The Hadrian Exhibition – preview by The Times

The Times gives the BM exhibition five stars

We all know the wall: that long line of stone that rises and falls across
rough northern landscapes. It is one of the wildest and loveliest of our
tourist spots. But the Romans who once paced its bleak ramparts with their
spiked wooden pila were protecting the northernmost perimeter of the world’s
greatest empire: the empire that – stretching from Scotland to the Sahara,
from the Atlantic to the Euphrates – was ruled from AD117 to AD138 by
Hadrian.

But what do we know about him? The British Museum, fresh from a success in
which a posse of terracotta warriors ousted Blackpool Pleasure Beach from
the top of our list of favourite cultural attractions, now turns its
attention from China’s first emperor to another great wall-builder. In
Hadrian: Empire and Conflict, it invites us to speculate on what this most
fascinating and complex emperor might really have been like.

This is a show that Gordon Brown should go to see. It follows the progress of
an ambitious but prudent second-in-command who finally gets to power by
being adopted by his predecessor, the Emperor Trajan, on his deathbed. But
leadership, Hadrian discovers, is far from plain sailing. Trajan may have
been a warrior hero, but things were very over-stretched. Although the
effects had not yet reached the public, the empire had been brought almost
to breaking point by a war in the Middle East.


Hadrian was no ditherer. He dealt with the problem decisively. He ordered a
swift withdrawal of troops in what was only the first of the many military,
legal and economic reforms that, over 21 years, this emperor was to effect.
The historian Edward Gibbon may have interpreted his retraction as the
moment that the rot set in, but the final decline of empire was still a long
way in coming and Hadrian’s political wisdom, along with his cultural
contributions (most prominent among them his architectural prowess), have
left him with a reputation as one of the world’s finest leaders. His
achievements were outstanding. His legacy was immense.

The British Museum now assembles a spectacular show whose exhibits range from
the heftiest stone pieces to the most fragile slips of papyrus with anything
from portrait sculptures, through stone inscriptions and architectural
models, to coins and mosaic pieces in between. Invest in the catalogue. It
is a model of clarity, lavishly illustrated and relatively brief. It is the
tiny details that snag the imagination: the tiny crease in the ear of
Hadrian, for instance, that, apart from suggesting that he might have
suffered from coronary artery disease, add a realism to the images that
scattered his vast empire. Sometimes the plainest-looking exhibits carry the
most momentous stories. In a stone inscription the name Syria-Palestina is
used instead of Judea for the first time.

Sometimes the impact of pieces will be immediate and startling. As you look
into the faces of a series of painted “mummy portraits” you feel you are
staring into the eyes of the subjects that Hadrian (who, spending more than
half his reign on journeys throughout the empire, must have met more of his
subjects than any ruler before him) encountered. Other objects need more
imaginative work. A length of lead piping must stand as a metonym for the
luxury of the incredible villa at Tivoli.

Among the most appealing sections of this show is that dedicated to Antinous,
the beautiful Greek boy with whom Hadrian fell in love. Curators let the
museum’s wonderful silver Warren Cup with its flagrant scenes of sodomy set
the stage for a liaison which at that time was considered quite normal. What
was odd, this show suggests, was the cult that ensued after Antinous’ death
in a Nile flood. The mourning Hadrian not only founded an entire new city in
his honour but commemorated him in various god-like incarnations including
as the Egyptian deity Osiris, who (complete with perfectly polished
pectorals and loincloth bulge) meets the visitor at the entrance to this
show.

Was it the depth of his grief that made Hadrian create this gay icon? The
exhibition suggests another slant. Hadrian, the first emperor to sport a
full Greek-style beard, was nicknamed “the Greekling” for his love of
Hellenic culture. Now by celebrating this passion through the apotheosis of
a Greek boy, he kept a potentially rebellious sector of society safely
pacified. He made the Greeks feel an appreciated part of his empire. It was
an adept political move.

Hadrian is certainly most often commemorated (in contrast to his warlike
predecessor) as a cultured philosopher. He pops up again and again in this
show in his many magnificent sculptural incarnations: as the toga-clad
priest, the barbarian-trampling commander, the bearded peacemaker, the
mighty benefactor. Which was the real person?

Our stock picture is that of the robed thinker. But the sculpture that
propagated this image is re-examined in this show. The portrait head, it now
appears, does not actually belong to the thinker’s body. They have just been
stuck together by mistaken archaeologists. This sculpture becomes a metaphor
for an exhibition that sets out to break down the accepted image into its
component parts and then reassemble it again.

The most haunting part of this show is that which displays objects found in
the so called “cave of letters”, a rocky crevice in a parched wadi into
which a group of Jewish civilians crawled. They hid there from the Romans,
who were putting down their revolt with peculiar force. Here, perfectly
preserved by the dry desert climate, are the objects that they salvaged
before they fled, including the keys that they must have kept, hoping that
they would return to their houses. They never did. They all perished.
Hadrian the supposed peacemaker was also the perpetrator of a massacre that
left hundreds of thousands Jews dead. And this – the only massacre for which
we have written evidence – must presumably stand in as proof of the many
rebellions that he quashed, including at least two in Britain.

This show has a spacious and unhurried feel. Each item is given the
opportunity to speak. And the exhibition finds a particularly evocative
setting in the specially adapted space of the museum’s round reading room,
the dome of which is a direct reflection of the Pantheon, whose spectacular
rotunda – the largest un-reinforced concrete dome in the world – Hadrian
pioneered.

The Pantheon was constructed as a forum for the emperor. Now, in an exhibition
that occupies its 19th-century descendent, Hadrian once more discovers a
stage from which to speak. The questions he asks resonate today. What price
do we pay for peace?

Hadrian: Empire and Conflict is at the British Museum (020-7323 8299), July
24-October 26

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