Monday, July 7, 2008

There’s more to Hadrian than wall-building

A military mastermind who retreated from Iraq, a politician motivated by peace, and a lover of Greek culture and Greek men - there’s more to Hadrian than wall-building, reveals the director of the British Museum

We think we know the Romans. Countless books, films, plays and pieces of music have been inspired by an empire that, at its height, in AD117, stretched from the site of modern Glasgow in the north to the Sahara desert in the south, and from the Atlantic to Basra. Hollywood sword-and-sandal epics from Quo Vadis to Gladiator, as well as the BBC’s Rome, give us the impression of an empire at once brutal and noble, heroic and corrupt, bloody and decadent - an empire of slavery but also of many freedoms, of multiple identities, all drawn together in the service of Rome and its emperors. But how much do we know? It can be hard to glimpse the real empire through the histories that have survived the centuries, histories that are invariably biased depending on who wrote them, when and, above all, for whom.

Sometimes one has a chance to glimpse the real emotions of ordinary Romans, living their lives under this extraordinary empire. The Vindolanda tablets, housed in the British Museum, slightly predate the emperor Hadrian and his instruction to build his eponymous wall separating England from Scotland (Caledonia) in AD122. Vindolanda fort already existed, first constructed in the late first century. Soldiers from all over the empire were billeted there, of Celtic, Germanic, North African or Syrian origins: a multi-national force guarding the extremes of the realm.

Excavations at the fort in 1973 revealed an extraordinary cache of wooden writing tablets, official military documents and personal letters concerning the day-to-day issues of life in the army. They reveal complaints about the cold, illnesses, receipt of care parcels providing socks and underpants, invitations to birthday parties and so on. These truly are the humble building blocks of history and are surely similar to the e-mails and text messages soldiers send home from Iraq today. At their most basic, they show how little has changed in nearly 2,000 years.

There is another connection between these two regions: for the north of England and Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq) were once the northern and eastern borders of the Roman empire, under the enigmatic emperor Hadrian.

In many ways, Hadrian seems familiar to us. There is a perception of him - given to us via the Victorians and then Marguerite Yourcenar’s ever-popular fictional autobiography of the emperor (1951) - that he was somehow different, a maverick, a Greek-loving peacenik more interested in architecture and boys than in securing the legacy of mighty Rome. But how true is this portrait, and what of Hadrian’s legacy? Why is he still important now? These are the questions an exhibition at the British Museum is seeking to address. A huge number of archeological finds connected to Hadrian and excavated over the past 30 or so years have inspired a new scholarship and allowed a reassessment of his character.

Hadrian, it now appears, was a supremely talented political and military strategist. He was the consummate politician, ruthless but charming, brutal but loving. He was to some extent an imperial upstart who nonetheless gained the ultimate prize. Of Spanish-Roman stock, his family had made a fortune from the olive-oil trade, the key commodity of the Roman empire. His father died when Hadrian was 10, and he was thrust into a military life, gaining hands-on experience of Roman politics, warfare and provincial government, serving in a multitude of military positions. Working closely with the emperor Trajan, his fellow Spaniard, he was officially adopted as his heir when Trajan was on his deathbed.

In the military sphere, he had experienced first-hand the privations of Trajan’s overambitious campaigning and the dangers of imperial overreach. His first act on becoming emperor was to pull the Roman troops out of Mesopotamia and to reestablish the Euphrates frontier, still to this day the frontier between Syria and Iraq. In Germany, he created a limes, or boundary of forts with a turf and timber rampart (evocatively reconstructed at Saalburg by Kaiser Wilhelm II at the beginning of the 20th century); in Britain, he built his wall from the Tyne to the Solway; and in North Africa, he built a frontier against the nomads and goats of the desert fringes.

For those of us who have experienced crossings of the Berlin Wall and the rigours of travelling from the occupied territories to Israel through today’s “security wall”, it is clear that Hadrian’s frontiers were not merely an exercise in military defence. They were also political statements, in the case of Hadrian’s Wall separating Britons within the Roman empire from those outside it. To the south lies the Roman province of Britannia, personified by a warlike woman who first appeared on the coins of Hadrian; to the north lay the wild, untamed lands of the “excluded” Caledonians, still patrolled by forces from outpost forts, but culturally beyond the pale in Roman terms.

As you walk along the wall today, through the often rugged but still idyllic English countryside, it is easy to underestimate the sheer menacing presence that this wall would have had for natives on both sides of the frontier. One of the famous Vindolanda tablets suggests the Romans had a distinct disdain for the natives of Britain, whether north or south of the frontier: they called them Brittunculi - “wretched little Britons”.

This ring of steel around the empire allowed Hadrian to embark upon some grands projets. As emperor, he was free to indulge in his love of architecture and to work on the significant buildings that became a lasting legacy. In Rome, he had constructed some memorable buildings, including the monumental temple of Venus and Rome and the celebrated Pantheon, which not only embodied Hadrian’s desire to unite the empire but also heralded a whole new architectural style that has influenced buildings across the globe, not least the British Museum’s Reading Room - where we shall be presenting Hadrian’s feats over the coming months.

The present Castel Sant’Angelo was originally constructed as Hadrian’s mausoleum. At the same time, the emperor commissioned for himself an enormous and sumptuous residence at Tivoli. Walking around the ruins of the Villa Adriana today, one can still catch a glimpse of the man who created it and how he understood his place in the world.

Hadrian’s famous love of Greek culture is highlighted by his extensive building programme in Athens, completing a huge temple of Zeus, erecting an arch to the cities of Theseus and Hadrian, and patronising a library (which has recently opened to the public once again).

Hadrian’s emotional needs and his love of all things Greek were fused in his relationship with a young man, Antinous, from Bithynia in northwest Turkey. This relationship, although barely recorded in the sources, is one of the most famous of the ancient world. Antinous’s mysterious death in the Nile led to a Graeco-Egyptian hero-cult to surpass all others in the Greek-speaking world, and busts of the young man are now among the most common from antiquity. Wonderful examples, such as the statue of Antinous-Osiris from the Vatican Museums, will appear in the exhibition.

That Hadrian admired Greek culture is not in doubt. But there were strong strategic reasons behind this admiration. At the time of his reign, the Greek-speaking population of the empire was formidable and its loyalty was essential if the eastern frontiers were to be defended. It did Hadrian no political harm to be seen immersing himself in the language and traditions of the Greek world.

In the 1860s, a statue was discovered in Cyrene, North Africa, which seemed to epitomise this view of Hadrian. He stands proudly, clad in Greek mantle, seemingly willing us to see him as a cultured philhellene. The statue has been reproduced in countless books and displayed in the British Museum since the discovery as primary evidence of this Greek-loving aspect of Hadrian.

However, this is yet another example of our misunderstanding of this complex character. In the course of conservation of this sculpture for the exhibition, it was discovered that the head (which is undoubtedly of Hadrian) does not fit the body. The two pieces were put together incorrectly after excavation to conform to received wisdom, a consequence of this view of Hadrian, not evidence for it.

A truer glimpse of Hadrian’s character can be seen in the material borrowed from Israel for the exhibition. These loans include a magnificent bronze head and torso of Hadrian in military uniform; though his pose seems casual, he is every inch the tough military leader, a trait he exhibited to shocking effect during the second Jewish revolt (AD1325). Hadrian’s apparent banning of circumcision and his probable encroachments in Jerusalem unleashed a storm, led by Simeon Bar Kokhba, that cost Rome up to three legions. Hadrian decided to remind Judea that Rome was an imperial power that could brook no dissent: the proud rebels were mercilessly crushed, costing the lives of almost 600,000 Jews. It is no wonder that in the Talmud, Hadrian’s name was followed by the simple injunction “May his bones rot”.

So, what are we to make of Hadrian? His complex character was summed up unhelpfully in the Epitome de Caesaribus as “diverse, manifold and multiform”. I believe we have a ruler who desired, and at a price achieved, peace, prosperity and cultural integration across the Roman world, a man whose legacy may be flawed but remains significant in politics and in architecture. Perhaps our judgment of Hadrian tells us as much about politics in the 21st century as it does in Rome. How many of our leaders genuinely want to create a better society but are ultimately judged on the more sensational aspects of their private life, or on making one enormous and controversial decision that costs the lives of thousands?

1 comment:

Valeria said...

You write very well.