Ancient History & Civilisation

Hadrian & Antinoos:
Turned his lover into a god

No one really expected a Roman emperor to behave himself when it came to his relationships; marriage was often a dynastic affair, political and calculated. Still, the most egregious example of a one-sided commitment may have been the loveless yet highly public marathon marriage between Emperor Hadrian and his empress, Sabina.

Starting with the wedding night, relations between Sabina and Hadrian went from tepid to ice-cold. All of thirteen or fourteen at the altar, Sabina may have been a sweet kid; over time, loneliness and lovelessness turned her arid and sour.

The couple never had children. Sabina was rumored to have outwitted pregnancy through abstinence and/or anal intercourse. In any event, she didn’t face overwhelming male demands in the bedroom, since throughout their marriage Hadrian played the field, and on both teams. His affairs with married women were so plentiful that he was publicly accused of “addiction” to them.

Many Roman emperors collected boy-toys by the dozen, and Hadrian was no exception. Spiritually and culturally, he considered himself more Greek than Roman, so the classical Athenian relationsip of erastes-eromenos, mature men hooking up with teens, suited him beautifully.

But on a goodwill trip to Bithynia in Asia Minor, Hadrian’s wife Sabina was confronted with the last straw. Hadrian met a curly-headed young teen with deepset eyes, his demeanor by turns shy and soulful. The emperor, now pushing fifty, was smitten. From that moment on, Antinoos never left Hadrian’s side.

While Hadrian dutifully took care of state business, built splendid and lasting structures (Hadrian’s Wall and the Pantheon makeover, for instance), carried out wars, and extricated Rome from other conflicts, he spent more than half of his twenty-one-year reign getting to know his subjects and his empire, making years-long trips from Germany to North Africa, from Greece to the British Isles. Empress Sabina was obliged to accompany him.

They weren’t alone by any means. His retinue numbered over a thousand. Around A.D. 128, Hadrian and company, including his lover Antinoos, his wife, her attendants, plus a sea of aides and hangers-on, embarked on another grand circle tour, this time headed to Asia Minor, Greece, Palestine, and Egypt.

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The eloquent, intelligent face of Emperor Hadrian, one of Rome’s better rulers.

As they traveled, the emperor’s couriers kept him apprised of political news, army movements, and disasters. Like other superstitious men in high places, Hadrian also got daily updates on portents, omens, scary dreams, and astrological news. An astrology adept, Hadrian obsessively checked his stars. He even forecast the date of his own death; and correctly.

In the year A.D. 130, while they were in Alexandria, Egypt, Hadrian felt a growing unease. Did some new catastrophe loom in his immediate future? In the fall, he looked up a magician named Pancrates, who demonstrated a spell involving mice, beetles, frankincense, myrrh, and dung that was guaranteed to kill a man in seven hours. After the spellbinding, a man showed up and promptly expired on the seventh hour. That was “proof” enough for Hadrian to pay a huge fee for Pancrates’ services.

Intimations of tragedy continued to plague Hadrian’s mind. One balmy October evening, as everyone excitedly discussed the field trip that Hadrian, Sabina, and their high-status guests were to take the next day, Antinoos disappeared. A frantic search ensued on land and in the Nile, but the boy was never seen again. The cruel mystery of his disappearance drove Hadrian wild with sorrow. Antinoos would have been eighteen years old.

Within weeks, Emperor Hadrian made Antinoos into a god. Earlier emperors and empresses had been deified, but they were imperials. Deifying a commoner, a non-Roman, a catamite? Appalling bad taste to honor a sexual companion. Sacrilegious, perhaps. Ignoring the disapproval and snide remarks of Romans high and low, Hadrian commissioned the building of temples around the Mediterranean Sea, and ordered that worship of Antinoos commence empirewide. Immediately.

To give people something concrete to worship, Hadrian set in motion the last new era of Greek sculpture, commissioning what was likely over a thousand statues and busts of his young lover. Hundreds still remain on display at museums worldwide; as Elizabeth Speller, author of Following Hadrian, describes them: “A new face appeared, and it was one of manly, though submissive beauty … a well-proportioned body, with downcast eyes and thick, curly hair nestling at the nape of the neck.”

Hadrian’s grief and grandiosity had no bounds. On the east banks of the Nile, at the spot where his lover had vanished, he founded a city called Antinoopolis. No expense was spared to make it splendid and luxurious. Before the city even rose on the site, the emperor honored Antinoos with a Great Games competition and festival.

A huge, hieroglyph-covered obelisk now reposing on the Pincian Hill in Rome may be a memento of those first games. On it, an inscription more lengthy than memorable, written by Hadrian, included these phrases: “The god Osiris-Antinoos, the justified—he grew into a youth with a beautiful countenance and magnificently adorned eyes … whose heart is in very great jubilation, since he had recognized his own form after being raised again to life and seen his father, God of the Rising Sun … The god whose place this is, he makes a sports arena in his place in Egypt, which is named after him, for the strong ones [athletes] that are in this land, and for the rowing teams and the runners of the whole land and for all men who belong to the place of the sacred writing where Thoth is present. They receive the prizes awarded and crowns, while they are repaid with all sorts of good things.”

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Antinoos, the sultry young nobody that Hadrian desperately loved and lost. His unexplained vanishing act led to the final flowering of imperial art.

Despite the initial scorn and shock at Antinoos’s deification, he came to be enthusiastically worshipped alone, or in conjunction with other gods from Dionysus to Osiris, for centuries around the empire but especially in the eastern provinces and the boy’s native Bithynia, today the northwest coast of Turkey.

The lovelorn emperor never got over his loss; and no one ever discovered why or how the boy vanished. The body was never recovered, either.

Was his death foul play? An accident? Suicide? Murder by a jealous rival? Or, as some have theorized, was it Antinoos’s gift, a deliberate and loving sacrifice of a life to preserve the safety of the one who ruled? That question remains unanswered, but it’s one of history’s most heart-rending, fascinating mysteries.

And Sabina? Marital longevity won her what love could not. When she died in A.D. 137, her husband Hadrian had her deified as well. The marvelous bas-relief of her apotheosis still holds pride of place in Rome’s Palazzo dei Conservatori museum.

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