Hadrian -- some myths busted
I am delighted that the Hadrian exhibition at the British Museum looks set to be the huge success which it deserves. One of the downsides is that we classicists are going to have to get used to the rest of country enthusing about Hadrian in a way that will make us cringe.
Last night’s Newsnight Review was a good example of just this. Newsnight Review is usually an excellent programme, and last night they had three intelligent critics on board (David Aaronovitch of this parish, Marina Hyde and Simon Sebag Montefiore). The trouble was none of them semmed to know much more about Hadrian or the Roman empire than they had picked up in their preview visit to the show.
The result was that they gave all kinds of misleading impressions to the innocent viewer. For a start you could easily have come away with the idea that we were uniquely well-informed about Hadrian thanks to his autobiography. As the presenter said, “No extant copy of his autobiography survives. But later copies were made so we know a lot about his life”.
Well sorry guys, all we know is what may, or more likely may not, come from his autobiography in the scrappy, short and flagrantly unreliable biography in the series known as the Scriptores Historiae Augustae. So when Marina Hyde said “he was obsessed with cohesion the whole way through”, the truth is that we don’t have the foggiest clue what he was obsessed with.
For the rest it was mostly a case of assuming that what Hadrian did or built was somehow unusual in the Roman world. The exhibition curator did usefully put paid to the myth that Hadrian was unusual in having a male lover (though the emperor was nevertheless billed on the programme as a “gay man” -- as if that particular category and its cultural significance makes any sense when you are talking about the ancient world) .
But David Aaronovitch could still claim (thinking of the Pantheon, I guess) that Hadrian’s achievement was to “build upwards”, he had forgotten the long history of Roman dynasts doing just that – going back at least to Pompey the Great and his Temple of Victory perched on top of his colossal theatre.
And Marina Hyde enthused about his propaganda coin types (“Tranquillity” for example, plastered all over the coins) as if these weren’t as common as muck from the start of the empire.
Oh well, we’ll have to get used to this kind of stuff – and learn not to stifle the enthusiasm but channel it towards a more sustained (and informed!) interest in the ancient world. And, of course, it would be a good idea, as one of the panellists said, if Gordon Brown came to see the exhibition – and if most of the Labour party saw in the interest that the British Museum has generated in the Roman empire a reason to support, rather than bash, the study of Classics in general. After all, this exhibition doesn't spring from nowhere. It's the product of centuries of hard academic work that the government would cease funding, given half a chance.
If you want a bit more of what I think about Hadrian, click here.