Hadrian still speaks to us, but not about Iraq

The British Museum’s new exhibition is fascinating in its own right - so let's stop trying to make it so achingly now.

John Dennen

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The British Museum’s exhibition, Hadrian: Empire and Conflict, opened on 24 July and has every appearance of being a tremendous success, helped in no small part by the enthusiastic media coverage the museum is uncannily able to command.

Firstly, the exhibition is impressive, containing as it does about 170 objects displayed with the co-operation of 31 international institutions. The first sight that greets you on entry is Hadrian’s massive head, the remnants of what was evidently a huge statue, excavated in Turkey less than a year ago.

Hadrian is a name we know well in Britain from the eponymous wall that runs from coast to coast in England, just south of the border with Scotland. But as an emperor who is not from the ‘classical’ period, he has not commanded as much attention as Julius Caesar, Augustus and his immediate successors. The exhibition itself is well met, taking you through the story of Hadrian’s reign and the mark he left on the world.

The museum has been spinning the exhibition as an illustration of Hadrian’s ‘political topicality’, the line that has been taken up by the press with near unanimity. The British Museum’s press release notes: ‘His first act on coming to power was to withdraw the Roman forces from Mesopotamia, present-day Iraq.’ As Thorsten Opper, the exhibition curator said, ‘We can relate to it’, emphasising that ‘the conflict zones there are the conflict zones of today.’ Rachel Campbell-Johnston, writing in The Times (London), concludes: ‘The questions he asks resonate today. What price do we pay for peace?’ (1)

But I would try to resist making your Hadrian so achingly now. People are very keen to draw historical allusions to justify their current attitudes. Does Hadrian’s conduct in Mesopotamia really obtain to the Iraq occupation (pardon me, ‘overwatch’)? If any leader decided to base his foreign policy on the geo-politics of the first century AD, it would be quite a concern. History is important because it provides the backstory to where we are now. But the most exciting thing about this exhibition is that it is interesting in itself.

It may be fun to reinvent Hadrian as a very modern kind of emperor, but it is not accurate. A BBC reporter earnestly asked Opper to ‘make sense of it for me in the context of contemporary life’, but this is quite the wrong approach. The only way to figure out who he was, what he did and what it meant, is to examine it on its own terms, not through the prism of our contemporary concerns.

And the exhibition itself, rather than the media commentary, does a very good job of this. Hadrian’s family came from a province in Spain, but the imperial family adopted him. No doubt his marriage to Sabina, the great-niece of Trajan, the previous emperor, was of some assistance in his rise to power. However it was never publicly clear that he was the intended successor.

To some, Hadrian is a contradiction, withdrawing from Mesopotamia, but crushing a Jewish revolt in 132 AD with the utmost ferocity. But when he took command in 117 AD, he needed to stabilise the empire and getting out of the Middle East helped him do this. This would also explain why he was so ruthless when it came to suppressing internal dissent. Another of his early imperial acts was to cancel debts from the period between 104 and 118 AD, which is said to have had an immediate, positive effect on the economy. Equally, there is no obvious contradiction between Hadrian projecting himself as both a military man and a culture lover. There are some splendid statues in the exhibition of Hadrian stomping a barbarian under foot and dressed as Mars, the god of war.

He was also the first emperor to wear a beard, which has been interpreted variously as the image of a Greek intellectual, an attempt to hide bad skin, or simply to fit in with contemporary fashion. More significantly, Hadrian travelled extensively throughout his empire and he filled his villa near Tivoli with representations of the greatest cultural hits from his domains. His most striking legacy is architectural, leaving his mark on Britain with his wall but spectacularly so in Rome with his mausoleum and the Pantheon.

Known as graeculus, for his passion for all things Greek, not only was he an enthusiast for their culture, he also had a Greek male lover, Antinous, to accompany him on his travels. As pointed out in the exhibition, the Romans did not have a word for ‘gay’, in the modern sense. Homosexuality was common practice, usually between a man and a much younger boy. The only shame attached was if you were, ahem, the passive lover as this was regarded as not appropriately manly. Affairs with married women were as grave a crime then as at any other time.

It is unclear how Antinous died though it seems he may well have drowned. Hadrian mourned him intensely, throwing up monuments to him, building a city in his name and allowing loyal subjects to set up cults that honoured Antinous as a god. The British Museum said that this was ‘without precedent’ and perhaps in scale it was. But Alexander the Great certainly grieved the death of his male lover, Hephaestion, as extravagantly. Opper pointed out how keen Hadrian was to strengthen ties with Greece to keep the empire secure and no doubt it would have pleased Greek elites to have one of their own heralded in this way. To have his lover celebrated as a god also surely enhanced Hadrian’s own image. Mourning his lover to an extent that recalled Alexander the Great and the way the great hero of the Iliad, Achilles, mourns Patroklos, would also, I suggest, have had some impact on forming the myth of Hadrian.

This is a very worthwhile exhibition and generating enthusiasm for the subject is a splendid thing. It succeeds in bringing this story to life with the artefacts of the time. The classical period is tremendously exciting to study because the great thinkers of the time were grappling with ideas, from government to science to ethics, that are still of tremendous interest to us today. But the exhibition is fascinating in its own right and I think we miss so much if we stare at Hadrian’s face and try to project our own image on to it.

John Dennen is a journalist and studied classics at Oxford University.

Previously on spiked

John Dennen described the film 300 as ‘insane’. Josie Appleton called an eco-stunt at the British Museum’s Terracotta Warrior exhibition ‘childish’. Yascha Mounk cautioned against state influence on art at the Louvre. Tiffany Jenkins lamented the desire to emphasise the dark side of history. Or read more at spiked issue: Museums and galleries.

(1) Hadrian at the British Museum, The Times (London), 16 July 2008

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