At present, the British Museum is host to an exhibition of terracotta artefacts from the tomb of Qin Shi Huangdi. It will be followed by an exhibition about Emperor Hadrian, the first to be staged anywhere in the world. Publius Aelius Traianus Hadrianus became emperor AD117 When Rome was perhaps at its zenith – The Empire expanded from the south of Scotland to Mesopotamia (modern- day Iraq). Hadrian’s first move was to withdraw his troops from Mesopotamia and fortify the empire's boundaries by building his eponymous wall in northern England and others in the Danube and the Rhine valleys, ushering in a new era of peace.
Interestingly, several of the artefacts relate to his male consort, Antinous, who accompanied him on his travels around the empire. These items include a poem written on papyrus, featuring the two men hunting together, and new finds that include memorials to the dead lover at Hadrian's villa in Tivoli. Although it was not uncommon for his predecessors to have taken gay lovers alongside a female spouse, Hadrian was unique in making his love "official" in a way that no other emperor had before him. When Antinous drowned in mysterious circumstances, Hadrian was so distraught that he chose to commemorate the young Greek by naming an Egyptian city in his honour. Thorsten Opper, curator of the exhibition, said what was unusual in Hadrian's attitude towards Antinous was the way in which he publicly deified him.
"He had to marry, and he had a politically arranged marriage to Sabina, who was the great-niece of the former emperor Trajan, which in effect, set up his succession. But clearly, it was a loveless marriage with no children. What was unusual is that he had a lot of flings, and then after his lover drowned in the Nile AD130 he made him a god. Hadrian was clearly bereaved and he had lots of images put up. When a city was founded close to the spot where Antinous drowned, he named it Antinopolis. It was a sort of hero cult-worship of Antinous," said Mr Opper
The emperor's sexuality was by no means the only unusual aspect of his reign. The decision to pull his troops out of Mesopotamia might have been frowned upon in an empire that had built its might on a bellicose foreign policy, but Hadrian's charisma won over the masses.
Mr Opper said there were similarities between second-century Mesopotamia and present-day Iraq, with the Roman occupiers finding themselves in a hotbed of violence and resistance. "We must not mistake Hadrian's motives for pulling his troops out of Mesopotamia. He didn't really have a choice. It had just been conquered by his predecessor and there was a lot of guerrilla warfare, which is eerily just like modern times. What he did was give the empire breathing space and while he was a very experienced military leader, we also get the impression he was very cultured and he fostered Greek identity and made them partners in leadership."
At times, however, even Hadrian's Rome played the role of violent occupier. During a suppression of a Jewish rebellion in Judea, Roman warriors were dispatched to take control of the region, leading to the death of 580,000 Jews. "It was probably as a punishment that he changed the name of Judea to Palestine," said Mr Opper.
The exhibition, which runs from 24 July to 26 October, will display sculpture, bronzes and architectural fragments. Highlights include the Vindolanda tablets from Hadrian's Wall and a bronze head of the emperor discovered in the Thames in 1834. Other highlights are a bronze bust from Israel found in 1975, a papyrus fragment of Hadrian's autobiography from the Bodleian Library that has never before been on public display, fragments from Hadrian's tomb and gilded bronze peacocks measuring two metres lent by the Vatican's Museum for the first time.