He’s That Into You
AT THE HEIGHT OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE, THE LOSS OF ONE EXCEPTIONALLY BEAUTIFUL PLEBEIAN REDUCED THE MOST POWERFUL MAN IN THE WORLD TO HEARTACHE SO INTENSE IT INSPIRED A RELIGION. THE STORY OF EMPORER HADRIAN AND HIS LOVER ANTINOUS IS ONE FOR THE AGES.
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.