In Jewish historiography, the Roman emperor Hadrian – or, "Hadrian the bone-grinder,” as traditional religious sources called him – has a “place of honor” on the list of those considered to be the most hated and bitter enemies of the Jewish people over the generations.
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Publius Aelius Hadrianus Augustus, as he was known, was emperor from 117 to 138 C.E., and is best remembered in Israel for crushing the Bar Kochba revolt against the Romans and for the ensuing holocaust, including destruction of the Jewish community in Judea and the razing of Jerusalem, upon whose ruins he built a pagan city named Aelia Capitolina.
In world historiography, however, Hadrian has a completely different image: He is considered to be one of the most enlightened and important of Roman rulers, the man responsible for the golden age of the empire. He is said to have been a gifted general and politician, a patron of the arts and a man of letters, as well as a builder who left important monuments behind in his wake.
In a new exhibition opening on Tuesday, the Israel Museum is attempting to present – and possibly resolve – this paradox.
Two years have passed since the Jerusalem-based museum finished its treatment of yet another, extremely controversial historical figure: Herod the Great (74/73 B.C.E. – 4 B.C.E.). Dr. David Mevorah, who curated both exhibitions, says that even today he is still being accused of trying to "rehabilitate" King Herod, who is considered to have been a bloodthirsty tyrant in both Jewish and Christian traditions.
“Hadrian: An Emperor Cast in Bronze” features the museum’s own artifacts alongside those borrowed from other institutions around the world, and it is based on preserved and reconstructed archaeological findings. The idea for the show was conceived seven years ago when the Israel Museum lent items to the British Museum in London for its exhibition on Hadrian.
“We said that we look at the man differently, and proposed exhibits on the Bar Kochba revolt to them [then] ... For the first time 'our' Hadrian and 'theirs' met, and we thought up the idea of doing this exhibition,” said Mevorah, senior curator of Hellenistic, Roman, and Byzantine Archaeology, who curated the new show with Rachel Caine Kreinin of the Israel Museum and Thorsten Opper of the British Museum.
At the center of the new exhibition are the only three bronze portraits of Hadrian that have survived; they are being displayed together for the first time ever. It is thought that tens of thousands of statues of the emperor were scattered all over the Roman empire during his reign, most of them made of marble and other stone, but many fewer made out of bronze. The statues, which were displayed in various provinces as representations of Rome’s imperial might, had political as well as cultic significance. Indeed, some were venerated as the very embodiment of the divine Caesar.
Bronze statues are particularly problematic with respect to the passage of time – because the metal was rare and coveted – and most of them were eventually melted down for other uses over the years. Of the three rare bronze busts at the heart of the exhibition, one was pulled out of the Thames River in London in 1834; it may have been created to commemorate Hadrian’s visit to Britain in 122 C.E., and belongs to the British Museum. The second is usually displayed in the Louvre in Paris and was found in the antiquities market; researchers think it came from Egypt or Asia Minor, but there is no certainty as to where it was made or originally found.
The third bust, the most complete and impressive of the three, was discovered in 1975 in what turned out to be the camp of the Sixth Roman Legion at Tel Shalem near Beit She’an in northern Israel. It portrays Hadrian in a typical pose, as supreme military commander greeting his troops. It was discovered by an American tourist who was searching for ancient coins with a metal detector and constitutes one of the most important discoveries from the classical period ever found in the country. The discovery came before the passage of the Israel Antiquities Law, which banned such private and amateur archaeological exploration, as well as exportation of antiquities from Israel without a permit. Nonetheless, what was then the antiquities division of the Education Ministry wisely decided to purchase the bust from the tourist in return for a handful of ancient coins.
“They made a good deal,” says Mevorah.
The statue is now part of the Israel Museum’s permanent collection.
Novel facial hair
In any event, the three statues on show reveal the different sides of Hadrian. The locally found bust depicts the emperor as a military commander, wearing armor and sporting a thick beard. The beard was considered a novelty in the realm of Roman rulers' fashion, and had a major influence on men’s grooming throughout the entire empire.
All three works were created in different corners of the empire, but the facial features are very similar. To this day, researchers still do not understand how so many busts of the emperor could be so alike, and seemingly so accurate, when most of the artists who made them never laid eyes on the man himself. The most accepted theory is that official representations of the emperor’s image were created in Rome, and were then sent throughout the empire and copied by local sculptors. But such a theory does not explain the differences between the statues.
The "return" of Hadrian to Jerusalem celebrates, in a way, the ruler’s last visit to the Kingdom of Judea in 130 C.E. Also on show for the first time, in another part of the exhibition, is a huge stone (weighing about two tons) bearing an inscription, which the museum says contexualizes this historical visit, and was created by the 10th Roman Legion in Jerusalem that same year – two years before the outbreak of the Jewish uprising.
One section of the monumental stone bearing the inscription was unearthed in 1903, and the other was discovered during a dig in 2014 near the Damascus Gate in the Old City of Jerusalem by the Israel Antiquities Authority. The two parts have now been brought together for the first time, in the modern era; one is on loan from the IAA and the other comes from the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum Museum of the Franciscan monastic order in Jerusalem. The joining and reconstruction of the two sections helped in solving a number of archaeological and historical disputes.
The inscription, consisting of six lines of Latin text engraved on hard limestone, was read and translated by Avner Ecker and Hannah Cotton of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The English translation reads: “To the Imperator Caesar Traianus Hadrianus Augustus, son of the deified Traianus Parthicus, grandson of the deified Nerva, high priest, invested with tribunician power for the 14th time, consul for the third time, father of the country (dedicated by) the 10th legion Fretensis Antoniniana.”
The word "Antoniniana" seems to have been added later, proving that the original monument and inscription survived at least 100 years, since this honorific was only added to the legion’s name later on.
Specifically, the inscription helps to answer one of the most important questions concerning Hadrian and the construction of Aelia Capitolina: Was the Roman city built in response to the Bar Kochba revolt, or did its construction provoke the outbreak of the rebellion? The text makes it clear that at the time the monument was made, two years before the revolt, the city was not yet known as Aelia Capitolina. At the same, however, it shows that before the rebellion began, major construction projects were being carried out by the Romans in the city in honor of the emperor’s visit.
Thus, while it is still possible that Bar Kochba's revolt broke out due to the massive construction projects, Hadrian’s decision to change the city’s name and ban Jews from living in Jerusalem came as part of the punishment for their uprising.
Near the stones bearing the inscription is the part of the exhibition dedicated to the horrifying results of the Bar Kochba revolt. One display case is devoted to what curator Mevorah calls “Holocaust exhibits”: a large knife, worn-out sandals, and keys to houses that were abandoned. All of these were found in the Cave of Letters in Nahal Hever in the Judean Desert, where the last of the rebels fled after the destruction of Jerusalem.
“These artifacts present the sad ending – people locked their houses and took the keys in expectation of returning. This was a real Shoah, over half a million killed,” says Mevorah.
On display as well at the museum, for the first time in many years, is a letter that Bar Kochba sent his subordinates in Ein Gedi, in which he orders them to bring more supplies and men, and threatens to severely punish them if they fail to so.
Surprisingly, the name Hadrian surfaces quite often in today’s political dialogue in Israel, at least on the part of those from the right wing of the political map. Many such spokesmen speak of “Hadrian’s curse” when talking about the right of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel. The explanation is that it was this emperor who expunged the former name of the Roman province that existed in much of latter-day Israel, in Judea, after viciously suppressing the Bar Kochba revolt in 135 C.E., renaming the province Syria Palaestina. The name change was part of the punishment he meted out to the Jews after their uprising and, accordingly, he is blamed for what those on the right call the “big lie” of the creation of Palestine some 1,800 years later.
Where Hadrian clearly had a lasting and major effect is on the history of Jerusalem. While it was once thought that Aelia Capitolina constituted a temporary phase between magnificent Herodian Jerusalem and the less splendid Byzantine city, recent archaeological excavations have spotlighted the Roman city again and shown otherwise. Most of the findings emerged during salvage digs conducted in advance of various municipal construction projects, which will likely lead to the disappearance of these findings once more under new buildings and roads.
“Hadrian: An Emperor Cast in Bronze” concludes the Israel Museum’s celebrations of its 50th anniversary, held throughout 2015. It will be on display through June 30, 2016, and is the last in a series of special shows spotlighting masterworks from sister institutions loaned to the museum during the festive year, and presented in dialogue with works from its own collections.