Commentary on Hymn XVIII: To Antinous and Hadrian

Lover and beloved, erastes and eromenos,
emperor and favorite, Hadrian and Antinous:
For eighteen hundred years your names have been named
together. Antinous, enthroned with the gods of Egypt,
divine by the gift of the Nile; Hadrian, called divus
by the Roman Senate, divine by right of the numen Augusti.
Hail to you, Hadrian and Antinous, Antinous and Hadrian,
friends and lovers! In equal love you have traded places
again and again. Hadrian raised you, Antinous,
to imperial favor, but Osiris lifted you to godhood;
you, Hadrian, pontifex maximus, led the way
in the new god’s cult. Now Hadrian is in the court
of Antinous as Antinous once was in his, and never
shall the two be named apart: Hadrian and Antinous,
Antinous and Hadrian, hail to you, avete!

Hadrian and Antinous at the British Museum

The chief point I wanted to make in this hymn was that the famous historical lovers have undergone a kind of role reversal. While it is commonly believed that Hadrian deified Antinous on the same terms which, as Emperor, he deified members of the Imperial family, that is not the case. (It is such a common opinion that I feel a need to reiterate, frequently, that it is not the case.) Deified by his death in the Nile, Antinous is equal to Osiris and the ancient gods of Egypt. Hadrian and the other Imperials became divus or diva, not deus or dea; it might be that it was their inner genius or juno, their personal guardian spirit, that was understood to become divine, rather than their entire humanity.

Antinous, a young man whose personal history was not recorded, who might otherwise have been entirely forgotten, was beloved of an Emperor and thus, when he became a god, all the resources of an Emperor were there to promote his cult. He certainly owes to Hadrian his fame and his historical importance. Nevertheless, even if we had never heard of him, Antinous would still be a god, one with Osiris, and of a higher rank than Hadrian on the cosmic scale.

In a complementary way, Hadrian is probably as famous for his tragic gay love story as for his imperial reign. The Emperor and his beautiful boyfriend are a part of popular culture in a way that Hadrian’s contentious relations with the province of Judea and his Jewish subjects are not. In this hymn I wanted to emphasise the mutuality of their existing relationship as immortals; that while Hadrian was the erastes and thus, you might say, the dominant in historic time, when your eromenos becomes a full-blown god, you cannot expect to top all the time.

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