Adrian Hamilton: History requires us to look beyond art

Winning generals always looked to artists to preserve their names

After exhibitions at the British Museum on the first Emperor of China, Hadrian of Rome, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, and Shah Abbas of Iran comes this autumn the last emperor of the Aztecs, Moctezuma of Mexico. History may have developed more and more along the themes and variations of social and geographical development but the BM is firmly marching back to the old-fashioned vision of the past through its "great men".

In hard marketing terms, they have a point. History is written in the record of kings and captains. Much of great art and culture has been produced at the patronage of courts. How better to delve into the past than through recognisable figures? With the Emperor Qin the museum got the Terracotta army. With Nebuchadnezzar, it got some of the lion tiles of the great way of ancient Babylon (now housed, somewhat shamefully, in Berlin). Shah Abbas provided an opportunity to display some of the great miniature paintings of the period, while with the Moctezuma exhibition, opening in autumn, the Museum says it will be getting the great monument throne, the Teocalli of Sacred Warfare, as well as the masks and paintings held by the Mexico Museum of Anthropology.

And there is a genuine point to this. Great rulers and victorious generals look to art to proclaim and preserve their names, Genghis Khan slaughtered the inhabitants of the cities he conquered (at least those who resisted), but preserved the artisans and artists to glorify his image. Hitler, Stalin and, for that matter Saddam Hussein, all paid close attention to the works that would confirm their power. Art – bad and good – has always walked hand in hand.

That is one concern one has with these exhibitions. The mere fact that they are presented round great figures of the past tends to give the individuals an appeal which their real actions should belie. Power is forged out of blood not a taste for classical Greek art.

The Terracotta Army was especially egregious in this sense. China's first emperor was a thug. That is how he united the country. But so was Hadrian (what he did to quell the revolts in North Africa, never mind the Jews, was brutal in the extreme) and if the present show of Shah Abbas displays a little more sensitivity in this regard, it still leaves the impression that court patronage of the arts somehow outweighs religious oppression and authoritarian rule.

But then the whole idea of seeing other cultures through the prism of particular figures is a distorted one. There were rulers with their own taste, more often than not in the periods of decadence. But most rulers collected artists rather than directed taste.

To understand the art you have to comprehend their culture and where the arts sprang. Ancient Babylon is far more interesting and important in the centuries before Nebuchadnezzar. Taking him as your centre point takes you into a figure from the Bible and how later artists saw that, not a ruler of a great civilisation stretching back a millennium. If you want to understand Iranian culture of the16th century you need to see the Safavids as a whole. And if it's the Aztecs that interest you, then you needed to have seen the Royal Academy's tremendous show in 2002.

Let us by all means praise famous men. But let's not for a moment see archaeology and the past only through their eyes.