Educating the City’s Youth: an Exhibition on Hadrian and Athens

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Hadrian and Athens: Conversing with an Ideal World, Exhibition at the National Museum of Athens, Greece

A small exhibition in the Archaeological Museum in Athens highlighted portrait busts created during the rule of the Roman Emperor Hadrian.  The exhibits are all from the museum, but by placing them all together, you get to see portraits from a specific era, which gives you a rare opportunity to see a bunch of figures who were actually contemporaries.

As you walked into the exhibition room, you were stared at by a row of faces – these were the kosmetai, the officials responsible for the intellectual and physical education of ephebes in the local gymnasia.

But wait – the what of the who in the where?  Well, the gymnasia were schools for 17-20 year-old men, ephebes, that at first served as places for sports training, but then also encompassed more intellectual subjects.  The Greeks recognised that there was a link between education, health and exercise and the three gymnasia in Athens became important centres for the youth of the city.  They were run by kosmetai who were chosen annually from each tribe to undertake various duties associated with the gymnasia.

Though he’s now famous for building walls, in his own lifetime Hadrian was well known for his fondness for Greek culture.  In his youth he was called Graeculus (little Greek) and at the end of his consulship in 108 AD, he spent some time in Athens.

Possibly because of his philhellenism, the Athenians took a shine to Hadrian, and gave him the ancient magisterial title of archon eponymus, honouring him with a statue in the Theatre of Dionysos on the Acropolis.  Even when he left Athens, Hadrian continued to devote a lot of his attention to Greece and Athens in particular.  He sponsored the completion of the Temple of Olympian Zeus, and in turn was honoured by the city on the Arch of Hadrian – where his name was inscribed alongside that of Theseus as founder of the city.  You can still see the Arch today.

Anyway, if you want to know more, I advise you to read this excellent blog which goes into far more historical detail than I can:

So In Summary

The exhibition was very small, but I found it quite striking and effective.  Too often Roman portrait busts are displayed with little care, so it was nice to see them given their moment in the spotlight. Certainly the display helped, with its impressive lay-out, but there was something quite remarkable about looking at so many marvellously characterful faces, now largely unknown, but who were each doubtless known to each other.  We basically get to see a fragment of a community, and that is kinda cool.

Further Information

For information about the museum, you can find out more here.

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