Of the many bronze portraits of Hadrian that are known to have existed, only three have survived from antiquity. After the exhibition ‘Hadrian: An Emperor Cast in Bronze’ (see here) held at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem from December 2015 to June 2016, the Musée du Louvre is now inviting us to discover these exceptional portraits in Paris. The small exhibition also features a bronze stele on which is engraved a letter from Hadrian to the citizens of the Greek city of Naryka.
All three bronze heads were originally part of a full body statue of Hadrian intended to glorify the imperial authority in the provinces and to be venerated in dedicated shrines. These statues, which were sent throughout the provinces as a demonstration of Rome’s imperial power, possessed political as well as cultic significance. They also served the highly important function in imperial propaganda of presenting the ruler to the public and of projecting the personality with which he wished to be perceived. They were produced and sent from the major producing centres or made by local workshops.
Most of Hadrian extant portraits fall into seven clearly recognized types. The “Stazione Termini” was the first type and corresponds to the first official portrait of Hadrian created to celebrate his accession to the throne in 117 AD. Later types included the “Chiaramonti 392” type which was probably made for the arrival of the Emperor in Rome in July 118 AD (read more here), the “Rollockenfrisur” type which probably appeared in 119 AD and which was popular in the provinces, as well as the “Imperatori 32” type which was most certainly created in 128 AD when Hadrian accepted the title of pater patriae.
The emperor would appear in military dress, in togas, or in divine nudity. However, bronze effigies were often melted down and recycled throughout the intervening centuries and are very rarely preserved. Of these three portraits presented together at the Louvre, one comes from the collections of the British Museum (London), the second from the Israel Museum in Jerusalem and the third belongs to the Louvre Museum.
- Hadrian from the Israel Museum
The magnificent cuirassed bust of the Israel Museum is the centrepiece of the exhibition. It was found in 50 fragments in 1975 on the site of the military camp of the sixth Roman legion (Legio VI Ferrata) in Tel Shalem, (northern Israel) not far from Beit Shean, the ancient Scythopolis. Likely to have been crafted in Rome using the official representation of the Emperor as a model, it is considered the most lifelike of the three exhibited portraits.
The head, cast in one piece and found intact, is one of the finest extant portraits of Hadrian and is of a type popular in the provinces; the Rollockenfrisur type. It features the standardized likeness of the Emperor, down to the unique shape of his earlobe, a symptom of the heart disease that eventually caused his death.
The emperor wears splendid armour with a battle scene depicted on the chest. It has been suggested that the scene depicts a duel between Aeneas, wearing a Phrygian cap, and Turnus, the king of the Rutuli. The scene may be seen as an allegory of the triumph of Hadrian over the Bar Kokhba revolt.
- Hadrian from the British Museum
The second portrait was found in the River Thames in London in 1834, near the remains of a Roman bridge. Only the head is preserved. It belonged to a larger than life-size statue that may have been erected on the bridge itself or in a public space such as a forum. The statue, probably produced by a local workshop in a provincial style (curvilinear hair, large ears and wide spacing of the eyes) may have been created to commemorate Hadrian’s visit to Britain in 122 AD.
The head is broken on the left side of the hair. A narrow crack runs from the left cheek, under the chin, and back halfway up the right cheek. The pupils of the eyes, probably of glass, are now lost.
- Hadrian from the Louvre
The third portrait, without provenance, was acquired by the Louvre Museum in 1984. The head belonged to a larger-than-life statue, probably elaborated in the eastern part of the Roman Empire (Egypt or Asia Minor). This portrait does not correspond to any of the imperial portrait types defined for Hadrian. The face is longer than usual, the eyes are wider than was customary and the hooked, crooked nose is unique.
This head is all that remains of a colossal statue of about 2.60 meters. The body would have been idealized and the emperor shown as a breastplated war chief. Long thought to be a posthumous portrait, this head may actually be dated to the first years of Hadrian’s reign, from the period 118-121 AD.
Each portrait had its unique characteristics and differed slightly in their depiction of the Emperor. Two of them clearly depict a surprising anatomical detail, a deep diagonal crease in both earlobes. Such creases have been on observed on patients suffering from heart disease and medical studies have established a connection between earlobe creases and this condition.
The exhibition is also shedding light on how these portraits were manufactured in antiquity. As was typical for large-scale bronze statuary, these bronzes were fashioned using the lost-wax casting technique (read more here). The ingenious ancient technique is beautifully illustrated in a video made to accompany the exhibition that combined stop-motion and 2D animation. The head used in the film was a plaster replica of the original Hadrian’s bronze statue found in Tel-Shalem.
- The Emperor’s letter
The exhibition also features a bronze stele on which is engraved a letter from the emperor to the town of Naryka in Eastern Locris, modern-day Lokrida in central Greece (SEG 51, 0641). It was written in response to a request put forward by the inhabitants who wanted to know about the legal status of their city.
The inscription is carved on a stele-shaped bronze tablet (90cm high, 50cm wide) with a triangular pediment.
Translation of the Greek text:
With Good Fortune. Imperator Caesar, son of deified Trajan Parthicus, grandson of deified Nerva, Trajan Hadrian Augustus, pontifex maximus, holder of tribunicia potestas for the 22nd time, imperator for the second time, consul for the third time, father of fatherland, to Narykeans, greetings. I do not think that anyone will dispute that you have a polis and polis rights, since you pay contributions both to the Amphictyonic League and to the Boeotian League, and you provide a Boeotarch, choose a Panhellene, and send a priest (to Athens), and you have a council and magistrates and priests and Greek tribes and Opuntian laws, and you pay taxes with the Achaeans, and you were mentioned by some of the most celebrated poets, both Roman and Greeks, as Narykeans, and they also name some of the heroes that originate from you polis; on account of this, even if you omitted to write to the Emperors and… to receive (?)…
Based on Hadrian’s tenure mentioned at the beginning of the inscription, the letter is dated to the last months of Hadrian’s reign. The Emperor died in July 138 AD and he received his 22nd tribunicia potestas in December 137 AD.
In his letter, Hadrian recognises the city-status of Naryka by enumerating various facts and features that prove this statement; Naurika’s membership in various polis organisations, Naurika’s institutions. Hadrian also evokes the mythical past of the city mentioned by the poets. According to tradition, Naryka was the homeland of Ajax the Lesser (son of Oileus, the king of Locris), who, during the Trojan War, was guilty of abducting Cassandra, the daughter of King Priam and of Queen Hecuba of Troy. The earliest poet known to have mentioned Naryka is Callimachus, followed by Lycophron, Ovid and Virgil.
The classical city was only mentioned by Strabo (Strab. 9.4.2), Diodorus of Sicily (Diod. 14.82 & 16.38) and Pliny the Elder (Pl. NH 4.27). For a long time, the very location of Naryka was uncertain until the discovery in 1919 of an inscription proving its location. Today, only a few visible remains of the Roman and Christian periods, with traces of Hellenic walls on the east slope of the Acropolis, are left.
The exhibition “Portraits en bronze de l’empereur Hadrien” runs until 24 September 2018 in room 172 of the Department of Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities.
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