The British Museum have followed their excellent “First Emperor” show with the equally gripping “Hadrian: Empire and Conflict”. Hadrian is generally best known in Britain for his wall. This spectacular feat of military engineering, as important symbolically as tactically for the control of this north-west frontier of the vast Roman empire, formed only a part of the legacy of Hadrian\'s two decades of rule as one of Rome\'s greatest emperors. His extensive travels took him to almost every province, from Spain and Britain in the west to Syria in the east, and Egypt and North Africa to the south. He was in Italy and Rome for only about half of his reign from 117 to 138 and his domestic activities and achievements are represented here as well, and compactly, as his foreign ones.
Hadrian\'s face is portrayed many times in the exhibition and radiates the strength, energy and practical wisdom to be expected of such a man, but also something of his humanity. Because of his travels, he would have been seen in the flesh by, for the times, an exceptional number of his subjects, officials and soldiers, but his face, and that of other members of the imperial family, would have had much wider familiarity from the numerous sculptures produced locally by craftsmen working (carving-by-numbers) from the official models that were circulated to all parts of the empire.
The grander artefacts on show are cleverly mixed with more mundane but equally fascinating objects. For me, the most striking of these were a clay tile stamped with the mark of the 10th Legion and the hobnailed footprint of one of its soldiers, communications written on wooden tablets from Vindolanda on the wall, and a pilum murale (a sturdy wooden stake, sharpened at both ends and indented in the middle so that it could be roped to others: on campaign every legionary, combat engineer as much as fighter, carried two, and these would be used to make instant palisades or, bound together in threes or fours, to form tank trap-like defences). Ample space, appropriately below the centre of the Reading Room dome, a direct architectural descendant, is devoted to the Pantheon, Hadrian\'s (and arguably Rome\'s) greatest public work, its span a meter wider than the dome of St Peter\'s. Next to this is a section on his fantastic villa (Resort & Spa!) complex at Tivoli.
How did Hadrian find any time for home and family life? The latter was certainly complicated for a while. Sabina, like another very public wife nearly two millennia later, could have complained, “Well, there were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded”. For up to seven years she had to share Hadrian\'s affection with his beloved Greek boy, Antinous (though life was even more complicated in the Alexander the Great household with, at one point three wives and the boyfriend, Hephaestion, who was in turn married to one of the sisters-in-law!). This ended sadly on a state visit to Egypt in 130 when Antinous fell overboard (or was he pushed?) on a gentle Nile cruise with Hadrian and Sabina. He almost immediately became a cult, which quickly proved to be a powerful unifying force in the eastern half of the empire; it seems that after his death Antinous came second only to Hadrian for the number of images spread around his realms. The photograph here is of the statue found and exhibited in Delphi, more striking in its delicacy than any of those currently on show in the BM.
Hadrian\'s humanity comes through movingly at the end of all this in the display of some touching verse he wrote shortly before his death, in deep contrast to the grandeur of his mausoleum -
animula vagula blandula
Small soul, little wanderer, little charmer,
hospes comesque corporis
My body\'s guest and partner,
quo nunc abibis? in loca
Where are you off to now?
pallidula rigida nubila
To grey, chilled, misty places -
nec ut soles dabis iocos
You won\'t be making the jokes you used to make!
If you can\'t make it to the BM before October 26, you can buy the book and you will want it anyway if you do go!