It is an undisputed fact that the British Museum is one of the best museums in the world, not only because it houses pretty much the entire history of the human race under its roof but also because it is absolutely free unless you're going to see a special exhibition. It was just such an exhibition that the Beautiful Competition and I ponied up for last weekend with our pals Simon and Sarah: Hadrian: Empire and Conflict.
It was my first special exhibition at the Museum and was, for the most part, tasteful, educational and interesting. Hadrian was one of the 'good' Roman emperors; he recognized his official responsibilities and left the Empire a better place, helped rebuild Rome (the Pantheon was Hadrian's idea, which served as a model of the Reading Room at the British Museum where the exhibition is held); he pursued a conservative foreign policy building his famous Wall to define the Empire's borders and started abandoning Roman holdings in Dacia and Mesopotamia to consolidate the Empire's power and not overextend it.
Hadrian was also responsible for suppressing the last Jewish revolt in Judea and the creation of the province of Syria-Palestine and the Diaspora that scattered the Jews across the Empire. He had a variety of young male lovers, including one who died by falling in the Nile on a state visit to Egypt. He understood the power of imagery and the most interesting part of the exhibition was the variety of statues depicting Hadrian in a range of different garbs, from warrior to Greek philosopher to god incarnate. It's a wonderful example of ancient public relations and communications and 'brand management': by appearing in a guise that made the most sense to the people in a particular area, Hadrian could be a chameleon whose leadership was accepted in an Empire as multicultural as any today. In that regard, he was brilliant.
The exhibition was interesting but left you feeling a little lacking in content; there was very little in the way of context for most of the exhibit, and although you learn a few interesting tidbits the brilliance of exhibitions like this is that the have the ability to help contextualize history a little more. For example, in the part of the exhibit about the revolt in Judea, I wanted more of the exhibit to contextualize it not only in the history of that time, but in what came before and after in that part of the world. History for me is always a series of relationships that evolve over time, fluid and seamless; it is never isolated events, which is how it was (incorrectly) presented to me in school and how this seemed to present itself.
Hey, it's still worth the money though, especially if you're interested in the period. The model of Hadrian's villa is unbelievably awesome.