War and the Muses - Florus vs. Hadrian, A Poetic Duel
Hadrian (r. A.D. 117-138), one of Rome’s “Good Emperors” (despite executing a few senators and senior officers from time to time, including four former consuls), was noted for his peripatetic habits. During his reign he spent years traveling to the provinces, eventually visiting almost all of them, from chilly Britannia to sweltering Egypt.
A man of many talents, aside from ruling effectively, Hadrian was an able amateur poet and architect. A devout Hellenophile, he cultivated the arts, and was on friendly terms with many poets, scholars, and philosophers, even employing the historian and gossip monger Suetonius as his secretary.
The poet, rhetorician, and critic Annius Florus (c. A.D. 75-135) was one of Hadrian’s literary friends. Not much is known about Florus, not even his given name, Lucius and Publius both being found. He hailed from the Province of Africa (Tunisia), and as a young man had competed in a literary contest at Rome during the reign of Domitian (A.D. 81-96) before spending several years teaching in Spain and touring the Greek east. Florus returned to Rome probably during the reign of Trajan (A.D. 98-117), after which he eventually drifted into Hadrian’s circle.
Under circumstances now lost to history (perhaps a rather merry imperial drinking party?), Florus dedicated a humorous little poem to Hadrian, joking about the often difficult conditions under which the Emperor had to live while on his travels. More elegant in Latin than in English, it survives but for part of one line.
I wouldn’t want to be a Caesar,
To roam among the Britons,
To linger in the [bogs and forests?]. . . .
And endure the Scythian frosts.
Naturally, Hadrian replied, suggesting that he knew something of the poet’s habits when he was not hobnobbing with his emperor.
I wouldn’t want to be a Florus,
To roam among the pubs and dives, To linger among the greasy spoons And endure the fat roaches.
Not much of Florus’s work survives, just a handful of poems, though he is generally believed to have been the author of a very useful epitome of Livy’s History of Rome that has come down to us.