Publius Aelius Hadrianus, better known as the Emperor Hadrian, made a major contribution to Rome’s history of decadence with his passion for a beautiful Greek boy. During his reign as Emperor of Rome from 117AD to 138AD, Hadrian gave the Empire a strong economy, funded many welfare projects for the poor, patronized the arts and, as a talented architect, designed several public buildings.
If Hadrian could also be cruel and tyrannical, it was hardly an uncommon trait among absolute rulers in ancient times. All the same, he counted as one of the five “good” emperors in comparison to the long run of murderous egomaniacs who were in charge of Rome during its later history.Even so, Hadrian became deeply embroiled in scandal after he encountered a young boy named Antinous and fell madly in love with him.
The Emperor was by no means the only one to be bewitched by Antinous who acquired fame as a paradigm of physical beauty and sexual allure in a way unparalleled by anyone else in the ancient world, whether male or female. Even Cleopatra, the famous Queen of Egypt, was eclipsed as a celebrity by the enchanting Antinous.
Scores of towns and cities had their statues of Antinous and after his mysterious death in Egypt in 130AD, aged 19, he was worshipped as a god. In around 134AD, a star that suddenly exploded in the constellation Aquila was named after Antinous.
The distraught Hadrian built obelisks and other memorials to Antinous as well as an entire town, Antiniopolis, in Egypt which was built on the Nile, near the site of the boy’s death.
The Emperor survived Antinous by eight years and in that time attempted suicide on several occasions. He was each time prevented from doing so by his attendants.
Hadrian finally died in 138AD, after writing a poem dedicated to Antinous which read:
“Vagrant soul, you tender one, guest and fellow of the body,
Now you have to descend into places pallid and rigid and nude,
Nor will you be playful as you used to be.”
Hadrian’s words on Antinous & Antinous Sculptures after the jump.
Antinous & Hadrian: 1st & 2nd Meetings
What was this?
What spoke to me through him?
Which of the Olympians?
Apollo in form and with Apollo’s voice
entrancing the birds and trees,
all the surrounding landscape and my soul:
entrancing, changing, uplifting,
until this place seemed Heaven and we both gods.
I had known and half-loved many boys
and yet I felt when I saw him again,
as he taught me the words of that ancient hymn
(he enchanted at my trick of memory –
perfect memory is only a trick),
I felt, and I wrote it down in my private book:
I fall, am made again, am made anew
in depth and height, in being and in spirit.
These valleys and these mountains dance,
the stream rolls on, clouds condense to rain
and scatter across the earth. I am cloud and stream,
mountain and valley, earth and sky.
I am all this and more, both him and me.
And I felt, and I wrote this down too in my book:
The beams of his eyes have shattered two worlds;
nothing but ruins, nothing but ruins.
The quiet pool of the mind is now stirred up
and the outward world is burning, all aflame.
Myself am from myself far far away.
The weak and feeble soul has left its cave
and wanders in the ways of earth and air.
People say my poetry’s extreme, is precious,
over-precious, lacking the Latin clarity.
The Senate laughed at my provincial accent;
and now they say I am too much the Greek.
But this boy spoke as I did, understood
the purpose and the striving of my song.
PHOTOS & POEM CONTINUE AFTER THE JUMP
At our second meeting
he was dressed befitting
the guest of the Emperor
and his eyes were shining.
I wore my most beautiful jewels
and precious raiment;
(Did I wish to dazzle him? I did!)
the priest’s hood over my forehead
as I addressed my god,
pontifex maximus welcoming his lord.
Also like a father with his child,
fond father to this beautiful,
this modest Bithynian boy.
He was not shy. He carried it off
as an everyday event,
yet with due reverence
to our separate stations.
I took him out into the gardens.
We wandered there for many hours
beside the streams, among the bowers.
And in an arbour seated face to face,
my arm along the back of his marble chair,
my fingers playing with his luxuriant hair,
he taught me his Spartan rhythms, Spartan rhymes,
his low voice husky now with speech still clear,
the gentle breathing and the lion’s roar
of these transfigured verses in his mouth;
watching each others lips and teeth and tongues
as I repeated after him that victorious song.
The sun was going down behind the hills,
the birds all singing, the small green frogs all choiring.
The sunset glowed upon his glorious skin,
his eyes were huge. I thanked him then,
embraced him; and he smiled.
The memory of that smile was with me still
when I lay down that evening on my couch,
my brain repeating the ancient verse,
my inner eye rehearsing all I had seen.
His figure strolled beside me in my dream;
his hand was in my hand.
After our second meeting, I wrote this,
thinking of his Spartan rhythms,
the tenor of his voice, his eager eyes
(what other lad so loved his poetry?),
staring at me as he mouthed the words,
watching each others lips and teeth and tongues.
I have chosen you. Nothing will now suffice
but that I own and hold you as my own;
but that you take the gift which I extend;
but that the gift by him to whom it is given
is accepted in the spirit with which I gave –
not as a sign of amity
nor in worship of your perfect natural parts
but as a symbol
signifying that here,
within your breast, within my breast,
the withdrawn and recalcitrant world of the senses,
for but one moment cleared of eddying mists,
and as in a mirror seen
surveyed what yet it might become
and recognised the goal to which it moved.
Not bad for a provincial,
even if in Greek and not in Latin!
I wrote this, I the Emperor wrote this
to that young boy,
to that Bithynian boy Antinous.