Hadrian’s lessons for modern-day Israel

A bronze statue of Hadrian at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem was found at a site in Israel once occupied by Roman troops.
A bronze statue of Hadrian at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem was found at a site in Israel once occupied by Roman troops.

In a recent visit to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, I was fascinated by a special exhibition, Hadrian: An Emperor Cast in Bronze.

Three bronze heads of the Roman Emperor (76-138 CE) were brought together for the first time: One from the British Museum, found in 1834 in London in the river Thames; the other, from the collection of the Louvre Museum, thought to have originated in Egypt or Asia Minor; and the third, found in the camp of the Sixth Roman Legion in Tel Shalem near Beit Shean in northern Israel.

The curators, David Mevorah and Rachel Caine Kreinin, from the Israel Museum, and Thorsten Opper, from the British Museum, wrote that the exhibition was “marking a symbolic return of the Emperor to Jerusalem, whose last visit to the city was in 130 CE.”

“His last visit to the city!” Now that’s the understatement of the century. The “visit” included a decision by Hadrian to turn Jerusalem, the holy city of the Jews, into a Roman colony called Aelia Capitolina, and to prohibit circumcision — something that the Jews couldn’t possibly accept. When they revolted, Hadrian, through his general Julius Severus, suppressed them mercilessly, killing some half a million people, devastating the land, and if this was not enough, he even robbed the Jews of the name of their land, changing its from Judea to Syria Palaestina, Syria of the Philistines, the ancient enemies of the Jews, later to be changed to Palestine.

Needless to say that Hadrian became one of the most hated figures in Jewish history: Jews mentioned his name with the derogatory addition Shchik Atzamot, let him rot in hell, in Hebrew, or more precisely, let his bones grind in his grave. Nevertheless, wandering at the exhibition, I wondered whether there was something we Israelis could have learned from him today.

First of all, in spite of reigning over the mightiest empire on earth at the time and perhaps ever, Hadrian recognized the limits of power. Upon ascending the throne, he started getting rid of some of the conquests of his predecessor, Trajan. It was the emperor Augustus who, a century before, demanded that his successors keep the empire within the natural boundaries of the rivers Rhine, Danube and Euphrates. Trajan broke this rule by conquering Mesopotamia. And he wanted more: When he reached the Persian Gulf, it is said that he wept because he was too old to emulate Alexander the Great’s accomplishments in India. Needless to say that returning lands which had been conquered with Roman blood didn’t make Hadrian popular at home, but he preferred the long terms interests of the Empire over popularity ratings.

Pondering at these feats of the ancient Emperor, almost 50 years after the Six-Day War, one wonders whether by ruling the West Bank, Israel was not biting off more than it could chew. Incorporating the Palestinians living there into Israel would mean losing its Jewish identity; ruling them without giving them equal rights would mean losing its democracy.

If Israel does eventually decide to separate from the Palestinians, then there are more lessons it can learn from Hadrian. With the neighboring peoples, he used diplomacy, enticing them to benefit from their peaceful collaboration with prosperous Rome. Where it didn’t work, he had other methods, as the Historia Augusta, the history of the Caesars, tells us: “(w)here the barbarians are held back not by rivers but by artificial barriers, Hadrian shut them off by means of high stakes planted deep in the ground and fastened together in the manner of a palisade.” The Hadrian Wall, which he had built in Britain and is still partially preserved, is a fine example.

Last but not least, he backed this policy, which was aptly called “Peace through Strength,” with a formidable army, which he had trained and disciplined himself. Interestingly, he rarely used this army, except when the vital interests of the Empire were at stake, like, alas, with the Jewish rebellion. Then he unleashed his legions ruthlessly, sending a clear message that you can’t mess with the Roman Empire and get away with it. Another lesson to Israeli leaders, who too many times were quick to use the IDF against Lebanon or Gaza, without decisive results.

So when in Jerusalem, don’t miss this fascinating exhibition about an Emperor who may rot in hell, but might also teach us something. Not to mention the fact that he was probably one of the most enlightened, aesthetic, learned, law-abiding ruler of ancient times, excellent administrator, magnificent builder, a poet.

No wonder that he was described as one of the “Five Good Caesars,” and “explorer of everything interesting.” But I’ll stop here talking about him as a model. After all, there is only so much you can expect from today’s leaders.