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

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: