Compelling Study of Hadrian's Reign; BOOKS Hadrian - Empire and Conflict by Thorsten Opper. Published by British Museum Press, Pounds 40th. Reviewed by RICHARD EDMONDS
Byline: RICHARD EDMONDS
HADRIAN has always been a legendary figure. He was an empire builder, architect, philosopher and lover. In fact, he has always been part of the myths and legends which have surrounded the great Roman rulers.
Even Julius Caesar comes secondary in a way to Hadrian's track record - which is no mean feat. The busts and full-length figures which embellish so beautifully this excellent book (which accompanies the current exhibition featuring Hadrian at the British Museum) show us a benign face of the emperor - which is almost complacent, a face which can view the follies of mankind with a benign tolerance.
But civic sculpture in Hadrian's day was worked out against a set of formal principles - nothing of the actual person was ever truly apparent - everything is relatively stylised with an eye to public display transcending everything else.
Hadrian is most famous for Hadrian's Wall in the north of England, which still stands today in a wild, uncompromisingly fearsome way, providing a reminder of the Roman heel, which once stamped its power on this country.
We often forget that Hadrian himself was a cultivated man, equally interested in both Greek and Roman culture, so the British Museum exhibition comes at a convenient time when modern technology, basing its research on ancient artefacts, can help us to re-examine what we already know - or believe that we know - about Hadrian's history as it has been handed down to us, although much in these areas will always be open to speculation.
In Thorsten Opper's culturally incisive examination of the most famous Roman of them all, we are given information which can provide us with space to reflect on the many contradictions in Hadrian's personality while at the same time absorbing the myths that have always surrounded him, some of which are dispelled in the light of 20th century reasoning.
Opper begins, as indeed he should, by charting Hadrian's rise to power. Born into the Spanish elite, he was obviously a frequent visitor to court and was eventually adopted as a son by the Emperor Trajan, who became his father and he eventually ended up as Trajan's successor. Hadrian was a consummate statesman, consolidating and strengthening the empire he had inherited, rather than weakening it with endless campaigns in a way which had been Trajan's downfall.
Against a background of contemporary events and set within an illustrated text which shows some attractive research and includes everything from atmospheric photographs of Hadrian's Wall itself to illustrations of combat gear, armour, richly embossed silver items, portrait statuary and much else, we get a picture built up for us of the man himself - a ruler obsessed with architecture. …