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Antinous: The Very First Pop Idol

Why does the love story of Hadrian and Antinous seem so contemporary? Mark Simpson argues we’re all pagans now.

(Originally appeared in the Independent on Sunday, 09/06/2002)

OF ALL THE MEN who wore the purple of Rome, Hadrian seems the most “modern”, the most sympathetic and the most tasteful.

This second-century Emperor’s characteristics read like a contemporary TV schedule. There’s his aestheticism (a patron of the arts). His muscularity (an Army man, he could march 20 miles a day and “would withstand all elements his head uncovered”). His yen for travel (he spent much of his reign touring the far-flung provinces of the Empire). His insecurity, his melancholia, his obsession with fame, and of course his fascination with architecture, interior design and elaborate gardens with complicated water features (for example at his famous villa at Tivoli). If he were alive today, Hadrian would definitely have his own cable channel: Imperial Lifestyles.

It was, however, his passionate and public love-affair with the athletic, handsome, curly-haired Greek youth Antinous which seems now to be the most modern and enduring legacy of his reign – more enduring than all his grand monuments and buildings, including that wall he built to keep Caledonians out.

As much as we might want to get to grips with this Caesar’s material achievements, it’s the romance which keeps catching our eye. Perhaps it’s a reflection on our time rather than his; and then again, perhaps it’s the way that he wanted it. Whichever, Elizabeth Speller’s new book, ‘Following Hadrian’, a meandering though often interesting journey in the footsteps of the emperor, returns again and again to the hypnotising figure of Antinous.

Hadrian, perhaps the first pop Svengali, discovered the lowly born but divinely beautiful Antinous on one of his great tours of the Empire, making him famous and turning him into the last pagan god by Imperial edict after his mysterious death by drowning in the Nile in AD130. A grief-stricken Hadrian employed all the media power of the mighty Roman Empire to make his boy Number One, erecting statues and temples to him across the ancient world, and even founding a kind of theme park to him called Antinoopolis: a city on the Nile, complete with statues of the expired youth on every street.

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Antinous was the Pop Idol of the ancient world, at a time when “idol” meant something you looked up to rather than down on. He was cuter than Gareth or Will – and also rather better at hunting and wrestling (he may have been Hadrian’s boy but he was very much the youthful masculine ideal of the time). Perhaps because he came to represent the very idea of the Beautiful Boy, perhaps because people were less fickle back then, or perhaps because there wasn’t much in the way of reality TV in the ancient world, Antinous was worshipped enthusiastically all over the Empire, especially in the Greek East, for hundreds of years after his death.

Just as today, narcissism and intimations of mortality were at the root of this cult of personality. At that time it was customary for Emperors to adopt their heirs rather than sire them. Hadrian himself was adopted by the Emperor Trajan (with whom he was thought to have been romantically involved). Later, when Hadrian had grown too old and bearded for Trajan, they very nearly fell out over some pretty young men in Trajan’s court. All this is hardly surprising, since the “adopt an heir” Imperial game show itself echoed the Greek model of homosexuality/bisexuality – in which an older man chooses a youth to “reproduce” him and his tastes.

We will never know whether Hadrian would have chosen Antinous to succeed him. Politically. However, by building statues and temples to him and declaring him a god, he “chose” Antinous personally in the most public way and ensured that Hadrian – or his desire – was immortal. Antinous remains, even after all these centuries, the face of desire, at least in the sphere of art history.

Perhaps this is why some whispered at the time that Hadrian had either killed Antinous himself, or persuaded the lad to take his own life, in a form of human sacrifice to grant Hadrian immortality. Poetically, hubristically, Antinous’ death by drowning echoes that of Narcissus – though it may have been Hadrian’s vanity he drowned in.

Whatever the truth of this rumour (Speller dissects the evidence adeptly and concludes that it was unlikely), the beautiful boy who represented Hadrian’s spiritual immortality rather than his worldly legacy would, after his death and deification, never grow old; or even into full, bearded manhood. Interesting that both Christianity and the cult of Antinous should have been founded on images of naked young men effectively sacrificing themselves to their daddy’s desire. Hadrian even named a new star in the heavens after Antinous, believing that it was Antinous’ soul ascended into the heavens.

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However, stars can signify nemesis as well as deity. A peaceful and pragmatic ruler who consolidated the Roman Empire by withdrawing from unnecessary conflict, Hadrian is nevertheless remembered forever by the Jews as the destroyer of the Temple and the architect of the Diaspora. His intolerance of Judaism helped foment a bloody rebellion in Judea shortly after Antinous’ death, led by the latest self-styled Messiah, Shimon bar Kokhba — which means in Hebrew, “son of the star”.

It may even be the case that the nova Hadrian named ‘Antinous’ was the same portent that bar Kokhba used to prove his Messianic claims. Reading Speller’s vivid accounts of the ruthlessness of the Imperial troops, the fanaticism of the Judean underdogs and the Emperor’s implacable opposition to any kind of accommodation or compromise with the indigenous population, it’s difficult not to think that history repeats itself, but likes to swap the roles around. The revolt was finally quelled, but not before it cost several legions and much of the reputation of Hadrian in Rome.

Some historians have suggested that Hadrian’s anti-Semitism was a product of his Hellenist tendencies. Part of the spark for the Judean uprising was his ban on circumcision (a mutilating outrage to a Hellenist — the Greeks considered the foreskin sacred). Greek and Jewish culture were in competition at that time in the Eastern Mediterranean, and perhaps this goes some way to explaining why the Judeo-Christian tradition turned out so hostile to homoerotics.

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Certainly, Hadrian’s transformation of an ordinary Greek boy into the last pagan god of Rome 100 years after the death of Christ ensured that the Christians would be more than a little bit sour about him. Perhaps it didn’t help that the pagan god looked better with his clothes off than theirs. Early Christian fathers routinely sounded off about the abomination of Hadrian’s ‘catamite’ being compared to The Son of God. (The biggest collection of Antinous statuary today is in the vaults of the Vatican; and arguably the cult of Antinous was assimilated by the Church of Rome, partly in the form of the Saint Sebastian myth.)

As part of his preoccupation with immortality and posterity, Hadrian penned his own memoirs. Sadly, these have been lost. Speller tries the device of introducing each chapter with “memoirs” of the poet Julia Balbilla, friend of Hadrian’s neglected wife Sabina. It’s a nice idea, and apparently endeavours to correct the “male bias” of the Hadrian story, but alas, it doesn’t quite work; Speller isn’t able to bring Balbilla to life, or even distinguish the voice of “Julia” from that of the rest of Speller’s prose.

Ultimately, the most striking thing about Hadrian is not how modern he was, but how much we in the West appear to be revisiting his reign: an extraordinarily sustained period of affluence, persistent uprisings in Judea, the Beautiful Boy worshipped and immortalised in the temples of Hollywood, advertising and pop music – while aesthetics, narcissism, interior design and complicated water features in gardens have become all-encompassing concerns.

The Early Christians saw all this as evidence of the decadence of Rome and how doomed paganism was. Now it just looks like evidence of its longevity.

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