Hadrian and the wall of silence

Hadrian and the wall of silence

Martin Gayford

What was the Emperor Hadrian actually like? A new British Museum exhibition gives glimpses. By Martin Gayford

Feeling that his life was ebbing away, the Emperor Hadrian composed a letter to his successor around AD137. It began: “The Emperor Caesar Augustus to his most esteemed Antoninus, greeting. Above all, I want you to know that I am being released from my life neither before my time, nor unreasonably, nor piteously, nor unexpectedly, nor with faculties impaired.”

When he dictated those words, Hadrian – the subject of a major exhibition at the British Museum later this month – had ruled for more than two decades over one of the greatest states the world has ever seen. Its territory covered much of the current zone of the European Union, with the addition of North Africa, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Egypt. In general estimation, Hadrian – a bisexual Spaniard obsessed with architecture, poetry and hunting – was one of the few people to succeed in the task of ruling the western world.

During his rule, the Roman Empire was at its apogee – the point from which the 18th-century historian Edward Gibbon began the story of its decline and fall. “Under Hadrian’s reign,” Gibbon declared, “the empire flourished in peace and prosperity. He encouraged the arts, reformed the laws, asserted military discipline, and visited all his provinces in person. His vast and active genius was equally suited to the most enlarged views, and the minute details of civil policy.” However, Gibbon added that Hadrian’s ruling passions were “curiosity and vanity”.

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