Friday, August 10, 2007

Hadrian and other historical thoughts

Two posts in a single month - what is the world coming to?

I caught up on the discovery of a colossal statue of Hadrian at the site of Sagalassos, in southern Turkey, which the BBC had on their news page yesterday, though it was in Archaeology a week ago.

It's a rather splendid discovery, of course. But what interests me is the sociology of the BBC report, and what it says about the way we view Hadrian. All the usual motifs are there - Hadrian's Wall, Hadrian as a good military administrator, Hadrian as one of the 'five good emperors' (a position into which he was canonized by Edward Gibbon).

This fits in with the way Hadrian has always been viewed in England. Because of his association with the Wall, he has, more than any other Roman emperor, been adopted by the English as practically an honorary Englishman - only Constantine comes close in the affections of the English (I refer, of course, to the increasingly small portion of the English population that cares about Roman emperors at all). Hadrian the soldier is highlighted, making him the sort of emperor that retired Guards colonels can identify with. One can't imagine the British press making much of a fuss about a colossal statue of Marcus Aurelius or Gallienus.

There is, however, a different side to Hadrian. That is Hadrian the lover of all things Greek, to such a degree that he was mocked in his youth as a 'Greekling'. (I often wonder if it is coincidental that, in the reign of Hadrian's predecessor Trajan, the satirist Juvenal is, in his vicious attack on Greeks in his Third Satire, using exactly the same word , Graeculus, as was applied to the young Hadrian.) There's Hadrian the homosexual, whose passionate affair with Antinoos scandalized some sections of Roman society, as did the way in which Hadrian mourned Antinoos' death, with an intensity that matched Victoria's mourning for Albert. That's hardly the sort of thing to appeal to retired colonels. (Mind you, having seen some of the images of Antinoos assembled for an exhibition in Leeds last year, I can see Hadrian's point - I mean, I'm a straight bloke, and I'd have done him.) There's Hadrian the capricious tyrant, who exiled and then had executed the architect Apollodorus (who to a degree only had himself to blame - asked for his opinion of the emperor's architectural plans, he made the mistake of giving it), and who executed Senators both at the beginning and end of his reign. Hadrian was in fact, so hated by the Senate that they tried to block his deification after his death, and only the threat of new emperor Antoninus Pius to step down, thus plunging the empire into civil war, browbeat the Senate into acquiescing.

This Hadrian has rather a lot in common with the previous emperor to take up wearing a beard, Nero. (Both emperors wrote poetry, for a start.) What differentiates the good emperor from the monster seems to me to come down to the fact that one survived, and one didn't, and Hadrian survived because he (a) didn't push things as far as Nero - no actual public performances for this emperor - and (b) always knew that the army was on his side (they were always on Nero's side as well, but Nero didn't realize this, and so panicked).

So perhaps Hadrian is the worst of the 'good emperors'.

On a wholly different subject, the Today programme featured an item this morning about an English Heritage sponsored debate that will take place over the weekend, concerning who England's greatest monarch was. This was Today at it's worst. The show always likes to set up confrontations between opposing views, which blights a lot of its non-political reporting, which sits uneasily in such a format. This was particularly unedifying, as Alison Weir, Sarah Gristwood and Martyn Downer, making the cases for their respective choices (Henry VIII, Elizabeth II and Victoria), rapidly came down to 'my monarch's bigger than your monarch'.

In any case, they're all wrong - it should of course be Charles II.


Lil Shepherd said...

Interesting. I caught the BBC report on the website this morning.

Big surprise: Antinoos and Hardian were very big in the slash communities about twenty years ago, and if you think the sculptures in Leeds were sexy, there's a head in Athens that... well, I have to stop the steam coming out of my ears. Of course, there are reports that Trajan (ultimate soldier and all that) was also homosexual.

Though the last thing I'd claim to be is an expert, isn't one of the differences between Hadrian and Nero that Hadrian was a competant soldier (I believe he was effectively Trajan's chief of staff in Dacia) who'd been in the thick of it, so the army's respect for him was something he'd earned and counted on - not something that was true of Nero, and, of course, in between the two the senate was cowed by the Flavians (particularly Domitian.)

Tony Keen said...

It is true that Hadrian had put in his time in the army, which Nero had not - his appeal to them was purely as grandson of army favourite Germanicus.

I'm sure every Roman emperor had dallied with pretty boys at some time - it wasn't that big a deal. Hadrian's crime was to make a big deal out of it.

CariadBach said...

The image of Antinoos immediately reminded me of a statue said to depict Agrippina the Elder (a photo can be seen at ), or in A. Barrett, 'Agrippina' (1996), illustration 5. Do you think this is just because both statues have idealized features, or something else altogether?

One thing is for certain - Antinoos looks more like a girl than I do!

Tony Keen said...

Interesting question. I think any similarity is generally just down to idealization of the features. I think that with Agrippina you have a woman being depicted in such a way as to bring out the masculine side of her features, whilst Antinoos is a male being depicted in such a way as to emphasize his femininity. So the two images sort of meet halfway.