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Hadrian and Antinous - by Peter Xiao

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The relationship between Hadrian and Antinous, the most powerful man of the Roman Empire and a young Greek boy from Bithynia, is known by many people. Their relationship is considered to be one of the most iconic homosexual love in Classical Antiquity. Before discussing the relationship between Hadrian and Antinous, we must understand that a sexual relationship between a grown man and a young boy was actually legal and accepted in the Ancient World.

The Romans inherited this style of sexual relations from Ancient Greece where it originated. Older men were called erastes in Ancient Greek and they were normally between the age of 20 and 40 years old. Meanwhile younger boys were known as eromenos in Ancient Greek and they were usually between 12 and 18 years old. This relationship originated from the Ancient Greek culture where it was common for young boys to find an older male lover for mental guidance and education companionship. The older men provided mental support and examples for the young boys to follow. The primary aim of this relationship was for the young boys to follow the examples of the older men and therefore became qualified citizens of the city. One of the most famous examples of this relationship was the relationship between Socrates and Alciabiades in 5th century BCE Athens.

Adjacent busts of Emperor Hadrian and Antinous exhibited at the British Museum
Adjacent busts of Emperor Hadrian and Antinous exhibited at the British Museum

Emperor Hadrian ruled the Roman Empire from 117 CE to 138 CE and is considered to be one of the ‘five good emperors’. It was under his reign that the Pantheon was rebuilt and the wall in Britain was constructed. It was also under his reign that the study of Greek classics reached its peak in the Roman Empire and panhellenism (Greek culture) was in fashion in the eastern part of the empire. He was ahead of his time not just because of his sexual preferences but also his appearance. Roman emperors before Hadrian were all clear shaven and their busts proved that. However, Hadrian preferred a long philosopher beard and made the beard so fashionable that most of the emperors after him followed his example. Hadrian became emperor in 117 CE following the death of his predecessor Trajan. After becoming emperor, he had turned his attention to touring his vast empire with a particular interest in the Greek East. This was the historical background behind Hadrian and Antinous’ encounter.

Hadrian met Antinous in Claudiopolis, Bithynia (modern day Turkey) in June 123 CE. Hadrian was probably attracted to the young Antinous due to the boy’s perceived wisdom. Historian such as Lambert suggested that due to Hadrian’s personality he was unlikely to fall in love with Antinous during their first encounter. Therefore, Antinous was sent to Italy, where he was educated at the imperial paedagogium at the Caelian Hill. Antinous was educated at this academy for the next two years until Hadrian returned from his grand tour of the empire. When Hadrian settled in his villa at Tibur in in September 125 CE, the two saw each other again and this time Hadrian fell in love with the young Antinous. Historians such as Lambert explained that the main reason behind Hadrian’s love with Antinous was his unhappy marriage with his wife Sabina. It is also true that there is no clear evidence that Hadrian ever express a sexual attraction to women at all.

In March 127 CE, Hadrian took Antinous travelled through the Sabine area of Italy, Picenum, and Campania. In late 128 CE, the lovers landed in Corinth and later went to Athens where they stayed until May 129 CE. It was in Athens that the two participated in the famous Eleusinian Mysteries (religious rites for Demeter) as initiates. After their journey in Greece, Hadrian and Antinous embarked on a journey to Asia Minor and visited Syria, Arabia and Judaea. Following the trip in the Near East they decided to visit Egypt through the Red Sea. It was in Egypt that the mysterious death of Antinous took place and the love between the two ended forever.

In September 130 CE Hadrian and Antinous travelled westward to Libya from Egypt. After arriving there they heard about a Marousian lion causing severe problems and destructions for the local inhabitants. They hunted down the lion during their expedition and it was in this particular trip that Hadrian saved Antinous’ life. Hadrian later widely publicised the event and had a tondo (circular work of art) depicting his great deeds. We can see this tondo today on the Arch of Constantine in Rome. The artistic value and historical significance of this tondo are immense as we can see that Antinous was now depicted as a grown-up man. Having become more muscular and hairy, he now had more ability to resist his master Hadrian. It is likely that the relationship between Antinous and Hadrian was changing at this time.

In the crucial year of 130 CE, Hadrian and Antinous went back to Egypt in October and assembled at Heliopolis for their river cruise along the Nile. It was at this time, around the time of the festival of Osiris, that Antinous fell into the Nile and was drowned. The mysterious death of Antinous remains a debate between historians today and neither side can give an exact explanation. Some historians suggested that Antinous may have thrown himself into the river to save his beloved Hadrian’s political reputation. While the two were in Alexandria in August 130 CE, the city’s Hellenic social elite was angered by several of Hadrian’s appointments and therefore began to gossip about his sexual activities. Antinous himself knew that the longer their relationship lasted, the greater risk of Hadrian being remembered as a homosexual rather than a good emperor. Some other historians also interpreted Antinous’ death as a voluntary human sacrifice. This theory originated from the writings of Cassius Dio who was composing his histories 80 years after the event took place. It was true that Hadrian had been ill for many years after 127 CE and Antinous could have sacrificed himself in the belief that Hadrian would have recovered.

Hadrian was severely saddened by the death of Antinous and it was reported that he shed tears for his young lover. He later decided to deify Antinous following the suggestion by the priest of Osiris in Egypt. Hadrian also announced that a new city should be built on the site of Antinous’ death and was named Antinoopolis. This was how Antinous was later seen as a deity in the eyes of many Egyptians. Many historians did interpret Hadrian’s move as political. They argued that by creating the direct link between the cult of Antinous and the imperial cult, Hadrian wanted to secure the political loyalty and allegiance from his subjects in Egypt. And, therefore, the spread of the cult of Antinous was mainly down to a desire to show reverence to Emperor Hadrian. One example of this was in the city of Lepcis Magna in North Africa where the citizens rapidly set up images of Antinous in the hope that the emperor would soon visit their city. Hadrian also ordered the making of up to nearly 2000 statues of his deceased lover and many of the surviving pieces are now part of the collection at the Vatican Museum. The cult of Antinous continued after the death of Hadrian until the late Roman Empire when Christianity officially banned paganism. The emperor Theodosius issued the prohibition of pagan religions in 391 CE. This was when the cult of Antinous officially ended in the Roman Empire.

The love between Hadrian and Antinous was not uncommon in their times but the main obstacle for this relationship certainly came from Hadrian’s position as the emperor. A good emperor must lead by example and his private life must be clean and definitely not scandalous. The relationship between Hadrian and Antinous was doomed to end in failure given the significant differences between the two in age, social position and responsibilities.


Beloved and God: Story of Hadrian and Antinous. By Royston Lambert • Publisher: Weidenfeld & Nicolson; First Edition (29 Mar. 1984)

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