Gay and Lesbian Humanist

Summer 1998

Hadrian: The Restless Emperor, by Anthony R. Birley

reviewed by Roy Saich

In his introduction Anthony Birley writes that the Roman emperor Hadrian “had been married at the age of twenty-four to a distant kinswoman, Sabina, a grand-niece of Trajan. The marriage was childless and – at least after two decades – loveless. Hadrian was in any case more interested in males. Some time during his travels in the east he met a beautiful Bithynian boy named Antinous. He took him into his train and became besotted with him.” Therein lies the chief interest for gay men with Hadrian, but there is much more of interest in him than this most celebrated love affair which ended tragically. For Humanists there is interest in his relations with the Epicureans, the Humanists of the ancient classical world.

This is a serious book of scholarship and contains a mass of detail and clearly distinguishes between facts and conjecture – not the least of its merits.

Hadrian was born in Rome on 24 January 76 AD. His mother was the wife of a young senator, who was a cousin of the Emperor Trajan and who became one of his guardians when his father died when Hadrian was only nine years old.

Greek influence was then strong at Rome, and Hadrian himself was nicknamed “little Greek”. As soon as he was old enough he joined the Roman army and, in the coming years, was given the various posts his talents, and family connections, could be expected to provide.

After Trajan became Emperor, the young Hadrian enjoyed the backing of the Empress, Plotina, who was an Epicurean, and he went with Trajan to wage war on the Dacians, which was won in 106 AD. After the war he returned to Rome, and only in 112 AD did he go to Athens.

The following year provided Trajan with the opportunity to make war on the Parthians. It proved a difficult war and a revolt by the Jews of the diaspora at the same time added to Trajan’s difficulties. In any event Hadrian was sent to Syria and, in 117 AD, while he was there, Trajan died, and Hadrian was adopted as Emperor.

Within a few days Hadrian gave orders for the withdrawal from the newly occupied territories. This was a very important policy change for the future of the empire. The crisis the empire was now in did not allow him to return to Rome until the following year.

Hadrian courted popularity by an amnesty of tax arrears, a large building programme in Rome and throughout the empire, and other measures too.

He had a phenomenal memory and was said to be capable of “writing, dictating, listening, and conversing with friends at one and the same time”. Instead of being clean-shaven like most Romans, he was notable for having a beard in the Greek style – a fashion which lasted for a century.

Some of his responses to petitions have survived including one from the school of Epicurean philosophy at Athens sent through Trajan’s widow Plotina. The then head of the Epicurean school did not want to be restricted in his choice of successor to a Roman citizen and an appeal to the Emperor was necessary. Hadrian agreed to the petition and Plotina wrote to tell the good news, “Plotina to all the friends, Greeting. We have what we were eager to obtain. ... For this fine grant of authority, we owe a debt of gratitude to him who is in truth the benefactor and over-seer of all culture and therefore an emperor most worthy of reverence, and to me very dear in every way as both an outstanding guardian and a loyal son.”

When Hadrian left Rome to reorganise the army he went first to Gaul, to Germany, where he had a continuous palisade built like a wall along the frontier, and to Britain, where the famous wall named after him was built.

In 123 AD war with the Parthians “was in prospect” so Hadrian headed east and negotiated a peace settlement. From Syria he travelled to Asia Minor and then to Greece where he was initiated into the Eleusinian Mysteries and instituted a huge building programme. He returned to Rome only in 125 AD, where his building programme there continued, before starting his next tour of inspection, this time to north Africa. Evidence of his detailed interest in the army is apparent from monuments. He briefly returned to Rome before setting out again for Greece where he again took part in the Eleusinian Mysteries, probably with Antinous.

Hadrian’s plans to replace Jerusalem, left in ruins by Titus in 70 AD, with a Roman city, and his new policy of forbidding male circumcision and castration led to another revolt by Jews – but only after he left on his way to Egypt with Antinous. Hadrian had probably met Antinous in 123 AD. If so, they were together for seven years until Antinous drowned in the Nile.

Even before his body was dry, it seems, the conspiracy theorists were hard at work “explaining” why he had drowned. He had offered himself as a sacrifice so that Hadrian’s life could be extended, otherwise Hadrian would soon die. He had volunteered, so they said, when no-one else would. Others said he had killed himself in shame over his relationship with Hadrian. Or, he had done so because he did not want the relationship to continue, but Hadrian insisted that it did.

Politicians and rulers lie. They may do so to gain an advantage, to cover up misdemeanours, even just to create an effect. The ability to lie convincingly often seems an essential qualification for the job. However, they do not only tell lies. Sometimes they tell the truth.

Hadrian said, apparently in his own lost autobiography, that whilst sailing “Antinous fell into the Nile and drowned.”

Hadrian never seems to have recovered from the death of Antinous and if someone had tried to persuade Antinous to kill himself Hadrian is likely to have taken some action when he found out. But no named courtier, official, priest, soothsayer or astrologer was executed, killed or even accused for any part in the death. This in itself is unusual, so Hadrian’s explanation stands as the most likely true one, and subsequent events are entirely consistent with it.

The fact is that the Nile was a sacred river and anyone who, like the god Osiris, drowned in it, was considered to be a sacrifice and to have a future life amongst the gods. It is hardly surprising then that people should want to deify such a beautiful young man with such a powerful friend. Nor is it surprising that astrologers should discover a new star, and call it Antinous, which proved that his soul was alive amongst the gods.

Anthony Birley comments, “It is hard not to find the fact that his death took place, if not on the very anniversary of Osiris’ drowning, at least very close to it, more than coincidental.” Nevertheless real life is full of coincidence, often only seen in retrospect, especially by astrologists, priests and magicians. After all, that is what their work is all about.

Birley also quotes “one of the leading Hellenists of modern times” that Antinous’ position with Hadrian had become untenable and that he sought a way out because of Hadrian’s habit of “debauching adult males”. He does not point out, however, that ancient Greek culture allowed for relationships to cease at an age younger than Antinous then was, nor that even though Hadrian honoured some of the many lifelong gay relationships that history celebrates, he is not recorded as having treated any of his other lovers in such a way. Hadrian’s continuing love for the dead Antinous is paralleled in modern times by that of Queen Victoria for her Albert – another relationship some people find hard to accept.

If Antinous’ death had been a sacrifice of himself Hadrian would surely have been proud of the fact, even if he had credited it as being for religious reasons rather than out of love. Hadrian would also have celebrated the extension of his life as being due to Antinous had he thought it was due to his sacrifice. In any case there is no evidence that Hadrian subscribed to such religious notions.

Hadrian decided to found, close to the fatal site, a new Greek city he had planned and to call it Antinoopolis. He then continued his journey and returned to Alexandria. He then left Egypt and arrived eventually in Athens again.

The consecration of Antinous as a god got rapidly under way and soon throughout the empire festivals and religious associations were dedicated to him. In Antinoopolis and all over the empire his cult status and his worship multiplied.

After news came that the Roman army had been attacked in Judaea, and reinforcements were required, Hadrian went there personally, and only after heavy losses on both sides did the Romans overcome all resistance.

Hadrian then retired to his great villa at Tibur near Rome and in his last years had to face increasing ill health and crises over who was to be his successor. He died in 138 AD.

This book is well worth the price both to read and as a work of reference. It contains useful photographs, details about coins, bibliography and index, and also contains excellent maps drafted by the author’s pupil Peter Nagid.

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