Hadrian: Man, Hero, Husband, Lover, Emperor

The British Museum’s exhibition reassesses the great Roman, a complex figure who left a legacy of unique glory

Art Classics History

After the First Emperor comes the fourteenth. While Ying Zheng’s terracotta warriors brought in 850,000 visitors, the British Museum will have high hopes but more modest expectations of Hadrian: Empire and Conflict. Compared with Qin Dynasty China, ancient Rome is familiar fare. The emperor Hadrian (AD 76-138), however, may be a more familiar type of potentate than his Oriental counterpart but he is no less fascinating a figure.

Born into a Spanish-Roman family of olive-oil barons, Hadrian was adopted by his father’s cousin – and fellow Iberian – Trajan. After a distinguished career in the army and Rome’s great offices of state he became emperor in AD 117. The prevailing image of Hadrian is as a cultured philhellene whose two passions were architecture and his epicene lover Antinous. This exhibition seeks to show a more complex character.

The author of the Historia Augusta, a late fourth-century work of imperial biography, was in no doubt as to the richness of Hadrian’s personality: “He was, in the same person, austere and genial, dignified and playful, dilatory and quick to act, niggardly and generous, deceitful and straightforward, cruel and merciful, and always in all things changeable.” Plenty to get one’s teeth into, in other words.

Hadrian was indeed fascinated by Greek culture – his nickname as a young man was graeculus – “little Greekling” – and with good reason. It was not just the earlier civilisation’s accomplishments that drew him but realpolitik too; more Greeks lived in Rome than in any Greek city. But one exhibit in particular encapsulates just how wrong the standard view of him is. In 1861 a bust of the emperor was found among other fragments of sculpture in Cyrene in north Africa. When the pieces were put together, the result seemed to confirm Hadrian’s philhellenism. Despite the fact that emperors were traditionally depicted in only three guises – in armour, in a toga or in the nude – the statue showed him wearing a himation, a Greek mantle. It was only in preparation for this exhibition that conservators removed the head and found that it had never been carved to fit the Greek body but rather a different torso altogether: the join between the ill-fitting portions had been carefully masked by Victorian craftsmen under layers of plaster. Hadrian wasn’t so Greek after all.

Other elements of his story also need reassessing. In his depictions on coins and statues Hadrian has a distinctive face, with one tell-tale sign that marks out his authentic contemporary portraits: he had a deep diagonal crease across each earlobe, possibly the result of coronary artery disease. He is also usually shown bearded (he was the first emperor to sport a full, groomed beard) and with tightly curled hair which was cared for by specially trained slaves. This distinctive coiffure, however, was not a carefully thought out element of imperial iconography but rather a professional badge. Soldiers, both officers and troopers, often wore their hair in just such a way so Hadrian was not setting himself apart but – emperor or not – showing himself to be one of them.

He had every reason to stress his military credentials. Hadrian’s conflict zones have a strikingly modern feel to them – the Balkans, the Caucasus, Judea and Mesopotamia (modern Iraq). His first act as emperor was to consolidate Rome’s boundaries: he withdrew his troops from Mesopotamia, establishing the Euphrates as the frontier (as it remains today) and never again fought a war of aggression. His boundaries – Hadrian’s Wall in the north, the limes (palisade) in Germany and his forts in north Africa – were boundaries of inclusion as well as exclusion. Those within received the benefits of Roman civilisation, those without didn’t.

One of the ways Hadrian encouraged cultural integration was through architecture. He instigated temple-building projects across the empire, most notably in Athens and Jerusalem, and created structures in Rome that would serve as models and inspiration. Two of the greatest still stand – the Pantheon, which has the world’s largest unsupported concrete roof; and the Castel Sant’Angelo, built as his mausoleum. The exhibition has various capitals, cornices and bricks bearing the stamps of their makers from his numerous projects. These, along with fragments of fresco and stucco decorations from his extraordinary villa at Tivoli, give a taste of the grandeur he encouraged.

Oddly, another means of unifying the empire came with the death of his Greek lover Antinous – a “shameless and scandalous boy”, according to St Athanasius – who drowned in the Nile in mysterious circumstances in AD 130. Hadrian’s grief was excessive: he founded a city where Antinous died and he encouraged a hero-cult to spring up across the realm and even as far as Georgia. More than 100 marble images of Antinous are known to exist, more than of anyone other than Augustus and Hadrian himself. The examples in this exhibition show a smooth-skinned boy of great beauty, modelled on classical gods; others portray him as a hunter (it was while hunting that Hadrian and Antinous met), as an athlete or as Dionysus or Osiris.

To demonstrate Hadrian’s even-handedness there are also three portrait busts of his wife Sabina. They reveal a stately, clear-featured woman with a long, straight nose and small mouth. Tradition has it that theirs was a chilly union. He described her as “harsh” and “irritable”; she boasted that she avoided becoming pregnant by him because “offspring of his would harm the human race”. This is probably another misconception; Hadrian in fact honoured her in statues and coins and granted her the title of Augusta.

Together, all these fragments – coins and marble, cups and masonry, sandals and rings – form a composite picture of Hadrian and the world he created. It makes for a striking likeness. Appropriately, the exhibition is taking place in the Round Reading Room of the old British Library, a building that is itself Hadrianic: it takes its shape and inspiration directly from the Pantheon in Rome.