Thursday 28 August 2008

Flexibility and firmness

'Hadrian: Empire and Conflict', British Museum, London

In the popular imagination, the Emperor Hadrian is remembered for his wall and for… well, that’s just about it, really. But that wall is a symbol of imperial conquest, conflict and consolidation, which has echoes for us today in a supposedly globalised yet fractured world. Studying Hadrian’s reign raises issues that resonate with us today, especially in terms of socio-racial mobility and sexuality. How much insight does this exhibition give us into his era?

Hadrian was born in Rome in AD76 but originally came from a Spanish family. The exhibition displays a bust of him from Italica, his family’s home town: young and determined he has a hint of anger you feel is going to surface at any moment. Hadrian was adopted by his predecessor Trajan whilst the fellow Spaniard was on his deathbed, and became Emperor in AD117. This bust is a simple but powerful reminder that running the Roman Empire was not a family business with an automatic right of succession, and as the Empire expanded people from outside the established elites could come to power. Trade helped create those elites: a fragment of an olive oil amphora (pot) from Baetica in Spain reminds us the movement of goods and services is not a modern phenomenon: the beginnings of the global market start here.

But by the time of Hadrian’s accession the Empire was overstretched: it covered much of Europe, northern Africa,and the Middle East. Not everyone was convinced of the values of life under Pax Romana, and it became necessary to consolidate and strengthen the Empire in various ways and troops were withdrawn from Mesopotamia (modern Iraq). To improve the Empire’s economy, debts due to the state incurred between AD104-AD118 were cancelled, and we see a cast of a relief showing the physical destruction of debts.

Statue of Hadrian as Mars, AD 117-125. Rome, Italy. On loan from the Musei Capitolini, Rome.(c) Musei Capitolini.

This didn’t mean external threats or internal rebellions were tolerated. Heavy looking fragments of Hadrian’s Wall remind us the Empire’s borders were defended firmly, the stones protracting a sense of permanence. Bowls and knives used by Jewish rebels hiding in caves near Jerusalem are visible reminders of the ferocity that supressed the Jewish revolt of AD132. Meanwhile, Hadrian took care not to be an absentee emperor, travelling across the Empire and meeting more of his subjects than his predecessors, and visiting Britain in AD122. A statue of a tough-faced Emperor with his left foot crushing a semi-prostrate barbarian is a graphic demonstration of his determination to maintain as much of the Empire as he could by whatever means necessary.

Although Hadrian had married Trajan’s great-niece, Sabina, in AD100 (possibly it was an arranged marriage). he also had a male lover, Antinous. Although the term ‘homosexuality’ would not emerge until the sexologists of the late 19th/early 20th centuries got to work, the sexual activities we would recognise as homosexual were certainly known about. Sexual relationships between males were permitted within certain boundaries, and we see the Warren Cup (named after its first modern owner, the art-lover and collector Edward Perry Warren) demonstrating this graphically. Said to be from Bittir, near Jerusalem, this small silver vessel is decorated with engravings of various male-on-male sexual activities. This item which, due to its subject-matter, remained in private hands for many years, seemed to be given a wide berth by many of the visitors. Why? - Prudishness? Insecurity? A desire to forestall awkward questions from younger visitors (‘Mummy, what are…’)?

The exhibition also shows a beautiful carved head of Antinous. His facial expression combines devastating beauty with undertones of toughness, almost like a hustler who can be winningly winsome one moment and physically threatening the next. We also see a papyrus fragment of a work by the poet Pankrates, referring to the relationship and the two men’s joint love of hunting, a shared interest that might not commend them to modern metropolitan gay circles today. In 130 AD, Antinous drowned in mysterious circumstances in Egypt, leaving his Imperial lover grief-stricken to establish a cult in his honour as well as a city, Antinoupolis, near the site of his lover’s death.

Hadrian had an interest in architecture, and provided buildings that continue to reflect both traditional classical grandeur and remain fresh. His villa at Tivoli, near Rome, is still being excavated but, whilst this work is in progress, it is the Pantheon that remains Hadrian’s main legacy. An original pilaster removed in 1747 during rebuilding is exhibited here. Incidentally, the exhibition itself takes place in the site of the British library’s original Reading Room, the design for which was based on the Pantheon. The drawback is that having the exhibits arranged in a circular setting and combined with a semi-darkness presumably intended to highlight them, gives the exhibition the feel of a twilit maze, which is unhelpful given the gratifyingly large crowds.

After arranging the smooth succession of power to his chosen successor, Hadrian built himself a large tomb in the capital whichwould later be incorporated into that well-known landmark on the banks of the Tiber, the Castel Sant’Angelo, and we see two bronze peacocks from the tomb representing Juno and Jupiter and symbolising deification. After Hadrian’s death in AD138, his chosen successor, Antoninus Pius, would take up the reigns of power.

This exhibition, small though it is, helps bring to life a period of change and transition. By doing so, it is a reminder of an Empire at a period when its leadership had self-confidence in its beliefs, reflected in its achievements, along with a determination to maintain them with a mixture of flexibility and firmness.

Till 26 October 2008

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