The Hadrian Show at the British Museum
As some commenters have wondered, I have had a sneak preview of the Hadrian exhibition in the British Museum (in the old Round Reading Room, where the terracotta warriors were). The installation wasn’t quite finished when I saw it last week, but it was already looking stunning. There were all kinds of things I hadn’t seen “in the flesh” before.
Especially moving were the everyday household objects from one of the hideouts of the Jewish rebels who were so viciously crushed by Hadrian’s troops. House keys, pans, a straw basket that could have been made yesterday and a mirror. (According to the catalogue, this shows the presence of women among those hiding out. I’m sure there were women – but don’t men use mirrors too?)
These made a strange match for the wonderful bronze statue of Hadrian from a legionary camp on the River Jordan – the distinctive head of the emperor, over an elaborate bronze cuirass (though it’s far from certain that the head and the cuirass originally belonged together).There were also some great images of the young Antinous, Hadrian’s lover, who mysteriously drowned in the Nile. The Mondragone head from the Louvre is making a return visit after its appearance at the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds a couple of years ago. But the stars of this part of the show must be the silver dishes from a tomb in modern Georgia, one of which features Antinous in its central roundel.
As usual, there were all kinds of things on display from the home collection that I hadn’t realised the BM owned. I didn’t know for example that Charles Towneley had got his hands on some of the original pilaster capitals from Hadrian’s Pantheon. But everybody’s favourite, I suspect, are going to be the gorgeous pair of peacocks from Hadrian’s tomb (the Castel St Angelo) on loan from Rome.
There seems to me a good chance that this show will do a huge amount for the profile of Roman Latin and Roman culture over the next few months.
That said, there are also all kinds of more strictly historical issues raised by the presentation of Hadrian here that I hope wont get overlooked in the enthusiasm for the stunning collection of objects.
It struck me how different it was thinking about Hadrian, from – say – about Augustus or Nero. There is, after all, no detailed ancient account of Hadrian’s reign apart from the short and largely unbelievable Life in the fourth- or fifth-century Historia Augusta. Actually I’ve always thought that there was more to be learned from the Historia Augusta than most people admit. But even so it’s not like having Tacitus or even Suetonius.
The result is that, without the disapproving ancient accounts, Hadrian tends to get off lightly in most modern discussions. So, for example, his vast palace at Tivoli (pictured in the model) is treated like the estate of a rich but tasteful art collector, a J. P Getty of the ancient world. Nero’s smaller palace, the Golden House (which was admittedly -- and this was a big part of the problem -- in the centre of Rome), is treated as classic instance of the perversion of nature and culture.
Anyway I’ve written about this, and the whole issue of Hadrian’s “pseudo modernity”, in a piece that I hope will come out soon. When it does, I’ll post a link.