American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Mountaineering History

  • Notes
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1955


The Mountaineering of Emperor Hadrian. The Greeks believed that Mt. Etna was either the mountain with which Zeus crushed the giant Typhon, or the workshop of Hephaestus and the Cyclops. The later Romans had begun to explain it through natural causes. Seneca recommended the ascent, and the Torre del Filosofo, a ruin near the present observatory, is a Roman structure dating from his time (ca. 50 A. D.).

When Hadrian was returning from Greece in the late summer of 126 A. D., he broke the voyage at Sicily. He was then 50 years old, and Mt. Etna (10,870 ft), the highest volcano of Europe, rose before his eyes. It is more than possible that he knew of the mountain from reading Empedocles, whose reputed disappearance in the crater was legendary. Certainly he was aware of the writings of Seneca, like himself of Spanish origin. In any case, others who had preceded him to the summit spoke of the curious dawn on the Ionian sea, “a medley of many colors, like the rainbow,” and Hadrian decided to see for himself. Neither science nor conquest was in his mind; he went up for no other reason than to view the sunrise. He may have ridden a mule, but probably went at least part way on foot. We have no details; nothing but the brief passage from the historian Spartianus (Vita 13, 3): “Post, in Sicilian navigavit, in qua Aetnam montem conscen- dit, ut ortum videret arcus specie, ut dicitur, varium. Inde Romam venit.”

The event seems to have confirmed Hadrian in his love of mountain climbing. Three years later in Syria (Vita 14, 3), he ascended from sea-level Mt. Casius (Jebel el Akra, 5318 ft.), thought to be the seat of Zeus. This may have been a first ascent, for local people never went beyond the temple at its base. Once more the emperor hoped to watch a sunrise, but was overtaken instead by a thunderstorm, lightning striking both the animal which the emperor was offering in sacrifice and the acolyte who was making it ready.

This is the last record of mountaineering until the early middle ages, when Peter III of Aragon (1236-85) climbed Pic Cani- gou (9135 ft.) in the Pyrenees. Curiously enough, he goes down in

history as the liberator of Sicily.

J. Monroe Thorington

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