The Indie’s Hadrian piece

All the serious papers are doing something to introduce the BM exhibition on Hadrian. This is the Independent’s effort:

A prudent but brooding second-in-command, he had to endure a long,
anxious wait before he finally took charge. He began his reign, AD 117,
with a controversial withdrawal from Iraq: too soft, said the imperial
hardliners. A bloody insurgency, and the persistent threat of a rival
power with deep roots in the Middle East, prompted him to cut Roman
losses and redeploy the occupying legions. Peace with the Parthians
still left him in charge of a 60-million-strong swathe of Europe,
western Asia and north Africa.

His writ ran (to use their modern names) from Newcastle to Cairo; from Lisbon
to Jerusalem; from Algiers to Brussels. From the border security system in
remote Britannia that he supervised in 122, and which makes his name at
least familiar to all, to the forests of Turkey and the waters of the Nile,
this soldier- son of a Spanish-Roman clan spent half his time in office
visiting the distant outposts of the empire. For 15 years, his slick PR
machine celebrated peace and order across these realms in stone, coin and
scroll. Then he unleashed a punitive campaign of massacre and expulsion
against his Jewish subjects after a revolt in 132. Pretty often, he made it
across to Greece: his cultural inspiration, his spiritual home, and the
source of his trademark intellectual’s beard.

So where, when he found himself at the empire’s heart, did Publius Aelius
Hadrianus – the Emperor Hadrian – go to think through the policy and tactics
of mighty Rome? To the spot where I stood last Friday, on a baking July day,
in the Tiburtine hills.

Visitors to the hauntingly evocative site of Hadrian’s Villa – 20 miles east
of Rome, on the outskirts of modern Tivoli – aren’t strictly supposed to
step across the colonnaded circular pool on to the island in the middle of
the so-called “Maritime Theatre”. In reality, this is the most
intimate, least theatrical corner of a vast leisure and office facility that
covered 120 hectares. But Dr Alessandro La Porta, the archaeologist who
directs the site, briskly shifts a barrier. We step over the water across a
late-Roman stone bridge (the original two were wooden, and retractable) into
the remains of the emperor’s private apartments on this compact disc of
land. Here, a clever, complex and uneasy man retired to shape the strategy
that governed most of one continent and large parts of two more.

This was the still point of his ever-turning world. Today, the sun roasts and
the cicadas sing, but peace reigns here. Dr La Porta points to the ruins of
a private bathroom and en-suite WC. From the Tyne to the Tigris, who else in
the empire enjoyed that? Elsewhere in the villa grounds – in the gargantuan
sauna facilities of the Great Baths, the Dubai-dimensioned open-air
banqueting hall of the Golden Square, the lake-like courtyard pool of the
Pecile – imperial super-size does matter. But here, and in various other
nooks, the villa reveals a global governor who relished privacy and even
solitude.

Thorsten Opper has curated the British Museum exhibition Hadrian: Empire and
Conflict, which opens later this month – a far-reaching reappraisal of the
Emperor’s life and times, which explains my presence here in Tivoli, and the
current media urge to seek the elusive man behind the semi-mythical
wall-builder. He points out that the villa “isn’t all about size and
symmetry and scale. It’s a different way of impressing people – not just
cold monumentality”. This fantasy estate charms as well as awes. The “Canopus”
– a shaded rectangular pool, flanked by statues to represent the far-flung
marvels of the empire, from crocodiles to caryatids – has a dinky half-domed
pavilion for discreet private dining at one end.

Many specialists deduce that the Canopus commemorates not just the empire, as
a sort of theme-park of must-see attractions, but Hadrian’s relationship
with his lover Antinous. He was the Greek youth from Bithynia, in modern
Turkey, whose suspicious death in 130 propelled the emperor into a
scandalous, empire-wide cult of mourning. Did he drown in the Nile, as the
official version went? Or did Hadrian, worried about his waning powers,
force or cajole the youth into a ritual sacrifice to appease the gods? Dr La
Porta hopes that current excavations near this spot may eventually uncover
Antinous’s tomb.

No one in the Roman world would have bothered for a moment about Hadrian
having a recreational boyfriend. Anthony Everitt, the biographer of Cicero
and Augustus who is now working on a life of Hadrian, agrees with the
academics that ancient culture had no concept of “homosexuality”
as such. Still, he stresses that “it is clear that there were men who
had a more or less exclusive and lifelong bent for sex with other men –
among them, the emperor Trajan and his successor Hadrian”.

Thorsten Opper’s book, to accompany the exhibition, does describe Hadrian as “gay”
– but mainly, he says, “not to have to talk around it and be
Victorian”. Whatever terminology we now prefer, Hadrian’s off-the-scale
reaction to the loss of a toy boy struck many contemporaries as unseemly
grief. For Elizabeth Speller, the classicist and author, whose book
Following Hadrian traces the emperor’s routes around his domains, and
unlocks the meaning of his travels, this orgy of remembrance “armed his
detractors and severely damaged his reputation”.

Yet, as always in the Roman world, the personal quickly became political.
Greek-run cities (always Hadrian’s favourite locations) vied to set up
glamorous statues of Antinous, and so curry favour – and win patronage –
with the CEO back in Rome. “Sycophants did this on their own
inititiative,” says Opper. “This way, Greeks can show their
loyalty to Rome, by celebrating one of their own. This is how Roman rule
works.”

By and large, and with the great exception of the Jews, this self-interested
give-and-take – flattery and fidelity in one direction, protection and
funding in the other – worked well. Elizabeth Speller counts among Hadrian’s
greatest legacies “the idea – and in many ways the reality – of a
peaceful empire through co-operation, not threat and violence”.

As for Antinous, Opper believes that “there must have been a deep
emotional bond” between emperor and favourite, although Speller
stresses that “the sort of relationship Hadrian had with his beautiful
boy was very much more a Greek phenomenon than a Roman one”. Meanwhile,
the emperor’s frosty dynastic marriage to his empress, Sabina, carried on
its long, loveless course. Dr La Porta once had a Mexican visitor who asked
him the best spot at the villa to propose to his girlfriend at sunset.
Hadrian advised the Roccabruna tower, with its panoramic views of the
estate. She said yes. That sort of marital romance would have baffled
Hadrian – and most upper-class Romans, too.

At the villa, perhaps, Hadrian could grieve for Antinous without inhibition,
just as he had quietly sought pleasure here as well. In her much-loved if
over-romanticised 1951 novel Mémoires d’Hadrien (written partly in a hotel
outside the villa gates), Marguerite Yourcenar calls the Canopus “the
tragic architecture of an inner world”. Often, in this grand public
space, you do catch a glimpse of a vulnerable private face. So it’s suitably
impressive, and touching, when Dr La Porta heroically leads me in the
blazing noon through this beyond-extravagant home and HQ. You catch the
contradictory style of a ruler who wielded total power but also, like the
sceptical Greek-style intellectual he claimed to be, could wish to shun it
too.

The villa has around eight kilometres of subterranean passageways, many wide
enough to drive a chariot down. Mostly, they allowed the huge workforce of
slaves, soldiers and artisans to go about their tasks unseen; but their boss
might use some, too. In the underground “cryptoporticus” – dank
and cool even in this heat – you sense the presence of an imperial showman
who also loved secrecy.

In spite of its peerless value and spine-tingling atmosphere, Hadrian’s Villa
also seems, for all its drama and grandeur, slightly shy. A modest 300,000
visitors arrive every year, though a development plan aims to boost that by
a third. On one snowy winter’s day, Dr La Porta tells me, only a solitary
studious German came. At the end of today’s tour, though, the villa’s
dynamic custodian has a word of advice for the British Museum. Next time
they plan a Roman blockbuster show, could they please launch it in May or
October?

Magical as it is, the villa raises as many questions about its many-faceted
constructor as it answers. Peacekeeper or warmonger? Philosopher or
propagandist? Idealist or pragmatist? The truth, of course, is that the
first term never rules out the second, and that the balance changes, day by
day, over the two decades of his reign. Elizabeth Speller views him as the
emperor who breaks out of the “nice or nasty” schoolbook mould of
Roman history (a bow for Augustus, boo for Nero, smile for Claudius). He was “the
first ancient ruler to move beyond caricature”. For Opper, “Each
generation and each individual needs to find his or her own Hadrian”.

This appropriation of his image has gone on for centuries. Back in the centre
of Rome, we climbed the sinister spiral ramp that, after his death in 138,
bore Hadrian’s funeral procession into the heart of his mausoleum – now,
after a Christian makeover, known as the Castel Sant’Angelo. Atop its great
Roman drum stands a Renaissance palace built by the popes and rich in showy
frescoes. In one room, painted for Paul III in the 1540s, a splendid
life-sized Hadrian gestures with his left arm out of the window, straight at
the Vatican and the dome of St Peter’s. This lot are my true heirs, the
gesture says. Hadrian, who, if he ever thought about Christians, might have
written them off as yet another bunch of pesky Jewish troublemakers, would
have gasped at the papal presumption.

Depending on their opinions of imperial aggression, the Victorians either saw
a wise pragmatist who – as in the fortification from Tyne to Solway Firth –
fixed the governable limits of Rome, or else an arty dilettante whose
refusal to go out and conquer opened the door to the decadence ahead. To
Yourcenar, writing after the pan-European trauma of the Second World War,
Hadrian looked more like a cultivated broker between rival peoples and
creeds. Her melancholy man of wide horizons even admired his hardy British
tribes, and predicted a future “Atlantic world”, governed from the
West.

Opper himself perceives a crafty strategist at ease with the arts of war as
much as peace. He envisages a ruler who showed off his Hellenic learning as
a political ploy to bind the Greek-led provinces even closer to Rome. The
most famous statue of Hadrian, in Greek philosopher’s robes, now stands
revealed as spin: the head was fixed to a separate body. For Opper, Hadrian
built his wall not just as a bulwark against “barbarians”, or even
as a benign symbolic frontier and gigantic piece of installation art. (You
are now entering the Roman Empire; please drive your cart carefully; sorry,
Scottish banknotes not accepted.) Rather, this network of forts, barriers
and roads might have served to isolate and separate the restless natives.
The same people, after all, would have lived on either side. Last year,
Opper witnessed the effect of Israel’s Separation Wall on the West Bank.
That partition, like the Berlin Wall, set him thinking about the purpose of
such obstacles: “Who tilled the fields under Hadrian’s Wall? What did
they think of that? We should at least contemplate the idea that it’s about
dissecting tribal territory and exerting control.”

At the other boundary of his power, Hadrian the tolerant multiculturalist
provoked the Jews by building a pagan shrine above the ruins of the Temple
of Jerusalem – destroyed after the earlier revolt, AD 70. In the 130s, his
merciless suppression of the popular rebellion led by the messianic
guerrilla chief Simon bar Kochba – “son of the star” – left
more than half a million dead. In the aftermath, he wiped the name of Judaea
off the map, Ahmadinejad-style. Henceforth, the land would be “Syria
Palestina”.

Does the modern notion of racial “anti-Semitism” have any relevance
here? It’s “certainly not correct”, says Opper: the salient point
is that “the Jews, like the Christians, could not accommodate the cult
of the emperor”. So the usual Roman tolerance of local deities abruptly
ceased. For Anthony Everitt, “there was little in imperial Rome
analogous to contemporary racism”. Hadrian’s near-extermination of
Judaea “was the fate Rome invariably meted out to those who refused to
march under its yoke”. The refusal of Jewish monotheism to compromise
with pagan norms, Speller underlines, meant that Roman “carrot and stick”
business as usual would not work. Whatever the motives, the Jewish people
had no deadlier enemy until the Third Reich. Still, almost 1,900 years
later, the words of the Talmud curse Hadrian.

At the fringes, brute force talked. At the heart of empire, spin and spectacle
prevailed. Visit the Pantheon in Rome’s tourist-clogged centre, and
Hadrian’s PR genius still casts its spell. Its seventh-century conversion
into a church helped ensure the Pantheon’s status as by far the
best-preserved of all the great Roman buildings. Even filled with tourists
on a summer afternoon, its coup de théâtre still astonishes. The perfectly
engineered 43m dome show-cases what Opper calls Rome’s “concrete
revolution” in construction could achieve. And, as the sun falls at
ever-changing angles on sumptuous coloured marbles through the 9m aperture
at the crown, the Pantheon’s non-stop light-show makes for dazzling,
near-Hollywood special effects.

But this temple of all the gods also lauded the emperor and his predecessors.
It was a shrine to Roman as much as divine power. So much for the celebrated
self-effacement of the inscription on the entrance. It fibs that “Marcus
Agrippa [who had commissioned a previous building on this site] made this”.
He didn’t; Hadrian did, as everybody knew at the time. Imperial vanity could
take the form of modesty. He would have liked the fact that people in
Newcastle refer not to “Hadrian’s” but to the “Roman”
Wall.

The Pantheon proves how much the emperor enjoyed a lovely dome. As we stroll
past the domes of the baths complex at the villa, Alessandro La Porta
reminds me of a well-known anecdote. Once, before he succeeded Trajan,
Hadrian is supposed to have tried to tell the celebrity architect
Apollodorus how to improve a design. “Go and draw your pumpkins,”
the prickly builder reputedly replied. Those “pumpkins” were not
squash but Hadrian’s beloved domes.

According to this story, Hadrian waited many years and then found an excuse to
execute the architect – even if untrue, a sign of his reputation for a long,
grudge-bearing memory. Yet the tale seems to reveal his genuine interests,
too. As Elizabeth Speller says: “He wasn’t just a patron. He wrote; he
designed; he thought.” Later, those silly “pumpkins” sprouted
throughout the Christian and then Muslim lands. From Rome to Istanbul,
Washington, DC, to London’s St Paul’s (and even the British Museum’s reading
room), Hadrian’s hemispheres dominate the skylines of the world.

Hadrian’s empire fell, although his canny fix of the succession over two
generations ensured another golden age under Marcus Aurelius – whom he
talent-spotted. The city he founded beside the Nile to remember Antinous has
vanished under the sands. Yet his ideal of a stable imperium – Greek
culture, Roman clout – helped inspire Byzantium and the kingdoms that
descended from it. And, from Tyne to Tiber, he remains the most visible of
Roman emperors, his dreams and demands fixed in turf, brick and stone.

On the evening of my visit to Tivoli, I watched the monks of the Shaolin
Temple in China mix dance and martial arts in the choreographer Sidi Larbi
Cherkaoui’s Sutra – one of the events performed, near the Great Baths, as
part of the Hadrian’s Villa summer arts festival. Our ghostly host would
have applauded the monks’ fusion of grace and force; the kinship between the
power of art, and the art of power. That Hadrian understood. And, as the
audience wandered out past the quiet waters of the Pecile, their path lit by
flickering torches, we all knew that this private man can still put on quite
a show.

Hadrian: Empire and Conflict runs at the British Museum from 24 July to 26
October; Hadrian’s Villa, Bagni di Tivoli, is currently open daily from 9am
to 7.30pm. Boyd Tonkin stayed at the Hotel Romae, Rome (www.hotelromae.com),
courtesy of the Italian Tourist Board, London

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