Magazine article The Spectator

Emperor's Vision

Magazine article The Spectator

Emperor's Vision

Article excerpt

Hadrian: Empire and Conflict The British Museum until 26 October Sponsored by BP

After last week's Hadrian supplement in The Spectator, readers will be wellinformed about this prince of emperors, so I will confine my remarks to a personal response to the exhibition. I must say immediately that it looks very impressive and that Sir Robert Smirke's round Reading Room is the perfect setting for a display that also focuses on the architecture of the Pantheon. (Smirke based his dome directly on that great classical exemplar. ) But this is not another Terracotta Army blockbuster: it is, in effect, an exhibition of busts and architectural models. If you're interested in the period, you'll love it, but I wonder how many visitors will be converted to the delights of ancient history by its charms.

As you come up the steps to enter the exhibition, you are confronted by three fragments of a newly discovered statue of Hadrian. This time last year they were still in the ground, so their unveiling is very new.

These marble body parts from a colossal statue in the ancient city of Sagalassos, now in south-west Turkey, consist of a handsome head, a foot in a sandal, and a leg from knee to ankle. Here is Hadrian for the first time (in a display of many imperial likenesses) with his curly hair and curly beard, the first Emperor to be so hirsute, but sadly reduced to a trio of parts. A dramatic prologue, but most fitting for an exhibition composed of remnants and survivals. To the left, a cabinet of objects from India, China and Parthian Mesopotamia indicates the extent of the empire over which Hadrian ruled. The exhibition never really manages to convey the largeness of that territory, nor the fact that Hadrian himself was constantly travelling round it (more than other emperors) and meeting his subjects. But that's not something an exhibition could easily convey: ancient historical surveys of this sort are invariably and inevitably static.

Hadrian (76-138 AD) reigned for more than 20 years, not a bad innings for an emperor, a year or two more than Trajan, his immediate predecessor who adopted him as heir. Both men were of Spanish origin, and are often referred to as the Spanish mafia. Is this nationality evident in the moody bust of Hadrian from Italica? Or in the series of six portrait heads -- a kind of sculptural family tree -- which trace his antecedents? No.

His defining physical characteristics remain the beard and the deep diagonal creases in his earlobes which apparently denote coronary artery disease. Did he suffer from this?

Perhaps, but the inclusion of such creases certainly heightens the apparent realism of his portraits. Especially when so many of them are to do with ritual or role-playing.

Look, for example, at Hadrian full-length in military dress, crushing the barbarian underfoot. Or Hadrian as Mars, the first Roman Emperor to have himself depicted thus. By comparison, the bronze head of Hadrian found in the Thames near London Bridge in 1834 is a straightforward portrait.

Mention of England immediately brings to mind Hadrian's Wall and the subjugation of warring tribes in this country. Among the souvenirs on show from the Wall are a rather fine ceremonial cavalry helmet, a bob from a plumbline and a collection of small bronze bowls or saucepans. …

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