When the Roman emperor Hadrian ascended to power in A.D. 117, he inherited a state in crisis. Trajan, his predecessor, had stretched the Roman Empire to its furthest reaches through aggressive military campaigns, sparking rebellions from Britain to the shores of the Persian Gulf. Once installed as ruler, Hadrian reversed the expansionist trend and withdrew troops from what is now Iraq. Thorsten Opper, a curator of Greek and Roman antiquities at the British Museum, says Hadrian realized then what coalition forces realize now: that it's easier to control territory through a friendly, well-functioning government than through occupation.
The image of an overextended empire mired in conflict in the Middle East sounds eerily familiar, and the British Museum builds on this geopolitical relevance in "Hadrian: Empire and Conflict," a fascinating study of the Roman ruler. Drawn from 11 countries, the 170 objects on display provide a remarkably layered portrait of Hadrian as a skilled statesman, an amateur architect and an unabashed homosexual a man far more dynamic and complex than his idealized busts suggest.
Early in his reign, which lasted 21 years until his death in A.D. 138, Hadrian set about reshaping Rome's overreaching foreign policy. He withdrew troops from flashpoints such as Armenia, but maintained influence overseas through complicated negotiations and treaties. "The Romans could still project power beyond their borders," says Opper, but "they did it through diplomacy." Meanwhile, he used financial carrots to win over citizens at home: the show features a relief in which wax tablets listing Romans' debts are carried off by soldiers to be burned.
Hadrian also worked to secure his popularity outside the city, traveling the empire to cultivate alliances, particularly with the Greeks. Through iconography, he cast himself as the protector of Greek culture, which still held sway throughout the eastern Mediterranean and beyond: an imposing statue of Hadrian in military regalia shows him trampling a barbarian powerful imagery in the Greek portion of the empire, which had been traumatized by rebellion. His breastplate further emphasizes the Greco-Roman union, displaying the Greek goddess Athena standing upon a she-wolf that was a symbol of Rome.
But Hadrian's interest in Greece went beyond state security. "He wanted to become a Greek," says Anthony Birley, author of the biography Hadrian: The Restless Emperor. Hadrian admired Greek language and architecture, and became the first emperor to sport a beard, then fashionable in the Greek world. Busts of Hadrian display his lavish curls, which specially trained slaves coiffed with irons.
Although married to a relative of Trajan, Hadrian openly loved a Greek youth, Antinous, who is known to have accompanied him on at least one lion-hunting trip. His relationship with this boy would have raised few eyebrows the Roman élite embraced homoerotic culture and celebrated it in works of art. Hadrian's reaction to his death, however, was unprecedented. After Antinous drowned in the Nile in A.D. 130, Hadrian mourned him as if he were an Empress and encouraged cults to venerate the lowly youth. He surrounded himself with marble statues and busts of Antinous, at least 10 of which have been unearthed, including a spectacular 8-ft (2.4 m) statue depicting him as Osiris, an Egyptian god who drowned in the Nile and was later reborn. In his final years, says Birley, Hadrian was "unhinged" and attempted suicide several times.
Yet as this exhibition makes clear, it would be too simplistic to remember Hadrian merely as a canny practitioner of realpolitik and a tragic victim of doomed love. He was also a victimizer a ruler with a barbaric legacy in parts of his empire. Seeking to bring Jerusalem to heel as a Roman colony, he stripped it of its name, outlawed circumcision and built a temple to Jupiter near the site of the great Jewish Temple, which the Romans had sacked in A.D. 71. When Simon Bar Kokhba led a Jewish rebellion beginning in A.D. 132, Hadrian's troops exacted revenge: according to one early account, they razed 985 Jewish villages and slaughtered 585,000 Jews.
On display are implements that belonged to refugees from this conflict mirrors, pans, house keys and a jewelry box found alongside their skeletons in a cave where they hid. "The last people to touch these items before our colleagues in Israel's museums," says Opper, "were the people awaiting Hadrian's onslaught." These humble objects perfectly preserved in the desert heat may be quotidian, yet they offer as resonant an insight into Hadrian's world as the exquisitely refined statues that he commissioned to memorialize the love he had lost.