He came from an upland town called Claudiopolis (today’s Bolu). Named after the emperor Claudius, its citadel rose from a high plain in a mountain range that closed off the province’s flat and fertile coastal fringe. The mountain slopes were covered with fir trees, oaks, and beeches, from which generations of fleets were constructed. There was little agricultural land but grass meadows fattened cattle and the area was well known for its milk and cheeses (and still is). In winters ice and snow could render the roads impassable.

Then as now, the lakes, forests, and mountains were rich in wild-life, including wild boar. This was excellent hunting country and it is very possible that Hadrian rode out here to take part in his favorite pastime.

Claudiopolis was a prosperous place and the local worthies were ambitious, sometimes overly so, for their city. Pliny reported indignantly to Trajan that they were “building, or rather excavating, an enormous public bath at the foot of a mountain.” Not only was the site dangerously inappropriate, but its funding was dubious. He could not make up his mind whether to complete the original plans and hope that good money was not being thrown after bad, or to begin again at a new location and sacrifice the original outlay. Trajan replied shortly that the governor must decide for himself.

The main road from Cappadocia passed through Claudiopolis, and we can hardly doubt that Hadrian, copy of Pliny in his hand, stopped off to see how the dilemma had been resolved. It may be then and there that he met, or at least noticed, the boy.

Antinous was about fifteen or maybe a little younger in 123; if the year of his birth is uncertain, his birthday probably fell on November 27. History has not recorded his first encounter with the emperor. Before 130, when the pair went sightseeing in Egypt and North Africa, they are invisible. However, this was the only time when we find them in one place and they could have set eyes on each other.

It is possible to make a judgment by assessing the many statues of Antinous that have survived. Most of the images are posthumous—idealized and melancholy. But some survive from the beginning of Antinous’ career that evoke a cheerful, chubby-faced teenager, almost a child (puberty seems to have arrived late in the ancient world, officially at fourteen for boys but in practice between fourteen and sixteen). In about 130 we see Antinous in a carved relief, as a whiskered young man with short hair, twenty or so years old.

So it is reasonable to infer that the paths of the forty-seven-year-old emperor and the young Bithynian crossed during the former’s journey through the province. Rulers do not happen upon strangers in the street, and we must assume that Antinous was taking part in some public ceremony when he was noticed. This could well have occurred at Claudiopolis, but, if not, then at the capital, Nicomedia. Heraclea offers a third possibility, for games were founded and held there in the emperor’s honor, and Antinous could have been a competitor.

Nothing whatever is known of the boy’s parents, except that they claimed or assumed Greek descent. The people of Claudiopolis believed (whether rightly or wrongly is unclear) that migrants from Arcadia in the Peloponnese established their city. The capital of Arcadia was Mantinea, and it is relevantly curious that a woman called Antinoe was its secondary founder: inspired by an oracle and guided by a helpful snake, she moved the city to a new location. Antinous is the male form of her name, which was, we may suppose, popular in Claudiopolis.

A late reference to Antinous as Hadrian’s “slave” can be discounted, for that would have been seen as a thoroughly disreputable provenance for an imperial favorite. We may guess, and it is no more than a guess, that Antinous belonged to a modestly prosperous family, prominent enough to enable their son to take part in some kind of public event, but not for a social position of any distinction. If they had belonged to the established, property-owning class that ran most local authorities, we might have expected some mention of this to survive in the record.

Whatever the details of the boy’s origins and social status, the large, the overwhelming fact is that Hadrian fell in love with Antinous. The relationship was to color the rest of their lives.

But what did “falling in love,” and for that matter in lust, mean for an elite citizen in the Roman empire? Something very different from our ideas today. Sex did not have the attributes of sin and guilt that Christianity brought to it. Most people in the ancient world found making love to be, in principle, an innocent, or at least an innocuous, pleasure.

There were limits, of course, to sexual freedom. The comic playwright Titus Maccius Plautus, writing as early as the third century B.C., set out a basic principle that remained current for centuries. A slave reassures his young master, who yearns for a prostitute rather than a free-born girl:

no one keeps you from coming here or forbids you from buying what is openly for sale—if you have the cash. No one keeps you from traveling on the public road; so long as you do not make your way through a fenced-off farm, so long as you keep away from a married woman, an unmarried woman, a maiden, young men, and free boys, love whatever you like.

The point was that sex with Roman citizens outside marriage was beyond the pale, for not even the shadow of a doubt should be allowed to fall across a citizen’s paternity. Slaves and foreigners of either gender, though, were fair game.

It follows from this that Hadrian would have broken the rules when sleeping with Antinous if he was a Roman citizen. However, this was probably not the case, for citizenship was an honor usually granted only to members of local elites in the provinces.

The second rule for the Roman male was that he should be sexually “active” rather than “passive.” It did not greatly matter into whom he inserted his penis, but he must never allow anyone to insert theirs into him. To be sodomized was to fall under someone else’s power, and to be classed as a pseudo-woman.

The Romans had no particular theory of same-sex behavior and saw it simply as one among a number of sexual variations. Through a law passed in the second century B.C., the lex Scantinia, they tried to control homosexual acts of which they disapproved (male prostitution, for example), but by the time of the empire legal sanctions had more or less become a dead letter.

By contrast, the Greeks developed an idealized and specialized version of homosexual behavior. It involved relations between young men and postpubertal teenagers. The older partner was expected to educate his boy lover in virtue in the public square and courage on the battlefield. Some form of sexual activity was an expected, but (so far as we can tell) not absolutely essential, component in these relationships. The boy was not meant to desire his mentor, however charming or good-looking, but allowed himself to be the object of desire; provided discretion was exercised, he might even agree to being sodomized, whether intercrurally or rectally. The wider function of the pairings is uncertain, but people at the time believed that they encouraged martial valor. Also, just as marriage was a useful means of uniting families, so these love affairs facilitated the creation of informal networks of political alliances.

Homosexual practices varied from state to state, and were often restricted to aristocrats or elite groups. In Sparta and Thebes close affection between young men was part of the military ethos. The Cretans engaged in a procedure that resembles tribal initiation ceremonies in different parts of the world. A young man asked a boy’s friends to abduct him and hand him over. He then gave the boy expensive presents, after which they went out into the countryside with all the boy’s friends and spent two months hunting and feasting. The philetor, or befriender, and the parastates, or stander-beside-in-battle, as they were called, were now a recognized couple.

The Athenian system is well described in Plato’s Symposium, or “The Drinking Party” (dialogues were a popular form of “faction” in Greco-Roman culture, combining real-life debaters and fictional debates). Pausanias, one of the speakers, makes it clear that a love affair between an erastes, or lover, and an eromenos, or beloved one, was highly respectable.

Lovers of their own sex … do not fall in love with mere boys, but wait until the age at which they begin to show some intelligence, that is to say, until they are near growing a beard. By choosing that moment in the life of their favorite they show, if I am not mistaken, that their intention is to form a lasting attachment and a partnership for life.

In other words, the heat of passion, eros, would give way over time to a deep but nonphysical friendship between adults, philia. A sexual relationship, intense or otherwise, was in the nature of things ephemeral. It came to an end when a beard replaced a smooth cheek.

The theory and practice of “Greek love” survived the fall of the free city-states and their absorption into the Roman empire, and remained current in Hadrian’s day. In one of his numerous dialogues, Plutarch, the emperor’s older and much admired contemporary, the leading Hellenic intellectual of his day, gave the floor to a spokesman for same-sex relationships, a certain Protogenes.

The true genuine love is that of boys, not afire with lust … nor besmeared with perfumed ointments, nor alluring with smiles and rolling glances; but you shall find this love plain and simple and undebauched, delighting in the schools of the philosophers, or in the wrestling lists and gymnasia … and exhorting to virtue all that he finds to be fit objects of his attention.

How seriously should we take assurances of this kind? Cynics such as Cicero suspected the motives of the erastes who claimed to be interested only in the soul of his eromenos. Why is it, he mused, that no one falls in love with anuglyyoungster?

Men did not categorize themselves as homosexual, for, until the inventions of modern psychology, there was no concept, and so no term, for man-to-man sexual preference as a viable and exclusive alternative to heterosexuality and as a describer of personality. But too much can be made of this apparent lack of definition. There were impolite terms for the “out,” feminized homosexual (cinaedus, for example); and, more pertinently, Romans were quite capable of telling straights from gays even without our words for them. Many slept impartially with members of both sexes. (We have little clear idea of homosexual behavior among women, except that sophisticated circles knew of it. Martial certainly did when he played on the two meanings of girlfriend, sexual and amicable.

Lesbia of the Lesbians, Philaenis, how right you are
to call the woman you fuck “my girlfriend.”

It is a pity that more is not known of attitudes in Trajan’s womanly household, in which heterosexual males were conspicuous by their absence.)

One of the remarkable features of this period is that for nearly fifty years the imperial government was headed by two men who engaged predominantly, if not exclusively, in homosexual behavior. There are no references at all to Trajan sleeping with women. As for Hadrian, Sabina’s remark about taking precautions to avoid pregnancy implies at least occasional coitus, if we are to credit an angry witness. The Historia Augusta cites reports of his “passion for males and adulteries with married women,” but there is not a sliver of supporting evidence for the latter in any of the sources. Whatever the exact nature of the emperors’ sexuality, it was not felt to be of political significance since they never allowed their private lives to influence their public decisions, and no one complained.

However, it is hard to believe that this homosexual preference did not have some impact on cultural and social attitudes, although such evidence as remains fails to show causal links. A literature of pederasty flourished. A poet called Straton, who came from Sardis in the fertile Hermus Valley in Asia Minor and was a contemporary of Hadrian, happily acknowledged that he was a philopais, or boy lover. He published an anthology of gay epigrams, Mousa Paidike, or “The Boyish Muse,” many of which he wrote himself. Playful lip service to love concealed a more cynical motive—how to find a pretty lad and have his way with him; abuse masked as flirtatiousness.

Juvenal takes a bleaker view of Rome’s ubiquitous and corrupt gay scene. He sympathizes with a male prostitute “who used to fancy himself as a soft, pretty boy, a latter-day Ganymede” and has grown up to be no more than a well-hung “two-legged donkey” buggering old men up their depilated, distended rear passages. This, we may gloomily infer, was the fate awaiting Straton’s little favorites.

Where do we place the philopais emperor and his Antinous in this variegated landscape of the senses? Hadrian’s reported behavior at Trajan’s court suggests a strong libido and a promiscuous nature. He could well have regarded his Bithynian boy as a plaything—the kind of golden lad that graces Straton’s pages. With Hadrian’s reputation as a procurer of every luxury and licentiousness, Antinous was simply another in a long line of conquests.

There is a more attractive alternative—that this most Hellenic of emperors cast himself as an erastes with Antinous as his eromenos. If he followed the rules, he would have treated the boy with respect, wooed him, and given him the choice whether or not to accept his advances. Any “favors” Hadrian was granted would have been matched by a serious commitment to Antinous’ moral development as he grew into an adult.

The strongest argument in favor of this hypothesis is that the relationship did indeed endure. Antinous was no brief fling. However, social equality was implicit in Greek love, and the disparity of power between the man and the boy was far too wide to allow genuine freedom of choice, however much an idealistic lover may have wished to confer it on his beloved. Who says no to an autocrat? Also, it was inconceivable that someone of Antinous’ class could be trained for a political and military career when an adult, for Rome’s political elite would have been shocked to its core by such a promotion.

The most likely conclusion is that Hadrian’s emotions were complicated. Antinous may have started off as the kind of boy whom Straton hymns, but for some reason, unknowable and unguessable now, he attracted the emperor’s deepest feelings. So what looked to outsiders like a routine liaison, Hadrian decorated with the anachronistic appurtenances of Greek love.

The relationship between an erastes and an eromenos, was meant to ripen into philia, a lifelong friendship. But what would happen five or so years later, when summer inevitably gave way to fall, and stubble grew on Antinous’ cheeks? Would Hadrian stay true?

Hadrian traveled in style, serviced by an agmen comitantium, a “moving multitude of companions.” There were the bureaucrats, who looked after his correspondence with provincial governors and the Senate in Rome, helped him reply to petitions that poured in from every corner of the empire, and controlled the finances. There were the Praetorians, and the fiercely loyal Batavians. There were specially recruited “cohorts on the model of military legions” of workmen, stonemasons, architects, and “every kind of specialist in the construction and interior decoration of great buildings.”

If it was what the emperor wanted, it was easy enough to add a boy to the retinue. However, Antinous needed an induction into the mysterious and complicated ways of life at court, and it seems rather more likely that he was packed off to the imperial Paedogogium in Rome, the ruins of which have been excavated by archaeologists. This was a boarding school for boys between twelve and eighteen years, where they trained to be pages at court; the gravestone of one of its directors about this time reveals that his name was, aptly enough, Titus Flavius Ganymedes. Inscriptions suggest that they were well looked after, for we hear of a “master medical rubber of distinguished children”—an anointer—and a hairdresser. Youth and good looks were insufficient for a complete career, and students also acquired the wider skills they would need for the rest of their lives as servants or slaves. These were to be the chamberlains, bookkeepers, secretaries, valets, and butlers of the future.

As well as writing, arithmetic, and so forth, the students would learn how to serve drinks and present food. One disapproving observer spoke of such establishments as “colleges for the most contemptible vices—the seasoning of food to promote gluttony and the more extravagant serving of courses.” And Juvenal grumpily complained of a carver of meat who danced and gestured at the same time as wielding his “flying knife.”

Something of the mood of the place can be discerned in some two hundred graffiti low down on the walls of small rooms in the Paedogogium. Most of them are happy messages of delight from students after graduation. “Corinthus is leaving the Paedogogium!” “Narbonensis is leaving the Paedogogium!” Two friends or brothers write their names together, and another scrawl refers to “lovers.” The most striking image is of a boy kneeling in front of a cross on which hangs a male figure with a donkey’s head. Underneath, a scornful legend reads: “Alexamenos worships his god!” Presumably he was a young Christian, teased for his beliefs.

Hadrian traversed the narrow stretch of water dividing Asia from Europe and reviewed the multitribal, now Hellenized province of Thrace. He then recrossed the Propontis and toured Mysia. Once more the emperor indulged his fascination with the past. He visited the site of the battle of Granicus, where in 334 B.C. Alexander the Great had daringly charged across a stream with a steep slope to confront and defeat the massed forces of the Persian commander. The emperor moved on to Troy, then a tiny coastal settlement devoted entirely to tourists, where he was the latest in a long line of distinguished leaders to pay his respects, among them Alexander himself. Hadrian noticed that the so-called tomb of the Greek warrior Ajax was in a state of disrepair. Apparently the sea had washed open the entrance to the grave mound and revealed bones of gigantic size; the kneecaps alone were as large as a boy’s discus. The emperor had them reinterred. It is hard to say what had been unearthed, perhaps some misinterpreted fossils.

Hadrian took time off for some highly successful hunting. He was so pleased with killing a she-bear in Mysia’s wooded mountainous hinterland that he founded a town on the spot called Hadrianutherae, or Hadrian’s Hunt. It may have been at this point that there was another apparent assassination attempt on the emperor, during which nothing seems to have happened (like the one with which his reign began).

A friend of his, a member of his entourage at the time, told the story. He was Marcus Antonius Polemon, a leading Hellenic intellectual and orator, who was about ten years younger than the emperor; descended from kings of Pontus, he lived in the grand manner, at some cost to the imperial budget, but in compensation he could not have been a more enthusiastic proponent of Greek culture. He ran a school of rhetoric in Smyrna, where he taught “select and genuinely Hellenic” students.

Polemon, via an unsure translation of his Greek text into Arabic, wrote: “Once I accompanied the greatest king, and while we were traveling with him from Thrace to Asia with his troops and vehicles, that man mingled with them.” The identity of “that man” is not revealed, but Polemon thought very little of him; he was insolent, shameless, an inciter of trouble against authority, and, worst of all, an alcoholic who took his drink badly.

Before the hunt got under way Polemon was shocked to see the man with his companions, and all of them armed. They surrounded Hadrian, but this “was in no way to show honor to the emperor or because he was well disposed toward him. No, he was looking to do him harm and carrying out his evil designs, which allowed him no rest.”

Meanwhile the supposed victim was getting ready to set off, aware of nothing un toward. This prevented Polemon and his friends from entering into conversation with him. So, instead, they chatted among themselves about Hadrian—“what an uneasy position he was in, how far removed from the pleasant life people used to say he enjoyed.” They also mentioned the unnamed delinquent, who had crept up on the group and was eavesdropping. “You must have been talking about me,” he said. Polemon admitted the charge, and counterattacked.

“We did mention you,” I said, “and expressed amazement at your manner. Out with it, then! Tell us how you have imposed this burden on yourself and how you can bear such tensions in your soul.” This resulted in an instant outburst. He had a demon in him, the man admitted, that was responsible for the evil desire in his soul. He began to weep—“Woe is me, I am destroyed!”

This is a most curious episode, and we never learn the outcome. Polemon may have simply meant to smear someone who was a disagreeable and undependable host or fellow guest. But, as we have already seen, a hunt was a good place to kill an emperor, it being the only occasion when people were officially allowed to carry weapons in his presence. Perhaps the truth is that a grumbling opposition to Hadrian lingered on for some time into his reign and occasionally threatened to coalesce into a plot—but never quite succeeded in doing so.

Polemon certainly had a point when he wrote of the emperor’s life not being the vie de luxe that many imagined. Even an idle princeps had his hands full with the business of government, but the hyperactive Hadrian kept himself extremely busy addressing a multitude of detailed issues, as his tour of Asia Minor goes to show.

It is surprising to see the degree of micromanagement to which the Roman state committed itself. The collection of taxes was, naturally and always, a high priority, but most emperors cast themselves as well-meaning arbiters of civic disputes and assessors of local needs; Hadrian was unusual only for the ubiquity of his engagement—and for his propensity to turn up in person to look into matters himself. One consequence was the large number of cities and towns that renamed themselves after their benefactor; a Hadrianopolis here and a Hadriane there mark the emperor’s interventionist progress throughout the eastern provinces.

The prosperous city of Stratonicea (today an Anatolian village called Eskihisar) is a case in point. It hosted the emperor in 123, and renamed itself Hadrianopolis as thanks for some now forgotten favors. The relationship persisted in the following years. Three letters from the emperor show him taking action on the city’s behalf. He grants it the right to collect taxes in the rural hinterland that previously went to the Roman fiscus, and decides that a wealthy absentee landlord should “either repair [a property in Stratonicea] or sell it to one of the local inhabitants so that it does not collapse from age and neglect.” He also indicates that he has briefed serving provincial governors to look kindly on the city.

Two anecdotes suggest that the pressure of the emperor’s administrative duties sometimes led to a brief, regretted explosion. While on one of his journeys (the date is unknown, but it could have been now) a woman stepped forward as the emperor passed by, and made a request. “I haven’t got the time,” Hadrian said. With considerable presence of mind, perhaps powered by desperation, she replied, “Well, stop being emperor, then!” This struck home. The emperor relented and gave her a hearing.

While in Asia Minor, he visited Pergamum, an opulent city of more than one hundred thousand inhabitants. Here, according to Aelius Galenus (or Galen, the famous medical researcher and theorist), in his book on mental illness,

the emperor Hadrian struck one of his attendants in the eye with a pen. When he realized that [the slave] had become blind in one eye as a result of this stroke, he called him to him and offered to let him ask him for any gift to make up for what he had suffered. When the victim remained silent, Hadrian again asked him to make a request of whatever he wanted. He declined to accept anything else, but asked for his eye back—for what gift could provide compensation for the loss of an eye?

The story has a good provenance, for its source was probably Galen’s father, a Pergamese architect at the time of Hadrian’s visit. At least, the anecdote is evidence that Hadrian wrote letters himself, pen to parchment, as well as dictating to secretaries. The clear implication is that on this occasion the princeps lost his temper over something, even if (as is probable) the injury itself was unintended.

Wherever Hadrian went he invested in urban infrastructure; he commissioned aqueducts and canals, new roads or the refurbishment of old ones, and he paid lavishly for the construction of temples and other public buildings.

He was constitutionally unable to turn down an architectural challenge. At Cyzicus, a busy port on the Propontis, work on a vast temple of Zeus had been started three centuries before, but never finished. Hadrian agreed with Pliny that it was a Roman emperor’s duty to “accomplish what kings could only attempt” and arranged for the temple’s completion. Its columns were about seventy feet high and were carved out of single blocks of marble. “In general,” observed Dio Cassius, “the details of the edifice were more to be wondered at than to be praised.” In this case, Hadrian’s good intentions came to nothing, for in the following reign an earthquake brought the temple down.

The emperor faced an even more tempting test of his construction team’s abilities. Approaching the end of his long tour, he renewed his acquaintance with Ephesus, where “young men of the city sang a hymn in the theater for the emperor, who listened to it in a gracious and friendly manner,” as we can well imagine. From there he made for Rhodes. Sailing into the island’s port, he passed the recumbent remains of the Colossus of Rhodes, one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world. This was a huge statue of the god Helios, the Sun himself. Built in the early third century B.C., it stood at the harbor mouth (or on a breakwater nearby) and was more than one hundred feet high (about three-quarters the height of the Statue of Liberty). It was made from brick towers encased by bronze plates and was mounted on a white marble pedestal fifty feet high. The Colossus had stood for only fifty-six years when it was felled by one of the region’s frequent earthquakes.

The statue, still apparently in one piece, lay on the ground for centuries and was so impressive that many traveled to see it. Hadrian was one of these tourists and, according to a late and not altogether dependable source, a Byzantine chronicler called John Malalas, had it reerected, providing cranes, ropes, and craftsmen. The difficulty with this account is that there is no corroboration. However, Malalas claims to have seen an inscription commemorating the event. What is more, it was exactly the kind of project to which Hadrian would have been attracted. Perhaps the task proved in the event too difficult and eventually had to be abandoned. Alternatively, the restoration took place, only for the Colossus soon to collapse again. One way or another, by then the emperor was long gone, and the locals could safely leave the god to rest in peace.

On his travels Hadrian was concerned not only with building programs and economic development; he also took a close interest in the administration of justice. He is the first emperor whose legislation and rulings have been preserved to any extent. This is in large part due to his decision to commission a legal expert, Lucius Salvius Julianus, to compile and systematize in a single document, sometimes called the Perpetual Edict, the diffuse laws and judgments that had grown up over the centuries. As well as laws on the statute book, officeholders such as praetors and provincial governors, who had judicial functions, issued edicts at the beginning of their terms of office that set out their legal priorities. Under the empire the findings of recognized jurists also had legal force, as did the judgments of emperors themselves. This mass of material contained many inconsistencies and disagreements that needed to be resolved.

The tendency of Julianus’ work was to reinforce the authority of the emperor. The preamble to Justinian’s Digest, published in the sixth century A.D., observed:

Julianus himself, that most acute framer of laws and of the Perpetual Edict, laid it down in his own writings that whatever was found to be defective should be supplied by imperial decree, and not he alone but the deified Hadrian as well in the consolidation of the Edict and in the decree of the Senate which followed it most clearly prescribed that where anything is not found set out in the Edict shall be provided for in accordance with the rules of the Edict, and by inferences from and analogies to the rules, by more recent authority.

At last the emperor could say farewell to his eastern provinces. He had a much-anticipated, long-delayed pleasure in store. This was a return to Athens, after a decade’s absence. In the last couple of years he had been in touch with the city fathers and, at their request, helped them recast their constitution. Now he had a more radical ambition to fulfill. This was nothing less than making Greece an equal partner with Rome, and rebalancing the empire. The imperial flotilla left Rhodes and set a course across the Aegean Sea.

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