The Emperor Who Holds Up a Mirror to Our Times; Visions of Empire: Exhibition Installers at the British Museum Carefully Lower the Bust of Hadrian, One of History's Great Enigmas

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Byline: DOMINIC SANDBROOK

SHOULD anyone doubt that we are living in a golden age for museums and exhibitions, the British Museum's magnificent new show on the Roman emperor Hadrian should put them right.

Painstakingly constructed and utterly compelling, this latest blockbuster is testament to the sheer ambition of London's premier museum under the inspired leadership of Neil MacGregor.

But its achievement goes beyond even that for not only does it shed new light on one of history's greatest empires, it offers plenty of lessons for Hadrian's modern-day successors.

Our fascination with the Romans has deep roots: the Victorians saw them as forerunners of Britain's global empire, while even now audiences thrill to sword-and-sandals epics such as Gladiator and the BBC's controversial Rome. And all the grandeur, romance and might of the empire at its zenith are there in the British Museum's new show, from the colossal busts of the ruler and his family some never before seen to the Vindolanda tablets, found near Hadrian's Wall, with their intelligence reports on the empire's tribal enemies.

But the real star of the exhibition is Hadrian himself one of history's great enigmas, and a brilliant politician whom our present leaders would do well to study. For the bearded emperor makes even Tony Blair look transparent and uncomplicated. A Spanish parvenu who loved all things Greek, a ruthless politician who adored philosophy and wrote poetry, a military man who put his armies into reverse gear, he bewildered his subjects and historians alike.

The parallels with the present day are extraordinary. When Hadrian assumed power in August AD117, the Roman army was badly overstretched, facing rebellions everywhere from Britain to the Middle East. And the first thing that Hadrian did showing the cool, decisive leadership that was to become his trademark was to pull Roman troops out of their recently conquered territories in what is now Iraq, where local insurgents were running riot.

Giving up on Iraq was immensely controversial, for the Romans prided themselves on their record of military victories.

Unlike our own troops, the Roman army was well funded and hugely respected, a symbol of civilisation and a route to political success. At home, citizens even bought their groceries with coins displaying scenes from the battlefront; the shock, therefore, was all the greater when Hadrian announced that Rome was withdrawing.

What Hadrian recognised and what his successors would do well to learn is that even the greatest empire has its limits. Rome continues to fascinate because its sheer scale and ingenuity leave us in awe. As the exhibition reminds us, it covered not only the modern European Union but also North Africa and the Middle East, uniting hugely different ethnic and religious groups in a vast zone of Roman law and free trade.

And yet while the dazzling array of statues and artefacts brings home the stunning sweep of Roman power, Hadrian's most famous achievement the great wall on the Scottish border makes the point that every world power must stop somewhere.

If that makes Hadrian sound like an emperor for our times, there is more. …