A very modern emperorBackground here.
He pulled his troops out of Iraq, was an avid art collector and had an intriguing, and tragic, sex life - of all the Roman emperors, Hadrian seems the most recognisable. But, as the British Museum explores his legacy in a new exhibition, Mary Beard asks to what extent he is our own creation
Saturday July 19, 2008
Within hours of taking the throne, in August AD117, the emperor Hadrian made one major strategic decision. He issued the order to withdraw the Roman troops from Iraq (or Mesopotamia, as he would have called it). His succession had been a messy one, in the usual Roman way. Despite a well-earned reputation for effective administration in most areas, the Romans never really sorted out the transfer of imperial power. Hadrian's leadership bid was more reminiscent of what goes on in the Labour party than in the House of Windsor. It involved a good deal of manipulation, double-dealing, back-stabbing (in Rome this was real, not metaphorical) and perfect timing. A couple of rivals had made their bid too soon, leaving Hadrian as the only plausible candidate to be adopted by his elderly predecessor Trajan, just a few days before he died.
He diverted the legions to more winnable campaigns elsewhere. There was unrest, as usual, in the Balkans. And in the near east he had to finish stamping out a Jewish revolt which, according to some wild and fearful Roman estimates, had cost half a million Greek and Roman lives. Fifteen years later, prompted among other things by a recent ban on circumcision, the Jews rebelled again under Shimon bar Kokhba. Charismatic or charlatan, depending on your point of view (the predictably hostile Saint Jerome later claimed that he "fanned a lighted straw in his mouth so that he appeared to be breathing out flames"), he commanded a force that was at first a match for the Romans. In the end, Hadrian's forces had to resort to the most ruthless form of ethnic cleansing, constructive starvation and mass slaughter of the enemy that went far beyond the casualties inflicted by the Jews. In Rome, and among generations of antisemitic ideologues up to the 20th century, the victory was hailed a triumph over religious fanaticism and political insurrection.
The new exhibition at the British Museum, Hadrian: Empire and Conflict, features evocative objects from both sides of this Jewish war. There are simple everyday items recovered from a Jewish hideout: some house keys, a leather sandal, a straw basket almost perfectly preserved in the dry heat, a wooden plate and a mirror - evidence of the presence of women, according to the exhibition catalogue (as if men did not use mirrors). But with or without the women, these are all bitter reminders of the daily life that somehow managed to continue, even in hiding and in the middle of what was effectively genocide. From the other side, there is a magnificent bronze statue of the emperor himself, which once stood in a legionary camp near the River Jordan. The distinctive head of Hadrian (bearded, with soft curling hair and a giveaway kink in his ear lobe) sits on top of an elaborately decorated breast-plate, on which six nude warriors do battle. It is a striking combination, even if - here as elsewhere - the catalogue raises doubts about whether the head and body of this statue originally belonged together.
The British Museum exhibition presents Hadrian as an appropriate successor to the first emperor of China and his terracotta army, both key figures in the foundation and development of early imperial societies. Maybe so. But an even better reason to visit this stunning show is to see how the myth of a Roman emperor has been created - and continues to be created - out of our own imagination and the dazzling but sometimes puzzling array of statues, silver plates and lost keys of slaughtered Jewish freedom-fighters.
Saturday, July 19, 2008
THE HADRIAN EXHIBITION is reviewed in the Guardian by Mary Beard. The review is quite thorough and has insightful spots, but it tries way too hard to be knowingly relevant, flogging the Iraq war connection for all it's worth and more.