I’ve been rooting around in the past. Poking around in the grey area between truth and legend. I’ve found something I need to show you.
Come here. We’re going to the banks of the Nile River. It’s late October of 130 C.E., and we’re on the border between Upper and Lower Egypt. Close your eyes. See this. The banks of the Nile are swampy. The river is still reeling from her annual life-giving floods. Tall green papyrus reeds grow from the murky water.
Oh, and: we’re on the Roman emperor’s barge.
We are, perhaps, a part of Emperor Hadrian’s harem. Maybe he’s not fucking us, per se, but we’re useful to him for some reason. You choose. Are you the willful daughter of a Roman senator? Am I Hadrian’s chief advisor? Do you wrap shawls around his shoulders while I read the stars and predict the outcomes of his battles? We can be whoever we want. I just want you here with me.
Look over at Hadrian. The emperor of Rome. In Latin, his full name is Caesar Publius Aelius Traianus Hadrianus Augustus. His curly beard glistens with oils. The bridge of his nose is sunburned, peeling. The Nile runs on behind us, choppy water splashing up the sides of the barge. The sun sets in the sandy beyond. Ra is already on his way to the underworld in his mesektet.
I brought you here to show you Hadrian’s beloved. His name is Antinous. He was born in Bithynia, what we now call Turkey. You see him there, reclining next to his emperor? His chest glistens like Hadrian’s beard. His skin is golden. His cheeks, plump and flushed. He can’t be more than twenty-two years old, and youth clings to him like a perfume. Hadrian is watching Antinous. We are all watching Antinous. His upper lip is a perfect Cupid’s bow, crowned by a delicately curved philtrum. The lower lip is pouty—the kind of lower lip you wish for in fever dreams. And, yeah. His lips remind me of yours. One day, I’ll have you carved into stone, too. And when you’re marble, even the sharpest eye will be unable to tell the difference between your lips and Antinous’s lips.
Academically speaking, it’s irresponsible to ascribe our current notions of “gay” and “straight” to people of the past. It’s called presentism. Looking back and calling Hadrian and Antinous queer is a projection of our current cultural
perspectives onto our interpretations of the past. So, no. We can’t really call them queer.
But I am not an academic. I’m a romantic. And I’m calling them queer. Because we deserve to have a history, too. We deserve to see queerness in emperors and gods and peasants and everything in between. We deserve to take what belongs to us.
I brought you here to show you that. Our reflections in the past. It’s important. Time is a flat circle. Our lives lie on top of each other in layers. Our love circles us and lives within us, no matter what body we’re in.
Okay. Back to the barge. Back to the story. Back to everything else I want to show you. God. I want to show you everything.
This is the last sunset Antinous will ever see. He probably doesn’t know that. Or he does, and he’s at peace with it. Here’s the kicker: Antinous’s life will end on the sacred border between Upper and Lower Egypt, near the city of Hermopolis, in the Nile River, in late October of 130 C.E. We know that he drowned. We know that the Nile swallowed him whole.
Since it’s all up to interpretation, my interpretation is this: Antinous was the love of Hadrian’s life. I know his face almost as well as I know yours. A lot of people know his face as well as their own lover’s. His face is one of the best preserved in all of antiquity. Hadrian made sure of that.
He gave orders for Antinous to be deified, to be literally made into a god. We know little about the person Antinous was, but we know so much about what he looked like because of Hadrian’s orders that every artisan in his empire work to honour his beloved. They got to work. And the more they sculpted, the more they drew, the more they wrote, the more they worshipped, the longer his life has lasted.
Statues of Antinous are across the globe, in the remains of ancient ruins and on pedestals in art museums. Conservative estimates say that two thousand statues of Antinous were made in the eight years between his death and Hadrian’s death. The city of Hermopolis, the place where Antinous drowned, was replaced with a new city: Antinoopolis. Hadrian created a city in his beloved’s memory, but it was more of a shrine. In the Historia Augusta, they say that he “wept like a woman” in his grief for Antinous.
Even Oscar Wilde wrote a fair bit about Antinous. By his time, Antinous had become some kind of queer icon, more proof that you can look back and say: See! We’ve been around forever!
He had been seen, so the tale ran, pressing his warm lips to the marble brow of an antique statue that had been discovered in the bed of the river on the occasion of the building of the stone bridge, and was inscribed with the name of the Bithynian slave of Hadrian.
—“The Young King” by Oscar Wilde
Sing to me of that odorous green eve when crouching by the marge
You heard from Adrian’s gilded barge the laughter of Antinous
And lapped the stream and fed your drouth and watched with hot and hungry stare
The ivory body of that rare young slave with his pomegranate mouth!
—“The Sphinx” by Oscar Wilde
None of this fuss seems strange or ridiculous to me. In fact, it makes perfect sense. I know how Hadrian felt, maybe. Or at least, it seems logical to me. You’re not dead, but I know exactly what I would do if I lost you.
In any case. Come over here with me.
Antinous and Hadrian only have a few hours to be together. Let’s leave them alone. I have some explaining to do.
I’m not here to model us after Hadrian and Antinous. Comparisons are poison. I will likely never rule Rome, and you will likely never drown in the Nile. We don’t have to live like them to understand them. Listen.
I want to make sure we both know that we are holding a great and ancient power between our teeth.
What I want to say is that I love you as Hadrian loved Antinous. This is a clumsy way to say it. Love is not the right word. I cannot find the right word. When Hadrian couldn’t find the right words, he built Antinous a city. He made him a god. He made sure that everyone in the entire Roman Empire knew Antinous’s face.
And look. Look how Antinous lives on and on, a precious relic of antiquity, the key to one of history’s most fascinating and bizarre love stories, and most of all—a mystery. A thing to wonder about. Something we’ll never really know.
When I’m with you, I feel the rush of time. Or, rather, the flimsy barrier between our timeline and theirs starts to fade away. It takes a thousand years to blink. It takes less than a second to fall in love. Gauzy curtains that hang over our heads flutter in the wind and I catch glimpses of wonderful things—the Nile River on a late October evening, empty city streets, ancient sunlight, dirty fingernails, bruised skin, lush lips, grand mausoleums and crumbling Doric columns, the ecstasy of Atlantis and the closeness of Pangaea.
Okay. We have to go back now. Take a deep breath.
I can’t show you the exact moment that Antinous’s head sunk below the Nile’s surface. Nor can we see the moment before.
There are three theories of Antinous’s death that I’ll entertain:
1. Antinous committed suicide because of some tragedy concerning his relationship with Hadrian.
2. “On the advice of magicians, [Antinous] sacrificed himself or [was] sacrificed to save the Emperor from some hideous fate.”
3. Antinous’s drowning was a tragic accident.
None of these are satisfying. I guess they don’t have to be. I’m trying to accept that history hides the things she doesn’t want you to know. And she’s very good at it. Hiding, I mean. A part of me likes that. And, yet. History didn’t swallow Antinous, like she’s swallowed so many others. Instead, history tongued Antinous in her mouth like a sweet sugar cube, spitting out granules here and there.
I go to see him often, at the Art Institute. On permanent display is a bust of Antinous as Osiris, loaned to the museum by an anonymous donor. He’s wearing a nemes that covers up his curly hair, but you can still tell it’s him, if you know what to look for. The lips.
That soft, tender beauty. And, of course, Hadrian.
He’s right there, to Antinous’s left. A small bust with a broken nose. Day and night, while we live and breathe and sleep and eat and fuck and cry and imagine and forget and scream and give up and fall apart and fall in love, Antinous and Hadrian are there, side by side, preserved in stone for all of antiquity and forever, or until forever ends. I know that we will be there too.