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Sabina (88–136 CE)

Sabina (88–136 ce)

Roman empress who was the wife of Hadrian. Name variations: Vibia Sabina. Born in 88 ce; daughter of Matidia I (d. 119 ce) and L. Vibius Sabinus; married Hadrian, Roman emperor (r. 117–138 ce).

Sabina was born in 88 ce, the daughter of L. Vibius Sabinus and Matidia I , the maternal granddaughter of G. Salonius Matidius Patruinus and Ulpia Marciana , and the grandniece of Ulpia's brother M. Ulpius Traianus (Trajan). When Sabina was ten years old, Trajan became emperor of Rome. Thus, she was in a powerful position when she came to be of marriageable age. Sabina had a younger sister, Matidia II , named after their mother as Sabina bore the feminine version of their father's name. Although Sabina's family was both Roman and aristocratic, it also had provincial ties, for long before her birth it had been among the first to settle in Italica, a Roman colony in Spain.

Sabina's importance was connected with the successful career of her granduncle Trajan, whose brilliant military service caused Emperor Domitian to elevate him to the uppermost echelon of the Roman political elite before that unpopular emperor was assassinated in late 96. Although he was somewhat sullied by his close association with Diocletian, Trajan's competency and extensive connections led Domitian's childless successor, Nerva, to adopt him in 97. As a result, when Nerva died a few months later (98), the empire fell into Trajan's lap. Thus unexpectedly elevated to supreme authority, Trajan had a need to consolidate his rule, and a common way to do so in ancient Rome was to judiciously exploit political marriage.

Trajan and his wife Plotina , however, were childless. As a result, soon after their young grandniece Sabina reached puberty, she was married (in 100) to P. Aelius Hadrianus (Hadrian, b. 76 ce), a distant relative: Hadrian's great-grandfather was the grandfather of Trajan and Ulpia Marciana. Whatever else this marriage did, it purposely rejected a close connection between the family of Trajan (and Hadrian) and any other within the Senatorial nobility. As such, Trajan both avoided angering all of the other Senatorial families who might interpret Sabina's marriage as a snub and avoided entangling alliances with another clan which surely would have thought itself at least the social equal of Trajan's family.

Despite the political rationale behind this union and Plotina's enthusiasm for the match, Trajan is said to have had reservations about Hadrian as Sabina's husband, although the nature of these reservations is nowhere explained. Trajan's hesitancy over Sabina's marriage is all the more puzzling because, even before his elevation to imperial status, Hadrian had been established as Trajan's military and political protégé. Perhaps it was not the match itself, but the youth of Sabina at the time of its consummation which concerned Trajan. Another possible source of Trajan's concern might have been his knowledge of Hadrian's sexual orientation. One thing seems certain: although the union would not be happy, it is hardly likely that Trajan could have predicted Sabina's and Hadrian's personality clash, since Sabina was little more than a child when she wed. Hadrian also seems to have been cool to the match, but accepted it as necessary for his continued advancement. Regardless of the reservations involved, when this marriage was celebrated a new age was dawning, and Sabina became an important link between the two men who would determine the shape which that future would take.

As the reign of Trajan unfolded productively, it became apparent that the woman in Hadrian's life was not to be Sabina, but Plotina, who was so enthusiastic a promoter of Hadrian's interests that some suspected her of being in love with him. If so, however, hers was more the affection of a mother than that of a lover. Being without a son of her own, Plotina lavished her maternal affections upon the next best thing. Nevertheless, she pampered Hadrian in a way as to intrude into the relationship between Hadrian and Sabina. This alone did not undermine their marriage, for at least two other factors stunted the development of much emotional and physical intimacy between Hadrian and Sabina. First, to whatever degree Hadrian might have been susceptible to feminine beauty (at least one source claims that he occasionally seduced the wives of important associates), he clearly harbored primarily homosexual inclinations. The most obvious evidence

for this involved Hadrian's favorite, Antinoos, a handsome youth whom Hadrian kept close by his side even when traveling. On one such expedition, to Egypt in 130, Antinoos met a mysterious death by drowning in the Nile. Hadrian's grief as a result of this loss was so excessive that he founded a city (Antinoopolis) at the site, named a star after him, and dedicated statues to his memory in religious sanctuaries throughout the empire. Contemporary tongues wagged about the emperor's devotion.

The second factor which precluded the development of intimacy between Sabina and Hadrian was Sabina herself. Undoubtedly pampered as a child, accustomed to being the center of much attention, and excited by the prospects of her politically significant marriage, she was, it is probable, quickly disillusioned by Hadrian's private aloofness, and her marginal (if publicly proper) role in his life. As a result, the sting—not of rejection, but of indifference—bred anger in Sabina, and then hatred. She was known to throw tantrums and to be ill-tempered in Hadrian's presence, and she even made it a source of some pride to have it known that the reason Hadrian remained childless was that she refused to have sex with him.

When Trajan died in 117 in Asia Minor (after having been engaged in a war of conquest for the complete control of Mesopotamia), Plotina delayed an announcement of the death until she had assured Hadrian's uncontested accession. This was necessary because, although Hadrian had emerged as the obvious successor of Trajan by that time, the emperor had never formally adopted him as his legal heir. Why Trajan had not done so before 117 is a matter of conjecture, as is whether he actually lived long enough to adopt Hadrian. Plotina, who was with her husband when a stroke (some thought poison might have been involved) laid him low, claimed that Trajan had adopted Hadrian on his deathbed. However, the fact that the publication of this adoption came in letters which she, not Trajan, wrote and sent to Rome has allowed many, then as well as now, to question what really happened after Trajan fell ill. Regardless, Hadrian replaced Trajan, and quickly consolidated his hold on the throne. Plotina helped him do so and stood staunchly at his side until she herself died around 122, after which Hadrian had her deified.

Thereafter, it would be only Sabina who graced the arm of Hadrian on appropriate public occasions, for although their mutual antipathy held, they remained married. Undoubtedly they did so because the Romans expected their emperors to be married. As well, Sabina was too well placed for Hadrian to abandon, and she provided cover for his homosexual affairs. (By and large, the Romans tended to disdain homosexuals.) Although she loathed Hadrian, Sabina enjoyed being the empress of Rome, with all of its perquisites.

Hadrian's was mostly a peaceful reign, and was characterized by his extensive travels throughout the empire. Sabina accompanied her husband on these state visits to the provinces (including that to Egypt when Antinoos died), so there is ample testimony to the continuation of her public status throughout the Roman world. She was styled as the "Augusta" (after 128) and widely recognized as the "new Hera" (after 129), and her portrait even graced many a contemporary coin. Thus did Hadrian broadcast his "respect" for his spouse. Those close to the palace, however, knew a different story: their private altercations and disdain continued until death did them part. Although Hadrian maintained his distance from Sabina as much as possible, he clearly kept a close eye on her affairs. In 122, while the imperial couple was visiting Britain, two of Sabina's associates—Septicius Clarus (a praetorian praefect) and Seutonius Tranquillus (a director of correspondence and the famous imperial biographer)—were dismissed from public service, supposedly because they were "too informal" in their relationship with Sabina, but really because they were her friends. In the wake of these dismissals, Hadrian announced that he would have divorced Sabina too, if she had been a "private citizen." Thus did he admit how important she was to his possession of the throne.

So did Sabina and Hadrian coexist until her death in 136. With their well-established antipathy widely if not universally known, it comes as no surprise that some blamed Sabina's death on Hadrian, either through poisoning or enforced suicide. Since the two had put up with one another for 36 years, however, there is no compelling reason to believe that Hadrian had a hand in Sabina's demise, although he surely took pleasure in her passing. Regardless, even in death Hadrian maintained an appropriate piety toward her memory by both proclaiming her a goddess and seeing to it that her ashes were placed in his mausoleum. Indeed, there is even a tinge of poetic justice in the fact that the fates of the two would be tied together for all of eternity, since both Hadrian and Sabina shared honorific inscriptions originally situated over the doorway of their common tomb.

William S. Greenwalt , Associate Professor of Classical History, Santa Clara University, Santa Clara, California

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