Art: Hadrian, the genocidal emperor, commands an imperial audience at the Israel Museum

The exhibition brings together for the first time ever the handful of surviving 2nd-century bronze busts of the emperor who was cultured yet so cruel.

Roman emperor Hadrian commands an imperial audience at the Israel Museum (photo credit: ISRAEL MUSEUM)
Roman emperor Hadrian commands an imperial audience at the Israel Museum
(photo credit: ISRAEL MUSEUM)
History shows that Hadrian was one in a long line of genocidal arch villains who set out to annihilate the Jewish people. Yet until recently, the Roman emperor – who reigned from 117 to 138 CE, at the zenith of the Pax Romana – enjoyed an illustrious legacy.
It was Hadrian who brought peace to the far-flung empire stretching from Britain to Iraq, building the eponymous wall at the Scottish frontier as a defensive bulwark to keep out the barbarians.
Visitors to Rome admire his Pantheon – his elegant pagan temple turned church – which is arguably the best preserved building from the classical world. His mausoleum, Castel Sant’Angelo, stands as a landmark near the Vatican. And tourists flock to the urbane Villa Adriana at Tivoli.
That reputation as a cultured Roman was burnished by Lord Byron, who translated the emperor’s deathbed Latin poetry into English two centuries ago.
But as the Israel Museum’s current exhibit “Hadrian: An Emperor Cast in Bronze” shows, Publius Aelius Hadrianus was also a ruthless warrior who in 132-135 waged a campaign of extermination against the people of Judea.
According to the historian Cassius Dio, Hadrian killed 580,000 of Bar Kochba’s rebels. Wiping out hundreds of Jewish towns and villages, he changed the name of the country from Judea to Palestine – a deliberate insult recalling the long-extinct Philistines. Similarly, he turned Jerusalem into a Jew-free pagan colony named Aelia Capitolina, with a sanctuary to Jupiter built on the site of Herod’s destroyed Second Temple.
The Jewish people have never forgotten Hadrian’s persecution. Ashkenazi Jews recall his villainy during the Yom Kippur musaf service commemorating the 10 rabbis that Hadrian sadistically martyred. Among them were Rabbi Akiva, who was flayed and uttered the Shema prayer with his last breath, and Rabbi Hanina Ben Teradion, who was wrapped in a Torah scroll and burned alive. Damp wool was packed into his chest so he would not die quickly.
When he was being slowly immolated, he told his students that he could see the letters of the Torah “flying up” to heaven.
For the rest of the world, the change of Hadrian’s legacy from enlightened emperor to war criminal began in 2008 when the British Museum mounted its blockbuster show “Hadrian: Empire and Conflict.” More than 250,000 visitors swarmed the venerable London institution to puzzle over the contradiction of a ruler both so cultured and cruel.
The Israel Museum’s current exhibition, which opened December 22, can only further that revision.
“Hadrian: An Emperor Cast in Bronze” concludes the Israel Museum’s 50th-anniversary celebrations held throughout 2015. In a triumph of international cultural collaboration, and of minimalist design, the exhibition brings together for the first time ever the handful of surviving 2nd-century bronze busts of the emperor. Thousands of those propaganda statues were cast across the empire. Only three survive.
The Israel Museum’s beautifully preserved bronze of Hadrian was found at Tel Shalem in the Beit She’an Valley in 1975 by an American tourist armed with an illegal metal detector. Discovered in a camp of the Legio Sexta Ferrata (Sixth Ironclad Legion), the statue depicts the emperor clad in body armor greeting his troops with an outstretched arm.
It is flanked by two other imperial busts: one, from the British Museum, was found in 1834 in the River Thames near the site of the city’s Roman bridge, which may have been cast to commemorate Hadrian’s visit to Britain in 122 CE; the other, from the collection of the Louvre in Paris, is considered to have originated in Egypt or Asia Minor.
The three busts differ in subtle detail. The earliest, from the British Museum, depicts Hadrian clean-shaven. Growing a beard, the emperor established a new fashion across the empire.
A film explains the lost wax casting technique by which these busts were made – and bronze statues continue to be cast today. Bronze, an alloy of copper and tin, has greater tensile strength than malleable copper.
In another first, the Israel Museum has brought together the two halves of a finely chiseled Latin inscription, perhaps from a victory arch erected in 130 by the Legio X Fretensis (Tenth Legion of the Strait) to welcome Hadrian and his entourage to Jerusalem. One half was uncovered in 1903 north of the Damascus Gate, and is kept by the Franciscan Studium Biblicum. The other half, found at the same site in 2014, belongs to the Israel Antiquities Authority.
The Israel Museum’s Hadrian exhibition comes as a kind of bookend to the blockbuster “Herod the Great: The King’s Final Journey” mounted two years ago. Together the two symbolize that the Jewish people have prevailed, but have not forgotten the tragic encounter two millennia ago between Rome and Jerusalem.