According to some modern historians accounts, history was aggressively straight. The reality is far from that, and one of the most commonly documented examples of queerness in the ancient world is that of Emperor Hadrian.
Yes, that Hadrian.
It’s always been a mystery to me how the story of Hadrian’s life can be straight-washed quite so much as it has been, when his adoration for one man in particular was such a crucial and apparent aspect of his life. Emperor Hadrian spent a great deal time during his reign touring his Empire, and arrived in Claudiopolis in June 123, which was probably when he first encountered Antinous – a young Greek boy from a peasant family, described as possessing extraordinary beauty.
The two formed a deep bond, and it was at some point over the following three years that Antinous became his personal favourite companion, for by the time he left for Greece, he brought the man with him in his close inner circle. He made no secret of the fact that there was a sexual relationship between them, and society could accept this so long as Hadrian still showed a vested interest in women, as he was required to produce an heir. To be seen as completely homosexual might have been entirely inconsequential had he not been a man of such power and responsibility, but in his position he couldn’t scream his love from the rooftops if he wanted to avoid a scandal. Their relationship had to appear emotionally uninvolved, but sources show that this didn’t exactly go to plan.
Historian Lambert is quoted as saying that “the way that Hadrian took the boy on his travels, kept close to him at moments of spiritual, moral or physical exaltation, and, after his death, surrounded himself with his images, shows an obsessive craving for his presence, a mystical-religious need for his companionship.”
Hadrian may have struggled immensely not to appear emotionally invested in his lover. He praised Antinous as being intelligent and wise beyond his years, and they had several shared passions including hunting and literature. Although none survive, it is known that Hadrian wrote erotic poetry featuring Antinous as the subject of his affections, and that in spite of their relationship providing Antinous with an uplifted position within society, there is no evidence that he ever used his apparent influence over Hadrian for personal or political gain. Lambert described Antinous as “the one person who seems to have connected most profoundly with Hadrian” throughout his life, leading many to presume that he was infact the love of his life, in place of his wife. Hadrian’s marriage to Sabina was unhappy, and there is no reliable evidence that he ever expressed a sexual attraction for her or for any woman, in contrast to much reliable evidence that he was sexually attracted to men.
Tragically, though, Antinous died young, at around 18 or 20, and his cause of death has been subject to much speculation. Most commonly believed is that he fell from a boat and drowned while on his travels with the emperor, although this may not have been accidental. An advisor of Hadrian may have pushed him overboard to protect the emperors reputation, as their love was becoming too public despite his marriage to Sabina. Alternatively, Antinous may have jumped himself in an act of sacrifice, out of an ancient belief that the death of one person could prolong the life of another. However it happened, what followed was decidedly not the reaction of a man grieving a friend or a servant. Hadrian commissioned an estimated 4000 sculptures depicting his ill-fated partner and raised Antinous to the status of a god, founding an organised cult devoted to his worship which soon spread throughout the Empire. He named a city after him, Antinopolos – and to this day throughout Italy his image is everywhere, and he is still seen as a picture of the ideal male beauty standard. Although, many of the temples and statues were destroyed when the empire converted to Christianity in an attempt to cover up the scandalous affair, at least 80 identifiable depictions of Antinous still survive in Rome.
Of course, we can’t completely romanticise Hadrian and Antinous. We have to caution the fact that there was an inherent power dynamic and a problematic age gap present in their relationship, but while considering their story this should be regarded with a pinch of salt. Today we naturally consider this kind of relationship to be morally wrong, but we cannot prescribe our morals to the ancient world without regarding the vast majority of our ancestors as morally bankrupt. While unacceptable today, we must place them in their own socio-political context and without justifying it in our own society, treat the story with forgiveness and understanding by their standards.
To the modern reader it’s apparent that their relationship was not a friendship, nor a homosexual relationship based purely on lust. They were likely very much in love and this was not a one sided, controlling obsession as seen in the story of Sporus and Nero; their romance appears to have been reciprocal and – contextually – purehearted. Yet the christianisation of the Roman Empire instigated a surpression of previously existing Liberal attitudes towards queerness, depicting Hadrian by his traditionally hyper-masculine attributes of strength and fighting prowess, creating an image of an emperor who was well loved because he was a warrior and a conquerer and little more than that. The ‘flowery stuff’ could be left behind to preserve this image. I however prefer to see Hadrian as what most men are, after reading of his romance with Antinous; complex. Yes, he was a fighter, but he was also a lover. A man who wrote poetry for the boy he adored, and who grieved him with heaven-splitting passion.
Denying gay history creates countless issues, but the most apparent of these in my eyes is that it is erasing the evidence of man’s true nature as not a collection of hyper-masculine ideals and archetypes, but something altogether different. Masculinity doesn’t have to be the hetero-normative stereotype of brutality, dominance and stoicism. Many of the men our ancestors revered as their emperors – as the epitome of masculinity – were so much more than this. There was a human being beyond the stoic marble statues that we see to this day, and queerness has always been a facet of human nature. Not something new and not something unnatural.
Nobody’s love deserves to be repressed, and so we shouldn’t allow same sex love to be painted over in the pages of history, either.