Regular visitors to our website over recent months cannot have failed to notice the inclusion of several coins in our ever-growing catalogue of fine antiques, dating from the early days of Roman Britain to medieval times.

I have resisted the temptation – thus far – to wax lyrical about these things, which I covet not as a numismatist but as a historian; you cannot beat near 2000 year old representations of real people to transport you straight back to the times in which they lived. However – the time has come to take the plunge, and what better a character to be the first under the microscope than a man whose name personifies the rule of Rome over the Insulae Brittaniae  – Hadrianus Augustus – he of wall-building renown.

It would, of course, be a rather dry - albeit scholarly and properly deferential - approach to now simply list Hadrian’s feats during his reign (117 to 138AD – curtailed by his death at the age of 62). But there is more to the man than his reputation as a widely travelled, somewhat enigmatic, generally benevolent despot, who studiously built on the Empire’s existing strengths rather than galavanting around on risky military endeavours.

A glance at his coin will reveal an obvious feature, which recurs on many representations – his facial hair. Hadrian was a rather pretentious, self-conscious, beardy man – who reversed centuries of Roman aversion to luxuriant facial foliage which had seen all his predecessors with the notable and ignoble exception of Nero address the senate, dispense summary justice and debauch themselves whilst entirely clean-shaven.

It is generally accepted that Hadrian first cultivated his full beard out of a desire to conceal some form of facial disfigurement – being pitted with acne scars, warts or the ravages of battle – but such vanity did not sit easily alongside the laurea insignis, and he began to cultivate an entirely fabricated deference to, and passion for, all things Greek – making it clear that his beard was by way of an homage to the famously hirsuit and universally acclaimed statesmen of Athens.  

This infatuation manifested itself in classically Greek terms with Hadrian’s relationship with a young man, Antinous – the archetypal erastes/eromanos pairing – which went a long way to explaining the emperor’s unhappy and ultimately fruitless marriage to Vibia Sabina. However, if history teaches us anything it is that personal predilections alone should never be allowed to colour one’s judgement of a person – and it is Hadrian the perfectly groomed, conscientious, equitable, fully-loaded, multi-year’d hipster mauerbauer of an Emperor who should be lauded and remembered – exactly the sort of bloke who you’d like to have a likeness of rattling about in your sacculus or marsupium !


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