He was, in the same person, austere and genial, dignified and playful… cruel and merciful, and always in all things changeable  
Historia Augusta, Hadrian 14.11, Loeb Classical Library

This exhibition brings together, for the first time, the only three bronze portraits of the Roman emperor Hadrian to have survived from antiquity. Seemingly alike, though each with its own unique set of characteristics, the portraits highlight the multifaceted and contradictory aspects of Hadrian's character.

Hadrian – Publius Aelius Hadrianus – was one of Rome's most important emperors. Born in 76 CE, he was forty-one years of age when he came to the throne in 117 CE. He began his reign at a time of acute military crisis, when the Roman Empire was the largest it had ever been. Through tremendous personal effort and far-reaching administrative, economic and military reforms, Hadrian stabilised the empire, ensuring its survival for centuries to come. He travelled widely through nearly all the provinces, from Britain to Africa, from Spain to Judea.

With his abundant energy, keen intellect, and wide-ranging interests, Hadrian is considered one of the Roman Empire's more enlightened rulers. However, his ruthless suppression of the Bar Kokhba revolt and the subsequent destruction of Judea make him a much-loathed figure in Jewish history.


Photographs © The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, by Elie Posner, unless stated otherwise

Imperial Portraiture

Roman emperors used portrait images as a way to demonstrate their claim to power and elicit their subjects' loyalty.

From the early imperial age, a system evolved whereby portrait types were designed and manufactured in Rome. After receiving imperial approval, these types were disseminated throughout the empire to be copied. New portrait types were typically designed to mark important events in an emperor's reign such as anniversaries, military victories or the births of imperial princes.

Lack of reliable models or supervision often led local sculptors to exercise some degree of artistic freedom, producing portraits that deviated from the officially approved types.

The visual language of imperial statuary presented the emperor in clearly defined roles: as head of the Roman army, father of the nation and high priest, or likened to a god. Placed in prominent locations, the statues were raised to an imposing height on decorative plinths that bore dedicatory inscriptions mentioning the donors and identifying the emperor by name, with his full titles.

Imperial Portraiture

Hadrian Visits Britain

 And so, having reformed the army… he set out for Britain, and there he corrected many abuses and was the first to construct a wall, eighty miles in length, which was to separate the Barbarians from the Romans.  
Historia Augusta, Hadrian 11.2, Loeb Classical Library

The vast empire that Hadrian inherited was plagued by unrest. Realizing that his predecessor's borders were unsustainable, Hadrian relinquished Roman dreams of expansion. Instead, he devoted his energies to strengthening and consolidating the empire's existing territory.

Hadrian visited Britain in 122 CE as part of his tour of the western provinces, arriving there after having inspected border defenses in Germany. The situation in Britain appears to have been volatile. Abandoning the hostile northern territory, Hadrian marked the existing deep frontier zone in the north of England with a continuous rampart known as Hadrian's Wall. This rampart was not only a defensive bulwark, constructed to "separate Romans and Barbarians" as a later source has it, but was also a brutally efficient security installation that gave Rome military and economic control of the area. Hadrian's Wall was as much a practical tool of Roman dominance as an aggressive symbol of Rome's power.

Hadrian Visits Britain

Hadrian's Wall winding its way over the Northumbrian landscape, England
Photograph © Getty Images: Visit Britain/Rod Edwards

Coin commemorating Hadrian's visit to Britain

מטבע לכבוד ביקור הדריאנוס בבריטניה

Rome, 128—138 CE, bronze
The Trustees of the British Museum, London
Photograph © The Trustees of the British Museum

Obverse — Portrait of Hadrian surrounded by an inscription stating his name and titles: HADRIANVS AVG COS III P P
Reverse — Hadrian addressing his troops. The inscription below reads EXERC [ITUS] BRITANNICUS (army of Britain)

Hadrian Visits Judea

 At Jerusalem Hadrian founded a city in place of the one which had been razed to the ground, naming it Aelia Capitolina…. This brought on a war of no slight importance nor of brief duration...  
Cassius Dio, The Roman History, 69.12.1, Loeb Classical Library

An anticipated imperial visit led to a flurry of civic activity such as the paving of roads, the repair of buildings, the construction of public monuments, the dedication of imperial statues and the minting of commemorative coins.

In the spring of 130 CE, Hadrian visited Judea as part of his tour of the Eastern Provinces. It may have been during this visit that he re-founded Jerusalem as a new Roman colony, naming it Aelia Capitolina after himself – Publius Aelius Hadrianus – and the supreme Roman deity, Jupiter Capitolinus. In anticipation of Hadrian's visit to the city, the Tenth Fretensis Legion dedicated an imposing monument - a victory arch or a pedestal which may have served as a base for an imperial statue, of which all that has remains is an impressive inscription.

Since the inscription bears Hadrian's full name and titles, we can date it with certainty to the year of his visit. It was discovered in two parts near Damascus Gate. The first half, which was discovered 111 years ago, was kept by the Franciscan Studium Biblicum. By a stroke of good fortune, the Israel Antiquities Authority found the other half in the same location in 2014. Both parts of the inscription appear together here for the first time.

Hadrian Visits Judea

View of the gallery

Inscription honoring Emperor Hadrian

Latin inscription dedicated by the Tenth Fretensis Legion in honor of Hadrian
Jerusalem, 130 CE, limestone
Studium Biblicum Franciscanum Museum, Jerusalem; The Israel Antiquities Authority

  Imp(eratori) Cae[sari di]v[i Traiani] | Parthic(i) [f(ilio) divi Nerv] ae nep(oti)|Traiano [Hadri]ano Augst(o)|pont(ifici) ma[xim(o)] trib(unicia) pot(estate) XIIII| [co(n)s(uli)] III P(atri) P(atriae) |L[eg(io) X F]reten[sis Antoninia]na(e)    

 To the Emperor, Caesar Traianus Hadrianus Augustus, son of the deified Traianus defeater of the Parthians, grandson of the deified Nerva, high priest, invested with tribunician power for the fourteenth time, consul for the third time, father of the country, [dedicated by] the Tenth Legion Fretensis Antoniniana  
Translation after H. M. Cotton and A. Ecker

Coin commemorating Hadrian's visit to the province of Judea Coins commemorating Hadrian's visit to the province of Judea

Coin commemorating Hadria's visit to Judea. Rome, 130 CE, bronze, On loan from Dr. David and Jemima Jeselsohn, Zurich
Obverse: portrait of Hadrian surrounded by an inscription
stating his name and titles
Reverse: a personification of Judea welcoming Emperor Hadrian beside an altar, surrounded by the inscription "The emperor's visit to Judea"

Coin commemorating the founding of Aelia Capitolina Coin commemorating the founding of Aelia Capitolina

Coin commemorating the founding of Aelia Capitolina. Jerusalem, 130 CE, bronze, On loan from Dr. David and Jemima Jeselsohn, Zurich
Obverse: head of Hadrian, surrounded by inscription stating his name and titles
Reverse: Hadrian as founder of the new colony, plowing its borders with an ox and a cow, and below the inscription "colony of Aelia Capitolina"

The Bar Kokhba revolt

 Few Jews survived. Fifty of their most important fortresses and 985 of their better-known villages were razed to the ground. 580,000 were killed…. As for the numbers who perished from starvation, disease, or fires, that was impossible to establish.  
Cassius Dio, The Roman History, 69.14.3 , Loeb Classical Library

Hadrian's decision to re-found Jerusalem, which had lain in ruins since its destruction by the Romans in 70 CE, as a pagan colony, clashed with Jewish custom and religious belief. This, together with his plan to replace the destroyed Jewish Temple with a new temple to Jupiter and other decrees such as the prohibition against circumcision, crushed all hopes for the restoration of Jewish independence.

While we do not know whether these actions were a cause or a consequence of the Bar Kokhba revolt, it is clear that once Hadrian left the area, the people of Judea rose up against him and the might of the Roman Empire under the charismatic Bar Kokhba (Simon son of Kosiba).

Bar Kokhba revolt

The cliffs of Nahal Hever in the Judaean Desert
Photo © Albatross Aerial Photography, Ltd.


After 21 years of rule, in 138 CE, Hadrian died, presumably of heart failure, at the age of 62.
According to the Historia Augusta, a late Roman source on Hadrian's life, Hadrian composed the following poem shortly before his death:

 Animula vagula blandula,
Hospes comesque corporis
quo nunc abibis? in loca
pallidula, rigida, nubilanec
ut soles dabis iocos  

 Ah! gentle, fleeting, wav'ring sprite,
Friend and associate of this clay!
To what unknown region borne,
Wilt thou, now, wing thy distant flight?
No more, with wonted humour gay,
But pallid, cheerless, and forlorn.  

Historia Augusta, Hadrian, 25.9, Translation: Lord Byron