Summary of Sabina, wife of Hadrian

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The aged and ailing emperor Hadrian no longer wishes to see his wife, Sabina. On his Tibur estate he has erected a temple dedicated to the love of his life, Antinous, who died young. The empress realises her childless marriage is at its lowest ebb, and she decides to take her destiny into her own hands. When she is informed that the life of her protégé, Hadrian’s intended successor Fuscus, is in danger, she travels to Rome in disguise in order to warn him.

While on the road, Sabine looks back at her life: the many journeys through the Empire, the encounter with the new religion known as Christianity, the political machinations, her love life, and, finally, the discovery of what really happened during that fateful journey along the Nile.

Sabina was the main element of stability in the life of the restless emperor Hadrian. Nynke Smits allows us to look at the splendour and the squalor of the Pax Romana through Sabina’s eyes._)


Sabina, wife of Hadrian, a remarkable love story

A summary

Sabina, wife of the Roman emperor Hadrian, has spent a lonely winter on her Tibur estate. Her ailing husband has withdrawn to his ‘island’ and wishes to see her no longer, nor anybody else, with the exception of his physician and Turbo, prefect of the guard. When spring arrives Sabina refuses to endure this passive abandonment any longer. Rather than staying in the empty halls she confiscates a small farmhouse in the corners of the imperial estate to start a simple living with her twin-slaves Alexander and Philomena and her cook Galina. Germana, Hadrian’s 90- year old nurse, comes to join her. We meet Hadrian for the first time when he, an old man leaning on his staff, pays a disgruntled visit to his wife on her little farm, meaning to summon her back to the palace. What issues is a fierce quarrel in which Sabina learns that Turbo has been discharged from duty and that Fuscus, beloved by the childless Sabina like a son and designated heir to the throne, has fallen from grace. The emperor strikes once more: he takes old Lupus from her, says he will put the ailing dog to sleep.

Further news on Fuscus comes through her slave Alexander, lover of Varius, the new prefect of the guard: Varius has been sent to Rome to find Fuscus. Will Fuscus be killed or sent into exile? Sabina decides to find out and – with help from her twins – sets out for Rome, incognito.

The trip is hazardous. Once safely inside the citywalls new dangers are lurking. Sabina stumbles into a teenage girl in labor. The empress ends up in the Suburra, the slums of Rome, where the girl lives. Sabina summons her physician Eudaimon to assist with the delivery and sends Alexander to her sister Mindia for help in finding Fuscus. goes not unnoticed. The imperial guard gets wind of Alexander’s visit to Mindia and pursues him all the way to Sabina’s hidingplace. The empress manages to escape from their hands albeit to the expense of Alexander, as we shall learn. On the streets Sabina is joined by her sister Mindia and with secret help of a former connection / contact the women make their way to Eudaimon’s residence. Eudaimon and Mindia have clues as to where Fuscus may be hiding: with a christian friend. The next day Sabina, again incognito, reports at the christian woman’s house. She finds her beloved Fuscus, on a bier. Grieving at the bedside of his grandson is Servianus, Hadrian’s 90 year old brother-in-law and lifelong rival. Sabina and Servianus join in mourning. Fuscus had been brought in during the night, brutally murdered. Sabina accuses Hadrian. Servianus doubts Hadrian is responsible. He discloses to Sabina how of recently Fuscus had been plotting against the emperor. Had been involved in rivalrous bouts with Lucius Ceionius Commodus, an old acquaintance of the imperial family. Sabina turns herself in to Varius at the palace on the Palatine. The next day she returns home to Tibur, with Mindia. Alexander, heavily wounded stays in the palace attended by his sister Philomena. Sabina has caught a severe cold. When they arrive at the Tiburtian villa’s gate, Mindia is struck by the new temple for Antinous, Hadrians late lover. It spurs her on to ask Sabina about her trip to Egypt.

Throughout Sabina’s Roman escapade we are, by means of flasbacks, taken back to the past: how Sabina grew up as a daddy’s girl and bookworm, in Rome and how she first met Hadrian on her father’s estate in Tibur and fell in love with him, for all time. The engagement dinner, his elusive behaviour towards her, the horrors of her weddingnight. Their splendid trip to Athens as a young couple, when Sabina meets her life-longfriend (if not lover) Julia, when they find the babytwins Alexander and Philomena. The imperial couple, accompanied by a young Fuscus, travel(s?) to Brittany where Sabina finds a puppy, Lupus, and  where they sojourn in the quarters of  Vindolanda. Here Hadrian kicks off the building of the later famous wall and here he sends his secretary Suetonius and his prefect of the guard Septicius off, accusing them of being too familiar with the empress.

Finally we arrive at the notorious episode where the imperial family travels to Egypt, accompanied by Antinous and Julia and by Fuscus and Lucius Ceionius Commodus, both eager and rivalrous young men by now. A  journey filled with the wonders of Egypt, is abruptly spoilt for all: Antinous drowns in the river Nile, with Fuscus, Alexander and possibly Julia as witnesses. Sabina comforts her griefstricken husband by convincing him of Antinous’ selfsacrifice. The young man has, according to Egyptian belief, jumped into the Nile as an offer to Osiris, in return for a prolonged life for his beloved.

It is only after Sabina’s trip to Rome some 6 years later that she, by the hands of the twins, receives a letter from the long deceased Julia, in which the exact ins and outs of Antinous’  death are disclosed to her. Fuscus, again, is guilty. Sabina pays a visit to her husband, who by now receives her kindly. They have a long night of talking. He already knows the truth about Antinous’ death. His source, that past winter, has been Lucius Ceionius Commodus, who apparently had witnessed the incident. The sickly Lucius will be the successor. Hadrian is not responsible for Fuscus’ death. Misunderstandings between the couple are finally cleared out of the way. They part in a mood of reconciliation.

Some time later Sabina learns through her christian friends in Rome that Lucius has been the murderer of Fuscus. Since Lucius is very ill, she keeps the information from Hadrian. Sabina’s last public appearance is on the day of Lucius’adoption by Hadrian, when they sit at the charriotgames in the Circus Maximus. A few days later Lucius dies. Sabina,  never recovered from the cold she caught during her Roman trip, passes away, shortly afterwards.