Show of Strength: The British Museum's Summer Exhibition Demonstrates How the Legacy of Hadrian's Powerful Empire Permeates Our Everyday Lives, Writes Elizabeth Speller

By Speller, Elizabeth | New Statesman (1996), August 18, 2008 | Go to article overview

Show of Strength: The British Museum's Summer Exhibition Demonstrates How the Legacy of Hadrian's Powerful Empire Permeates Our Everyday Lives, Writes Elizabeth Speller


Speller, Elizabeth, New Statesman (1996)


At the end of Via Nicola Zabaglia in Rome, the British and Commonwealth military cemetery is bounded by the 3rd-century Aurelian Wall. The immaculately maintained graves of soldiers killed in the 1944 liberation of Rome lie under tall pine trees. At their centre is a memorial. A slab of rough, reddish stone is set into brickwork. Underneath, a plaque reads: "This stone from Hadrian's Wall, the northernmost boundary of the Roman empire, was placed here at the wish of the citizens of Carlisle, England, to commemorate those servicemen from Cumbria who died in the Second World War."

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

It is a potent but complicated gesture. It seems that this piece of rock, dug from Cumbrian soil, shaped and used by the Emperor Hadrian's surveyors to set the limits of empire, and unidentifiable without the superscription, can stand for a whole package of ideas: of military ideals, of historic geographical connections, and of a shared culture. A culture to die for.

Fragments have a power to be more than the sum of their parts. The arbitrary survival of ancient artefacts is one of the seductive features of classical history. We are left both desiring more and with a need to engage individually with what is left to fill in the blanks. The period 117-138AD, in which the Roman emperor Hadrian ruled one of the greatest empires in history, is rich in such fragments. A battered lead pipe from Hadrian's Villa at Tivoli is infinitely more engaging than if the entire system were laid out intact; a single sandal retrieved from the hiding place of fugitive Jews conjures up desperation and sudden flight; marble or bronze heads revealed to be not as one with their torsos suggest we reappraise other classical statues.

It is no coincidence that the only known scrap of the emperor's autobiography is one of the final displays in the British Museum's fascinating exhibition "Hadrian: Empire and Conflict". Fragments tantalise--what would the book have revealed? A truth of the death of Antinous, his favourite? Of events surrounding Hadrian's accession on the death of his predecessor, Trajan? The thinking behind the bloody events in Judaea? Judging by subsequent political autobiographies, it would have done more to obscure than reveal, but its absence encourages creative speculation.

The British Museum begins with a fragmentary coup. The monumental remains of a statue of Hadrian were excavated only last year from Sagalassos in modern Turkey. The museum has resisted any temptation to reconstruct the original, and the head, leg and foot are breathtaking in their dismembered state. Perhaps as exciting are the photographs showing their discovery: workmen clearing soil from what is clearly the colossal head. Here is an irresistible drama of excavation, but also a reminder that the relationship with the ancient world is always changing as scholars work to fit new discoveries into a narrative.

Not every one requires an official narrative, of course. Reviewers sometimes have the opportunity to see an exhibition outside opening hours, and for sensuous pleasure such intimate viewing is an unmatched experience. An exhibition, however, is primarily not a spectacle, but a conduit of information, and watching visitors respond to the displays is informative in itself. The densest bottleneck is around finds from a cave in Israel where Jewish rebels and their families attempted (unsuccessfully) to evade the Roman soldiers. The exhibits are beautifully preserved and mostly very simple: footwear, a straw basket, house keys, letters and a mirror. Almost all are objects familiar from our own lives and resonate with images we know from the aftermath of violent conflict today--and they prove that it is not just precious metal, marble and superb craftsmanship which draw the crowds or re-create the past.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Why Hadrian? He was intelligent, restless and controlling, his political skills consolidated the empire, his aesthetic agenda transformed the city of Rome, and his suppression of Judaea was to store up problems for posterity, but Hadrian was not so much an exceptional emperor as a very good exemplar, not least because such a breadth of material survives him. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Show of Strength: The British Museum's Summer Exhibition Demonstrates How the Legacy of Hadrian's Powerful Empire Permeates Our Everyday Lives, Writes Elizabeth Speller
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.