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BRITISH MUSEUM'S HADRIAN EXHIBITION: EMPIRE REPEATS ITSELF

By Andrew Jack

LONDON, 26 OCTOBER 2008 — If Gordon Brown, the UK's current prime minister, or the next American president (yet to be determined) were to visit the British Museum's latest high-profile show, Hadrian: Empire and Conflict , he might find some uncomfortable parallels with one of Rome's greatest emperors - not to mention some differences he might envy.

Imperial overstretch, financial bailouts, media manipulation, war in Mesopotamia, and even (olive) oil: Hadrian's Rome looks eerily modern.

As the exhibition catalogue points out, the major conflict zones of his time are strikingly familiar today: the Balkans, Caucasus, Mesopotamia and Judea/Palestine, where he faced (tables turned) Jewish rebellions from AD 116.

Forced to rein back after the imperial over-stretch of his predecessor Trajan , Hadrian initially fought Middle Eastern rebellions, but then turned, despite the risks and doubters, to troop withdrawals, beginning in what is modern-day Iraq.


Cameo with double portrait of the emperor Trajan and his wife Plotina carved from a three-layered sardonyx, a type of precious stone. AD 105 -115
© Trustees of the British Museum

A little like Brown, and a good many other protean politicians, Hadrian was described in the Historia Augusta, a series of imperial biographies written at the end of the fourth century AD, as: "In the same person, austere and genial, dignified and playful, dilatory and quick to act, niggardly and generous, deceitful and straightforward, cruel and merciful, and always in all things changeable."


Bronze Torso and head of Hadrian from Beth Shean
date approx after
Jewish Revolt (AD 135)
© The Israel Museum, Jerusalem

Hadrian also struggled with fears of an economic crisis, not entirely unlike today's bank bailouts and housing foreclosures. Lacking the modern press conference and twenty-four hour news channels, Hadrian literally minted soothing propaganda for his people, in the form of coins bearing the slogan "STABILITY." More significantly, he waived debts to the state, as illustrated on stone friezes showing soldiers burning the official records of the money owed by its citizens.

Distinctly unlike most modern leaders (or most of his contemporaries), his ascendancy was rapid - born in AD 76, he became emperor in 117 - and his term in office at more than 20 years was long.


Writing-tablet with an intelligence report
Roman Britain, late 1st or early 2nd century AD
Vindolanda Roman fort (modern Chesterholm), Northumberland

© Trustees of the British Museum

Before his death in AD 138, Hadrian not only built a large tomb for himself (Rome's still-standing Castel St Angelo) but attempted to ensure a smooth transition of power, adopting as his sons and anointing not just one but the following two leaders of Rome.

Still, that did not prevent ambivalence towards him by the Senate, with continuing intrigues and a posthumous struggle by his immediate succesor in order to assure his deification.


Gold aureus commemorating the consecration of the Emperor Hadrian
This gold coin was issued by Antoninus Pius, the successor of the emperor Hadrian, to celebrate his predecessor's deification.
From Rome, Italy AD 138
© Trustees of the British Museum

"His rule changed history," as one of the more curt and sensationalist exhibition descriptions of Hadrian: Empire and Conflict puts it. Another stresses his influence beyond war and statecraft to architecture, somewhat tenuously connecting the design of the British Museum's main Reading Room to the Pantheon as remodeled by Hadrian.

The Room itself is largely obscured beyond the top of its dome, with little attempt to reveal its beauty, yet alone make the link with the Pantheon beyond a single photograph. Its conversion a decade ago into a special exhibition space might still seem a sacrilegious modification of its historical purpose to many researchers. But the format works well enough for the show.

A recent previous occupant of the space, the British Museum's blockbuster Chinese Warriors exhibition, dragged out the torment of the sight of a handful of the iconic statutes until the final room.

In welcome contrast, Hadrian begins with the view of one of the most impressive objects on display: a beautifully sculpted giant head only recently discovered in Turkey. The fascination includes the fact that it is apparently lifelike, not idealized, right down to a distinctive crease in his earlobes.


Emperor Hadrian discovered in the bath-house at Sagalassos, Turkey
c. AD 120; H. 70cm
© Trustees of the British Museum

Overall, the exhibition does an excellent job of bringing to life Hadrian and his era, notwithstanding the limited number of artifacts that have survived and the multiple contradictory theories on their interpretation.

There is a display on the central importance to the empire of olive oil, illustrated by amphorae bearing identification marks on their provenance like modern product labels; and ceremonial decorated small metal pans, "their colours still visible - which were likely given to legionnaires on their retirement."

It shows ancient Roman keys, references to the petitions that took up much of his time, and a later scribe's copy of the one tantalizing fragment of Hadrian's autobiography that has survived.

There is one particularly intriguing bit of historiography: a long-standing debate around him wearing Greek clothes in one statue imploded after researchers discovered that his head had been mistakenly attached to another's body in the Victorian era.


The Warren Cup
Roman, mid-1st century AD
Said to be from Bittir (ancient Bethther), near Jerusalem
silver cup with relief decoration of homoerotic scenes

© Trustees of the British Museum

Plenty of space is also given in the exhibition to Hadrian's relationship with his male lover Antinous, whose deification Hadrian encouraged after Antinous' mysterious death by drowning in the Nile.


Statue of Antinous as Osiris
Roman 117 - 138 AD.
© The Vatican Museums

It would have been good to provide yet more information and artifacts on daily life in Hadrian's empire; to explain how far the stability against the invading "barbarians" his rule provided to subjects of the empire; and further background on the connections hinted at between Rome and its sister empires in China and India.


Marble Bust of Hadrian in military dress, 125 - 130 AD
© Trustees of the British Museum

But Hadrian does a good job of bringing a mythical figure to life in a rounded and contemporary way. His contribution may have been unique; the challenges he faced were curiously timeless.

Hadrian: Empire and Conflict
Until 26 October 2008
British Museum
Great Russell Street
London WC1B 3DG
Tel: (44) 020 7 323 82 99

Title photo: the colossal head of the Roman emperor Hadrian discovered in the bath-house at Sagalassos, Turkey, c. AD 120; H. 70cm.
Photo: courtesy of the Sagalassos Archaeological Project

Andrew Jack is a British journalist and the author of Inside Putin's Russia: Can There Be Reform without Democracy? (Oxford University Press, USA, 2004, 2007). He is also a member of the editorial board of Culturekiosque.com

BOOK TIP

Culturekiosque readers should note that most of the above images are from the excellent and lavishly illustrated book Hadrian: Empire & Conflict that accompanies the current exhibition. It is the work of Thorsten Opper, curator in the Department of Greek and Roman Antiquities at the British Museum. Highly recommended and astonishing value for money.

Hadrian: Empire & Conflict
By Thorsten Opper

Hardcover: 224 pages
Harvard University Press (September 2008)
ISBN-10: 0674030958
ISBN-13: 978-0674030954
$29.95

CALENDAR TIPS: chosen by the editors as being of interest to Culturekiosque readers.

Rome

Julius Caesar: Man, Feats and Myth
24 October 2008 - 3 May 2009
Chiostro del Bramante
Via della Pace
00186 Rome
Tel: (39) 6 68 80 9035

Washington, DC

Pompeii and the Roman Villa: Art and Culture around the Bay of Naples
19 October 2008 - 22 March 2009
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4th and Constitution Ave, NW.
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Tel: (1) 202 737 42 15

Düsseldorf

Diana and Actaeon: The Forbidden Glimpse of the Naked Body
25 October 2008 - 15 February 2009
museum kunst palast
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40479 Düsseldorf, Germany
Tel: (49) 0211 89 924 60

Rotterdam

Imperial Rome!
Through 8 March 2009
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Westzeedijk 341
3015 AA Rotterdam
Netherlands
Tel: (31) 10 44 00 300

New York

The Dead Sea Scrolls: Mysteries of the Ancient World
Until 4 January 2009
The Jewish Museum
1109 Fifth Avenue at 92nd Street
New York, NY
Tel: (1) 212 423 32 00

Bonn

Rome and the Barbarians: Europe during the Migration Period
Through 7 December 2008
Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland
Museumsmeile
Friedrich-Ebert-Allee 4
Bonn, Germany
(49) 228 91 71

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