Thomas Sutcliffe: Exclusive! Hadrian reveals all!

Related Topics

To say that I thought more than once of Heat magazine and Hello! while walking round the British Museum's new exhibition Hadrian: Empire and Conflict might easily suggest that I think something has gone wrong here. The British Museum is, after all, one of the world's great centres of learning – a place where, to paraphrase Neil MacGregor's opening remarks at the press view, visitors can come to reflect on the nature of past civilisations and their contributions to our current one. It's a place where you might hope to get away from the shallow culture of fame that Heat and Hello! represent, rather than find another expression of those values. And yet – in an importantly qualified way – it turns out to be very Hello! and very Heat.

Standing in front of the exhibition's wonderful model of Hadrian's villa at Tivoli, for example – a vast complex of pleasure buildings, arenas and temples – you're stirred by the same curtain-twitching fascination about the lifestyles of the rich and famous which results in so many Hello! home visits. You can even imagine the strapline: "Exclusive! The Emperor opens the doors to his tasteful Tiburtine hideaway. See photospread inside". Elsewhere, things get decidedly more gossipy. And, had Heat had a Roman office at the time, it's not difficult to think of the kind of cover-splashes they might have carried in response to the more complicated aspects of the Emperor's home life: "OMG! Hadrian and Antinous an item: 'He's a god to me', says Ant. Sabina Tells Friends: 'We haven't shared a bed for years.'"

Such connections aren't an accident. As high-minded and serious as he is as a curator, I think MacGregor understands perfectly well that a VIP can be a draw for modern audiences in a way that historical epochs might not be be. Hadrian is only the second of four planned exhibitions based around great rulers' lives – following on from the museum's exhibition about Ying Zheng, the first emperor of China and preceding shows about Shah Abbas and Montezuma scheduled for 2009. In the first of these shows, it's true, personality took a back seat to an even greater box-office attraction, the terracotta warriors. But in the other shows the glamour of a human narrative, the kind of story which we respond to almost instinctively, was and will be enlisted to package disparate material into a vivid, graspable shape.

And there is another sense in which the culture of Hello! and Heat is represented here, one that hasn't been knowingly overlaid by a scholar-showman. One of the fascinating things about Hadrian: Empire and Conflict, is the extent to which it shows celebrity deployed as an instrument of political power. It isn't just the self-apotheosis, through which Hadrian turns himself and those around him into gods on Earth, but the cult of personality disseminated throughout the empire by means of Hadrian's portrait busts. A Roman emperor, the exhibition reveals, had his own version of picture approval – officially licensed sculptures being carefully copied by local craftsmen. And Hadrian, in particular, was the equal of Madonna when it came to ensuring that his image covered all kinds of demographic bases. From AD117 to 138 you couldn't get more A-list – and it's hardly surprising that he can still draw crowds.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Mosul falls: Talk of Iraq retaking the town, held by IS since June, is unconvincing  

Isis on the run? The US portrayal is very far from the truth

Patrick Cockburn
Harvey Proctor's home was raided by the Met under a warrant investigating historical child sexual abuse  

Harvey Proctor: A gay sex ring in Westminster? I don't believe it

Harvey Proctor
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
14 best kids' hoodies

14 best kids' hoodies

Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

The acceptable face of the Emirates

Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk