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    The Great Emperor and the Last God of the Romans

    By Dr. Bill Lipsky–

    It would have been the trial of the century, had there been a trial. In 130 A.D., attendants found the body of Antinous, the handsome young lover of Hadrian, the Emperor of Rome, drowned in the Nile River. Murder? Suicide? Accident? Sacrifice? Conspiracy? There was endless speculation, but no suspects of wrongdoing. Almost certainly we will never know.

    What did his subjects think about their emperor having a male lover? Not very much. Same-sex relations for them were both common and unremarkable. The Romans had no word for homosexuality because another person’s gender was unimportant to them. What concerned them was masculinity and authority. They discouraged intimacy between freeborn men because, once they reached maturity, men had to be the penetrating partner in any sexual encounter or risk being ridiculed as cinaedi (effeminate) or pathici (sexually unnatural).

    We do not know if the sexual relationship between Hadrian and Antinous followed these rules. Being 19 or 20 when he died, Antinous was perilously close to being considered an adult. Probably Hadrian, whose masculinity was never questioned, would have ignored them and kept his lover close, watching the character come into Antinous’ face, seeing him progress from adolescence to manhood, from beautiful to handsome.

    Bas relief of Antinous from the Villa Albani

    Very little is known about Antinous in life. He was born in Claudiopolis in the Roman province of Bithynia, (now Bolu, Turkey) around 110 A.D. No one knows when or where he first met Hadrian. Possibly he was introduced to the Emperor in 123, during his first visit to his eastern territories, or in 128, during his second tour of the area. There is no mention of Antinous in the ancient chronicles until 130, when he is described as a member of Hadrian’s personal retinue.

    We know much more about Hadrian. He ruled a mighty dominion across three continents. An avid huntsman, soldier, general, builder, able administrator, and ruthless suppressor of civil disobedience, he also was an admirer of all things Greek, even adopting the Greek fashion of wearing a beard, the first Roman emperor to do so. Regardless of his sexual orientation, Hadrian remained deeply respected by Rome’s citizens, perhaps because he spent so little time in the capitol.

    According to the historian Suetonius, who once was his secretary, most of Hadrian’s predecessors also enjoyed same-sex intimacy. Domitian’s beloved was Earinos, and their relationship compared at the time to that of Jupiter and Ganymede, his cup-bearer. Trajan, devoted to his pages at the imperial court, also found love with two male dancers, Pylades and Apolaustus, specifically named by his biographers, who in addition considered him a model family man.

    After learning of Antinous’ death, Hadrian’s anguish was uncontrollable, its intensity without precedent. The Scriptores Historiae Augustae, probably written in the late 4th or the early 5th century and which may or may not be entirely reliable, states that the Emperor “wept like a woman.”

    Someone else might have gone out on a three-day drinking binge or covered the mirrors with crepe. Not Hadrian. He proclaimed his dearly beloved to be a new god risen from the Nile. Emperors and their relatives were often deified—as was Hadrian after his death—but for a commoner to be declared divine was unprecedented. It had never happened before. It never happened again.

    Roman Mosaic, 1st Century

    Polytheism, being a particularly tolerant religion, had no problem accepting Antinous as a god, even though he had enjoyed a male lover in life. His story especially appealed to a pagan world that embraced a belief in resurrection and salvation. Worship of Antinous spread to all parts of the Roman Empire, with temples and shrines dedicated to him everywhere from Britannia to North Africa.

    The center of the new god’s worship was the city of Antinoöpolis, which Hadrian declared be built on the east bank of the Nile at the site where his beloved’s body was recovered. Two magnificent avenues, flanked by hundreds of columns, each topped with a bust of the new god, crossed the settlement. His image was found throughout the city.

    Much of the community’s prestige and prosperity came from it being “a holy city,” a center of religious devotion that attracted pilgrims from throughout the Empire. Antinoöpolis also hosted a great festival, established by Hadrian to honor his beloved’s memory. It was held annually at least until Christianity became an official Roman religion around 392. The city itself survived into the mid-12th century, when it was abandoned.

    Almost certainly it was Christianity that extinguished the worship of Antinous. Early Christian writers vehemently condemned his veneration, not only because of his sinful relationship with Hadrian, but also because his glorification and the belief in his death and salvation were seen as a spiritual rival to their religious message. Even so, he was adored in the ancient world for hundreds of years.

    Bust of Hadrian

    Hadrian never stopped mourning and cherishing his beloved. In 1998, the ruins of what some claim was a great shrine to his lost love were discovered at the Villa Tivoli, the palace where the Emperor spent his final years, although others doubt the memorial had that purpose. No matter. Empires rise and fall, but love is eternal. Hadrian’s love for Antinous has continued to live on in memory for more than 1800 years.

    Bill Lipsky, Ph.D., author of “Gay and Lesbian San Francisco” (2006), is a member of the Rainbow Honor Walk board of directors.