Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

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from the trenches
Disrobing Hadrian Volume 61 Number 5, September/October 2008
by Jennifer Pinkowski

(Courtesy The British Museum)

In 1861, restorers at the British Museum received a shipment from Libya: a broken statue of the Roman emperor Hadrian (r. A.D. 117-138), unearthed at the Greco-Roman city of Cyrene. The statue they reassembled became an icon of the museum, and of Hadrian himself. The emperor had been nicknamed "Graeculus," or "little Greek," for his love of Hellenic culture (and his Greek male paramour). So this Hadrian--an effete, round-bellied man in Greek robes--seemed to capture the emperor perfectly.

But it turns out that Hadrian's head doesn't match his body. The restorers had fashioned the sculpture from at least two different statues. Curators made the discovery while preparing the statue for the exhibition Hadrian: Empire and Conflict (on view through October 26).

No one thinks the restorers intentionally falsified the statue. Still, the popular perception of Hadrian in the 19th century informed the reconstruction. During Britain's Age of Empire, Hadrian was considered a weak ruler who had retreated from earlier territorial gains. This berobed intellectual from Cyrene made perfect sense to Victorians who saw Hadrian's reign as a cautionary tale.