Show of strength

The British Museum's summer exhibition demonstrates how the legacy of Hadrian's powerful empire perm

At the end of Via Nicola Zabaglia in Rome, the British and Commonwealth military cemetery is bounded by the 3rd-century Aurelian Wall. The immaculately maintained graves of soldiers killed in the 1944 liberation of Rome lie under tall pine trees. At their centre is a memorial. A slab of rough, reddish stone is set into brickwork. Underneath, a plaque reads: "This stone from Hadrian's Wall, the northernmost boundary of the Roman empire, was placed here at the wish of the citizens of Carlisle, England, to commemorate those servicemen from Cumbria who died in the Second World War."

It is a potent but complicated gesture. It seems that this piece of rock, dug from Cumbrian soil, shaped and used by the Emperor Hadrian's surveyors to set the limits of empire, and unidentifiable without the superscription, can stand for a whole package of ideas: of military ideals, of historic geographical connections, and of a shared culture. A culture to die for.

Fragments have a power to be more than the sum of their parts. The arbitrary survival of ancient artefacts is one of the seductive features of classical history. We are left both desiring more and with a need to engage individually with what is left to fill in the blanks. The period 117-138AD, in which the Roman emperor Hadrian ruled one of the greatest empires in history, is rich in such fragments. A battered lead pipe from Hadrian's Villa at Tivoli is infinitely more engaging than if the entire system were laid out intact; a single sandal retrieved from the hiding place of fugitive Jews conjures up desperation and sudden flight; marble or bronze heads revealed to be not as one with their torsos suggest we reappraise other classical statues.

It is no coincidence that the only known scrap of the emperor's autobiography is one of the final displays in the British Museum's fascinating exhibition "Hadrian: Empire and Conflict". Fragments tantalise - what would the book have revealed? A truth of the death of Antinous, his favourite? Of events surrounding Hadrian's accession on the death of his predecessor, Trajan? The thinking behind the bloody events in Judaea? Judging by subsequent political autobiographies, it would have done more to obscure than reveal, but its absence encourages creative speculation.

The British Museum begins with a fragmentary coup. The monumental remains of a statue of Hadrian were excavated only last year from Sagalassos in modern Turkey. The museum has resisted any temptation to reconstruct the original, and the head, leg and foot are breathtaking in their dismembered state. Perhaps as exciting are the photographs showing their discovery: workmen clearing soil from what is clearly the colossal head. Here is an irresistible drama of excavation, but also a reminder that the relationship with the ancient world is always changing as scholars work to fit new discoveries into a narrative.

Not everyone requires an official narrative, of course. Reviewers sometimes have the opportunity to see an exhibition outside opening hours, and for sensuous pleasure such intimate viewing is an unmatched experience. An exhibition, however, is primarily not a spectacle, but a conduit of information, and watching visitors respond to the displays is informative in itself. The densest bottleneck is around finds from a cave in Israel where Jewish rebels and their families attempted (unsuccessfully) to evade the Roman soldiers. The exhibits are beautifully preserved and mostly very simple: footwear, a straw basket, house keys, letters and a mirror. Almost all are objects familiar from our own lives and resonate with images we know from the aftermath of violent conflict today - and they prove that it is not just precious metal, marble and superb craftsmanship which draw the crowds or re-create the past.

Why Hadrian? He was intelligent, restless and controlling, his political skills consolidated the empire, his aesthetic agenda transformed the city of Rome, and his suppression of Judaea was to store up problems for posterity, but Hadrian was not so much an exceptional emperor as a very good exemplar, not least because such a breadth of material survives him. But ultimately, in common with the major exhibition that preceded it, "The First Emperor: China's Terracotta Army", and almost certainly "Babylon", planned for November, this is an exploration of power. Specifically, of absolute power, and how it can marshal unimaginable resources to shape a world.

In bringing together the biography of an emperor, a display of 2nd-century artefacts and the provision of a context in which all these things might be understood, the museum both challenges assumptions and celebrates beauty. There is a brave attempt to introduce uncertainty in the presentation of scholarly debates on subjects ranging from the imperial beard to the possible location of the tomb of Antinous. It is a pity, though, that Hadrian's Greek benefactions are largely passed over. He travelled outside Rome for more than half his reign and his vision for his empire had its foundations in Greece.

"Life, love, legacy" are the stated themes here. Hadrian's life is illustrated by pieces that are among the most striking in ancient Roman art, and, in structures such as Hadrian's Wall, the Pantheon and his villa at Tivoli, some of the best-known. Then there is the impossibly handsome favourite, Antinous, his mysterious death in the Nile on the feast of Osiris in October 130 and his deification in the eastern empire. Beauty, youth and sudden death are always intriguing. Though the exhibition is careful to distance itself from modern definitions of love, and certainly from modern understandings of homosexuality, the prolific and stunning images of the favourite in a variety of exotic guises overwhelm caution.

The legacy is due largely to one woman - the novelist Marguerite Yourcenar - whose Memoirs of Hadrian, a fictional representation of the emperor's vanished autobiography, was first published in 1951 (and is now to be filmed by John Boorman). A display case on Yourcenar is one of the first exhibits: a well-positioned reminder that posthumous reputation may rest in the hands of literary intermediaries. Hadrian got the young French Yourcenar, true love and melancholy; Nero's lot was the Catholic con servative Henryk Sienkiewicz, Quo Vadis and luridly martyred Christians.

One of the difficulties in mounting an exhibition about Hadrian is that buildings form the most triumphant aspect of his legacy. The interior of the Pantheon in Rome, a building in continual use since its construction, is a stunning coup de théâtre; a romantic stroll through the ruins and pools of Hadrian's Villa cannot be re-created in a museum, nor can the impact of his mausoleum, looming over its stretch of the Tiber. But the Pantheon has many architectural progeny, including the old Reading Room of the British Museum. Using it for the exhibition cannot have been a difficult decision; juxtaposing models of the room with models of the building that inspired it makes an instant point about aesthetic legacy. An Italian maquette of Tivoli, dating from before the Second World War, gives a sense of the extent and range of Hadrian's wonderland that is hard to gauge from within the palace itself - a place whose rooms were named after different parts of the empire and which even, according to Hadrian's ancient biographer Suetonius, included a Hades. Atmospheric photo graphs of Hadrian's Wall, following the Cumbrian hills in all seasons, evoke W H Auden's "Roman Wall Blues" as well as the extent of empire:

Over the heather the wet wind blows,

I've lice in my tunic and a cold in my nose.

The rain comes pattering out of the sky,

I'm a Wall soldier, I don't know why.

Perhaps the fact that the main response to all this is a longing to return to Rome or northern England is part of the exhibition's success. The British Museum shop seems to know what sells, and is doing brisk trade. The iconic image for its product range is Hadrian gazing at an Antinous lusciously garlanded in vine leaves.

Souvenirs are nothing new, of course; the ancient Romans had their vials of Nile water, their models of the lighthouse at Alexandria, their painted views of the flashy coastal resort of Baiae. But there is one souvenir here that is peculiarly modern and could only be British - a fridge magnet of brickwork with "Hadrian" scrawled across it: a memento of an emperor, a wall, and a relationship with antiquity that is so flexible and so enduring that it may as easily decorate a kitchen as commemorate the dead.

"Hadrian: Empire and Conflict" is at the British Museum, London WC1, until 26 October. For further details visit: www.britishmuseum.org

Hadrian: the CV

  • 76AD Publius Aelius Hadrianus is born, either in Italica (in modern-day Spain) or in Rome
  • 86 Hadrian's father dies. The boy is entrusted to the care of a relative, Trajan, who later becomes emperor
  • 100 Marries Trajan's grand-niece Vibia Sabina
  • 108 After a rapid advance through Roman politics, Hadrian is made consul
  • 117 Emperor Trajan dies and Hadrian succeeds him. Four senators who could pose a threat to him are executed, though Hadrian denies involvement
  • 122 Visits Britain on his tour of the empire. Work begins on a wall across northern England to prevent military attacks by the Picts. It takes six years to complete
  • 130 Antinous, Hadrian's travelling companion and possibly his lover, drowns in the River Nile. The grieving emperor names a nearby town in his honour
  • 132 Simon bar Kokhba leads a revolt among the Jews of Judaea after Hadrian introduces anti-Jewish policies, including a ban on circumcision. It takes Hadrian's army three years to crush the revolt, during which time 580,000 Jews are killed
  • 136 Vibia Sabina dies, perhaps poisoned by her husband
  • 138 The emperor dies on 10 July at his villa in Baiae, near Naples

Research by Graeme Allister