced the entire Greek half of the Empire to make him a god and commend itself to his worship. The Greeks responded with enthusiasm and the “hero” Antinous became the last addition to the Hellenic pantheon. The royal couple then picked up the purple and headed back to their luxurious villa in Tivoli, never to leave. Not much of Sabina is recorded during this time, but it isn’t hard to imagine her stewing as her husband pined away for Antinous and consoled himself by commissioning countless sculptures of the Bithynian beauty (one can readily see Sabina’s prim little mouth screwing tighter as each new bust went up).
Sabina died ca. 136 or 137 CE of unknown causes, though it’s not a far stretch of the imagination to claim she died of a broken heart. Hadrian (of course) did not grieve as deeply as he had for Antinous, but he did the proper thing and petitioned the Senate for her deification. He also commissioned a statue that survives to this day, showing her being borne to heaven on the back of a winged, torch-bearing female deity, no doubt glad to be finally free of her unloving imperial spouse.
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