20 October 2008


On Friday night after work I went to Great Russell Street with Steve, Fiona, Philippa and Helen to view the British Museum's exhibition on Publius Aelius Hadrianus (76-138AD), better known today as the Roman Emperor Hadrian. It was located in the domed enclosure of the museum's old Reading Room, which is itself a tribute to the architectural heritage of Hadrian. In part the exhibition had been made possible by remarkable archaeological discoveries at Sagalassos in Turkey in 2007, in which a colossal statue of Hadrian was retrieved from the ruins of Roman baths. (There have been plenty more discoveries reported at Sagalassos since then). The larger-than-life head, leg and foot of the statue are the first items on display in the exhibition, setting the scene for the story of an emperor whose 21-year reign left a grand legacy.

Most people have heard of Hadrian's Wall, which was designed to keep the rampaging Scots at bay and protect the Roman realm in the north of England. But the greatest architectural legacy left by Hadrian's rule is probably the Pantheon, the magnificent temple in central Rome with an awe-inspiring domed ceiling that has been inspiring visitors for 18 centuries. Hadrian ordered it rebuilt in 125AD and it has stood ever since, although it was re-dedicated as a Christian place of worship in the 7th century. Hadrian also built the mammoth pleasure palace now known as Hadrian's Villa at Tivoli outside Rome, which is still visited by thousands every year to marvel at its ruins. The exhibition displayed a superb red marble statue from the ruins, depicting a capering faun with a lyre, and a vast scale model of the Villa, built by an Italian archaeologist in the 1930s.

The exhibition focuses on some interesting small points in Hadrian's life and times. For example, one useful tool for identifying statues of Hadrian is the rendition of his earlobes, which displayed the tell-tale crease of a potential heart disease sufferer (see this Western Journal of Medicine article from 1980). There's also a clay roof tile from the long years in which Hadrian's legions suppressed Jewish revolts in Judaea - the corner of the tile was imprinted with the iron-shod studs of a Roman legionary's sandals who strode over the tile as it was laid out to cool in the sun after firing. There are also the delicate yet remarkably well-preserved relics from the Cave of Letters, a refuge of Jewish freedom fighters (or revolutionaries, depending on your point of view) including Simon bar Kokhba, the last King of Israel. The sole of a sandal, a jewellery box, ladies' mirrors, and hand-written journals on thin papyrus have all survived down through the centuries.

Another portion of the exhibition deals with what seems to have been a consuming passion of Hadrian's life. While Hadrian was married to Empress Sabina, it seems that Hadrian's passions may have been reserved for his handsome young favourite Antinous. A colossal bust of Antinous displays a lush classical beauty, particularly its elaborately curled locks of hair, which spawned a fashion craze across the empire. After his mysterious drowning in the Nile in 130AD Hadrian ordered Antinous' deification. Such royal liaisons were not particularly frowned upon in the Roman world, although the importance of securing the imperial succession meant that delivering a legitimate heir was always of foremost importance. But the (in)famous Warren Cup, also on display, which in 1999 was the most expensive item ever purchased by the British Museum, shows that a wealthy Roman could commission expensive silverware depicting a gay tryst. Such items did cause the Victorians quite a bit of bother because they didn't comply with their romanticised view of the Romans' imperial spirit.

Hadrian did manage to secure his succession, but not through his wife Vibia Sabina, with whom he had an unhappy marriage. Instead he adopted a series of successors, thereby providing the stability that Rome needed and settling the ownership of the imperial throne for the next 42 years. He also constructed a great mausoleum for his own burial, one that still stands today, although it's been much modified and hacked about in the intervening years. A beautiful pair of enormous bronze peacocks from the tomb formed the last sight of the exhibition.

It was an enjoyable and informative exhibition, but I think we all agreed that the Friday night crowds were hard to handle, making it difficult to read the captions on the glass cases due to the prevalence of daft people who persisted in standing right up close and cutting out everyone else's view. What the British Museum needs is a roll of cheap gaffer tape to mark a line on the carpet: any closer than, say, 75 centimetres to the exhibits and an alarm bell goes off!

(Image: WikiCommons, Hadrian in armour, c.127-128AD, from Heraklion, Crete, located in the Musee du Louvre)
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