For Another Time and Place: Hadrian's Serapeum and Architectural Recycling

Amanda Reeves |
The Canopus with its Serapeum at Hadrian’s Villa (by NMK Photography).
The Canopus with its Serapeum at Hadrian’s Villa (by NMK Photography).

If you go to just about any western city, major or minor, you will find yourself surrounded by classical architecture and motifs. I remember going to Washington D.C. on a family vacation as a child and identifying the different capital types on the columns of government buildings, gleefully shouting whenever I found my favorite Corinthian style. Closer to home, the more austere, Ionic columns decorated even my local courthouse in South Dakota. Classical architecture has held the primary position in the aesthetic of the western world for generations and its influence is evident whether you’re in a capital city or a small-town main street. Yet this proclivity is not unique to the modern world. As odd as it may seem to those of us distant enough from antiquity as to be able blur everything from 8th century Greece to 3rd century Rome into a single, temporal category, the ancients also modeled their architecture after styles still more archaic than them. A particular striking example of this aesthetic, both in terms of its beauty and its prominence, is the Serapeum at Hadrian’s Villa.

Like many other deities in Roman religion, Serapis and the serapea in which he was honored were imported from the eastern Mediterranean. Introduced in the 3rd century BC in Ptolemaic Egypt, worship of the god quickly spread throughout the Mediterranean. His near ubiquitous adoption throughout Egypt, Greece, and the later Roman empire perhaps can be attributed in large part to his universality across cultures. Greek in appearance but Egyptian in practice, Serapis appealed to the vast majority of the powers that existed in the 3rd century mediterranean. In later cultures, however, like in imperial Rome, the appeal of Serapis shifted. Serapis was no longer an appealing figure because of his familiarity. Rather, the worship of Serapis was an opportunity to connect oneself with not just one but two of the major cultures in antiquity. This shift in attraction shapes our interpretation of related sites, and foreshadows a similar dynamic that would hold through into modernity.

One of the key figures in bringing about a renewed, cosmopolitan interest in the world outside of Rome was the Emperor Hadrian. Hadrian was known even in antiquity for his extensive travels and homages to the Greek and Egyptian world. His villa in Tivoli, just east of Rome, is perhaps most representative of this interest. Many of the buildings in Hadrian’s villa were built in the style of various well-known places scattered throughout the Greek and Egyptian world, including a Serapeum-styled dining room of particular relevance to this discussion. This dynamic is described in portion of the Historia Augusta dedicated to Hadrian:

“Tiburtinam Villam mire exaedificavit, ita ut in ea et provinciarum et locorum celeberrima nomina inscriberet, velut Lyceum, Academian, Prytaneum, Canopum, Poicilen, Tempe vocaret. Et, ut nihil praetermitteret, etiam inferos finxit.” Historia Augustua: Hadrianus XXVI

“He marvelously constructed the Tiburtinian Villa, such that in it he was recording the most celebrated names of provinces and places, calling them for example the Lyceum, Academy, Prytaneum, Canopeum, Poicilium, and Tempe. And, so that he omitted nothing, he even made a hell.”

Walking around the Villa Adriana in Tivoli and seeing the remains of the structures mentioned in this text brings the extensive cultural interests of Hadrian into a clearer view, with no site playing a more central role in these observations than the Canopus and Serapeum. As you walk along the pool imitating a branch of the Nile, decorated with crocodiles and little gnome-like creatures identified as the Egyptian god Bes, you almost feel as if you have been cast into ancient Egypt. The Serapeum at the end of the pool, used as a triclinium area and identified from cult statues of Serapis located on site, adds validity to the effect. However, the Corinthian columns and Greek caryatids also surrounding the pool remind you that you are in merely the Epcot Center caricature of Egypt, a reference to another time and place rather than a recreation. Contrary to the popular theory that Hadrian was trying to recreate places and relieve the experiences of his travels by incorporating in Greek and Egypt influences, I suggest that his use in the Serapeum of Egyptian and Greek motifs was far more outwardly focused. He was not reminding himself of his travels and cosmopolitan knowledge; he was reminding everybody else.

vEvery single visitor to Hadrian’s Villa in antiquity would have been reminded of the emperor’s travels and the cosmopolitan wisdom that he brought to the empire. The spaces that intentionally drew connections between Hadrian and yet more ancient philosophers and cultures lent a certain prestige to the emperor and reminded his visitors of the tradition their scholarly, cosmopolitan emperor into which their emperor was joining. Seeing the richness of the Nile valley juxtaposed with the erudition of ancient Greece in spaces like the Serapeum primed the viewer to associate the same values with the emperor and the empire he governed. Such a dynamic is resonant with our own use of classical architecture to this day.

It is no wonder that the architecture that most resembles the structures of ancient Greece and Rome graces some of the most prestigious buildings in the world today. Whether it’s banks, courts, monuments, or government buildings, there remains a certain fascination with connecting oneself with predecessors through imitative architecture. Like in antiquity, this connection does more than just associate similar design aesthetics. The reuse of particular styles and motifs causes an association of values and priorities between disparate times and cultures, allowing one to draw upon the prestige of an earlier time through something as simple as the facade of a building. This dynamic, so favored by the emperor Hadrian in his design of his personal villa in Tivoli, survives to this day, enriching our experience both of modernity and antiquity as we appreciate the continuity between past and present.


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Amanda Reeves

Amanda graduated from Stanford University with a B.A. in Greek and Latin. Her primary research interests include Greek philosophy, ancient language acquisition, and museum ethics, but really she is happy talking about any aspect of the ancient world over.


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