Hardrian the bone-grinder

By Julia Weiner, July 25, 2008

The British Museum depicts Roman Emperor Hadrian as a cruel oppressor of Jews

Think of the Roman emperor Hadrian, and the wall separating England and Scotland might come to mind. Alternatively, you might reflect on his building of that triumph of engineering, the Pantheon in Rome. But if you are Jewish, Hadrian is inextricably linked with the brutal suppression of the revolt against the Roman occupation of Judea almost 1,900 years ago, for which he earned the soubriquet "the bone-grinder".

Hadrian, who ruled from 117CE to 138CE, is the subject of the British Museum's summer exhibition, and while critics are predicting a blockbuster to rival the museum's First Emperor show earlier this year, not everyone is happy.

Some observers feel that Hadrian's show of cruelty against the Jewish rebels, led by Simon Bar Kochba, makes him an inappropriate subject for an exhibition at the UK's foremost museum. Martin Sugarman, the honorary archivist of the Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and Women, this week wrote to the JC suggesting a boycott, before being contacted by the curator and assured that the exhibition does indeed include material about Hadrian's persecution of the Jews.

According to the curator, Thorsten Opper, great efforts have been made to explore the many contradictions in Hadrian's personality. Included in the exhibition are a number of loans from Israel relating to the Jewish revolt which have never been seen abroad before. "We had constructed a Hadrian that suited us," says Opper, referring to the way the emperor's image has been portrayed over the past 100 years. "We wanted him to be a cultured intellectual, and after the world wars and the disasters of the 20th century, people thought of him as the enlightened philosopher ruler, the type of leader that Europe should have had. But that is only a part of him. He was also a hard military man, very tough. There was no tolerance in the Roman Empire. That was the nasty side of Roman rule, and I thought it was extremely important to show it here."

Opper has been aided in that ambition by the co-operation of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem in lending its own collection of Hadrian artefacts.

"The artefacts have never left Israel before, because they are so fragile that it is dangerous to travel with them," says Israel Museum curator David Mevorah. "But when Thorsten described the exhibition, I thought it sounded wonderful and that the British Museum was the right place to show them for outside Israel for the first time since their discovery 40 years ago."

Opper explains that the main reason for the Jewish rebellion breaking out in 132CE was Hadrian's construction plans for Jerusalem. "He decided he would rebuild the city as a major Roman colony to be called Aelis Capitolina, and this made it plain to the Jews that Rome would not allow them to rebuild their Temple." Mevorah takes up the story: "The revolt is remembered as an ancient Holocaust. The few sources that we have describe terrible bloodshed. Some 585,000 Jews were killed, and almost 1,000 villages burnt.

"But it was not only a trauma in Jewish history and Jewish memory. It was a major event for the Roman Empire. It took four years to suppress. Many commanders and legions of the Roman army, including Hadrian's best general, the governor of Britain, were brought over to fight against the rebels, and thousands of new soldiers were recruited. Such a rebellion was not something that the empire could tolerate. Punishment was essential."

The most moving exhibits on show in London were found in caves in the Judaean desert where some of the rebels hid in an unsuccessful attempt to evade the Roman troops. The caves were excavated in the 1960s. Alongside skeletons, they revealed a host of archaeological treasures. "Objects were miraculously preserved in the dry climate," says Mevorah. "Organic materials such as wood, cloth, papyrus, parchment, which do not normally survive, are here preserved in fantastic condition." Among the items on show, he singles out the collection of house keys as being particularly poignant. "Those hiding had locked their houses hoping to go back, which of course they did not do," he says. There is also a letter from Bar Kochba himself. "You get a feel of his character from the way he writes," Mevorah says, emphasising how he threatens his subordinates with severe punishment if they do not obey his orders.

Opper, who has been working for two years on the exhibition, which includes 170 objects loaned by 31 institutions in 11 countries, hopes that visitors will see parallels with more modern history. In particular, he points out a tile from Jerusalem imprinted with a soldier's hob-nailed sandal. "Those sandals were called caligae in Latin, but the Hebrew word kalgas has come to mean a thuggish soldier and was often used to refer to the Nazis. It is these contemporary resonances that make this exhibition so interesting."

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

Hadrian: bad for the Jews

In 130CE, Hadrian visited Jerusalem, still in ruins after the first Jewish-Roman war 60 years before. He promised the Jewish people that he would rebuild the city. What he failed to tell them was that he intended to create a Roman metropolis called Aelis Capitolina. The Jews felt betrayed when they found out. Resentment turned to rage when Hadrian issued a ban on circumcision - a practice he viewed as mutilation - and set in motion his plan to build a temple to Jupiter on the site of the Temple of Solomon. In 132CE, Jewish guerrilla forces, led by the messianic figure of Simon Bar Kochba, made surprise attacks on Hadrian's army. The revolt quickly spread from Modi'in across the country, cutting off the Roman garrison in Jerusalem. The Romans were driven out of the region and a Jewish state was established. It lasted for two years, until a massive Roman army, led by Hadrian's British general, Julius Severus - known for his brutality - was brought in to recoccupy Judea.

By 135CE the revolt was crushed, and around 580,000 Jews were killed. Bar Kochba and his forces were massacred when the fortress of Bethar fell after a siege of six days. In the years following the revolt, Hadrian banned Torah study and Sabbath observance, and executed Judaism scholars.

An emperor's life of culture and brutality

-76 CE Born in Italica, Spain
-98 CE Adopted into the imperial family by the emperor Trajan, his father's cousin. Served as military tribune for three different legions and decorated for valour
-100 CE Married Trajan's great-niece, Sabina
-117 CE Became emperor on Trajan's death. His first act was to withdraw the Roman army from Mesopotamia, modern-day Iraq, another contemporary resonance
-122 CE Visited Britain and ordered work to start on constructing Hadrian's Wall
-125 CE Rebuilt the Pantheon in Rome. The villa he built himself in Tivoli is the largest known from the Roman world
-130 CE His Greek male lover Antinous drowned in mysterious circumstances in the Nile. Consumed by grief, Hadrian founded a new city, Antinoupolis, close to the spot where he died
-132-135/6 CE Jewish Revolt. After suppression of the rebels, the province of Judaea was renamed Syria Palestina
-138 CE Death of Hadrian. His remains were deposited in the huge mausoleum he had built in Rome

Last updated: 4:52pm, March 2 2009