1870 years after his death, the Roman Emperor Hadrian is rising once more, as a major new exhibition comes to The British Museum.
Publius Aelius Hadrianus: Roman born, raised in Spain, ward of the Emperor Trajan, philosopher, Senator, ruthless military leader, champion of the arts and openly gay. He was named Emperor by Trajan upon his deathbed, and declared a god by the people of Rome upon his death.
Crowned Emperor in 117AD, it would nearly be a full year before he took his seat in Rome. With his life spent travelling in battle, he did not stay long. In 121, he set out on a tour of his empire, inspecting the troops and examining frontier defences. The Christian writer Tertullian called him rightly omnium curiositatum explorator - an explorer of everything interesting.
Travelling through Gaul and Germania, he came to Britain in 122. And it is here that one of his most enduring monuments was built – “Hadrian’s Wall.”
The wall extended from coast to coast across the width of northern Britain; it ran for 73 miles from Wallsend (Segedunum) on the River Tyne in the east to Bowness on the Solway Firth in the west. At every 1/3 Roman mile there was a tower, and at every mile a fort.The initial construction of the wall took approximately six years, and expansions were later made. Upon Hadrian’s death, his successor Antoninus Pius (138–161) decided to extend the Roman dominion northward by building a new wall in Scotland. The resulting Antonine Wall stretched for 37 miles (59 km) along the narrow isthmus between the estuaries of the Rivers Forth and Clyde. Within two decades, however, the Antonine Wall was abandoned in favour of Hadrian’s Wall, which continued in use nearly until the end of Roman rule in Britain (410).
And so, the Emperor now returns, as the British Museum mounts the largest retrospective of the man and his works ever held in Britain.
This unprecedented exhibition will provide fresh insight into the sharp contradictions of Hadrian’s character and challenges faced during his reign.
Objects from 28 museums worldwide and finds from recent excavations will be shown together for the first time to reassess his legacy, which remains strikingly relevant today.
Thorsten Opper, curator of the exhibition said: “This will be a unique opportunity to see important objects related to Hadrian in one exhibition. Hadrian was an extremely successful emperor who left an immense and enduring legacy, but one that is often not recognised or appreciated. This exhibition will allow for a reassessment of his character, his life, love and legacy”.
As a precursor to the exhibition, one of the British Museum’s most important Hadrianic objects, a bronze bust of the Emperor from the 2nd century AD, will travel to both ends of Hadrian’s Wall.
The exhibition, Hadrian: Empire and Conflict, opens July 24th and run until October 26th 2008
See Channel4 News’ Nicholas Glass with an excellent article on the man, the emperor, the legend.