January 24, 76- Hadrian
He was a bigot and he built a huge wall, but he was gay and he loved his men. He was born Publius Aelius Hadrianus in Italica, in what is now Spain. When he 41-years-old he became, the third of the Five Good Roman Emperors (not an a cappella group), after the death of his cousin Trajan.
His reign was marked by a time of relative peace, except for that darn second Roman-Jewish War, after which he became violently Anti-Semitic. Even without constantly being at war, Hadrain was able to extend the Roman Empire from North Africa to Northern England, Portugal to Persia.
There is a wall that bears his name at the border of Scotland and England, made to keep out those dangerous immigrants. Hadrian had no intention of letting anyone in, not even Norwegians. He was big on infrastructure, and oversaw several colossal building projects in his lifetime, including The Pantheon, which he rebuilt after a fire destroyed the original, and what was once the largest temple in Roma, The Temple Of Venus. He was a real job creator.
He traveled all over the known world, but he rarely saw his wife, Vibia Sabina, a former model. It was okay though, he much preferred the culture of Athens instead of Rome, embracing a love of young men. His greatest love was Antinous, whom he met as a 14-year-old in Turkey. After Antinous drowned in the River Nile at 19-years-old, Hadrian’s tributes to him included having him deified, founding a city near where the boy drowned and naming it Antinopolis, commissioning 2,000 naked or partially clothed statues of the beautiful teenager for display throughout the empire, building a temple to him at his swanky palace in Tivoli, and put Antonous’ likeness on money, the only non-Roman Emperor ever honored with his face on a coin.
The Cult Of Antinous was extremely popular with a certain kind of guy throughout the Roman Empire and it flourished until it was condemned for being based on an “immoral relationship” and was suppressed by the new Catholic Church. Hadrian had no children, but in his final year, he adopted a 51-year-old muscle daddy and renamed him Antoninus Pius, just so he could have an heir.
Hadrian inherited the Roman Empire at its apex, when it prospered on a policy of endless expansion and conquests.
The first thing he did, within hours of his coronation, was to withdraw Roman troops from Mesopotamia (now Iraq), and fortify the Empire’s boundaries by building that huge wall in Northern England and others too, one in the Danube Valley and one along the Rhine.
Hadrian was no ordinary emperor; he was openly, flamboyantly gay. To the dismay of many Romans, Antinous, accompanied him on his journeys around the Empire. There are still many artifacts to tell their story, including a poem written on papyrus, featuring the two men hunting together, and recent finds of memorials to him at Hadrian’s penthouse in Tivoli.
It was not uncommon in that era for a powerful man to have a male lover and a wife. He had to marry; he had a politically arranged marriage to Sabina, who was his great-niece and his second cousin, just so he could set up his succession. But, it was a sexless marriage and it produced no children. Hadrian was unique because he made his love “official” in a way that no other Emperor ever had; by publicly deifying him. I wish that my husband would declare me a god!
Hadrian’s gayness was by no means the only unusual aspect of his reign. The decision to pull his troops out of Mesopotamia was frowned upon in an Empire that had built its might on an aggressive foreign policy, but Hadrian’s charisma and classic Roman good-looks won over the citizens. There are similarities between second-century Mesopotamia and present-day Iraq, with the Roman occupiers finding themselves in a hotbed of violence, resistance and religious extremism. It had just been conquered by his predecessor and there was a lot of guerrilla warfare, which is eerily just like today. Hadrian was a very experienced military leader, but he was also very cultured, a lover of music and art, and he had a Greek identity that set him apart from most Romans.
He was known as “The People’s King”. He traveled with his troops and ate the same rations. Among his legacies, he laid the foundations of the Byzantine Empire and he changed the name of Judea to Palestine. But, at times, Hadrian’s Rome had to play the role of violent occupier. During the suppression of a Jewish rebellion in Judea, Roman warriors were dispatched to take control of the region, killing 600,000 Jews. It is possible that as a punishment for the uprising, he changed the name of Judea to Palestine.
A bronze head of Hadrian was discovered in the Thames in 1834, and in 2008, the British Museum allowed it travel to both ends of Hadrian’s Wall as part of a special exhibit. The head comes from a statue that was erected in a public square in London 122 AD to commemorate Hadrian’s first visit to Britain.
Antinopolis was a beautiful city named for a beautiful young man. It was filled with white marble temples, monuments and streets laid out on a grid pattern and adorned with hundreds of images of Antinous, now a god. A giant arch welcomed travelers arriving by boat at the marble docks. Broad streets with expensive boutiques and sumptuous condos led to a central intersection, where a colossal gilded statue of Antinous “coming forth” towered above the square. A north-south boulevard was matched by another going east-west which ran the length of the city, linking the Tomb of Antinous at one end with the Boylesque Theater at the other. Outside the city walls, on a dusty plain, was an enormous Hippodrome that dominated the view.
Hadrian directed that cities throughout the Empire would hold festivals and games to commemorate Antinous. In addition to the statues and busts of Antinous (more than 100 still survive), countless reliefs, medals, cameos and gems were crafted to honor Hadrian’s young lover. Private shrines dedicated to Antinous sprang from Britain to North Africa. Priests of Antinous were appointed to perform the ceremonies that would perpetuate his memory for all eternity.
The competitors in the Antonous Games were young men called “Ephebes”. The festivals included swimming and boat races in the Nile, but the Antinous Games were unique because they included competition in the Arts also. The big winner was consecrated as the living embodiment of Antinous and given special Antinopolis citizenship, with an all-expenses-paid-for life of adoration. He worshiped in the temple as the representative of Antinous, the essence of youth and masculinity. This image of Antinous was the last great ancient type of young male perfection, and his cult lasted for several hundred years, well into the Christian era.
Hadrian died in the year 138 AD, taken by a broken heart at 62-year-old. In 218 AD, the Roman Emperor Elagabalus married a man named Zoticus, a hot jock from Smyrna, in a lavish public ceremony in Rome, amid much public celebration.
When the Empire was ultimately overrun by Muslims, Antinopolis was abandoned and vanished from history. When the ruins of were discovered in 1798 by Napoleon’s team of archaeologists, 1,500 statues of Antinous were discovered. They found over half a million jars containing offerings to his shrine. Unfortunately, the ruins of Antinopolis were lost forever in the early 19th century when an Egyptian construction company ground most of the city’s remaining pillars for cement.
However, the story of Hadrian and Antinous was inadvertently preserved by the Catholic Church in The Vatican’s documents denouncing paganism. The beautiful sculptures and images of Antinous were carefully buried underground by their fans to protect them from destruction. Hundreds of years later, the statues were unearthed and hailed as magnificent treasures. Some are currently displayed in The Vatican, Louvre, The British Museum and Fitzwilliam and Altes Museum in Berlin.
Frederick The Great Of Prussia, whose gayness failed to be eliminated by harsh treatment by his father, copied Hadrian’s palace at Tivoli when he built his own villa, the Sans Souci. Frederick used busts of Antinous as a subtle code for his own gay desires.
Hadrian’s villa at Tivoli is now a landfill, although there is a campaign through the United Nations’ UNESCO to preserve the ruins. Today, what remains of Antinopolis is now called El Sheikh Ibada, a small village surrounded by a few crumbled ruins of what was once a beautiful city of gay worship. There is a Church of The Sacred Cultus of Antinous in Hollywood, and a gay strip club in Fort Lauderdale, Hadrian’s.