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Hadrian, the man behind the wall

July 26, 2008|Jill Lawless | Associated Press

LONDON -- He led a global superpower, bought popularity with tax cuts and faced a divisive war in Iraq.

In many ways, the Roman Emperor Hadrian and his 2,000-year-old world sound familiar.

A new exhibition at the British Museum aims to show that Hadrian, best remembered for building a 73-mile wall to separate England and Scotland, is a leader whose achievements and contradictions helped forge our times.

"Hadrian is one of the great Roman emperors," exhibition curator Thorsten Opper said. "He takes over the empire at a time of acute military crisis, he stabilizes that empire and he assures its survival.

"In a sense, he made the world we still live in today."

That's a bold claim for a man who died in 138 A.D., but "Hadrian: Empire and Conflict," which opened to the public Thursday, makes a strong case.

Under Hadrian's predecessor Trajan, the Roman Empire stretched from Britannia (modern-day Britain) to Mesopotamia (today's Iraq). But its armies were overstretched and rebels harried its fringes. Hadrian's first act on taking power in 117 A.D. was to pull troops out of Mesopotamia, where insurgency raged. He went on to trim back the limits of his empire and consolidate Roman power.

He loved architecture and ordered a flurry of construction -- homes, temples, new cities, that famous wall.

A surprising amount remains today. The wall still snakes across moor and dale in northern England. In Italy, there is Hadrian's vast villa at Tivoli -- the holiday home to end all holiday homes -- and Rome's Pantheon, one of the best-preserved and most beautiful of all classical buildings. Its giant dome has inspired buildings from St. Peter's Basilica in Rome to Turkish mosques to the British Museum itself.

The exhibition is being held in the museum's round Reading Room, whose domed roof, Opper said, is "a Victorian version of the Pantheon."

Opper said every generation reinvents historical figures in its own image, and Hadrian is no exception.

"The empire-builders, the Victorians, saw him almost as a weak figure because he withdrew," Opper said. "After the horrors of World War I and World War II, he was seen as the sort of prince of peace that the world needed. Our picture of Hadrian changes constantly based on our own experience."

The show paints a highly attractive picture of Hadrian. An introductory film bills him: "Warrior. Dreamer. Visionary." He is virile and energetic, a military commander, perceptive ruler and part-time poet. He's even a bit of a gay icon who deified his dead male lover, Antinous -- the cult caught on, rivaling Christianity among the masses -- and founded a city in his honor.

The 255-year-old British Museum has developed a knack for assembling populist but critically praised shows that set a historical figure in a modern context. The exhibitions have helped make the museum Britain's most popular tourist attraction, with 6 million visitors last year.

Museum director Neil MacGregor says the Hadrian show is one of four linked exhibitions "looking at a great reign that is resonating on through history." It follows last year's exhibition about China's first emperor and his terra-cotta warriors, which drew 850,000 visitors. Upcoming shows will look at Persia's Shah Abbas and the Aztec king Montezuma.

The museum has gathered more than 170 objects for the show, some from its own collection and others lent from 31 institutions in 11 countries.

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