Emperor Hadrian Strutting on the stage
July 17th 2008
From The Economist print edition
That sinister crease“Hadrian: Empire and Conflict” will be at the British Museum from July 24th until October 26th
A MASSIVE stone head of the Emperor Hadrian is the first exhibit a visitor sees in the British Museum’s exploration of “the life, love and legacy of Rome’s most enigmatic Emperor”. He is bearded with carefully coiffed curly hair, and that unmistakable deep diagonal crease in the earlobes which helps identify authentic ancient portraits of Hadrian. The head was discovered only last August in Sagalassos in south-west Turkey, and it has never been seen in public before. The decision to allow it to leave the storehouse in the local museum was taken at cabinet level in Ankara after detailed negotiations between Neil MacGregor, the British Museum’s director, and Turkey’s ambassador to London. It is a brilliant coup de théâtre.
This exhibition is not linked to an anniversary. The closest it gets to a relevant contemporary reference is to emphasise that one of Hadrian’s first acts on becoming Emperor in 117AD was to withdraw Rome’s army from Mesopotamia (modern Iraq). Mr MacGregor says the exhibition is one of a series exploring great rulers who shaped our world.
Hadrian was a complex, contradictory figure, ruling for 21 years. He was a dictator, sometimes regarded as a “prince of peace” by Europeans. Israelis point to him as the perpetrator of the first Holocaust. “He was not necessarily a likeable man, but his achievements were awesome,” says Thorsten Opper, the museum’s specialist in classical sculpture and the show’s curator.
The emperor was acutely conscious of his image. He had more statues of himself scattered throughout his empire than any fellow-emperor, save Augustus. A selection of the best is on show in the British Museum, lent by 31 institutions in 11 countries. Some of the fine bronze busts show him for what he was—a grizzled old soldier—but in full-sized marble statues he becomes a role-player. Dressed in a toga, he is a Greek orator; in full Roman army uniform, with his foot on the neck of a humbled barbarian, he is the protector of his people; standing naked and slim-hipped, he is a god, like Mars.
Hadrian belonged to an upwardly mobile Spanish landowning elite that had grown rich selling olive oil. In Rome he was a provincial, and fun was made of his rustic accent. He shrewdly understood the limits of power, was ruthless in the exercise of it and cynical enough to disarm critics early in his regime by giving citizens a tax holiday. But when the second Jewish revolt began in 132AD he suppressed it with a fury that Mr Opper describes as “a slow extermination campaign”. Judea was expunged from the maps, and renamed Syria-Palestina. Quite why he ordered his great wall to be built on England’s border with Scotland is uncertain, but Mr Opper’s gut feeling is that it was to divide and rule the revolting northern tribes.
He had a fine eye for monumental architecture. He commissioned the Parthenon, and a model of it is displayed directly under Sydney Smirke’s glorious dome above the British Museum’s Reading Room (which is two feet or 0.6 metres smaller in diameter than the Roman masterpiece). His own mausoleum was by the banks of the Tiber, the Castel Sant’ Angelo.
His lover was Antinous, a handsome young Greek who appealed to the emperor’s Hellenophilia. Mr Opper’s catalogue tells us that what caused comment among his contemporaries was not that Hadrian was gay, but that he insisted that Antinous be given the status of a god after his death in the Nile in 130AD. One of many statues of Antinous—here as the Egyptian god Osiris—stands proudly outside the entrance to the exhibition. Hadrian himself died at 62, perhaps of coronary heart disease (a condition sometimes indicated by a crease in the earlobe). He had not created the role of emperor, but no one played it better.
And from 2005:
A remarkable tribute to the Pantheon in Sunday's New York Times transported me to Rome and reminded me, as I watched the stabbing of Julius Caesar on HBO's finale of Rome, how much I admire the true creator of the Pantheon, the Emperor Hadrian. Once again, as I did with Darryl last summer, I stood in the center of that sacred space, gazing at the shaft of sunlight entering the eye of the dome and piercing the interior to light the stone walls of the temple. An interior touched by the sun's shaft, interior and exterior, man-made space atune to nature, sacred to all the gods, a temple to Pantheism, this holy proportion is the sole remaining complete temple of ancient Rome. Yet it was fashioned by a man who was as Greek in mind as he was Roman, a man of the Hellenistic spirit, bearded Hadrian, lover of Antinous.
Dome of the Pantheon
photo by Jack