He’s That Into You


DNA Magazine - - LOVE STORIES -

Strap­ping young men at the peak of chis­eled per­fec­tion not only sell mag­a­zines, they have se­duced the mighty and al­tered the course of his­tory. Dur­ing his reign, Em­peror Hadrian (76 to 138AD) was one of the few “good” em­por­ers. In­stead of killing and de­stroy­ing, he took great care to for­tify and unite his sub­jects. To ac­com­plish this, Hadrian twice trav­elled an em­pire so vast it cov­ered 40 mod­ern coun­tries across three con­ti­nents.

Hadrian is re­mem­bered as well grounded in mil­i­tary know-how, but also as a pa­tron of the arts who presided over a re­nais­sance in art and ar­chi­tec­ture. He com­mis­sioned many im­por­tant struc­tures in­clud­ing Hadrian’s Wall in mod­ern-day Bri­tain (to keep out those rogu­ish Scots) and Rome’s “tem­ple to all the gods”, the Pan­theon. Con­structed in 126 AD, the Pan­theon is a ven­er­a­ble feat of engineerin­g whose cen­tre­piece still re­mains the largest un­re­in­forced con­crete dome in the world.

A noted phil­hel­lenist, Hadrian was taken with Greek civil­i­sa­tion and wanted to make Athens the cul­tural capi­tol of the Ro­man Em­pire. Even his beard kept with the Greek in­tel­lec­tual aes­thetic. He was in an ar­ranged, po­lit­i­cal mar­riage to Em­press Vibia Sabina, but this did not pre­vent Hadrian from tak­ing home his most prized Greek sou­venir, which he is as­sumed to have en­coun­tered in his trav­els around 123AD.

Antinous, of Greek birth but liv­ing in By­thinia (mod­ern-day Tur­key), was a young man with a beauty as as­ton­ish­ing as the

An in­con­solable Hadrian “wept like a woman” in front of his whole royal court.

myth­i­cal Ado­nis. Not much is known of the in­ti­mate re­la­tion­ship be­tween Hadrian and his young con­sort, but Antin­u­ous en­tered into the Im­pe­rial court and was ed­u­cated. Sculpt­ing his physique un­der the guid­ance of Hadrian’s train­ers he be­came, his­tory pro­claims, the pin­na­cle of male per­fec­tion.

Antinous was a great hunter and hunt­ing hap­pened to be Hadrian’s favourite thing. They spent much time to­gether in the wilder­ness and there is a ver­i­fied writ­ten ac­count of a hunt­ing trip they took to­gether in the Libyan desert. On this ex­cur­sion, leg­end tells of a man-eat­ing lion that had been ter­ri­fy­ing the coun­try­side un­til the Em­porer and Antinous hunted down the an­i­mal. Antinous attacked the lion, but lost his weapon and was nearly mauled un­til Hadrian in­ter­vened and killed the beast. Hadrian could not in­ter­vene, how­ever, when tragedy struck in Oc­to­ber AD130.

The Em­porer and his en­tourage (in­clud­ing the Em­press and Antinous) had em­barked on a voy­age up the Nile (then part of the Em­pire and as such, Hadrian was also Egypt’s Pharaoh). They docked the gilded barge at Her­mopo­lis as lo­cals were cel­e­brat­ing the Egyp­tian god Osiris, who had drowned in the Nile and been res­ur­rected. Not long af­ter, the royal barge nav­i­gated fur­ther up the river and it is here when, un­der highly sus­pi­cious cir­cum­stances, the golden boy Antinous splashed into the Nile and drowned.

Antinous’ un­timely death at 19 was de­scribed as an ac­ci­dent, but spec­u­la­tion and ru­mour

soon spread: pos­si­bly he com­mit­ted sui­cide, or had been sac­ri­ficed in a mythic rit­ual as another Osiris. He may have been mur­dered, per­haps by the Em­press her­self. The ex­act na­ture of Antinous’ death re­mains a mys­tery. What is known and very well doc­u­mented is that when Antinous did die, the mighty Ro­man Em­porer did not bot­tle up his feel­ings. An in­con­solable Hadrian “wept like a woman” in front of his whole royal court.

There is no word for ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity in Latin. In those times, re­la­tion­ships or sex with boys was con­sid­ered nor­mal, but Hadrian’s un­bri­dled pub­lic pas­sion broke all deco­rum. It was shame­fully ob­vi­ous that the Em­porer’s re­la­tion­ship with Antinous had gone be­yond any­thing ap­proach­ing ap­pro­pri­ate.

Hadrian paid no heed to con­ven­tion and, over­come with heart­break, within days founded a city on the bank of the Nile where Antinous drowned. Call­ing it Antinopolo­us, he erected a tem­ple and set up a fes­ti­val to cel­e­brate his beloved. Hadrian’s ex­tra­or­di­nary grief would soon turn oth­er­worldly. Ex­er­cis­ing his pow­ers in the role as Pon­tifex Max­imus, high pri­est of the an­cient Ro­man re­li­gion, Hadrian sent out procla­ma­tions across the em­pire declar­ing Antinous a god. This was un­prece­dented as Antinous was the only non-royal to ever be de­i­fied. He would next be­come the only man not of im­pe­rial blood ever to ap­pear on coins across the em­pire.

Many be­lieve the de­ifi­ca­tion of Antinous also served as a savvy po­lit­i­cal move to unite the Greek-speak­ing east to Ro­man rule. The pa­gan cult of Antinous grew pop­u­lar with the com­mon­ers and, in Egypt, floods that fer­til­ized the val­ley soon af­ter de­ifi­ca­tion were con­sid­ered a mir­a­cle and cause for his wor­ship. Antinous even gave Je­sus Christ some heavy spir­i­tual com­pe­ti­tion. Nu­mer­ous early Chris­tian the­olo­gians, such as Ti­tus Flav­ius Cle­mens (150-215AD) were con­cerned enough to lash out in de­nun­ci­a­tion, “Lust is not eas­ily re­strained; and men now ob­serve the sa­cred nights of Antinous, the shame­ful char­ac­ter of which the lover who spent them with him knew well. Why reckon him among the gods, who is hon­oured on ac­count of un­clean­ness? And why should you en­large on his beauty? Beauty blighted by vice is loath­some.”

Re­ac­tions such as those of Cle­mens of­fer keen insight into the seeds of the ho­mo­pho­bia Chris­tian­ity im­poses upon so­ci­ety to this very day. The last of the an­cient pa­gan faiths, the gen­tle re­li­gion of Antinous out­lasted the Ro­man Em­pire, but suf­fered more and more con­dem­na­tion for moral de­gen­er­acy un­til it was ul­ti­mately si­lenced.

De­spite this, Antinous would con­tinue to serve as an icon of ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity. Eigh­teenth Cen­tury gay aris­to­crats col­lected his mar­ble like­nesses as a coded way of declar­ing their sex­u­al­ity, in the same way a 20th Cen­tury ho­mo­sex­ual was a “friend of Dorothy”. In the 19th Cen­tury, Os­car Wilde, in The Pic­ture Of Do­rian Gray, had his fic­tional char­ac­ter Basil de­clare that the beau­ti­ful Do­rian Gray was as im­por­tant to his art as “the face of Antinous was to late Greek sculp­ture”. On the in­ter­net to­day, there are a hand­ful of web­sites with gay mem­bers pledg­ing al­le­giance to the cult of the di­vine Antinous.

Em­porer Hadrian con­tin­ued to com­mis­sion tem­ples, schools, plaques and stat­ues for Antinous; to name a star for him in the sky and to write or­a­cles in his name un­til his own death eight years later. Hadrian left no heirs but did leave a strength­ened, re­vi­talised and sta­ble Ro­man Em­pire. The almighty Em­porer also left a legacy of im­mor­tal love for a beau­ti­ful no­body. Apart from Hadrian and Au­gus­tus, more mar­ble im­ages sur­vive to­day of Antinous than of any other Ro­man fig­ure in his­tory.

A statue of Antinousin The Vat­i­can

as Egyp­tian ri­val His im­age on a Ro­man coin.

Hadrian and Antinous in relief.

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