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HadrianA Hadrian for our time

by Corinna Lotz

As an unprecedented crisis rages in the financial and political heart of the world’s biggest military power, it may be salutary to revisit another, more long-lasting empire – that of ancient Rome.

Gore Vidal’s laconic remark that America was the only empire to go from barbarism to decadence without civilisation in between evokes at least a passing acquaintance with its Roman counterpart. But while America’s rise and decline as a global power has taken, so far, little more than a century, ancient Rome’s spanned more than half a millennium, and longer in Byzantium.

Warren CupGiven Rome’s place in the historical imagination, it’s not too surprising that the British Museum’s Hadrian is attracting big crowds. Magnificent artefacts have been shipped here from Rome’s most famous museums. Treasures from distant parts of the Empire give context and breadth to the museum’s own more familiar holdings, like the homoerotic Warren Cup.

We are offered a thoroughly modern Hadrian – not only the conqueror and military man who built the famous Wall in northern England, but also a globetrotter, aesthete and passionate gay lover. The display brings home in an unmissable way the stark contrasts and contradictory forces of power, terror and enlightenment that marked Hadrian’s 21-year rule between 117 and 138 AD.

The combination of sculpture and artefacts – some newly unearthed and many never seen before in Britain – models and photographs are displayed in the familiar but disguised space of a darkened reading room where the Chinese First Emperor’s Terracotta army soldiers stood not so long ago. The displays of the brutal exercise of power stand cheek by jowl with sublime works of beauty and imagination, displaying the creative and technical power of ancient Rome at its cultural zenith.

The in-house team of curators reinterpret for a 21st century audience the most admired of the Roman emperors. And their show thrills and chills as we encounter him and others who ruled over an empire that stretched from Hadrian’s wall, all around the Mediterranean, south into Egypt and as far east as today’s Iraq.

Hadrian was born in Rome in AD 76, but his wealthy senatorial family was in fact from southwest Spain, then known as Baetica. The importance of Spanish olive oil in supplying up to 80% of Rome’s needs is shown by giant amphorae, clay bottles, which could hold some 70 kilos of oil. The oil produced in Baetica occupied a central role and was grown and shipped in vast quantities around the empire, supplying the army, nourishing its citizens and was essential for lighting, personal hygiene and perfumes.

In the Second century AD, emperors began to come from a new elite whose power base was far from Rome itself. Hadrian was adopted by his predecessor, Trajan, who himself had been adopted and was from Hispania Baetica. Supreme political power was being passed from ruler to ruler in a way that allowed new blood to be head-hunted and groomed for leadership, rather than relying on an in-bred dynastic succession.

The way in which Hadrian was depicted in full-length sculptures and countless images on coins, demonstrates how, as the 18th century historian Edward Gibbon put it: “The terror of the Roman arms added weight and dignity to the moderation of the emperors. They preserved peace by a constant preparation for war”.

A century earlier, Julius Caesar’s military prowess had carried Rome’s influence to the far flung parts of Europe and the Mediterranean as he famously came, saw and conquered. By the time Hadrian came to power, Rome faced a disastrous military situation. Extraordinarily, the flashpoints were in areas still marked by conflict in our time – the Caucasus, the Balkans and Palestine – as well as Britain. It seems there were two wars in Britain early in Hadrian’s rule, and that he personally inspected the building and fortifying of his famous wall.

door keysFaced with trouble on many fronts, Hadrian chose to withdraw from Mesopotamia, today’s Iraq. But in AD 132 the Jewish population of Judea rose up against Roman rule under the leadership of Simon Bar Kokhba, overwhelming the Roman legions. Hadrian reacted with extraordinary violence and brutality. Jewish customs were outlawed and Judea was renamed Syria-Palestine to punish the defeated rebels, while the population was expelled. Roman historians say that 585,000 insurgents were killed in battles or engagements. Door keys discovered in a cave on the edge of the Dead Sea belonging to those who had fled their homes bear witness to the horrors of the Roman conquest.

Of this repression, historian Tom Holland remarks that: “We know that the general entrusted by Hadrian with the ultimate suppression of the Jewish revolt throughout 135–6 was one Sextus Julius Severus, a former governor of Britain. The same man who was to show himself so proficient in the arts of counter-insurgency and extermination in Judaea would also have been intimately involved in the construction of the Wall. This, in Hadrian’s Empire, was what globalisation could mean.” Again comparisons with today come to mind – not least the Israeli occupation of Palestine and the bulldozing of Palestinian villages and olive groves to erase all traces of who lived there.

As you walk through this exhibition the contradictions of the empire under Hadrian become apparent. Whilst the mailed fist struck down opposition in Judea, and society continued to rest on slavery, great technical and cultural achievements were being made. Huge monuments transformed the city of Rome – the Pantheon was rebuilt, the baths of Agrippa, temple complexes and Hadrian’s own villa, 28 kilometres outside the capital.

PantheonConstruction began on Hadrian’s tomb, today’s Castel Sant Angelo. In Athens, northern Africa and Britain municipal buildings and monuments made him famous not only as a general but as a generous ruler and, eventually, as a bereaved lover. Hadrian’s architecture, especially the Pantheon, was to inspire some of the most magnificent round interiors in the world, including St Peter’s in Rome and the original British Library reading room itself.

Rome’s expertise at planning vast projects, marshalling and transporting resources of all kinds – raw materials, an entire range of technical skills and even artistic inspiration itself – is dazzlingly revealed in this exhibition. Unlike the generally robotic mass production which characterises some ancient art, including that of the Chinese First Emperor’s rule and sometimes in Rome too, there is an extraordinary sense of innovation and unregimented freedom in Hadrian’s architectural projects. Some of the craft workers employed proudly signed themselves as “libertus” – freed men. 

These craftsmen, sculptors and artists, many of whom who came from Greece and Asia Minor (two individuals signatures have survived) convey a sense of a golden age – and a yearning for an Arcadian world. A group of ornate marble pillars are so sensitively carved that the plants and animals seem alive. On one slim column alone, a snake confronts a lizard as their tails are entwined, insects hover, a bird feeds its young, a squirrel creeps up from the ground, as leaves and tendrils flow through every available space.

AntinousBut no amount of power and wealth, it seems, could save Hadrian from the loss of his beautiful Antinous, a Greek who came from Bythinion-Claudiopolis in today’s Turkey. Little is know about his life, but his death in AD 130 in the river Nile led Hadrian to found a city named after him, called Antinoopolis. In his memory, large numbers of images were made. One of them is given pride of place in the British Museum courtyard. A personality cult arose, which conveniently fused traditional Egyptian mythology – the worship of the god Osiris – with the Emperor’s drowned lover. Only eight years ago, a previously unknown sanctuary, or perhaps tomb, for Antinous was unearthed at Tivoli.

Within Hadrian’s persona, ruthless power and vulnerable humanity are revealed at their sharpest. The story is not over yet, as extraordinary finds continue to be made. There is indeed still an enigma about the man who was so aware of his own mortality that he could write about himself: (read the Latin original for its music, even if you don’t understand it)

Animula vagula blandula,
hospes comesque corporis,
quo nunc abibis? In loca
pallidula rigida nubila –
nec ut soles dabis locos.

Little soul, little wanderer, little charmer
body’s guest and companion,
to what places will you set out for now?
To darkling, cold and gloomy ones –
And you won’t make your usual jokes.

This show is strong on artistic and psychological aspects, but weak on the big-picture social and historical perspective. The lavishly illustrated book by curator Thorsten Opper fills in many gaps and provides a wonderful account of Hadrian’s architecture, but a small summary would have come in handy.

Hadrian: Empire and Conflict is at the British Museum until October 26

Hadrian: Empire and Conflict by Thorsten Opper £25 The British Museum Press

Picture credits (top to bottom)

  1. Bronze Torso and head of Hadrian from Beth Shean Tel Shalem, date approx after Jewish Revolt (135AD). On loan from The Israel Museum, Jerusalem © The Israel Museum, Jerusalem
  2. Warren Cup
  3. House keys from the Cave of Letters on the Dead Sea
  4. Interior of Pantheon
  5. Mondragone colossal head of Antinous from a Roman villa near Frascati, 130-138AD On loan from the Musée du Louvre, Paris © Musée du Louvre

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