What you don't know about...Hadrian


Written by Isabel Palmer
20 Wednesday 20th August 2008


Marble head of 'young' Hadrian, found 1954.

Publius Aelius Hadrianus was Emperor of Rome from 117 to 138 AD. He is perhaps most famous for ordering the construction of a vast wall stretching 73 miles from the Solway Firth to the River Tyne whose ruins still span many miles across the Scottish border today.

Built in 122 AD after a major rebellion in Britannia spanning roughly two years, its purpose continues to elude people. Was it a means of military defence and a safeguard against unwanted immigration from those pesky Caledonians, or a marker of the Roman Empire's limits? Was it built as a monument to Hadrian for being such a glorious stud or was it just work to keep the army busy and prevent mutiny through absolute boredom?

The original Latin name for the wall is unknown and in recent history it has inherited his namesake. But much like the enigmatic wall Hadrian is a bit of a mystery too. A military hero, married but a screaming homosexual, who combined ruthless suppression of dissent with cultural tolerance.




Statue of Antinous-Osiris. Roman marble sculpture 117-138 AD.


Apart from his eponymous wall, Hadrian was a renowned philhellene and Stoic-Epicurean philosopher. His main passions were Greek culture, architecture and hunting (and his favourite colour pink, probably).


Although he saw himself as a humanist, his persecution of the Jews is documented in the exhibition with examples of poignant objects, once the personal belongings of the crushed rebels left to hide in caves near Jerusalem after Hadrian reacted with ferocity against the Jewish Revolt in 132 AD.


Among the objects are these unbelievably massive door keys kept in the vain hope of returning home one day. Imagine, the Roman Army is coming to probably rape, pillage and burn down your village, and you make sure that you don't forget to lock-up and take your keys! But still, a haunting reminder of more recent history.



Jewish house keys from the Caves in Jerusalem.


Head of Hadrian incorrectly attached to the body of a man in a Greek toga, found in Cyrene. Roman Sculpture 117-138AD.Sculptures and portraits of Hadrian as a young man with sideburns, before he grew his trademark intellectual's beard inspired by the Greek philosophers - he was Rome's first emperor to sport the trend setting facial hair - show a more human side.

A strong and masculine war lord with a wiff of the Dale Winton about him, he may not be considered a gay icon but he created one. The love of his life was not his wife but a 13 year old Greek boy called Antinous who accompanied him on his travels around the empire for six years until 130 AD when Antinous drowned in mysterious circumstances in Egypt's River Nile.

Consumed by grief, Hadrian not only founded an entire new city, Antinoupolis, close to the spot where he died, but had Antinous declared a god. He continually commemorated him with erotic sculptures in various god-like incarnations including as the Egyptian deity Osiris who, complete with perfectly polished pectorals and loincloth bulge, meets visitors at the entrance to the exhibition.

One of the other star exhibits was exposed as a charlatan a month before the show began. The full-size statue of the emperor posing as a philosopher, showing his softer side, has been displayed in the museum since the mid 19th century. However, during a routine conservation check a join between the head of Hadrian and the body of a mystery Greek man was uncovered. The statue's pieces were excavated by two British naval officers in 1861 in Libya and then mix-matched together by Victorian plasterers. On discovering such shocking fakery, the exhibition's curator, Thorsten Opper said that he felt "awful" because they were destroying the cherished vision of Hadrian as a "cuddly" character.


Coin with portrait of young Hadrian. Romulus on the reverse.


Dramatic sculpture, exquisite bronzes and architectural fragments from 28 lenders geographically spanning what once was the Roman Empire - from Israel to Newcastle (180 objects altogether) - are compiled for the first time in the UK to make up this archaeological treasury. Alongside are famous objects from the museum's own collection such as the iconic bronze head of Hadrian and the Vindolanda tablets - fragments of wooden leaf-tablets with writing in ink containing messages to and from members of the garrison of Vindolanda Roman fort, their families and slaves.

Fittingly the museum chose to show the collection in its Round Reading Room, often compared to one of Hadrian's architectural masterpieces, the Pantheon in Rome.

The British Museum's exhibition Hadrian: Empire and Conflict is showing from 24 July to 26 October 2008. £12 concessions available.

www.britishmuseum.org. A good lesson in history.

All images © Trustees of the British Museum unless otherwise stated.

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