It is the supreme merit of the new exhibition Hadrian: Empire and conflict at the British Museum that it meets these issues head on, and from the start. Directly inside the vestibule, the darkness is lit by the flickering of a video screen: images of our moody, backlit hero loom, then morph back into the shadows, just as they might do on a particularly stylish YouTube promo. This is Hadrian as international man of mystery: “always in all things changeable”, as the Historia Augusta described him. Next to the screen there stands a solitary display-case, containing a couple of Marguerite Yourcenar’s notebooks, and a manuscript of Mémoires d’Hadrien.A thoughtful review, although, as usual, it tries too hard to find improving parallels to the world of 2008.
It is possible that not a few visitors, drawn by the promise of a blockbuster show, will feel themselves to have been mildly short-changed as they stare down at an assortment of scribblings in French and Latin – but they should not abandon hope. Carry on into the Reading Room, where the main body of the exhibition is being staged, and all their expectations will be spectacularly met. For directly ahead of them, positioned at the top of a stairway, they will find three hulking pieces of marble, fragments of the kind of statue that form our own picture of Imperial Rome. A giant foot, a chunk of leg, and a colossal head: here are exhibits that have never before been displayed. Indeed, only a year ago, no one even suspected that they so much as existed: for they lay buried amid the ruins of the Pisidian city of Sagalassos, in what is now south-west Turkey. A photograph of the head at the precise moment of its discovery, still half-covered by dirt, serves to emphasize the point that is being made here. There can never be a final history of Hadrian. New finds will always be made. Memorials to the Emperor’s reign will continue to be uncovered and dusted down. Dead he may be, and the Empire he ruled as well, but the study of ancient Rome, and the ways in which we interpret it, refuse to stand still.
This is an exhibition in which context is all.
Take, for example, the section which showcases what is, to a British audience, the most familiar monument from Hadrian’s reign: his Wall. To earlier generations – and it may be to the Romans themselves – this massive undertaking served as an inspiringly visible stamp of Rome’s civilizing mission. “An encamped army encloses the fairest portion of the world in a ring like a rampart”: so gushed Aelius Aristeides, enthusing over Rome’s supposed eirenic vocation. Recent scholarship, however, has given such rhapsodies predictably short shrift. The Wall now tends to be seen in a much more sinister light, less as a bulwark of civilization than as a deliberately intimidatory tool of control and repression. Even so, it can still give a jolt to turn from inspecting artefacts as familiar as the Vindolanda tablets to the adjacent display-case, where there is another letter, very different in tone, waiting to be perused. Written on the orders of the Jewish insurrectionist Simon bar Kokhba – or perhaps even in his very hand – it was found in the so-called Cave of Letters, where desperate refugees had ended up taking refuge after the failure of the third Jewish uprising against Roman rule in barely fifty years.
The twin troves of letters, one found on the moors of northern England, and the other in a desert wadi beside the Dead Sea, have never before been brought together – and their close proximity serves to inspire a measure of sombre reflection. Britannia and Judaea, for all that they stood at the opposite ends of the Empire, suddenly do not seem so far apart. We know that the general entrusted by Hadrian with the ultimate suppression of the Jewish revolt throughout 135–6 was one Sextus Julius Severus, a former governor of Britain. The same man who was to show himself so proficient in the arts of counter-insurgency and extermination in Judaea would also have been intimately involved in the construction of the Wall. This, in Hadrian’s Empire, was what globalization could mean.