Few political commentators ask what lies behind the thinking of those expressing boundless admiration for the Roman Empire in almost every quarter of present-day Western society.
This comes across in the most sophisticated inquiries into ancient history, as witness Thorsten Opper’s intelligent book “Hadrian: Empire and Conflict,” to which the British Museum show that he curated, running until Oct. 26, effectively serves as an illustration.
While striving to put forward a balanced view, the historian cannot help giving a lyrical ring to his most matter-of-fact statements: “For almost twenty-one years, from A.D. 117 to 138, Publius Aelius Hadrianus ruled one of the mightiest empires the world has ever seen” is the opening sentence to Opper’s introduction, which chirpily explains that “at the heart of the empire was Rome, the largest city of the ancient Mediterranean, if not the globe, a pulsating capital of one million inhabitants.”
Coming to Hadrian, the author goes on: “The empire needed to gain strength and cohesion in order to be able to face the many threats to its prosperity and peaceful existence. Hadrian’s achievements in these areas were outstanding, his legacy immense.” Exactly what was peaceful about this empire bent on constant expansion is not specified. The historian then proceeds to recount in some detail a story of genocide and ethnic cleansing on a grand scale.
When Hadrian came to power in 117, the ancient Middle Eastern lands of Armenia, Assyria and Mesopotamia (that is, Babylonia) in present-day northern and southern Iraq had just been occupied and declared new Roman provinces. Farther west, all hell had broken loose. In 116, the Jews of Cyrenaica (in modern Libya), driven by fury against the Romans, who had destroyed the temple in 71 and slain much of the population in the Jerusalem area, had risen against the Western occupiers.
They had destroyed public buildings and temples, causing 220,000 casualties in the process, according to the only available detailed source, the “Historia Augusta,” written in the fourth century by Cassius Dio. The insurgents invaded Egypt, where the Jewish communities took up arms and crushed an entire Roman legion. Their uprising spread to Cyprus, where, Dio writes,, 240,000 were killed. Trajan’s retaliation was extreme. Tens of thousands were slain in Egypt and Cyrenaica and repression extended to Mesopotamia.
The situation was untenable for the Romans. As soon as he was proclaimed emperor, Hadrian pulled back his armies from Mesopotamia, Assyria and Greater Armenia. This did not look too good for the new emperor, who had been belatedly adopted by Trajan. Born in Rome into an Iberian family (from present-day Spain), Hadrian badly needed to legitimize his rule and spent a lifetime burnishing his image as a military hero.
The populace loved it. Statues of the emperor were erected across the empire. A marble head from a figure that must have been 4.5 to 5 meters high, or about 16 feet, was discovered last year in ancient Pisidia, in what today is southwestern Turkey. Technically impeccable, it uncannily heralds the hollow art of 20th-century totalitarian states.
Permanent aspiration to domination over unwilling populations meant permanently perceived threats. In the westernmost “province” of the empire (roughly corresponding to modern England and Wales), which had been finally occupied in 43, the situation was shaky. Hadrian appears to have waged not just one war, but two. In 122, the construction of Hadrian’s Wall, running from east to west, was undertaken to keep out the “Barbarians” farther north. Recovered from the Thames, a larger-than-life-size bronze head of the emperor that was cast around that time has an expressiveness that probably reflects the sensitivity of native Celtic artists working in the Roman style. It forms a striking contrast with a bland marble statue of Hadrian as Mars, the god of war, carved in Rome.
In the Near East, trouble kept brewing. It erupted in 132 in the form of a furious uprising in Judea, led by Simon Bar Kokhba, whose nom de guerre means in Hebrew “The Son of the Star.” Well prepared, with arms caches and secret hideouts set aside, the resistance beat two Roman legions and a dozen auxiliary regiments.
Reinforcements sent from Syria and Egypt were wiped out. As Jews in the surrounding areas and the non-Jewish communities of Judea sided with the insurgents, Bar Kokhba proclaimed himself “The Prince of Israel.”
This was more than the “peaceful” Roman emperor could stomach. Hadrian took in hand the military operations, as is implied by inscriptions mentioning the “expeditio Judaica.” Around 134, the battle-hardened governor of Britain, Sextus Julius Severus, was called in and, to quote Opper, “turned the war into a slow extermination campaign.”
According to Dio’s account, the Romans razed 50 of the most important military strongholds and 985 of the best-known villages. Military casualties alone numbered 585,000. “As for the numbers who perished from starvation disease or fire, that was impossible to establish.”
Finds in a cave west of the Dead Sea provide a glimpse into the makeup of the anti-Roman groups. Luxury items suggest that members of the wealthy establishment took part. A magnificent glass plate from Alexandria and bronze vessels including a patera, or pan-shaped utensil, for offerings decorated with a non-Jewish pattern (the nymph Thetis riding a sea-monster), reveal the mixed backgrounds of those who sought refuge in the cave.
Roman propaganda celebrated the victory on a gigantic scale. Fragments of a monumental inscription unearthed in the Jordan Valley belong to a triumphal arch. Parts of an enormous bronze statue of Hadrian were excavated on the site of a camp built by the Sixth Legion. The top commanders, including Severus, received the highest military honors. To this day, the base of a colossal statue of Hadrian dedicated in the Temple of Vespasian and Titus, who had initiated the mass destruction of the Jews, survives in Rome.
While extreme for its thoroughness, the Roman repression was not unusual in its ferocity – Hadrian’s predecessors, like Titus or Nero, were hardly choirboys. There is no way of knowing how Hadrian felt about the extermination war that he conducted. Almost every aspect of his personality is subject to interpretation. The emperor’s much-vaunted admiration for Greek culture may owe something to political expediency. Opper speculates that it partly reflected the wish to win over the population of the Hellenic or Hellenized areas of the Empire.
The only evidence of Hadrian’s personal emotions is linked to his homosexual relationship with Antinous, who drowned in the Nile while the emperor and the Greek youth traveled upriver.
Distraught, Hadrian founded a new city to immortalize his memory, Antinopolis, but, as Opper remarks, this also fit in nicely with the emperor’s active policy of encouraging Greek settlements in Egypt. The Egyptians in his entourage were encouraged to venerate Antinous as the incarnation of the god Osiris, and a statue of the young man, with the attributes of Osiris, was even erected in the Antinous shrine at Hadrian’s villa. For kitsch vulgarity, you can’t do much better.
The obsessive Hadrian surrounded himself with Antinous images. Ten marble portraits were recovered from his villa at Tivoli alone, and about 100 such images in all have been recorded. They include the colossal head from a villa near Frascati, in the Rome area, and the life-size statue of Antinous as Aristaios, a Greek deity associated with the hunt.
But with the exception of Antinous, Hadrian did not waste much love on his human brethren. His relations with Sabina, the daughter of Trajan’s niece who became his wife at age 14, were difficult. The arranged marriage, which had opportunely strengthened Hadrian’s position within the imperial circle, did little for the young woman, even if the emperor commissioned grand portraits of her. A larger-than-life statue from the villa at Tivoli shows a woman of striking beauty and dignity, wistfully tugging at her drape.
There is no indication whatsoever that the massacres perpetrated under his command ever weighed upon Hadrian’s conscience. It was all done in the superior interest of the empire and of what Western historians like to call the “pax Romana,” without batting an eyelash.
The article retrieved from here.