Hadrian’s life uncovered in new British Museum exhibition

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Think of Roman Emperor Hadrian and the first thing that springs to mind is the wall that bears his name, separating England from the revolting Picts.

However, there were many sides to Hadrian, as a new exhibition about his life reveals.

As well as being a great leader who strengthened the empire through consolidation and crushed dissent
ruthlessly, Hadrian was also a cultured man and the first openly gay emperor.

Hadrian: Empire and Conflict, opens at the British Museum tomorrow.

It offers a new perspective on the personal life and career of a man of many contradictions.

Hadrian, full name Publius Aelius Traianus Hadrianus, was born in AD 76 to a family of Spanish descent.

His father died when he was a young boy, and he was taken under the wing of the Emperor Trajan, who groomed him for succession.

Hadrian excelled as a military leader and was married to Trajan’s great-niece, further cementing his future succession. He eventually became emperor on Trajan’s death in 117 AD.

However, the marriage was one of convenience rather than love; neither Hadrian nor his wife was happy.

Instead, Hadrian consoled himself with a string of lovers, including a young Greek boy named Antinous.

Homosexual relationships were nothing new during the Roman Empire, however, the extent to which Hadrian expressed his devotion for Antinous was unusual.

The young man became a consort of the emperor, accompanying him on his many travels. It was during one such trip to Egypt that Antinous drowned in the Nile in 130 AD.

Devastated by this loss, Hadrian founded an entire city, Antinoupolis, in memory of his lover, near the spot where he had died.

The emperor’s grief was such that he had Antinous deified as a god and many statues, busts and silverware featuring Antinous’ image were made. Some are included in the exhibition.

However, this soft, romantic side to Hadrian contrasted dramatically with his role as a military leader.

He was often ferocious in his suppression of dissent, particularly during a Jewish revolt in Jerusalem in 132 AD.

Hadrian was well known as a great traveller. It is said he travelled more widely, and met many more of his subjects than any other emperor.

He also showed a great interest in architecture, and oversaw the construction of many iconic buildings, including the Pantheon in Rome and the Villa Adriana in Tivoli, a magnificent celebration of Greek and Egyptian art and culture.

Hadrian died in 138 AD, aged 62 and is regarded as one of the “Five Good Emperors.” Thorsten Opper, the curator of the exhibition, hailed Hadrian as an “extremely successful emperor who left an immense and enduring legacy.”

Certainly, Hadrian was a man of many faces – military champion, political strategist, ruthless leader, man of the people, lover of culture, grief-stricken lover – and gay icon.

History should remember him as a complex man with many passions.

Hadrian: Empire and Conflict opens at the British Museum in London on 24th July.