Monday, August 18, 2008

I, Hadrian

Well, I've now seen the exhibition three times, read both the books, heard an introductory lecture from the curator, seen the DVD, and read a lot of press coverage. So what did I think?

The first thing to say is that the space in the Reading Room is well-used. It's certainly a lot better than that used for the Persian Empire exhibition a few years back, and possibly they've laid things out more effectively than for The First Emperor. There are points at which the crowds clog up (Vindolanda Tablets, Cave of the Letters material), but by and large I didn't find this oppressive. I was a little concerned that the floor wasn't as solid as it might be beneath my feet, especially as I watched the Beth Shean bronze Hadrian wobble as people walked by.

I've already posted some preliminary comments on what I thought the BM was trying to do with this exhibition, capitalize on the name recognition whilst drawing in people who don't actually know much about the emperor's life, but want to learn. And there's definitely a sense that they want to overturn some myths.

First target is Hadrian as the philosophically-minded philhellene. The recent revelation that the statue of Hadrian in Greek dress is a Victorian composite of Hadrian's head and someone else's body helps this. The notion that the emperor grew his beard in imitation of Greek practice is rather pooh-poohed - soldiers grew beards on campaign, and Hadrian probably picked the habit up in the army. For a British audience, this, I think, is somewhat pushing at an open door - I was introduced to Hadrian the soldier long before I read about Hadrian the philhellene. But it's worth remembering (as, of course, the curators of this exhibition know) that the philhellenic Hadrian is not entirely dependent upon a single statue - rather the statue was composed to reinforce what was already believed of the emperor, though the works of Philostratus and Hadrian's donations in Athens (little touched on in this exhibition). It's also worth bearing in mind what a radical departure Hadrian's portrait was in terms of imperial iconography. Up until Hadrian imperial portraits had, to one degree or another, followed the lead of Augustus, and been clean-shaven, with straight hair, close-dropped in a fringe. Hadrian's full beard and mop of curls was something new.

The other myth attacked is Hadrian the peacemaker. Hadrian's Wall (which from the illustrations one might almost think only survives from slightly west of Housesteads to slightly east of Housesteads) is presented not as a peaceful demarcation, but a symbol of power intended to divide an humiliate the locals, with more than a little in common with the Israeli Wall in Gaza and the planned fence along the Mexican border. There's not much new in this for anyone who's been teaching or studying Hadrian's Wall recently, but the general public perhaps haven't kept up.

Emphasizing Hadrian as a war leader, there is a large section on the Bar Kokhba rebellion in Judaea, which ended with the expulsion of Jews from the province, an act that we are still dealing with the consequences of. At moments one feels the despair of the last of the rebels, trapped in small caves above the Dead Sea, unable to escape, or even get out in the light very often. But one of my students noted a tendency in the labelling to distance Hadrian from direct responsibility.

And that fits in with the general tenor of the exhibition. For all the questioning of certain aspects of his image, I emerged from this exhibition with the feeling that almost all involved (with the exception of the Jewish archaeologists who brought the Bar Kokhba material) retain an enormous amount of admiration for Hadrian. Little controversies are swept under the rug. Hadrian's birth in Rome is taken as a given fact, not, as some have argued, something Hadrian made up in his autobiography to make him seem more authentically Roman. The deathbed adoption of Hadrian by Trajan is only said to lead to rumours and uncertainties - little space is given to the notion that the adoption might have been concocted by Trajan's wife Plotina and the Praetorian prefect Attianus.

My own relationship to Hadrian is very ambivalent. I was brought up to admire him as one of Gibbon's Five Good Emperors, but the more I read about him, the more I feel that we let Hadrian get away with stuff that the likes of Nero would be pilloried for. Hadrian's Villa at Tivoli is every bit as grandiose and indulgent at Nero's Golden House or Tiberius' Villa Jovis at Capri, but Hadrian's does not have the same bad associations, perhaps because it was not in the centre of Rome, taking up people's home's as Nero's was, or inaccessible from the capital as the Villa Jovis.

But I don't want to come across as having a go at the exhibition. It's a good exhibition, with a good collection of material. I'm not sure how much I learnt from it, but then I'm probably spoilt for a lot of this material. I hear people around me being surprised at the notion that Hadrian was from Spain, not Italy, which is something I've known for decades. I'm clearly not the target audience. Nevertheless, there were some things I hadn't seen before. The busts of young Hadrian show him looking like nothing so much as a European prince of the 1830s (and also bearing a resemblance to some portraits of Nero). And it was nice to see Gismondi's model of Hadrian's Villa. And the Mondragone head of Antinous is as sexuality-transcending as it ever was.

And through all of this, the face of the emperor follows you. There are fourteen statues or portrait busts (plus one headless, and a few coin portraits), and you are presented with the image repeated in photographic form throughout the exhibition. And that is the impression I will take away with me - the face of the emperor, and perhaps a sense that I know the complicated man behind that face a little bit better.

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