When I first got involved in Antinoan spirituality, late in 2012, one problem I had was the importance of the Imperial cultus. Antinous was, after all, the favorite of a Roman emperor; without that connection, he would likely have lived and died in obscurity. Even if he had drowned in the Nile and been given local cultus according to Egyptian tradition, without a grieving lover who had the power to build temples for him all over the Empire, he would probably never had been honored outside of a very small radius.
Furthermore, the Ekklesia Antinoou honors not only Hadrian, but other members of the Imperial family were divinized: Hadrian’s wife Sabina, his predecessors Nerva and Trajan, and their wives, to name but a few. Hadrian was not only keen to promote the cult of Antinous, he was generous in seeking the elevation of his family, particularly of his female connections.
Yet I found the pro-Imperial stance of the Ekklesia troublesome. This strikes me very funny now: I still identified at least partly as a Christian, but I was okay with honoring a deified youth who was the bit on the side for an older man. I just wasn’t okay with honoring the older man *and* his possibly neglected wife, too.
More seriously, this reluctance came from the more progressive strands of Christian teaching I had inherited. In my thinking, the Romans were the bad guys. They were the unwanted occupiers of Jesus’ homeland; they were the authorities who executed him, essentially for terrorism. Pilate may have been manipulated by the local Jewish authorities, but only he had the power to order an execution. If he had said no, Jesus would have walked free, just like Barabbas. (Bearing in mind that the Gospels seem to be spinning the situation to absolve Pilate and blame the Jewish religious leaders as much as possible!)
The earliest martyrs had died rather than offer incense to the Emperor as a being equal or superior to Jesus. Some magistrates, if the stories can be trusted, pleaded with their prisoners to be reasonable, to make that tiny concession, just do it and make amends to their god later. They would not. They wound up herded into the arena to give the professional fighters a break while the crowd laughed at old man and unmarried men trying to hold off lions or take swords against one another.
I have always loved the Romans, actually, but they did have some unpleasant tendencies. Then again, nowadays we still watch spectacles of killing–they’re just done in CGI and motion capture. I’m pretty sure the average Roman crowd would have loved a 3D superhero movie.
The other side of the story, of course, is that once the Empire became Christian, Christianity became the Empire. As soon as Christians felt they had won the battle against the pagans, thanks to Constantine’s patronage, they started fighting amongst themselves for the position of Official Version of the Truth. In fact, that battle started before the Edict of Milan; much of early Christian history can be seen as a series of rabid flame wars over whose Jesus story is canon and whose is inferior fanfic. (Ask me sometime about the similarities between fandom and religion. Just ask me.) Bart Ehrman’s Lost Christianities has some entertaining accounts of bishops who are now called saints trash-talking each other in terms that would not be out of place in YouTube comments.
When the Roman Empire finally crashed, it was the Roman Church in the West and the Byzantine Church in the East that picked up the slack and provided what was left of order and sanity for a while. Bishops became princes, as did abbots in some regions, and they stayed that way for quite a while. Even now, in the U.K., bishops of the Church of England sit in the House of Lords. Five hundred years or so after the Reformation that split Western Christendom, every Christian denomination, no matter how tiny, how marginal, secretly or not so secretly thinks that it has the right to rule the world. Christian hegemony is a very large, slow, stupid animal that has been wounded in places it can’t see, and it’s staggering slowly and heavily toward its inevitable death without really understanding what is happening.
Right now I am looking at Hadrian, on this feast of his accession as Emperor, and thinking much less about those early Christian martyrs, though I still honor some of them, but of the state of our government here in the United States, and of the various candidates who have put themselves forward for the Presidency, already. I might be lighting a candle later and praying to the Divine Hadrian to spare us from Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Jeb Bush, et al. Some days an Imperial monarchy really does not look so bad.