The British Museum's new exhibition clearly means to change that. I'll be talking about the exhibition itself after I go on August 3rd. What I want to write about now is the media commentary that's appeared in advance of the opening. There have been articles in The Guardian, The Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph, Times and Sunday Times. The BBC repeated a somewhat superficial Timewatch programme on Hadrian's Wall, featured the exhibition on Newsnight Review, and showed a not-too bad, if occasionally overheated, documentary by Dan Snow (all of which are still available, if you're in the UK, on the BBC's iPlayer page, though they'll gradually disappear over the next week). And that no doubt only scratches the surface.
What strikes me is how pro-Hadrian almost all of this coverage has been. A good example is this Guardian editorial; faults are noted, but overall he's seen as a good thing. Snow, though not ignoring such things as the suppression of Jewish identity, in an event as traumatic as the destruction of the Temple at Jerusalem in AD 70, cannot hide his admiration of the man. Articles talk admiringly of how Hadrian pulled out of a war in Mesopotamia, modern Iraq (take heed, America's new president, seems to be the message).
But are these pieces all treating him as too modern, too much the benevolent dictator, too much someone we can identify with? After all, this was a man who was so hated by the Senate that only the threat of civil war forced through approval of his deification. His relationship with Antinoos always seems accompanied in these modern reports by a comment to the effect that such a liaison would not raise an eyebrow in the Roman world. Well, yes the ancients had different attitudes to sex between men than those we have, but, as Dan Snow reveals as he reads a passage from Aurelius Victor (De Caesaribus 14), reporting rumours attacking Hadrian for his lasciviousness, there were some Romans who though Hadrian went too far in this respect. I don't particularly want to go on about this, not least because I've already written on the subject, but I do wonder if we still can't see this emperor clearly.
Fortunately, we still have Mary Beard. She concludes a lengthy piece in The Guardian by pointing out how Hadrian's image is something that we have invented for ourselves, the modern version going back I would say to when he was canonized by Gibbon (whom Beard does not mention) as one of the good emperors. She points out how the goalposts are moved, partly because of the state of the evidence. Where Nero can only be seen as a tyrant, she says, if Hadrian does the same thing, it gets a much more favourable spin put on it. She's absolutely right.