Andrew Lambirth

Emperor’s vision

<strong>Hadrian: Empire and Conflict<br /> </strong><em>The British Museum, until 26 October<br /> Sponsored by BP</em>

Hadrian: Empire and Conflict

The British Museum, until 26 October
Sponsored by BP

After last week’s Hadrian supplement in The Spectator, readers will be well-informed about this prince of emperors, so I will confine my remarks to a personal response to the exhibition. I must say immediately that it looks very impressive and that Sir Robert Smirke’s round Reading Room is the perfect setting for a display that also focuses on the architecture of the Pantheon. (Smirke based his dome directly on that great classical exemplar.) But this is not another Terracotta Army blockbuster: it is, in effect, an exhibition of busts and architectural models. If you’re interested in the period, you’ll love it, but I wonder how many visitors will be converted to the delights of ancient history by its charms.

As you come up the steps to enter the exhibition, you are confronted by three fragments of a newly discovered statue of Hadrian. This time last year they were still in the ground, so their unveiling is very new. These marble body parts from a colossal statue in the ancient city of Sagalassos, now in south-west Turkey, consist of a handsome head, a foot in a sandal, and a leg from knee to ankle. Here is Hadrian for the first time (in a display of many imperial likenesses) with his curly hair and curly beard, the first Emperor to be so hirsute, but sadly reduced to a trio of parts. A dramatic prologue, but most fitting for an exhibition composed of remnants and survivals. To the left, a cabinet of objects from India, China and Parthian Mesopotamia indicates the extent of the empire over which Hadrian ruled. The exhibition never really manages to convey the largeness of that territory, nor the fact that Hadrian himself was constantly travelling round it (more than other emperors) and meeting his subjects.

Already a subscriber? Log in

Keep reading with a free trial

Subscribe and get your first month of online and app access for free. After that it’s just £1 a week.

There’s no commitment, you can cancel any time.


Unlock more articles



Don't miss out

Join the conversation with other Spectator readers. Subscribe to leave a comment.

Already a subscriber? Log in