LONDON, July 22 (Reuters Life!) - He had his fingers burned in ancient Iraq, fought insurrections on several fronts and built a huge wall to protect a fractious frontier, but still had time to boost the economy and leave major artistic legacies.
Many of the trials and tribulations that faced Rome’s emperor Hadrian nearly 2,000 years ago still resonate today.
“The conflict zones in Hadrian’s day are the conflict zones of today,” said Thorsten Opper, curator of a new exhibition, “Hadrian - Empire and conflict” at London’s British Museum.
“Within days if not hours of coming to power he withdrew the Roman army from Mesopotamia — present day Iraq,” said Opper, noting similarities between the wall he built in northern Britain and that being built by Israel in the West Bank.
“It has echoes in today’s West Bank Wall. Both have control points, watchtowers and are designed to keep people apart and restrict movement,” he said.
But those are not the only similarities. When Hadrian came to power in AD 117 with an empire stretching from modern day Egypt in the south to Britain in the north and Spain in the west to Iraq in the east there was turmoil everywhere.
Hadrian, best known in Britain for his wall, in Rome for the Pantheon and in Israel for his bloody suppression of the Jewish revolt in AD 132/6 was a controversial but largely overlooked ruler who stabilised a crumbling empire.
Hugely popular with the soldiery and whose reforms of the armed forces remained the bible of the Roman Army for over a century, Hadrian was also a highly cultured man who was not without controversy.
Appointed emperor by his guardian and mentor the emperor Trajan on his deathbed, Hadrian was not universally accepted to start with and made his accession even more fraught by promptly abandoning the eastern part of the overextended empire.
He set about rectifying that by getting the state treasury to effectively write off 900,000 sesterces of people’s debts — a vast amount of money. The action is credited with triggering an economic boom.
“It was a clever move. But he had been well groomed by Trajan,” Opper said.
Hadrian also set in train a vast public building programme including the Pantheon, his villa at Tivoli and even his own mausoleum — now known as the Castel Sant’Angelo.
“The architecture is a huge part of his legacy. He led a huge renaissance of the arts. He knew that who owns the past owns the present and therefore the future,” said Opper.
Like many Roman emperors, the married Hadrian also took male lovers.
But he broke with tradition when he openly — and monumentally — lamented the early death of his Greek lover Antinous.
He founded a city, Antinoupolis close to the spot where he died and had him declared a god, making him into a cult icon.
When he died on July 10, AD 138, Hadrian left behind a rich artistic and architectural legacy and a vastly strengthened Roman Empire whose touch can still be felt in the 21st century.
The exhibition, which runs to Oct 26, draws together 170 items from 11 countries. So delicate are some of them that when it finishes its run in London it will be disbanded and the items sent back home for preservation.