The Guardian on Hadrian, on the occasion of the British Museum exhibition

The history of art and power has been haunted by tyrants stretching from Nero to Hitler. But was the most artistic of all Roman rulers that impossible thing, a despot with a heart? Jonathan Jones on Hadrian

Saturday June 14, 2008
The Guardian

It was raining in Londinium. The river’s brown smear struck Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus as a sick, savage parody of the Tiber, so far away, so longed for. This province was a rotten place to find yourself suddenly unemployed. But some would say losing your government job was a small penalty for sleeping with the emperor’s wife.Suetonius had only to read his own works to know how lucky he was – for this was the same Suetonius who would win everlasting fame for his book The Twelve Caesars, a voyeuristic history of Rome’s murderous rulers. Even today, in a modern world that has produced its fair share of despots, the Roman emperors Tiberius, Caligula and Nero endure as icons of tyranny – largely because of the explicit way in which Suetonius chronicled their crimes. A modern historian might, say, delve into the childhood of Adolf Hitler to understand the roots of tyranny. Suetonius says straight out that Nero had sex with his mother and later killed her.
When his pregnant wife Poppaea complained about his late nights, he kicked her to death. But the strangest, somehow saddest, details Suetonius gives of Nero’s madness and vanity concern his self-indulgent need to be an “artist”.

There’s a pathetic quality, as Suetonius tells it, to this young man’s childish attempts to impose his creative efforts on an empire that stretched from the deserts of the Middle East to the mountains of Wales. He believed he had an excellent voice and would sing his own poems to helpless audiences who clapped in terror. Like all Romans, he accepted the true home of the arts – the true source of everything classical – was Greece, whose sculpture, painting, architecture, literature and philosophy the Romans did their best to replicate. So he travelled to Greece and competed in Greek creative contests – winning, of course. He returned to Rome in triumph and razed part of the city walls in a traditional Greek honour for a laureate. Later, he was to burn down the entire city – Suetonius claims – to make space for his grossly indulgent palace, the Golden House.

The image of the artist-tyrant created by Suetonius is echoed in 20th-century tyrants. There is a photograph of Hitler in his last days in the bunker, giving all his attention to an architectural model of
the new cultural capital he planned to build in Linz in Austria. It was his failure to win a place at Vienna’s Academy of Fine Arts as a young man that had precipitated his descent into homelessness and eventual
self-discovery as a racist rabble-rouser, and now, while the Russian army took Berlin, the Führer dreamed of the great art museum he would never build. His pretensions as an artist and architect were as central
as Nero’s to the very nature of his tyranny: he sent troops to help Franco in the Spanish civil war after being inspired by a performance of Wagner’s Siegfried, and anyone who has seen Leni Riefenstahl’s film Triumph Of The Will has to acknowledge the foul creative brilliance of the mass spectacles Hitler orchestrated. His opposite number, Stalin, wrote poetry as a young man, and Mussolini was influenced by Italy’s avant-garde futurist movement. The monster ruler is archetypally a would-be artist, with the self-deceit and unbridled egotism that implies.

Suetonius worked for, and was sacked by, the most genuinely artistic of all Roman rulers. If Nero wanted to be creative, Hadrian, who ruled in the second century AD, really was. Once Hadrian criticised a design by the architect Apollodorus, who replied that the emperor should stick to drawing his “pumpkins”. It’s touchingly human, this image of the emperor sketching still-life scenes like the ones that survive, preserved by volcanic ash, from ancient Pompeii. It portrays Hadrian as a sincere soul, not some freak who made everyone listen to his singing. Through the architecture he commissioned and helped design, the sculpture he collected and the way he was able to shape an empire’s art to express his own emotional life, Hadrian left a unique visual legacy. But was he really the exception to the Nero paradigm that has haunted the history of art and power? Was he that impossible thing, a despot with a heart – or just a monster with a veneer of good taste?

That’s what Suetonius wondered, as he stood with nothing to do, watching some poor loser’s headless torso being dragged out of London’s gladiatorial arena. The story about the architect has a nasty end. Hadrian didn’t bother thinking up a witty comeback to that crack about the pumpkins. He simply had the joker

He has gone down in history as one of ancient Rome’s less terrifying emperors. He is remembered – Apollodorus’s death aside – not for vicious murders and grotesque indulgences, but for building Hadrian’s Wall to define the northern limit of Roman Britain. Anyone who has visited Housesteads Fort, one of the wall’s surviving Roman bases, on a misty, rainy day, and seen the stone urinals where legionaries relieved themselves before they went back to man the artillery trained on the fearsome Scots, must have wondered, who was this emperor who defined part of the British landscape and left an indelible mark on our maps? Hadrian is just a name to us – a name and a wall. He looks remote, even as I stand by his outsized marble head in Rome’s Vatican Museum. The face that once loomed high above Roman citizens is inscrutable. What made him tick?

Suetonius must have wondered that, after he was cut loose in Britain. Hadrian’s wife wasn’t the key to his emotional life, that was for sure. Suetonius would surely have paid a higher price for his scandalous friendship with Sabina if Hadrian had actually loved or desired her. But he had room in his life for only one great love: a young man called Antinous. After Antinous drowned, the emperor mourned him on a lavish public scale and even tried to create a religious cult of him. He ensured his lover’s face would never be forgotten by ordering statues of gods and heroes throughout the empire to bear the harmonious features of the dead Antinous.

In what is surely the only occult shrine to homosexual love in Vatican City, black Egyptian statues of priests in headdresses, carved just a little less than lifesize, solemnly walk in procession, participating in a magical rite. Above them tower statues of the god Osiris – with the face of Antinous. What they are doing, in this
bizarre stone tableau created for the gardens of Hadrian’s vast villa at Tivoli, is trying to bring about the rebirth of Antinous-Osiris: to resurrect Hadrian’s lover using Egyptian magic.

In ancient Egyptian mythology, Osiris is the god who dies, the god of the afterlife: a resurrection figure rooted in agricultural fertility rites. He was a powerful ruler, torn to pieces by his enemy, Seth: his mourning lover gathered up his dismembered corpse, bound the pieces in a mummy-shaped package, and Osiris became god of the afterlife. And Hadrian, in the private religious complex whose statues now stand
silently in a sun-filled room in the Vatican, appropriates this mythology into his own cult of Antinous.

It gets stranger. Antinous drowned in Egypt, which makes sense of Hadrian’s attempt to turn his lover into an Egyptian god. Egypt, of all ancient lands known to the Romans, was the place where people thought most deeply about the possibility of life after death. The entire culture of ancient Egypt was saturated in ideas about death and eternal life – from the pyramids of Giza to the gold death mask of Tutankhamun. Ancient Rome resembled the modern western world in the way it consumed other cultures as commodities: the Romans sampled a bit of Egyptian myth, a bit of Persian myth, just as people today feel free to experiment with various beliefs.

But it’s not as simple as that. Antinous’s death may not have been an accident. Some ancient accounts say it was a macabre and enigmatic sacrifice: that he drowned himself, or was drowned by others, to save Hadrian from an illness. This would mean Hadrian’s Egyptian shrine is not so much a romantic act of love as part of a morbid sacrificial cult that began with the deliberate drowning of Antinous himself. As Asterix might say, “These Romans are crazy!”

Suetonius stared at the rain exploding on the lumpen waters of the Thames, waters sacred to the Celts, who threw in their best swords and shields as gifts for their gods. Hadrian, he had to acknowledge, was not Nero. All those monsters of the early principate seemed to have no regard for anything but themselves and no sense of an afterlife. Nero had cried out, Suetonius tells us, “What an artist I die!” It was just about his
ego. Bad art has no emotional truth. Yet in all Hadrian’s creative projects there is emotional depth. This despot is human. He is worried about the things that worry everyone.

A gigantic stone drum of a building masses on the shore of the Tiber, looking across a bridge graced by stone angels so exquisite, they seem weightless. The angels of the Ponte Sant’Angelo were created by the 17th-century sculptor Gianlorenzo Bernini – but the bridge itself is Roman, built on Hadrian’s orders to connect the city with his vast circular mausoleum, Castel Sant’Angelo. In the Renaissance it was converted into a fortress; inside is a 16th-century lift used by the Pope when he needed to hide here. But at its core is Hadrian’s mausoleum, a gargantuan mountain of stone approaching in scale and ambition the Egyptian
pyramids themselves, and on whose rugged grandeur the 18th-century artist Piranesi homed in when he depicted the eerie ruin. Inside, a model shows it as it was in the second century, covered with cypresses
and surrounded by statues. Following the curving tunnel designed for the imperial funeral, you find a tall burial chamber deep within the tomb. Hadrian’s own poem about the fate of the soul is inscribed there:
“Little soul, charming wanderer, guest and friend of the body, you will soon depart for gloomy, chilly, misty regions, where your jokes will be at an end.”

From the scale of his tomb and the sweet melancholy of his most famous poem, it seems Hadrian was as troubled by his own mortality as haunted by Antinous’s. And this impression of a serious “little soul” is confirmed by the building that is his greatest gift to the human imagination.

Why should we be interested in this Roman emperor who lived and died so long ago? Because he built the Pantheon, one of the most mysterious, moving, disconcerting architectural structures in the world.

You come across it in the tangle of medieval streets in Rome’s Centro Storico. The alleys widen into a cosy
piazza where people sit at cafe tables and congregate by a fountain around which curl bronze monsters. Towering above is a great stone cylinder – like that of Hadrian’s mausoleum – with a tall columned portico and vast, ancient bronze doors. But nothing prepares you for what is inside.

The ancient Romans believed they were culturally inferior to the Greeks whose culture had reached its zenith at Athens in the fifth century BC. Hadrian travelled to Greece and adored everything Greek. Antinous was Greek, and their “Greek love” a deliberate imitation of the homosexual passions central to Greek art.
In Rome’s Capitoline Museum, statues of Antinous as a Greek god stand near a nude colossus of Hadrian, in a Greek helmet, personifying the war god Ares and modelled on a Greek original. There are black marble
centaurs signed by Greek artists, made for Hadrian, and a red marble faun – masterpieces that were the conduit through which classical Greek art reached later ages. The British Museum owns a version of the Greek discus thrower statue, which once belonged to Hadrian. Even the martial nude of him was emulated, by Canova’s nude colossus of Napoleon. Yet to enter the Pantheon is to encounter an aesthetic power that has nothing to do with ancient Greece. It is purely Roman, and broodingly primitive.

Through its high bronze doors, you enter a marble-inlaid, circular room beneath the most incredible, atmospheric dome in existence. It is a hemisphere into which are set tapering stepped recesses whose regular pattern creates baffling optical illusions. Are they really there, or just trompe l’oeils? The apparent depth or shallowness of these inset panels depends on the vagaries of sunshine and cloud, the hour of the day, on mist and rain. For at the centre of the great dome is a wide circular opening: an oculus through which you gaze at the sky above. It is, even on a cloudy day, a bright disc, a blinding, glowing medallion of
whiteness, and a great shaft of light comes down into the dark depths where you stand. As the light changes outside, the atmospherics within alter: a sunbeam creates what looks like a solid column of light
penetrating the gloom, a shower of rain pours straight down on to the marble floor. As I look up, a bird flies across the opening.

The first time I visited the Pantheon, as a child on holiday in Rome, I lay on the floor and looked up, or was it down, at the sky to experience a magic disordering of up and down, here and there. A priest yelled at me
– one of the reasons this temple has survived intact is that it has been used as a church since early times. Today I can compare the Pantheon to modern installations that play with light. American artist James Turrell creates magical, disorienting light chambers that surely owe a lot to the Pantheon. There is something else modernist about it: its dome is made of concrete, a Roman invention central to modern architecture. Yet if it seems modern, it also seems forbiddingly ancient. Its cult of light and the changing sky is truly primal. It has a lot in common with Stonehenge. It’s so… pagan. There is a divinity to that sky: but in spite of all the Christian chapels at the edges of the round space, it does not feel remotely Christian. You sense for a
moment the power of Jupiter and Neptune, the wrath of Mars, the terror of Hades. A world of gods who don’t necessarily care about the fate of mortals.

In Londinium, Suetonius felt regret for his political career. The emperor was human, probably. But not entirely. His power was his true identity. He was sublime.

In the Pantheon, a terrible power concentrates in a column of light descending into the shadows. It humbles the wandering little soul.

· Hadrian: Empire And Conflict is at the British Museum (020- 7323 8181, from July 24 to October 26

Roman road across Pennines researched

The truth about the Romans

Jun 16 2008

by Andrew Baldwin, Huddersfield Daily Examiner

The course of a Roman road over which thousands of Roman soldiers will have
tramped from Castleshaw fort near Oldham to Slack fort, near Outlane,
has been lost in the mists of time – until a team of Huddersfield
archeologists began detective work that was to last 30 years. ANDREW
BALDWIN reports

‘There is no doubt that we have found the proper route’

IMAGINE, if you will, that time has flashed forward a couple of thousand years.

England is a vastly different place to how it is now.

The landscape has changed, the people are very different and we have a
transport system based on inventions we cannot yet predict.

And just where was that M62? We’ve heard tell of it, but what was its route?

Fantastic? Not really, when you consider that we live in 2008 at the same distance
of time from the Roman armies who invaded Britain.

They, too, had a major road across the Pennines, over high moorland and through the steep contours of the Colne Valley.

It ran from Castleshaw fort near Oldham to Slack fort, near Outlane, and
was part of the Roman military way linking Chester and York.

Thousands of soldiers and other travellers would have tramped it, but its true course was long ago lost in the mists of time.

Until now, that is.

A dedicated team of amateur archaeologists has knocked all the theories on the head with 30 years of patient detective work.

Prof Mick Aston, a star of Channel 4’s Time Team, has labelled it a remarkable piece of research.

It all began with the chance discovery in 1973 of ancient road foundations
in a field near to a causeway at Moorside Edge, Pole Moor.

They were about 25cm below the surface and consisted of graded stones with associated ditches.

A team from Huddersfield and District Archaeological Society was of
little doubt that its find was Roman. But what was the road? Where did
it go?

It was the start of investigation spanning three decades, ending in a new book telling the true story for the very first time.

Granville Clay, the society’s fieldwork co-ordinator, says: “There is absolutely no doubt that we have found the proper route. And it’s not where people thought.”

Conventional wisdom had it that the Roman road turned north in the Marsden area and then east to follow the course of the present-day A640 Rochdale to Huddersfield road – the Nont Sarah’s road – high above the Colne Valley.

But nothing had ever been found to prove this.

Wouldn’t the logical way have been lower down the Colne Valley, where there
would have been a bit of shelter from the tough northern winters?

The finds at Moorside Edge had set minds thinking this might be the answer.

A further discovery in 1982 of Roman stones on the southern slopes of Pule Hill, near Marsden, was an encouragement that the society should keep on digging.

But it was still no further proof that the Roman road took a different route.

Excavation in the following years uncovered a considerable amount of Romano-British material, but was hampered for a period by treasure hunters who had got to know of the dig.

Mr Clay says: “Layers of stone were uncovered and there was no doubt it was a genuine road.

“It was perfectly built, a road of quality as they would say, built at an estimated two miles a week.”

It did look as though the route of the Roman road was about a mile or so away from where historians believed. Word was beginning to get round about the discovery.

“We were met with disbelief and in some places with ridicule. It was so different to the published theories,” says Mr Clay.

Further digs at other sites brought the inevitably conclusion that the road DID pass much lower down the slopes of the Colne Valley than previously thought.

After all, why should it have run along the along the
northern ridge, where the high altitude would have been a distinct
disadvantage in the long and severe winters?

History has been knocked on the head by people who follow archaeology as a hobby.

It was largely to the enthusiasm and energy of Norman Lunn that the search for the road continued.

A leading member of the society almost since its formation in 1956, he was director of many of the Roman road operations until 1989.

Sadly, he died last October before seeing the book published. But it contains much of his work on the project and there is a bonus CD with it which includes further photos and information.

Mr Clay, Bonwell Spence and Bill Crosland are the other members who have contributed to the volume.

Some questions remain. Where did the road cross the River Colne at Marsden?
How long was it in use as a major trans-Pennine road?

Mr Clay adds: “Perhaps we should not overlook the possibility of a villa in the Colne Valley as a bonus.”

The Romans Came This Way, by Norman Lunn, Bill Crosland, Bonwell Spence and Granville Clay, is available at the Tolson Museum at Moldgreen and selected bookshops for £12.99.

It can also be ordered from
HDAS, 7 Lewisham Road, Slaithwaite, Huddersfield HD7 5AL for £14.99,
including post and packing. Cheques to be made payable to HDAS.

Caerleon excavations – blog to start today

CAF Archaeology for All is hosting a blog to report on excavations in the Priory Field, Caerleon.

Here is the first entry:

Friday 13th June – Sunday 15th June 2008

Cows in the trench!

Our first couple of days have passed eventfully. Lots of activity on Friday with deliveries of equipment and the majority of the trench being stripped by heavy machinery. Then preparations over the weekend with shopping for supplies, sorting out the office and the toolshed and welcoming our digging team. The trench looks promising with signs of building rubble but will need thorough cleaning… especially after an accidental break-out of cattle from the next field on Saturday evening. After an hour or so of running around the field, in and out of the trench, and behind the spoilheap they were finally lured home. Some of them seemed keen to help excavate, but the archaeologists sheltering in their tents or the minibus were still pleased when they went – especially the angry-looking bull!

Posted by Andy 16/6/08

“Be favourable to bold beginnings” Virgil

Background information about the dig, with pictures, is here.

The site informs:

Public tours will be available twice daily during the
excavation season, which runs from June 16th – July 25th 2008
(excluding Saturdays). A guide will meet visitors at the gate to Priory
Field on The Broadway (next to the amphitheatre car park) at 11 am and
2.30 pm.

All are welcome to the Open Days on the 28th and
29th June 2008 when Caerleon hosts the Roman Military Spectacular.
There will be tours running throughout the weekend, displays of the
latest finds and lots of activities for everyone including the chance
to take part in a ‘mini-dig’.

National Archaeology Week will take place from 12th – 20th July 2008
and there will be a number of events during this week, not only at
Caerleon, but also at Cosmeston Mediaeval Village in the Vale of

Youngsters try out ancient medicine of the Romans

From Manchester University

Pupils from schools across Greater Manchester are to experience what medicine was like in ancient Rome at a University of Manchester summer school.

Dressed as Romans, they will be examining some of the treatments used two thousand years ago – on display at Manchester Museum.

The workshop – called Medicine in Rome – is part of a three day Summer School organised by the Faculty of Humanities which aims to introduce pupils to university life and some of the subjects on offer.

There are ten other workshops – including ‘Introduction to Art History’, ‘ASBO-mania’, ‘Journey through Ancient Rome’, ‘Identity Workshop’, ‘Don’t Believe Everything You Read’, ‘The Money Programme’ and ‘Mummifying an orange’.

The 10 groups of pupils – looked after by undergraduate Student Ambassadors – will deliver short presentations at the event’s closing ceremony.

They will be joined by parents and teachers as part of the University’s efforts to promote widening participation to higher education irrespective of educational, cultural or financial background.

Widening Participation Manager Janet Tatlock said: “This event will encourage the pupils to recognise how different university is from school., but also that it is a welcoming environment accessible to all with potential to do well in Higher Education.

“We also hope that each student will find a subject area they are particularly interested in.

“This year’s Summer School is the largest yet: on the final evening some of the 96 children will deliver presentations based on what they learned to over 200 family members.”

Notes for editors

Press photographers are invited to join the children at 2.15 on June 17 at Manchester Museum, Oxford Road, Manchester .

Press photographers are also welcome to photograph the group presentations on 19 June at 6PM.

The year 9 Humanities Summer School summer school will run from June 17 to 19 from 9am till 3.15pm, 8.30pm on 19th. The event will be held in the Martin Harris Centre for Music and Drama, The University of Manchester, Bridgeford St, Manchester.

Images will be available on 17 June.

For media enquiries contact:

Mike Addelman
Media Relations Officer
Faculty of Humanities
The University of Manchester
0161 275 0790
07717 881 567

Romans return to the North York Moors June 21-22

From the Darlington and Stockton Times

WHEN the Roman legions abandoned Yorkshire in the early 5th-century they left many signs of their centuries of domination.

Their relics include the remains of a matching camp on the North York Moors – and even a stretch of original Roman road.

And now the days of the legions are to be revived by the largest historical society of its kind in Britain.

The Comitatus period history and research group will be setting up camp in Dalby Forest, near Pickering, on June 21 and 22.

Their legionaries will display the artillery and weapons that won an Empire, but ultimately failed to stem the barbarian tide.

Comitatus member John Conyard, from York, said: “The early fifth
century was a crucial time when the professional Roman army departed
these shores for good leaving behind a Romanised society told to fend
for itself.

“Much of the land was covered in forests and Dalby offers an
atmospheric stage for us to take people back in time. We’ll be
revealing more about army life at the end of the Roman period, with
displays, crafts and archaeological finds.”

Comitatus is based on an elite unit that was based near Bridlington to repel foreign invaders.

The event takes places near the Dalby Forest Visitor Centre and is
free of charge. Activities get underway from 11am. Normal forest toll
charges apply for vehicles. For more information contact the visitor
centre on 01751-460295, or log on to

How to wear the toga – and build a warship

From Acta Divrna 1959:

1. Put point B on the left shoulder, in such a way that point A falls on the floor in front of you.
2. Pull the remainder of the straight edge (B – C) across your back and under the right arm.
3. Now, holding the toga at about point D, allow the flap to hang down, and tuck point D well into your belt.
4. Throw the rest of the toga back over your left shoulder in such a way that point C hangs at the back almost to your feet.
5. Finally raise point A (which is still lying on the floor) a little so as to form a ‘sinus’, a fold or curve.

toga diagram
toga instructions

Pompeii – pictures inside the baths

Tranferred from old blog.

Basin stand
Mosaic floor

Aother mosaic floor

Internal doorway

Clothes lockers

Clothes lockers close-up

Marble bench

Red bench

Looking through a door to a room with ribbed roof

Nostalgia – Cambridge 2007

A video diary in three episodes.


Pictures and video taken on a visit during the ARLT Summer School 2006

(A smaller group of Summer School members left the main group in order to see Arbeia.)

Still Photos

Location and reconstructed gate tower


The Headquarters


Tombstone of Victor

The reconstructed barrack block


Meeting the guide
The guide explains
Barrack block and Commandant’s house

The Storeroom
The entrance
The colonnade
Another view of the colonnade, and the dining room
One bedroom
Another room

More nostalgia from Durham 2006

More pictures from Durham Summer School 2006


(For pictures of Arbeia see here and of Segedunum see here)

Some People







Reception on the first evening












The Summer School Group Photo





Expedition Day








(For pictures of Arbeia see here and of Segedunum see here)