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."
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.
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. …