Prominent among the treasures on display in the British Museum’s summer exhibition, Hadrian: Empire and Conflict, is the so-called Cyrene statue of the emperor, named after the colonial city that he founded in present-day Libya. Famous since its discovery in the 19th century for the unique and shocking image it presents of a paunchy Roman emperor dressed in the swagged mantle of the decadent Greeks, it has helped fix the popular perception of Hadrian as a cultured, well-travelled man of peace. But it profoundly underestimates his achievements and distracts from the lasting relevance of his reign.


“Look there,” indicates Thorsten Opper, the exhibition’s curator, pointing at the faulty join where the Cyrene statue’s costumed torso and the head bearing Hadrian’s resolute features meet. “It is absolutely iconic but it is a modern construct only put on there in the 19th century. As we can physically explode that statue, we can explode the myth of Hadrian.” From such new insight flows the exhibition’s reassessment of Hadrian’s long reign. It’s a reappraisal that elevates an emperor who is most familiar in Britain for the wall that bears his name, to a status comparable with that of Augustus himself, the great founding father of empire after the fall of the Roman Republic, 144 years earlier. For, as Octavius earned the title of ‘Augustus’ by his hard-headed stabilisation of Rome and its expanding territories following his defeat of Mark Anthony at the battle of Actium, in the third and fourth decade of the second century AD it fell to Hadrian to resolve the crisis that threatened its existence – imperial overstretch.

When, in AD 117, the dying Emperor Trajan named his successor, his vanity as a military commander had transformed Hadrian’s prize into a poisoned chalice. Following years of glamorous but inadequately secured conquest, the fringes of the empire were fraying. Trajan had advanced into Mesopotamia as far as the Persian Gulf town of Basra: “a hideous miscalculation, reminiscent of the invasion of Iraq,” according to Hadrian’s most recent biographer, Anthony Birley. As a result, the rival empire of Parthia was waging a proxy war against Rome through Jewish insurgents. Britannia, the empire’s northernmost outpost, appeared to be in a state of simmering revolt, while in the wake of the victories over the Dacian tribes recorded on the bas-reliefs of Trajan’s column, the Balkans were again growing restive.

Hadrian reacted decisively to stem the danger, but not with the kind of military campaigns that many of his contemporaries expected from a veteran soldier and which some influential figures in the empire craved. Almost the first order he issued was for the legions that were struggling to subdue Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) to withdraw. Next, the superstructure of the bridge built by Trajan to span the Danube was dismantled, in order to prevent a surprise attack across Rome’s frontier. Hadrian had immediately signalled that his regime’s overriding agenda would be consolidation rather than expansion.

However, with an army trained for conquest, and a capital city accustomed to the spoils of war, Hadrian’s determination to strengthen the empire within its existing borders would cause him recurrent problems. It was perhaps his defining genius to realise that a lasting solution could only be found by forging anew the very idea of the Roman Empire; the “empire without end” that Augustus had mythologised as his nation’s destiny would have to become an empire that knew its limits and celebrated stability. But to achieve this would demand tireless determination, the reassurance of his personal presence wherever his subjects were asked to accept change, and all the ingenuity that a man who infuriated others with his intellectual arrogance could muster.

How, though, could one man be everywhere at once? The answer was simple but arduous: incessant travel, leaving behind a memorial trail in the form of public works. With the Hispanic aristocracy from which Hadrian sprang firmly rooted in the capital, and his devoted aide of many past campaigns, Marcius Turbo, ‘the whirlwind’, installed as Prefect of the Guard with an expanded political police at his disposal, Hadrian’s long and frequent absences from Rome passed without protest. While their emperor journeyed incessantly from province to province, returning only rarely during more than a decade, the inhabitants of the city could gaze across the Tiber to where the towering mausoleum, in which he would ultimately be laid, rose as a magisterial reminder of his power and influence over their lives.

More like this

A life revealed by art and buildings

Even today, as Christopher Kelly of Cambridge University observes, the physical evidence of Hadrian’s reign offers the surest route to understanding the subtlety of his methods and purpose. “The process of historical distortion began as early as the century after Hadrian’s death, with moralistic Christian historians,” he insists. “Given the dodgy and late status of the texts, an exhibition provides an extraordinarily good way to understand this emperor.” By interrogating the material evidence, even the apparently blunt gesture of constructing the wall in the north of Britannia – along with a great palisade to exclude the Germanic tribes – is revealed to be pragmatic on more than one level. Indeed, it seems likely that these ambitious engineering projects were not even intended as a firm line of demarcation, but rather cut through tribal lands: a fixed but porous projection of Roman power intended more as an instrument of psychological control than of purely military suppression. “Hadrian’s buffer”, as Kelly describes it.

In a reversal of the usual search for relevance in the past, Opper believes that parallels from the contemporary world can inform our understanding of this crucial moment in Europe’s history. “Call it Hadrian’s Wall and you think of a World Heritage Site,” he asserts, “but call it a security fence, like that in Gaza, and it sounds much more sinister.” As the ephemeral artefacts of his reign reveal, Hadrian’s ability to reshape his subjects’ perception of the world was far-reaching. Soldiers redeployed to distant parts of the empire carried with them glorified mess tins that commemorated their service as peacekeepers in the north, the everyday presence of such images reassuring Romans of their emperor’s protective care.

As Anthony Birley points out, it is on coins that we can see the clearest sign of Hadrian’s own self-fashioning, as he restyles himself first as ‘Hadrianus Aug’, then simply ‘Augustus’. Furthermore, the area of the empire on which Hadrian chose to focus his attention suggests that the identification with his illustrious forebear went deeper than mere propagandist convenience. Christopher Kelly offers an astute reminder that, while Roman attitudes towards the east had deep roots in the civil war won by Augustus over Anthony and Cleopatra, “The eastern frontier was also qualitatively different, since it was there alone that Rome faced another organised empire, in Parthia”. Fractious but endlessly fascinating, it was this challenge that would prompt Hadrian’s greatest innovation.

All Greek to Hadrian

Rome, Hadrian seems to have understood, had long since ceased to be a nation, bound together by racial unity, but was a set of cultural values to which its citizens, far and wide, could rally. Values that were Greek in origin were brought to maturity by Rome and remained fundamentally distinct from those of the alien Orient. By suggesting that Hadrian saw Rome’s future as the unifying heart of a Mediterranean civilisation, the British Museum’s exhibition casts his dealings with the Greek population of the empire in a wholly new light. No longer is his decision to remodel Athens mere Philhellenism, but part of a concerted programme of support that embraced too the tens of thousands of Greek pioneers prepared to settle the new colony towns of Egypt and Palestine, under constant threat of annihilation from an antagonistic Jewish diaspora.

“One of my main ideas,” Opper says, “is that Hadrian really recognised the necessity of getting the Greeks onboard and making them partners in leadership. One look at the map shows that the Greek-speaking territories are the hinterland of all the conflict zones – Rome and the Greeks have a shared interest in keeping the empire as it is.” Christopher Kelly differs slightly in his interpretation of Hadrian’s intention, seeing it as a starker process of appropriation: a brazen assertion that, “the real flowering of Hellenic culture is only possible because of the political success of Rome”. However, the effect was the same – a strengthening of the forces loyal to his vision of a truly Mediterranean empire. Whatever the balance of power in the relationship, it is clear that Hadrian did not believe that his plans for cultural harmony and solidarity against a common enemy could work as a one-way street.

When a team of 23 trumpeting elephants appeared outside the Colosseum and towed away the 30-foot high gilded statue of Nero/Apollo in order to make way for a temple symbolically dedicated to both Roma and Venus, even the most obtuse citizens of Rome must have got the message: Rome and Greece were as one. The economic benefits of the construction work, added to that of the Pantheon complex, would have sweetened the pill, while further imprinting Hadrian’s presence on the city. The arcaded forum for which Trajan was remembered may no longer have seemed quite so impressive when compared to these or the mausoleum, surrounding by 200 strikingly lifelike, gilded bronze peacocks.

But while the city of Rome and the empire’s troublesome frontiers undoubtedly made the most pressing demands on Hadrian’s attention, lasting success in his imperial project demanded a balanced approach to governance. That only three out of 44 provinces have so far failed to yield evidence of Hadrian’s personal presence demonstrates his wise recognition of the essential role in the health of the empire played by small town stalwarts and their mundane lives. Undoubtedly, an imperial visit might be financially crippling, both in immediate catering costs and the obligation to commemorate it with a fine building for the emperor to officially open, as at Leptis Magna in Libya. Nevertheless, Christopher Kelly is in no doubt about the appeal of Hadrian’s patronage. “An imperial visit was both prestigious and bankrupting, but it offered a once-in-a-hundred-years opportunity, maybe, when that long-standing family dispute over property can be settled.”

A fighter, and a lover

Statues of Hadrian now proliferated in the hundreds of cities of the empire, alongside those of Augustus, projecting not the image of a Greek-loving peacenik but that of a severe warrior, buckled into his cuirass and trampling the barbarian enemy underfoot, or mythically, in the pose of the Borghese Mars. Hadrian was also a passionate exponent of the chase, and there was one hunt, above all, for which it pleased him to be known: that in which he single-handedly saved his young lover, Antinous, from a lion. The event occurred in the Libyan desert, prior to the Egyptian visit of AD 130 and was commemorated by a favour-currying Alexandrian poet, in verses that are rich in pathos. For within a few weeks, the body of the young man that Hadrian had saved from a savage mauling – still beautiful, but not so smooth-skinned and boyish as when it first entranced the emperor – would be pulled, lifeless, from the Nile.

Antinous’s mysterious death impacted deeply on Hadrian and recent excavations of his great villa at Tivoli have revealed a magnificent temple for the worship of his lover’s memory. Is it really too cynical, though, to suggest that the tragic demise of Antinous also delivered Hadrian precisely the missing piece he needed to complete his subtle programme of propaganda for the new imperium: an icon whose exquisitely androgynous face and athletic body epitomised the fusion of Roman and Greek, and spawned a cult that rivalled Christianity in its structure and, for a time, its popularity. Its semi-spontaneous adoption by the provincial elite, in the eastern provinces especially, allowed them, in Kelly’s words, “to speak to Hadrian’s grief, while demonstrating that they are full participants in his pan-Hellenic programme.” But what happens, he pondered, “when you don’t spend money building a colonnade to welcome the emperor, when you’re not prepared to buy into his remake of the eastern Mediterranean?”

Among the enduring art and architecture produced under Hadrian, the Pantheon stands out. Its dome inspired that of St Peter’s in Rome, the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople and even the round reading room in which the British Museum exhibition is held. However, it is an empty space – marked by devastation rather than construction – that Kelly chooses as the most telling artefact of the period: the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. There, in the brutal aftermath of rebellion in the early AD 130s, the holiest site of Jewish religion and the city that lay around it were razed to the ground. Was Hadrian’s insensitive edict banning circumcision (which provoked the violence) prompted by Greek scruples about the mutilation of the body, as Birley suggests? Or was it simply a catastrophic misjudgment followed up with the kind of heavy-handed irascibility that would increasingly mark Hadrian’s later years? Either way, it tarnished his reign.

In place of the vanished Temple of Jerusalem, the exhibition offers letters written by the leader of the Jewish resistance, Bar Kokhba, along with the fragile personal effects of those who went with him into hiding. These are arguably the most emotionally affecting objects on display, more so even than the Vindolanda tablets recording everyday life from the Vindolanda fort on Hadrian’s Wall, since these documents contain the voices not of the occupiers but of the oppressed. A photograph reveals the extreme location in which they were found, preserved in a cave several hundred feet down a sheer cliff face, atop which the Roman army built a permanent camp to starve them out. Many in the Cave of the Letters never did make their getaway.

Judaea was one Roman province that failed to find a place in the microcosm of empire marked out by Hadrian’s villa at Tivoli. The pool of the canopus recalled Egypt, and the estate even boasted its own wittily-named Hades: perhaps the extensive ‘backstage’ where the slaves strove, all but invisible to guests, to sustain the illusion of effortless luxury. But as Hadrian walked its corridors in the twilight of his years, anxious to match Augustus’s longevity as emperor and determined to ensure that the succession would eventually pass to the teenaged Marcus Aurelius, ahead of the 900th anniversary of the foundation of Rome, he may perhaps have pondered whether a lifetime filled with effort and tinged with sadness and cruelty had been truly worthwhile. Would his project of consolidation survive – and with it the mystical authority of the emperor on which Rome depended?

Thorsten Opper is in no doubt about the scale of Hadrian’s achievements. “Without exaggeration, you can say that his policies towards the Greek world laid the foundations for what became the Byzantine Empire. His reforms guaranteed the continuation of the empire for another millennium.” It is fitting then that this exhibition should finally pay Hadrian his due as the latest in the British Museum’s series of epochmaking world rulers. After all, as Christopher Kelly concludes, “We, at the beginning of the 21st century, ought to pay especial attention to Hadrian because he realised, in dramatic and extensive form, that culture is as much a part of empire as conquest”.

The life and times of Hadrian: a timeline

Hadrian was born into a senatorial family with roots in Italica, near Seville, and he spent his early years in Spain. A military consul three times over and veteran of numerous campaigns under his uncle-in-law Trajan, the young Hadrian was eager to insinuate his way into the emperor’s favour. However, it was not until Trajan lay dying that he finally named Hadrian as his heir. Assuming power at a time of crippling imperial overreach, Hadrian personally presided over a crucial period of consolidation, constantly travelling to imprint his authority on far-flung provinces. He died on 10 June, AD 138, aged 62, one year short of Augustus’s age and a decade too soon to commemorate the ninth centenary of the foundation of Rome, whose longevity he had ensured.

AD 117

While based in Syria, to defend the rear of the army in Parthia, Hadrian hears that Trajan has died in Sicily. Almost his first act as emperor is to order the army's withdrawal from the three new provinces beyond the rivers Tigris and Euphrates, but the need to suppress further trouble in Dacia prevents him from returning to Rome with Trajan's ashes.


Spending winter on an inspection tour of the legions on the Germania frontier, he orders the building of a continuous, threemetre wooden palisade. Travelling to Britannia, where the army has suffered serious losses during an insurrection, he initiates work on the great stone wall that bears his name. Coins depict Britannia, with spear and shield, for the first time.


In Mauretania, Hadrian personally oversees the suppression of a revolt, then goes to Parthia where he averts war through summit negotiations with King Osroes I. In Bithynia, athletic contests are staged in his honour and he possibly meets Antinous for the first time. In Anatolia he hunts boar and kills a she-bear, founding the city of Hadrianutherae.


Hadrian begins to implement his new vision for the Mediterranean world while in Greece. A huge forum complex and the 'Library of Hadrian' commence the rebuilding of Athens and he finally completes the temple of Olympian Zeus, started in the sixth century BC. He is initiated into the Eleusinina Mysteries of Demeter and is hailed as a god.


In Greece, Hadrian's project to re-establish Athens as the spiritual heart of the Greek world continues. A Panhellenion, or council of Greek cities, including those in Egypt and the old enemy of Sparta, is established and its meetings are held in the Zeus temple. A coin is struck for his arrival at Ephesus acclaiming 'Hadrianus Olympius' – the incarnation of Zeus.


On Hadrian's fateful visit to North Africa he saves Antinous from a lion during a hunt in Libya, then listens to verses commemorating the event in Alexandria. As Egypt's ruler, local superstition delays his inspection of the Upper Nile until the floods have receded. After Antinous drowns on the journey, the city of Antinoopolis is founded nearby.


About to return to Rome after a third winter in Athens, Hadrian receives news of a revolt in an inadequately garrisoned Judaea, sparked by his policy of rebuilding Jerusalem as a colony. His best general is summoned from Britannia and reinforcements are deployed to reverse heavy Roman losses: over half a million Jews are slaughtered. Hadrian, back in Rome, accepts the only 'imperatorial acclamation' of his reign.

Hadrian’s sexuality: lost love and a broken heart

Love and sex between older men and adolescent boys was a widely accepted feature of Roman life. Indeed, one of the main sources of irritation in the strained relationship between the Emperor Trajan and the younger Hadrian, was jealousy over an especially appealing catamite. Hadrian’s relationship with the exquisite Bithynian boy, Antinous, is likely to have been accepted as perfectly normal.

But by the time of Hadrian’s visit to Egypt in AD 130, his lover had reached maturity and their passion was now more questionable. On the subject of Antinous’s drowning in the Nile, moralistic accounts by Christian historians of the following century cannot be trusted: suggestions of ritual sacrifice to restore Hadrian’s health, or suicide to escape the misery of lost youth and love, are less plausible than a slip in the mud. Yet the scurrilous rumours underline the intense, tortuous bond between Hadrian and his lover.

Hadrian was wise enough not to demand his lover’s deification by the Senate. However, the grand temple to Antinous recently discovered at Tivoli is a representation of the heartfelt grief of the emperor. According to Hadrian’s great fictional ‘autobiographer’ Marguerite Yourcenar, their tragic affair offered the key to understanding his personality.

Alex Butterworth is a writer and dramatist and is co-author of Pompeii: The Living City (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2005)

Hadrian by Anthony Birley (Routledge, 2000); The Roman Empire: A Very Short Introduction by Christopher Kelly (Oxford University Press, 2006); Hadrian: Empire and Conflict by Thorsten Opper (British Museum Press, 2008); The Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar (Penguin, 2000)


This article was first published in the August 2008 edition of BBC History Magazine