“The only fully surviving ancient biography is a short (20 pages or so) life - one of a series of colourful but flagrantly unreliable biographies of Roman emperors and princes written by person or persons unknown, sometime in the fourth or fifth centuries AD”.
Some of what Mary Beard has written about our lack of reliable information about the emperor Hadrian does little to make me want to remove him from “Horrible Histories”.
For example, she writes in “Hadrian — some myths busted”:
I am delighted that the Hadrian exhibition at the British Museum looks set to be the huge success which it deserves. One of the downsides is that we classicists are going to have to get used to the rest of country enthusing about Hadrian in a way that will make us cringe.
Last night’s Newsnight Review was a good example of just this. Newsnight Review is usually an excellent programme, and last night they had three intelligent critics on board (David Aaronovitch of this parish, Marina Hyde and Simon Sebag Montefiore). The trouble was none of them [seemed] … to know much more about Hadrian or the Roman empire than they had picked up in their preview visit to the show.
The result was that they gave all kinds of misleading impressions to the innocent viewer. For a start you could easily have come away with the idea that we were uniquely well-informed about Hadrian thanks to his autobiography. As the presenter said, “No extant copy of his autobiography survives. But later copies were made so we know a lot about his life”.
Well sorry guys, all we know is what may, or more likely may not, come from his autobiography in the scrappy, short and flagrantly unreliable biography in the series known as the Scriptores Historiae Augustae. So when Marina Hyde said “he was obsessed with cohesion the whole way through”, the truth is that we don’t have the foggiest clue what he was obsessed with.
Oh well, we’ll have to get used to this kind of stuff – and learn not to stifle the enthusiasm but channel it towards a more sustained (and informed!) interest in the ancient world. ….
Mackey’s comment: To know much more about, to fill out, the somewhat poorly-known Hadrian, one might like to read my accounts of who may have been his ancient alter egos. See, for example, my series:
Antiochus 'Epiphanes' and Emperor Hadrian. Part Two: "Hadrian … a second Antiochus"
and my article:
Mary Beard has yet more to say about the obscurity of Hadrian in, “A very modern emperor”:
The new exhibition at the British Museum, Hadrian: Empire and Conflict, features evocative objects from both sides of this Jewish war. There are simple everyday items recovered from a Jewish hideout: some house keys, a leather sandal, a straw basket almost perfectly preserved in the dry heat, a wooden plate and a mirror - evidence of the presence of women, according to the exhibition catalogue (as if men did not use mirrors). But with or without the women, these are all bitter reminders of the daily life that somehow managed to continue, even in hiding and in the middle of what was effectively genocide. From the other side, there is a magnificent bronze statue of the emperor himself, which once stood in a legionary camp near the River Jordan. The distinctive head of Hadrian (bearded, with soft curling hair and a giveaway kink in his ear lobe) sits on top of an elaborately decorated breast-plate, on which six nude warriors do battle. It is a striking combination, even if - here as elsewhere - the catalogue raises doubts about whether the head and body of this statue originally belonged together.
Far away from Judaea, on the other side of the Roman world, Hadrian's military operations in Britain were less bloody. Apart from the low-level guerrilla warfare endemic in most Roman provinces, he had his troops occupied in building the famous wall running across the north of the province. This was a project inaugurated when Hadrian himself visited in 122, one of the few Roman emperors ever to set foot in the empire's unappealing northern outpost. It is now far from certain what this wall was for. The obvious explanation is that it was built to prevent hordes of nasty woad-painted natives from invading the nice civilised Roman province, with its baths, libraries and togas. But - leaving aside the rosy vision of life in Britannia that this implies (baths, libraries and togas for whom exactly?) - this overlooks one crucial fact. The impressive masonry structure, which provides the iconic photo-shot of the wall, makes up only part of its length. For one-third of its 70 miles the "wall" was just a turf bank, which would hardly have kept out a party of determined children, never mind a gang of barbarian terrorists.
There are all kinds of alternative suggestion. Was it, for example, not much more than a fortified roadway across the province? Or was it more of a boast than a border - an aggressive, but essentially symbolic, Roman blot on the native landscape? ….
If all this seems rather familiar, that is partly because there really are significant overlaps between the Hadrianic empire and our own experience of military conflict and geopolitics. We are still fighting in many of the same areas of the world and encountering many of the same problems. We are still claiming victory long before we have won the war - or indeed, in the Iraqi case, instead of winning the war. ….
That feeling of familiarity has been boosted by Marguerite Yourcenar's fictional, pseudo-autobiography of the emperor, Memoirs of Hadrian. Published in 1951, and once hugely popular (it now seems to me rambling and frankly unreadable), it took the modern reader inside Hadrian's psyche - presenting the emperor as a troubled and intimate friend, in much the same way as Robert Graves made the emperor Claudius a rather jolly great-uncle. But Yourcenar's fictional construction is not the only reason for Hadrian's apparent modernity. There are all kinds of ways in which Hadrian's life and interests seem to match up to our own expectations of monarchs and world leaders, and to modern interests and passions. He was the sponsor of Mitterand-style grands projet, a great traveller to the outposts of his dominion (including that trip to Britain), as well as an enthusiastic collector of art. And to cap it all, he had an intriguing, and ultimately tragic, sex life.
Traveller, patron, grief-stricken lover, art collector, clear-thinking military strategist. How do we explain why Hadrian seems so approachably modern? Why does he seem so much easier to understand than Nero or Augustus? As so often with characters from the ancient world, the answer lies more in the kind of evidence we have for his life than in the kind of person he really was. The modern Hadrian is the product of two things: on the one hand, a series of vivid and evocative images and material remains (from portrait heads and stunning building schemes to our own dilapidated wall); on the other, the glaring lack of any detailed, still less reliable, account from the ancient world of what happened in his reign, or of what kind of man he was, or what motivated him.
The only fully surviving ancient biography is a short (20 pages or so) life - one of a series of colourful but flagrantly unreliable biographies of Roman emperors and princes written by person or persons unknown, sometime in the fourth or fifth centuries AD. This includes one or two nice anecdotes, which may or may not reflect an authentic tradition about Hadrian.
Sadly, very little of the life is up to this quality. Most of it is a garbled confection, weaving together without much regard for chronology allegations of conspiracies, accounts of palace intrigue, and vendettas on Hadrian's part - plus an assortment of curious facts and personal titbits (his beard, it is claimed, was worn to cover up his bad skin). To fill the gaps, to make a coherent story out of the extraordinary material remains of his reign, to explain what drove the man, modern writers have been forced back on to their prejudices and familiarising assumptions about Roman imperial power and personalities. So, for example, where - thanks to the surviving ancient literary accounts - it has been impossible to see Nero as anything other than a rapacious megalomaniac, Hadrian has morphed conveniently into cultured art collector and amateur architect. Where Nero's relationships with men have to be seen as part of the corruption of his reign, Hadrian has been turned into a troubled gay. Hadrian seems familiar to us - for we have made him so.
The British Museum exhibition presents Hadrian as an appropriate successor to the first emperor of China and his terracotta army, both key figures in the foundation and development of early imperial societies. Maybe so. But an even better reason to visit this stunning show is to see how the myth of a Roman emperor has been created - and continues to be created - out of our own imagination and the dazzling but sometimes puzzling array of statues, silver plates and lost keys of slaughtered Jewish freedom-fighters.