Athens, Exhibition, Greece, Hadrian1900

Exhibition: ‘Hadrian and Athens. Conversing with an Ideal World’ at the National Archaeological Museum of Athens (#Hadrian1900)

Since November of 2017, the National Archaeological Museum of Athens and the Italian Archaeological School at Athens have been hosting a temporary exhibition called Hadrian and Athens. Conversing with an Ideal World in Gallery 31a of the Sculpture Collection. The exhibition celebrates 1900 years since the beginning of Hadrian’s principate in August AD 117, an anniversary that has already been celebrated in various ways by many other European museums and cultural institutions (see Seville, Budapest, Fethiye Mosque, Acropolis Museum).

A known Philhellene, Hadrian had the nickname ‘Graeculus’ as a child (HA, Hadr. 1.5) and, contrary to the norms, wore a beard associated with the Greeks. He spent more than half of his reign travelling around the empire, with extended periods in the East, especially in the Greek mainland and in the provinces of Asia Minor. Hadrian placed himself in the heart of the Greek world through his numerous benefactions to Greek cities, participation in the Eleusinian mysteries, and creation of the Panhellenion of Greek city-states.

Hadrian had strong ties with Athens, and the city received particular attention through his benefactions. He first visited the Greek capital in AD 111/2 before his accession as emperor. While there, he became an Athenian citizen and was elected archon eponymous of the city (IG II² 3286). He was also honoured with a statue in the Theatre of Dionysus on the Acropolis. After his accession, Hadrian spent more time in Athens than in any other city except Rome, visiting again in AD 124/5, 128/9 and 131/2.

The show aims to present Hadrian’s philhellenism and give visitors a unique opportunity to view exhibits highlighting his rich and enduring legacy in Greece. The exhibition is a testimony to the close intellectual relationship he developed with the Greek people and his interest in a number of benefactions to Greek cities and individuals alike.

In room 31a of the collection of Roman sculptures of the National Archaeological Museum, also known as the “Hall of the Kosmetai”, forty-one emblematic exhibits from the museum’s collections are gathered together to form an imaginary philosophical dialogue. On entering the room, visitors are greeted by the portraits of Plato and Aristotle, who, according to the curators, stand as symbols of Greek philosophical thoughts of Hadrian’s era.

Double-sided herm of the philosopher Aristotle and of the Athenian philosopher Plato.

He [Hadrian] loved the archaic style of writing, and he used to take part in debates. He preferred Cato to Cicero, Ennius to Vergil, Caelius to Sallust; and with the same self-assurance he expressed opinions about Homer and Plato. HA Hadr. 16.6

Plato and Aristotle observe the imagined conservation between Hadrian and four important intellectuals; the 3rd century BC Epicurean philosopher Metrodorus, two great members of the Second Sophistic Antonius Polemon and Herodes Atticus, and Marcus Aurelius, the emperor-philosopher who wrote his meditations in the Greek language.

The portrait of Hadrian in the centre is a fragmentary head found in the 19th century in the Agora of Athens. This sculpture was created by a distinguished sculptor in a Greek workshop and was intended to be inserted into a colossal statue. It is usually hidden from public view and was taken out of the museum’s storage rooms for the occasion. To my knowledge, the last time this portrait was on public display was at the “Adriano e la Grecia” exhibition held in 2014 at Villa Adriana in Tivoli, Italy.

Colossal portrait head of Hadrian.
From Athens, Agora
AD 130 – 140
Athens, National Archaeological Museum – inv. 632

The bust of the philosopher Metrodorus is a copy of a Hellenistic original dating from the Hadrianic period (AD 117-138). More than twenty copies of this philosopher exist. This one was sculptured for a private individual or as part of a gymnasium or library decoration. According to the Greek manner of representing Greek philosophers, a himation covers his left shoulder leaving the chest uncovered. Metrodorus, a native of Lampsacus on the eastern side of the Hellespont in the northern Troad, was a disciple and close friend of Epicurus, whom he followed to Athens when the latter founded his famous “Garden” (κῆπος; kêpos) just outside Athens, between the Dipylon Gate and the Academy (CiceroDe Finibus 5.1.3). His works, known thanks to the biographer of ancient Greek philosophers Diogenes Laërtius (3rd century AD), were immensely popular in the Roman period and were widely read until the Severan period.

To its left is a bust of philosopher Antonius Polemon (AD 88-145), who was a special favourite of Hadrian. Polemon was born in Laodicea in Syria. He studied rhetoric and became one of the most important representatives of the Second Sophistic, the rhetorical, philosophical and literary trend of the late first and second centuries AD, and attracted students from all over the Greek world. Polemon received all sorts of honours from Hadrian, including the right to travel across the entire Roman world at public expense, honorary membership in the Museum at Alexandria, and enormous sums of money in return for his rhetorical or political services. Most notably, Polemon was invited by Hadrian to deliver an oration at the inauguration ceremony of the temple of Olympian Zeus in Athens in AD 131. The bust date back to around AD 140 and was created in a Greek workshop with marble from Mount Pentelicus (Pentelic marble), northeast of Athens.

From left to right: the Epicurean philosopher Metrodorus (Inv. 368), the representative of the Second Sophistic, Antonius Polemon (Inv. 427) and Hadrian (Inv. 632).

The other famous sophist present here is Herodes Atticus, a prominent Athenian orator, sophist and philosopher. He was the wealthiest Greek of his time and antiquity’s most famous private philanthropist. The portrait was found in Athens and was likely meant to be placed atop a full-length statue of around 2 m high and which, most probably, represented the sophist dressed in a tunic and mantle. He built both the Odeon and the Panathenaic Stadium in Athens. Hadrian appointed him Prefect of the free cities in the Roman province of Asia in AD 125. He later returned to Athens, where he became famous as a teacher. In the year 140, Herodes Atticus was elected and served as an Archon of Athens. Later in 140, Emperor Antoninus Pius invited him to Rome from Athens to educate his two adopted sons, the future Emperors Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus. Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor and stoic philosopher who expressed his reflections in Greek, also takes part in this conversation.

The rich Greek aristocrat and sophist Herodes Atticus (Inv. 435) and the emperor philosopher Marcus Aurelius (Inv. 572).

“Look back over the past, with its changing empires that rose and fell, and you foresee the future too.” Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Another portrait of Hadrian from the museum’s collection is presented. It is a larger-than-life-size portrait head, wearing the corona civica, a large wreath of oak leaves, which would have had inlaid decoration, possibly gold leaves. The wreath is decorated above the forehead with a medallion containing the figure of an eagle, the emblem of Zeus. This iconography is possibly associated with the title of Olympian, which Hadrian had received in AD 128 in Athens and with the Temple of Olympian Zeus, which he completed in AD 131/2.

Colossal portrait head of Hadrian wearing the corona civica.
From Athens, on the road to Phaleron
AD 130-140
Athens, National Archaeological Museum – inv. 3729

The kosmetai (or gymnasiarches), the officials who were responsible for the intellectual and physical education of the epheboi in the Athenian gymnasia in the Roman period, are observers of this ideal conversation. This allegorical concentration symbolises ancient Athens’s traditional paideia (education) that included such subjects as gymnastics, grammar, rhetoric, music, mathematics, geography, natural history, and philosophy. All the kosmetai portraits date back to the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD (cat. Nos. 21-53). Some resemble older portraits of Greek philosophers from the 4th and 3rd centuries BC. Here, they stand as guardians of traditional Greek education in the Imperial period.

The kosmetai sculptures were all discovered in 1861 during excavations conducted at the site of the former Byzantine church of Agios Demetrios Katiphoris in the vicinity of the current Kyrristou street in Plaka. They were found inserted in the 3rd century AD Herulian city wall as spolia. References to the Diogeneion Gymnasium in some of the honorary inscriptions led archaeologists to the hypothesis that they came from the gymnasium of Diogenes Euergetes, an Athenian general who liberated Athens, Piraeus, Salamis and Attica from Macedonian control in 229 BC. In Athens, the first gymnasia were established in the 6th century BC. The three traditional gymnasia were the Akademia, the Lykeion, and the Kynosarges. They were located in spacious areas outside the city walls and surrounded by trees in a natural setting. During the Hellenistic period, two more gymnasia, the Diogeneion and the Ptolemaion, were founded in the heart of the ancient city.

View of the remains of the Lyceum of Athens (Lykeion), located on Rigillis street, in the centre of the city. The site’s location remained unknown for centuries until it was rediscovered in 1996 during excavations for Athens’ new Museum of Modern Art.

The gymnasia were public edifices erected, maintained and refurbished at the expense of the city and through donations. The main building of the gymnasium was the palaestra, where athletes trained in wrestling, boxing and pankration (a combination of boxing and wrestling). Gradually, the gymnasium evolved into a prominent cultural centre. Its educational system concentrated more on the spiritual health of young men and less on their physical activity. In the 4th century BC, the first philosophical schools were founded in the gymnasia: Aristotle established his own philosophical school in 335 BC at the Lykeion and taught there over a period of about twelve years, the most productive period of his life.

Tentative reconstruction of the palaestra of Aristotle’s Lyceum (Lykeion) by Dimitris Koukoulas, 2013.

Portraits of kosmetai were set up inside the gymnasia. In Hellenistic times, these were made of bronze, but after the early Imperial period, the erection of bronze honorary statues was followed by marble statues. Of the 33 heads on display in the Athens National Archaeological Museum, only four belong with certainty to portraits of kosmetai. These are herms on which an honorary inscription is engraved, often in verse, on the shaft. It seems that the herm format became particularly popular during the 2nd century AD, especially for representations of intellectuals.  The remaining 26 portraits could belong to kosmetai or other Gymnasium officials.

Left: Herm portrait of the kosmetes Heliodoros; AD 115/116 (Inv. 384)
Centre: Portrait head of a kosmetes, Late Trajanic period (Inv. 410)
Right: Herm portrait of the kosmetes Onasos, son of Trophimos, AD 129-138 (Inv. 387)

On the wall behind the kosmetai sculptures, the picture of a landscape with olive trees enlivens the natural environment of the Academy, where Plato’s philosophical school was active up until the early 6th century AD. In AD 529, Justinian ordered the teaching of philosophy in Athens to cease, and presumably, the endowment of the Academy was confiscated. Our only evidence for Justinian’s interdict comes from a brief reference in the Chronicle of John Malalas, which reports that “during the consulship of Decius [= 529] the emperor [Justinian] issued a decree and sent it to Athens, ordering that no one should teach philosophy…“.

Portraits of kosmetai with the picture of a landscape with olive trees in the background.

The Academy was located in the suburbs of Athens, about six stadia from the city, in or beside a grove of olive trees dedicated to the goddess Athena. According to Athenian fables, the olive trees were reared from layers taken from the sacred olive in the Erechtheum, and their oil was given as a prize to victors at the Panathenean festival. The Academy suffered severely during the siege of Athens by the Roman general Sulla, with many trees being cut down to supply timber for siege engines.

Plato’s Academy mosaic, from Pompeii.
(photo: Jebulon, Wikimedia)

Outside the city, too, in the parishes and on the roads, the Athenians have sanctuaries of the gods, and graves of heroes and of men. The nearest is the Academy, once the property of a private individual, but in my time a gymnasium. Pausanias 1.29

At the end of the exhibition, a bust of Antinous and four inscribed stelai honouring kosmetai and ephebes from the Diogeneion Gymnasium are displayed. Related to these are two Attic vases from the Classical period decorated with scenes from the world of the gymnasion and education.

The steles were found together with the portrait herms of the kosmetai next to the Byzantine church of Agios Demetrios Katiphoris. They combined a figural scene rendered in relief with an honorary text and decree. On three of the steles, the kosmetes are depicted as being crowned by two ephebes. He is wrapped in his chiton and himation. As a rule, the kosmetes holds a roll of papyrus in the left hand, a symbol of his education and zest for learning. The ephebes wear a himation, or a chlamys held upon one shoulder, which reveals their naked, athletic body, while they hold a branch of a palm tree as winners. The presence of an amphora or a hydria refers to the palaestra. The texts of the steles include, in addition to the name of the magistrate (eponymous archon) and the kosmetes that are honoured, a long list of officers of the gymnasium.

Left: Stele with a catalogue of ephebes under the kosmetes Archelaos, AD 139-140
Centre: Stele of a kosmetes and of two ephebes, AD 117-138
Right: Stele with a catalogue of ephebes under the kosmetes Herakleides, AD 163/164

The exhibits are accompanied and enriched by narration, allowing visitors to draw nearer to the protagonists of Athenian culture. The fictitious dialogue between an Athenian kosmetes and a noble from Parthia can be viewed on a large digital screen. The dialogue is inspired by the work of the Scythian philosopher Anacharsis, who travelled from his homeland on the northern shores of the Black Sea to Athens in the early 6th century BC in pursuit of knowledge, or by Lucian of Samosata (2nd century AD), and is integrated with information deduced from Plutarch and Pausanias.

Lastly, with the scientific collaboration of the National Archaeological Museum and the Italian Archaeological School, a substantial catalogue of the exhibition (see here) will be published with numerous essays related to Hadrian, Athens and the Gymnasia. The catalogue integrates the Exhibition, helping visitors understand the objects’ importance and symbolic significance. It is divided into four sections: 1. Hadrian and Athens – 2. The city of Hadrian – 3. The Gymnasia – 4. Hadrian’s legacy. The catalogue concludes with the fifth chapter, which includes a description of the exhibits on display in the National Archaeological Museum. Buy it here.

Sources & references:

  • Official page of the Athens National Archaeological Museum here
  • Elena Vlachogianni, The “Diogeneion” and the herms of the “Kosmetai”, in: Hadrianus – Αδριανός. Hadrian, Athens and the Gymnasia, Athens 2018, p. 158-161, 236-241
  • Elena Vlachogianni, Kosmetai and ephebes, in: Hadrianus – Αδριανός. Hadrian, Athens and the Gymnasia, Athens 2018, p. 158-161, 236-241
  • G. A. Kennedy, A New History of Classical Rhetoric (Princeton, 1994)


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