Two thousand years after he built a wall across Britain to keep out the barbarians, Hadrian is returning to this part of his empire. More than 200 treasures relating to the Roman Emperor will go on display in a block-buster exhibition this summer, the British Museum announced yesterday.
Spectacular artefacts that have only just been found will be among loans from 31 countries - a reflection of the global scale of Hadrian’s empire. It extended from Scotland to the Sahara, and from the Nile to the Danube.
Negotiations are now under way to bring to London a colossal marble statue of Hadrian that was found only a few months ago at Sagalassos, Turkey.
Archaeologists were excavating the site of a huge Roman bath complex, whose construction began under Hadrian, when they found the lower part of a leg and a foot with an exquisitely decorated sandal. The foot alone is about 0.8 metres (2.6ft) long. The complete statue, topped by an imposing head, was originally nearly five metres high. Traces of red paint have survived on both the hair and sandal.
The exhibition comes after the unprecedented success of the British Museum’s show on another great world leader, The First Emperor: China’s Terracotta Army, which has sold 600,000 tickets. The demand is such that opening hours have been extended to midnight four nights a week.
Hadrian: Empire and Conflict is likely to prove just as popular, particularly as Hadrian is part of the history of so many countries. The lenders include Italy, Georgia and Israel – as well as Newcastle upon Tyne.
This will be the first big show dedicated solely to the life and legacy of a military man who ruled the Roman Empire at its height between AD 117-138, combining ruthless suppression of dissent with cultural tolerance. The British Museum’s historic Round Reading Room is a particularly appropriate setting for this exhibition as its dome has been compared to that of Pantheon in Rome, one of Hadrian’s architectural masterpieces.
The exhibits will include a sculpture of Hadrian’s wife, created with a beauty that, according to Thorsten Opper of the British Museum, “would have had Michelangelo in raptures, if he had seen it”.
There will also be exquisite bronzes, including an extraordinary statue found in Israel in the 1970s and a silver bowl bearing an intricate portrait of his young Greek lover, Antinous, who accompanied him on his travels around the empire.
A papyrus fragment will give an insight into the man himself as the only surviving section of Hadrian’s autobiography. Its contents are particularly touching in that Hadrian described the loss of his father at the age of 9.
The show also includes objects from the museum’s own collection such as the famous Vindolanda wooden tablets, the oldest surviving examples of handwriting in Britain, which were discovered near Hadrian’s Wall.
Before the exhibition, a bronze head of the emperor from the 2nd century AD will travel to both ends of the wall, which extends 80 miles from the Solway Firth to the Tyne at Wallsend. The head, one of the rare remaining bronzes from Roman times, has never left the museum since its discovery in the Thames in 1834. Most such bronzes were melted down. This one not only survived but, thanks to the underwater silts of the Thames, it is also particularly well preserved. The statue to which it belonged, which was one and a quarter life size, may have been erected in London in AD122 to commemorate Hadrian’s visit to Britain.
Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, said: “The exhibition will provide an opportunity to assess the important legacy of the emperor Hadrian, whose reign has telling relevance to our lives today.” The Face of an Emperor: Hadrian Inspects the Wall will be at Tullie House, Carlisle (February 8 to April 13), and Segedunum Roman Fort and Museum, Wallsend (April 16 to June 8). Hadrian: Empire and Conflict (July 24 to October 26) is at the British Museum. britishmuseum.org/hadrian
Caesar Traianus Hadrianus Augustus was born in Rome but of Spanish descent He was adopted by the emperor Trajan, his father’s cousin, as his successor His family fortune was based on the production of olive oil His admiration for the Greek civilisation and the beard he wore – a Greek fashion – prompted some to refer to him scornfully as Graeculus (“the Greekling”) He travelled throughout the empire for nearly half his reign, building temples, baths and libraries wherever he went After his young companion Antinous drowned in the Nile, he grieved openly, erecting statues of the boy throughout the realm