Hadrian and Antinous

I’ve been on an ancient history kick lately so, if I were you, I’d expect the next few posts here to be about ancient queer people. To that end, I’m starting us off by bringing us back to ancient Rome. And also ancient Egypt. And all over the place, actually. I am, of course, talking about the story of Emperor Hadrian and Antinous.

A statue of Emperor Hadrian

So Hadrian was born on January 24, 76 CE in present-day Spain, where his family had moved from present-day Italy. His father was first-cousin to soon-to-be-emperor Trajan. Hadrian entered a career in politics and public service. At the encouragement of Trajan’s wife, and a few other politically influential people in Rome, Hadrian married Trajan’s grand-niece (and therefore, his own second cousin once removed) Vibia Sabina early in his career (around 100 or 101 CE). The marriage was purely political and is almost universally described as being an unhappy one. Around the time of the wedding, he was serving as essentially the liaison between the emperor and the Senate. Afterwards, he had posts in numerous places around the Empire — he was archon of Athens for many years, and even held Athenian citizenship, and also served as governor of Syria.

Meanwhile, in Turkey sometime around 111 CE, Antinous was born. Virtually no solid facts are known about his childhood, but its guessed he was born in November — possibly November 27. Some time in the Renaissance it began to be claimed by historians that Antinous was born into slavery, but modern historians are pretty agreed that that’s unlikely because contemporary Roman historians would almost certainly have mentioned that, given how the rest of his life turned out and how much more of a controversial figure Antinous would have become.

In the year 117 CE, Trajan died from a stroke, leaving no heirs. Adoption papers “proving” Hadrian was his adopted son, and therefore heir, appeared shortly thereafter — signed by Trajan’s wife, and dated the day after Trajan’s death. Making this even more hard to swallow was the fact that she was in Rome and Hadrian was still in Syria. This was a huge irregularity, as a Roman adoption required all three parties to be present — both parents and the adoptee. Nevertheless, the Roman legion quickly claimed him the legitimate emperor, so as to avoid a power vacuum. Hadrian thanked them with a monetary bonus, which may sound like a bribe but was apparently the custom of the time. (I guess that doesn’t really mean it wasn’t a bribe…) With the legion on board, the Senate didn’t take too long to confirm that Hadrian was emperor.

At the start of his reign, Hadrian remained in Syria — as there was a Jewish revolt in Judea and other parts of the Middle East that he needed to attend to. And by attend to I mean, historians now refer to it as the Kitos War and that sort of undersells the violence. In his defense, Hadrian was trying to find a more peaceful solution to the problem — but the war had begun under Trajan’s rule and the combatants were not willing to let go of the fight. Hadrian gave up a lot of the area Trajan had conquered to the east in order to stabilize the region. Then he quietly stripped Lusius Quietus — the commander of the Roman forces in Judea — of his rank. Lusius Quietus died the following year under suspicious circumstances. It’s likely that Hadrian quietly stripped him of his life too.

A surviving section of Hadrian’s Wall

With that behind him, Hadrian embarked on a tour of the empire. Perhaps the most significant stop, and one of the earliest, on this tour was the province of Britannia — Great Britain. Major conflicts were common in the region, and the Roman military was not doing well. In 122 CE, Hadrian ordered the construction of a wall to separate the Roman territory from the unclaimed parts of the island. An enormous 73 mile long wall, as it turns out, was cheaper than an enormous border army. It wasn’t the Great Wall of China or anything, but Hadrian’s Wall was still kind of a big deal. Part of the wall still stands.

A statue of Antinous

In June of 123 CE, he reached the city of Claudiopolis (now Bolu) in present day Turkey — where Antinous lived. It is believed by many historians that they met at this point and, while they did not become lovers now, it certainly had an impact on Antinous. It was probably a big part of why Antinous decided to go to pursue his education in Rome.

Hadrian returned to Rome in September 125 CE. Over the next three years, a relationship formed between Antinous and Hadrian. Antinous became the emperor’s “personal favorite” and was seen in Hadrian’s company more than his wife. Historians actually note that there is no evidence whatsoever that Hadrian ever expressed romantic or sexual interest in any women — which is kind of remarkable since usually historians are quick to “straightwash” gay people in history. Hadrian was too gay even for that. Contemporary records indicate that Hadrian and Antinous’ relationship was clearly sexual, and Hadrian wrote erotic poetry about him, though none of it survives today. There was significantly more to the relationship though. Hadrian had several “favorites” but he particularly described Antinous as being incredibly wise, and they enjoyed hunting together and — as you’ll see shortly — traveling together. Antinous, for his part, also seems to have truly loved Hadrian despite their significant age difference. There is no evidence he ever tried to use the relationship for any kind of personal gain.

Hadrian, unlike previous emperors, did not choose to stay in Rome and rely heavily on reports from abroad. Hadrian spent more than half of his reign traveling the empire. When he left Rome again in 127 CE, he took Antinous with him as a part of his personal retinue. This may have been partially because Hadrian fell ill during this year, with a mysterious chronic illness that baffled the doctors of the time. They traveled through parts of Italy, North Africa, and even made their way to Athens for a time. At a certain point they were initiated, together, into the Eleusinian Mysteries. Afterwards, they traveled to the Middle East, visiting Antioch, Judea, Syria, and Arabia. Hadrian grew concerned that the Jewish population was failing to “Romanize” so he built a Temple of Jupiter on the site of former Jewish temple and made circumcision illegal.

The tondo depicting the lion hunt

From there they headed to Egypt. In Alexandria, Hadrian made some unpopular decisions about appointing people to certain positions. Rumors began to spread about his sex life, particularly when it came to Antinous. Unperturbed by the pettiness, Hadrian and Antinous went to hunt a lion that was causing trouble in Libya. During the hunt, Hadrian saved Antinous’ life — he was so proud of this event that he made certain it was recorded in multiple histories, had it depicted on bronze medallions, had a poem commissioned, and even had a tondo (or circular artwork) made of it. Various tondos depicting Antinous and Hadrian together, including the one of the lion hunt, eventually ended up on the Arch of Constantine, where they still remain to this day. This tondo is considered particularly significant as it is the first place that Antinous is no longer shown as a thin youth but a muscular, hairy truly full grown man — leading historians to suspect that his relationship with Hadrian was probably changing.

A month or so later, Hadrian and his retinue sailed up the Nile as part of a flotilla. Antinous was with him, as was Lucius Ceionius Commodus who some historians say Antinous viewed as competition for Hadrian’s affections (but who never seems to have actually had a romantic relationship with the emperor). During this sort of Nile parade, Antinous fell into the river and died. The death is viewed as highly suspicious particularly because in all of the surviving documents there is not one place where the death is described as an accident. And there’s quite a bit of documentation that has survived. It is, of course, still possible the death was an accident, but here’s some of the other theories that are out there.

  • Some theorize that Antinous killed himself, possibly over losing Hadrian’s affections. The trouble with this theory is that Hadrian’s reaction to the death doesn’t seem like his affection was waning.
  • Some have suggested he was murdered as part of a conspiracy. There’s actually no evidence for this, and Antinous’ lack of political influence over Hadrian also kinds of makes this one a “meh” theory. But it’s very dramatic, so that’s fun at least.
  • It’s also been suggested that it was a human sacrifice, that Antinous might have volunteered to sacrifice his own life as a means of helping finally cure Hadrian of the illness he’d been suffering for three years. However, Hadrian was opposed to human sacrifice and had strengthened laws against it throughout the empire. This theory also was never even presented until 80 years later, despite the fact that rumors spread like wildfire when the death occurred.
  • Another theory is that Antinous died in a botched castration, that he may have volunteered for to keep his youth. However, again, Hadrian was very much opposed to castration and Antinous was too old (since he’s only somewhere around 19 years old at this point) to get much effect from it anyways.

As you can see, all of the theories leave something to be desired and whatever the case may be, Hadrian was absolutely beside himself with grief (and possibly also with guilt, depending on what actually happened). Egyptian priests immediately identified Antinous with the Egyptian god Osiris — dying in the Nile helped with that — and set about embalming and mummifying his corpse in the Egyptian tradition. Hadrian remained in Egypt until the following year, probably not willing to leave until his lover had been finally laid to rest.

Royston Lambert wrote a biography of Hadrian in 1984, where he described Hadrian’s feelings for Antinous as a “a mystical-religious need for his companionship.” And that’s, perhaps, underselling it. Hadrian formally declared Antinous a deity, and ordered a city be constructed at the site of his death. The city, called Antino√∂polis, was built over the city of Hir-we and all of the buildings from that city except the Temple of Ramses II were destroyed so the new city could be built. Aside from being an over-the-top memorial, the city was also a move to help integrate Greek and Egyptian cultures — Hadrian permitted Greek and Egyptian inhabitants of the city to marry, and gave incentives for Greeks to move there. Games were held there annually for several hundred years in an event called the Antinoeia. Hadrian allowed the primary god of Hir-we to continue to be worshipped — the Egyptian god Bes — alongside worship of the Osiris-Antinous deity.

The Antinous Obelisk, on Pincio Hill in Rome

It was not unheard for a person to be declared a god but it was super rare for it to be someone who wasn’t, y’know, an emperor or someone otherwise incredibly important to the world at large. It’s not clear what became of Antinous’ body, but it is hinted by an obelisk was buried at Hadrian’s country estate in Italy. Hadrian continued to surround himself with sculptures and depictions of Antinous for years to come. Over the following years, an innumerable number of sculptures of Antinous were found through the empire (in no small part because of his status as a god). 115 of those sculptures still exist — 22 of those were found in Hadrian’s country estate. Although there are various styles of these sculptures, they all clearly depict the same person so it is believed that Hadrian released an official version of what Antinous was supposed to look like, that sculptors could replicate.

Antinous as Bacchus (or Dionysus) — a statue in the Vatican

Because of the identification with Osiris, the cult of Antinous had little trouble spreading in Egypt. But Hadrian wanted Antinous to be worshipped through the entire empire. To that end, he turned to Greece. In 131 CE, he traveled there and integrated Antinous with the god Hermes — in much the same way that the Egyptians had joined him to Osiris. He founded a temple in Trapezus to Hermes-Antinous. Despite Hadrian’s best efforts, however, the Greeks associated Antinous with the god Dionysus instead and worship of Dionysus-Antinous could be found throughout much of the empire within just a few years. Although in some cases people worshipped Antinous just to make their emperor happy, archaeologists have found a significant amount of evidence suggesting Antinous was also worshipped in the privacy of people’s homes. That means people actually, genuinely liked worshipping Antinous. The cult appears to have been most prolific in Egypt, the Middle East, and Greece but evidence of the cult has been found in 70 cities and some of that is even as far away as Britain where Antinous appears to have been conflated with the Celtic sun god Belenos.

Six years later, 136 CE, Hadrian adopted Lucius Ceionius Commodus and made him his heir (as Hadrian and his wife never had kids.) However, Lucius died two years later while Hadrian was still alive so he never actually got the crown. Later that year, on July 10 138 CE, Hadrian passed away in his villa — finally losing the battle with his own health but managing to name an heir in Antinous shortly before his death. Hadrian had ruled the Roman Empire for 21 years.

Antinous’ cult would continue even longer, but would receive harsh criticisms from other pagan cults. The philosopher Celsus, for instance, criticized it — saying that its worshipers were debaucherous and immoral. That’s also how he viewed Christians, as it turns out. Christians, meanwhile, viewed the cult of Antinous as a rival religion and they vocally condemned it — insisting that it was immoral to worship a mortal human, and pointing out that he was only in that position because of his sexual activities with Hadrian. (That part at least is kind of valid.) In the 4th century, as conflicts between Christians and pagans deepened, pagans in general began to champion Antinous. Not in the sense that they worshiped him necessarily, though his cult was clearly still active, but in that he became something of a symbol against Christianity. New images and depictions of him began to be made, including a set of seven bronze medallions. Statues were broken, rebuilt, moved, damaged, repaired…..and the struggle continued until 391 CE when Emperor Theodosius officially banned paganism, and all images of Antinous were removed from public places.

Antinous, understandably, became something of an icon for the homosexual subculture of later centuries. During the Renaissance, queer art was generally focused on the mythological figure of Ganymede but — especially by the 18th century — that fascination had been turned onto Antinous. Who was, y’know, at least real. That fascination grew into the 19th century. In 1865, Karl Heinrich Ulrichs wrote about Antinous in one of his pamphlets, and Oscar Wilde spoke of Antinous in The Young King, The Sphinx, and in The Picture of Dorian Gray. The homophile newspaper The Artist began selling cast statues of Antinous about this time as well. Even straight authors were catching on — in the novel of Les Miserables, author Victor Hugo describes the character of Enjolras as “an untamed Antinous” who seemed “not to be aware of the existence of a creature called woman.”

And while Antinous may not still have quite that level of ubiquitous popularity in queer culture, he has not exactly been forgotten either. Sarah Waters included a costume ball in her novel Tipping the Velvet where the lesbian protagonist dressed as Antinous. Rufus Wainwright‘s 2018 opera Hadrian is about the emperor’s response to Antinous’ death. Even in sports they’re still remembered — the Hadrian Cup, an LGBTQ+ inclusive rugby tournament, introduced the Antinous Plate just this year in March 2020 and awarded it to the Aberdeen Taexali Rugby Club. (But, to be honest, I don’t know anything about rugby so I can’t tell you exactly what the Antinous Plate is awarded for.)

I’m not saying Hadrian set the bar too high for the rest of us, but would your lover declare you a god after you died in a river under suspicious circumstances — making you a relevant historical figure for thousands of years to come?