Who were Hadrian and Antinous?

Liz Highleyman | October 18, 2007

The devotion of the Roman emperor Hadrian for his young lover Antinous prompted the creation of a religious cult that lasted some 200 years and inspired countless works of art and literature down through the centuries.

Hadrian is thought to have been born in 76 A.D. near present-day Seville, Spain. His parents died when he was about 10, and he was placed under the guardianship of his father's cousin, Trajan, who became emperor in 98 A.D. Hadrian completed his education in Rome, joined the military as a teenager, and over the next several years rose through the ranks and held several mid-level political positions. He entered an arranged marriage with one of Trajan�s young relatives, but he and his wife disliked each other and never had children.

While Hadrian was serving as governor of Syria in 117 A.D., Trajan purportedly adopted the younger man on his deathbed and named him as successor, though it is widely believed that Trajan�s wife – a close friend and possibly lover of Hadrian's – forged the adoption papers. As emperor, Hadrian realized that Rome could not maintain control over the far-flung territories conquered by his predecessor, and he made peace with rebellious nations. He focused on construction rather than war, building roads, aqueducts, theaters, and libraries.

Hadrian met the boy Antinous around 123 A.D. while traveling through Bithynia (now part of Turkey). Antinous was born in Claudiopolis near the Black Sea, but the year of his birth and details about his heritage are uncertain. Most historians think he would have been between 12 and 15, some 30 years Hadrian's junior. Antinous was dispatched to Rome as a page, where he attended a finishing school for boys. Before long, Hadrian and Antinous were inseparable. Yet, while pederastic relationships were considered an ideal in Greece, the degree of passion Hadrian openly displayed for his favorite was considered unseemly in Rome.

Hadrian and his entourage visited Egypt in 130 A.D., when the country was facing disaster because the Nile had failed to flood and fertilize croplands two years in a row. During a cruise in late October, Antinous drowned in the river under mysterious circumstances. He may have sacrificed himself to forestall the death of Hadrian as predicted by an oracle, or may have committed suicide, recognizing that his youth was nearing its end. Beset by grief, according to one source, Hadrian "wept for him like a woman."

Egyptian mythology held that a person must sacrifice himself to the Nile to ensure flooding, and when the floods returned soon after Antinous' death, he was hailed as a god. Hadrian began formalizing a new religion complete with priests, rites, and statues and temples erected throughout the empire. On October 30, he started construction of the memorial city of Antinoopolis near where the boy drowned.

In the years that followed, Hadrian became increasingly capricious and paranoid. He spent most of his time at Tibur (now Tivoli), his villa outside Rome, where he penned an autobiography surrounded by statues of Antinous. After a protracted and painful illness, he died at the age of 62.

Even after Hadrian's death, the cult of Antinous lived on, competing with Christianity, which had its own man-god who sacrificed himself for humanity. It is difficult to say whether homophobia spurred the effort to wipe out the cult of Antinous, or if a desire to eradicate the rival religion intensified early Christian animosity toward homosexuality.

For further reading:

  • Birley, Anthony. 1997. Hadrian, the Restless Emperor (Routledge).

  • Lambert, Royston. 1984, 1997. Beloved and God: The Story of Hadrian and Antinous (Weidenfeld & Nicholson).

  • Yourcenar, Marguerite. 1951, 2005. Memoirs of Hadrian (Farrar, Straus & Giroux).

    Liz Highleyman is a freelance writer and editor who has written widely on health, sexuality, and politics.

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