Hadrian, British Museum, London

Two thousand years on, Hadrian's character shines in this biography of stone and metal

A few words of scene-setting might be handy, especially for those who spent the periods devoted to post-Augustan Rome staring out of the classroom window. The Emperor Hadrian – more formally, Publius Aelius Hadrianus (born AD76; ruled from 117 until his death in AD138) – has had a pretty good press across the centuries, except from historians of the Jews, who remember his savage crushing of a Jewish revolt much as Irish historians think of Cromwell's policies in Ireland. Machiavelli defined him as one of the "five good Emperors" – Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius – whose successive periods of rule added up to a happy interval of moderation, reason and the rule of law amid the general nightmare of history.

Gibbon went still further, and said that under this sage quintet, "the Roman Empire was governed by absolute power, under the guidance of wisdom and virtue". Cynics might want to question just how wise and virtuous one had to be to qualify as a "good" emperor, when the competition includes mass-murdering headcases such as Caligula and Nero. Nonetheless, Hadrian has had many more admirers than detractors, especially since Marguerite Yourcenar's beautiful novel Memoirs of Hadrian (1951) helped extend his fan base well beyond the world of classicists. Privately, he seems to have been of a scholarly, philosophical cast; he wrote poetry and an autobiography (lost); he had strong visual tastes, and commissioned many works of art and architecture, some of them enduringly great.

But is it possible to detect those virtues in the man's carved face? Maybe. The very first object that strikes the eye as you enter the British Museum's Hadrian: Empire and Conflict is also its major coup – a yard-high bust of Hadrian, all but perfect save for some damage around the nose, unearthed in 2007, in Turkey. It's a powerful face – and would retain that power whether it were the image of a butcher or a police officer – and an intelligent one. This is the man in his prime, around his early forties: just a touch of fleshiness, which hints at the pleasures of the table; neatly coiffed hair, curling in on itself like cream on a gateau, and a trim beard (the expression of his passionate admiration for all things Greek. Earlier emperors, such as Augustus, were clean-shaven).

This elegant, thoughtfully staged show is rich in portraits of the man, and, put together, they amount to a biography in stone and metal. With his dashing sideburns and luxuriant curls, the young Hadrian looks eerily similar to portraits of Pushkin. In later years, rather more bulked up, he can seem either an affable man of the world – a Peter Ustinov type, mirthful anecdotes rising to the lip – or a raptor-eyed general: a chilly friend, a terrifying enemy. What is most striking about all these portraits is how seldom they read as mere state propaganda: the best of them are all psychologically plausible, and include a strange and haunting detail – a mark on Hadrian's earlobe which, medical science can now tell us, may be a symptom of a chronic heart condition.

If there is anything to be faulted in an exhibition which otherwise treads an admirably judicious path between offending its audience with too much basic information and starving it with too little, it is precisely this strong concentration on the personal dimension. By the time you have meandered through its dozen or so sections, you will have learned or been reminded of many things about Hadrian's personal life: his homosexual love for Antinous; his cool, dutiful marriage to the wife chosen for him by Trajan; three phases of his passion for building – the Pantheon, the extraordinary villa at Tivoli, and his Mausoleum, complete with a brace of splendid bronze peacocks. The wittiest stroke comes in a series of photographs illustrating the long-term influence of the Pantheon's design on Brunelleschi, on Albert Speer ... and on the dome of the British Museum. If you seek his monument, bend your neck.

What is less abundantly documented is the part of Hadrian's story which usually engages historians: the "Empire and Conflict" aspect. This theme is tucked away in a couple of early sections, one devoted to the series of revolts he inherited from Trajan, and another to the edifice for which he is best known in Britannia, the large coast-to-coast wall across northern England. Fine in their way, though likely to be appreciated in direct proportion to the amount of prior learning the visitor brings.

But this is a negligible flaw in a handsome show which allows the strange privilege of confronting a mind (and a face) that remains compelling after 2,000 years. It ends with Hadrian's deathbed poem – Animula vagula blandula – about the "little soul" taking leave of its bodily home. If it does not move you, your heart is stonier than Hadrian's bust.



To 26 Oct (020-7323 8181)

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence