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BRITISH MUSEUM'S HADRIAN EXHIBITION: EMPIRE REPEATS ITSELF

Exhibition Highlights and Historical Background Notes
Courtesy of British Museum
26 October 2008

Gold aureus commemorating the consecration of the Emperor Hadrian

Hadrian died at Baiae on the Gulf of Naples on 10 July AD 138 after a long illness. Hadrian's successor requested that the reluctant senate overcome their hostility to the deceased emperor and deify him.

Deification was an elaborate public ritual. A wax image of the deceased was laid in state in the Forum and praised by his successor. Accompanied by a large procession of public representatives from across the empire, the effigy was then taken to a cremation site. The wax image, gifts and offerings were placed on a massive, multi-story funerary pyre, often decorated with sculptures and precious ornaments. An eagle - concealed in a cage on top of the pyre - was released just before the effigy was consumed by flames, symbolising the soul soaring to heaven to join the gods. No references to Hadrian's consecration ceremony have survived, but it must have followed the usual ritual.


Gold aureus commemorating the consecration of the Emperor Hadrian
This gold coin was issued by Antoninus Pius, the successor of the emperor Hadrian, to celebrate his predecessor's deification.
From Rome, Italy AD 138
© Trustees of the British Museum

On the obverse of this coin, Hadrian is shown with a laurel wreath and the portrait is inscribed 'Divus Hadrianus Aug' (Deified Hadrianus Augustus). On the reverse, Hadrian is carried up to the heavens by a mighty eagle. This side bears the legend 'consecratio', the term used by the Romans for the deification of members of the imperial family.

Silver shekel of the Second Jewish Revolt


Silver shekel of the Second Jewish Revolt
struck over a denarius of the Emperor Hadrian
AD 133-135 from Judaea, Pale
stine
© Trustees of the British Museum

This silver coin shows how, in an act of defiance against Roman rule, the Jewish population in the province of Judaea over-struck portraits of the Emperor Hadrian with their own symbols.

Jerusalem had been destroyed by Roman forces in AD 70 and the Roman authorities prevented the Jews from rebuilding their temple, which was the focal point of their religious and cultural identity. Moreover, Hadrian decided to re-found Jerusalem as a Roman colony named Aelia Capitolina

This and other measures, such as banning circumcision, prompted the Jews to rise against Rome under their charismatic leader Simon Bar Kokhba, an assumed name, meaning 'Son of the Star' (a reference to his divine claim to leadership). The Roman forces were taken by surprise and suffered heavy casualties.

The rebels established their own rule in the territory they held and Bar Kokhba took the title 'Prince of Israel' (nsy' Ysr'l). As well as over-striking Roman coins like this one, they minted their own with highly symbolic and deeply emotive motifs referring to the destroyed Temple of Jerusalem and the rituals associated with it. A new era of 'Redemption' or 'Freedom of Israel' was declared. Documents dated 'Years One to Four' survive and cover the period from March/April AD 132 to the time when the Romans re-established control in the autumn of AD 135.

Culturekiosque readers should note that the above images are from the excellent and lavishly illustrated book Hadrian: Empire & Conflict that accompanies the current exhibition. It is the work of Thorsten Opper, curator in the Department of Greek and Roman Antiquities at the British Museum. Highly recommended and astonishing value for money.

Hadrian: Empire & Conflict
By Thorsten Opper

Hardcover: 224 pages
Harvard University Press (September 2008)
ISBN-10: 0674030958
ISBN-13: 978-0674030954
$29.95



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