Commentary on Hymn XIX: To Antinous and Sabina

People of Antinous, let us honor Diva Sabina,
wife of Hadrian, Augusta, goddess, mother
of the Empire! Let us honor her as Antinous did,
as courtier to empress, as consort to spouse,
as a youth to a matron, perhaps even as a son
to a mother. People of Antinous, let us honor
Antinous even as Sabina did, as companion
to her husband, as beauty too soon lost, as
god by the gift of Osiris and the Nile.
Let us honor Sabina who was honored
in the city of Antinous and upon his Obelisk;
let us honor Antinous whom Sabina hymned
as god, who welcomed her upon her apotheosis.
Hail to you, Antinous and Sabina, loved
and honored by Hadrian, the new Hermes
and the imperial Ceres, Eros and Venus,
deus homo, augusta diva, avete!

I am not sure whether to say that Hadrian’s wife and empress, Vibia Sabina, gets a bad rap historically and among Antinous’ worshippers, or to say that Hadrian gets a bad rap for treating his wife so shabbily. Probably both are true in part, but in the Naos Antinoou, we do honor Hadrian’s wife, whom he publicly treated better than most of the Emperors had treated their wives since Augustus and Livia. Wikipedia helpfully informs me that she was granted the title of Augusta, was represented widely in coinage, and traveled with her husband far more than most of the Imperial wives before her. He also did not hesitate to deify her when she died several years before him.

There is no way of knowing, of course, how Hadrian treated Sabina in private. Then as now, the more powerful a man, the less he was held to any standard of fidelity in marriage. Hadrian married Sabina for political considerations and had both male and female lovers before Antinous, but Sabina had a long-standing relationship with the poet Julia Balbilla which may have been romantic and/or sexual. When their contemporaries called Balbilla a second Sappho, it was not without homoerotic implications.

While I am not a votary of the Imperial cultus in Roman religion, I honor both Hadrian and Sabina as people who shaped Antinous’ life and legacy. For me venerating Sabina, and Julia Balbilla, too, as blessed ancestors is a reminder that Antinous’ cult in the ancient world was not confined to what we would now call gay men, but flourished in three different cultural and religious milieus (Egyptian, Greek, and Roman) and was attended by women as well as men, old and young, the married and the unmarried. I believe that today, he is particularly a patron and protector of queer people of all sorts, but I don’t think he would turn away someone who came to him in good faith simply because they were heterosexual. He might, however, help them find the unexpected queerness in their own identity, as he has done for me.

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