Hadrian is well-known here in England for building Hadrian’s Wall, a Great Wall of China-type fortification, across 73 miles in the country’s north. He became emperor at a time of many little rebellions at the Roman Empire’s fringes and much internal dissent and he ruthlessly created order. He also had a keen interest in architecture and had many iconic buildings built, including the Pantheon in Rome and his massive “villa”, which included 30 buildings and covered 250 acres, at Tivoli, outside Rome.
Yesterday our “Chance of Rain” forecast really meant “All Rain”. It was a good day, then, to go the British Museum for the “Hadrian, Empire and Conflict” special exhibition. Of course, many others had the same idea and it is high tourist season, so the museum was packed.
Some of you may recall that I went to the special exhibition of Chinese terra cotta soldiers at the British Museum almost a year ago. That really was a special exhibition, getting to see 14 of the famous clay soldiers up close. Yesterday’s exhibit, about the Roman emperor who ruled from 117-138 AD, was interesting but lacked a certain something. These special exhibits are all about revenue: £12 entry fee, plus £3.5 for the audio tour, plus corporate sponsorship income. Perhaps museums start to rely on that income and therefore there’s constant pressure to have more and more of these exhibits, and suddenly they’re, well, less special. I’m just not sure the Hadrian exhibition, while interesting, was that special.
He was besotted with his young, male Greek lover, Antinous, and overcome with grief when the boy fell into the Nile and died during a trip to Egypt. Hadrian mourned him for eight years, the rest of his life. The timing of his death coincided with an Egyptian religious event and Antinous was soon deified, with statues of him as a god and temples to him sprinkled around the empire, which Hardian encouraged. His worship was said to rival Christianity in some areas.
As is usual at the British Museum, the exhibit was handsome and well-curated. It included statuary, amphorae, maps, and a spectacular model of Hadrian’s villa. It was pleasant and educational and 90 minutes well-spent.