Shortly after major pieces of an extraordinary bronze statue had been dug up illegally by an American tourist, Gideon Foerster of the Israel Department of Antiquities received an urgent call from a former student describing the find. The tourist, an American named Morton Leventhal, had been wandering around with a metal detector looking for ancient coins. When the metal detector indicated that metal lay beneath the ground, Leventhal took a spade and discovered two feet below the ground the head, torso, and other portions of a larger than life bronze statue of an armored emperor. Leventhal left the pieces at a nearby kibbutz. The next day Foerster arrived at the kibbutz, where his former student lived. There he saw the statue propped up in a showcase of the dining room. “From the first moment”, said Foerster, “I recognized the face of Hadrian.”
The features are known from many coins and marble statues. The bearded head in the showcase was clearly Hadrian, Emperor of the Romans, suppressor of the second revolt of the Jews led by Bar Kokhba against the Romans. Although the features were familiar and the type of statue well-known in marble from the Hellenistic world, the fact that this was a bronze armorclad Hadrian made it an almost unique discovery. Bronze, unlike marble, can be melted and recast. It is not surprising then that few bronze statues have survived almost 2000 years. And of the bronze statues that have been preserved, only two of uncertain attribution may be of Hadrian—one, a head dredged from the River Thames some hundred years ago.
The details of the Israel Hadrian are superbly preserved. The body armor or cuirass in which the chest of the Emperor is enclosed is the type called a “muscle” cuirass. This type of cuirass was formed from leather and molded to correspond closely to the musculature of the chest and abdomen of the warrior—and so it is shown here in bronze. The scene decorating the chest of the cuirass is the only one of its kind known to Foerster. Commonly such decorative reliefs are of victories or Medusa heads. But in this vigorous composition three pairs of warriors in “heroic nudity” bearing shields, helmets and swords do battle in typical Greek form. The modeling style of the figures is also typically Greek, although the soldiers are a bit plump. The trio of battling warriors does not seem to refer to any recognizable event. Foerster speculates that perhaps we see an allegorical representation of the victory of Hadrian over Bar Kokhba, with the conquered Jews symbolized by the central figure forced to his knees. Around the waist of the cuirass is a tassled cingulum or girdle, typical of Roman warrior figures.
Not visible in the photograph but found at the same time are portions of the leather armor skirt, armor scales, and the paludamentum or military cloak draped over the left shoulder and arm, the latter a characteristic garment of Roman Emperors. The statue was probably cast in Rome in parts and then later, Foerster suggests, assembled in Palestine.
The statue was found near Tell Shalem, a site in the Jordan valley about 8 miles south of Beth Shean. It is not entirely surprising that the statue was found here because five years ago an inscription was found near this same site which read VEXILATIO LEG VI FERR, the Latin name of the VIth Roman Legion, nicknamed the Iron Legion. The VIth Legion which had been stationed in Syria was ordered south by Hadrian either just before or during the Jewish revolt in order to aid the hard-pressed Xth legion. One of their headquarters seems to have been the fort of Tell Shalem located at a strategic crossroads where the road from Beth Shean through the Jordan Valley to Jericho in the south met the road into the hills to the Roman city of Neapolis (Biblical Shechem and modern Nablus).
The discovery of the statue near Tell Shalem made imperative further excavations at the site. Only in that way would it be possible to place the find in context. These emergency excavations revealed parts of a Roman camp or fort built of mud bricks. The fort included a building which perhaps belonged to the “principia”, the headquarters area of the base. Pottery and coins confirmed the 2nd century date of the fort, at the time of the Second Jewish Revolt, which ended in 135 A.D. But the most intriguing discovery was the lifesize bronze head of a boy found at the very spot where the Hadrian statue was discovered. Several hundred yards away the archaeologists discovered an 80 pound bronze lump which had been formed by melting some bronze objects. Was this lump once part of Hadrian or the bodiless boy? Chemical tests to answer this question are now being conducted.
Further excavation may reveal some of the missing parts of these statues and with them a clue to whether Hadrian and the boy were once part of a single composition. Foerster believes that such speculation is supported by the existence of a marble statue which shows the triumphant Emperor Hadrian with his foot placed on the head of a crouching young boy, the symbolic representation of a vanquished foe. This statue was discovered in Crete and is now in the Istanbul Museum.
The statue of Hadrian and the boy’s head are now being cleaned in the laboratory of the Israel Museum. When restoration is complete, visitors to the Museum will be able to see this strikingly personal representation of the emperor who in 135 A.D. crushed Jewish political independence until it was regained in 1948.
Professor Cornelius C. Vermeule III, Curator of the Classical Department of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, has prepared an exhaustive catalogue of “Hellenistic and Roman Cuirassed Statues from Alexander the Great to the End of the 5th century AD” (Berytus, volumes XIII, XV, XVI) in which he states, “Wherever the excavator puts pick to sod he is likely to encounter Hadrian.” However, the extraordinary rarity of encountering a bronze Hadrian is measured by the remark which Vermeule is reported to have made at a press conference shortly after the Hadrian discovery: “Depending on its condition it would fetch three to four million dollars. It is very rare and very beautiful.”