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.

Commentary on Hymn IV: To Antinous the Lover

You have the power to set us free, and so
we hail you as Liberator. You have the wisdom
to guide, and so we hail you as Navigator.
Yet wisdom and power are not enough to satisfy
us, and so, Antinous, we hail you as Lover.
For you do love, intimately, personally,
individually, even as you loved Hadrian,
or your parents, or your friends. And you are
supremely lovable, as beautiful boy, as
faithful friend, as glorious god who is Victor
over the archons, Star of the Eagle,
Emperor of Peace.

To the powerless grant power, God Man,
and to the foolish grant wisdom, but above all,
grant love to those who are without it. May those
who are unloved know the ever-flowing waters
of your grace; may those who are unable to love
know the sting of desire, of sympathy, and of
compassion. May I, your devotee, love you
with all that I am and all that I may be, and
in your love, may I become all that I may
to be loved by and to love you forever.

The Farnese Antinous

On April 21st, the Naos Antinoou celebrates the Megala Antinoeia, the Great Games of Antinous, a cluster of festivals both ancient and specific to the Boy which ushers in the season of Antinous the Lover.

Antinous the Lover is probably the default view of the Beautiful Boy to anyone who knows his history. He was the favorite, or beloved, or in the Greek word, eromenos of the emperor Hadrian. Hadrian, a Roman of Iberian descent, had a notable love for Greek culture–one of the reasons he wore a beard when Roman men generally went clean-shaven–and it seems most likely that he conceived of his relationship with Antinous not as the relationship between a master and a slave, or between a ruler and his concubine, but as the relationship of erastes and eromenos, adult male and youth, which formed a part of a youth’s education to manhood in ancient Greek culture.

I can’t look at Antinous as Lover without looking at Hadrian and their relationship, and I can’t look at their relationship with looking, honestly, at issues of adult/youth sex and consent. We don’t know for certain how young Antinous was when he became involved with Hadrian, nor how old he was when he died–probably no more than nineteen. We don’t know what kind of sex their relationship involved, how young Antinous was when it began, or how much of a say he had. What we do know is that the erastes/eromenos relationship was held in high esteem; it traditionally required the consent of the youth’s parents and of the youth; it was an exchange of mentoring and sponsorship in return for sexual pleasure. We also know that Hadrian’s grief at Antinous’ death was so overwhelming, so openly expressed, that his contemporaries considered it unseemly and unmanly. That implies to me that it was a relationship we would call romantic as well as sexual. You don’t build a lover a city and scatter temples for him across an empire just because you had satisfying sex with him.

What I myself keep in mind when I ponder Hadrian and Antinous is, for one thing, that their relationship has not ceased; it is surely ongoing in their immortal lives, and for another, it is now Antinous who is superior in power and status. Hadrian may be divus, an honor accorded to many of the Emperors and their spouses and kindred, but Antinous is Osiris, a god worshiped for countless generations before the Latins wandered into Italy from Anatolia and began to think about building some cities.

Furthermore, I think it is a mistake to think of Antinous as merely the lover of Hadrian or exclusively the patron of gay love, homosexual love. Hadrian was what we would now call bisexual; his marriage was a political arrangement, apparently an amicable one, and he had relationships with both men and women besides his wife before meeting Antinous. Antinous, had he lived, would have been expected to marry and have children, and as another adult male, would have been seen as an unsuitable sexual partner for Hadrian (although certainly people defied that expectation and formed permanent same-sex relationships just as they still do today). Antinous to me is the patron and protector of queer relationships and queer people, of bisexuals and trans people as well as men who love men and women who love women. He is the god who proclaims all erotic love holy so long as it is founded on consent–and while his historic relationship with Hadrian may not look very consensual by our standards, personal experience with the god will prove that he is very much a champion of consent. He might borrow the words of Blessed Elua in Jacqueline Carey’s D’Angeline novels and bid his devotees “love as thou wilt”.

This love, erotic love, queer love, non-reproductive love and sex, is the love which brings the celestial Navigator down to earth, and whether the sex is reproductive or not, the love is generative, creative, fructifying. It is the love which expresses itself in the earth’s flowering and the Beltane-like festival of Floralia in honor of Flora. It is the love which is celebrated at the beginning of April in the Veneralia in honor of Venus. It is the love which brings the gods to make love with mortals and to make stars and flowers and goddesses of their beloveds. It is this love and beauty of which we joyfully say, “Haec est unde vita venit!