The Love Affair of the Roman Emperor Hadrian and the Handsome Antinous


The Love Affair of the Roman Emperor Hadrian and the Handsome Antinous

Not much was known of the young Antinous before he attracted the attention of the ruler of the Roman world at its zenith. He was born in 111 AD in the Roman province of Bithynia, which would include the Asian side of Istanbul and surrounds, in modern Turkey.  He was very likely not from a wealthy family - in fact, he was even said to have been a slave. However, because of his mysterious bond with Roman Emperor Hadrian, by the end of his short life, Antinous was a house-hold name all over the Roman Empire.

Bust of Hadrian probably from Rome, Italy AD 117 – 138. Bust of Antinous From Rome, Italy AD 130-140. The presence of an ivy wreath in this portrait links Antinous to the god Dionysus, the closest Greek equivalent to the Egyptian god Osiris. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Antinous was deified upon his death and worshipped as a hero, a god and a conqueror of death - a city was founded in his name and games were held to commemorate him. More images have been identified of Antinous than of any other figure in classical antiquity with the exceptions of Augustus and Hadrian himself. However, despite his fame, we knew very little about him apart from his relationship with Hadrian.

After being made emperor 117 AD, Hadrian inherited a Roman Empire which had thrived on a policy of endless expansion and conquest. Although his politically arranged marriage to Vibia Sabina, the great-niece of the childless former emperor Trajan, would have played a role in laying the groundwork for his own succession, Hadrian also proved to be an able and popular administrator to the Empire. He spent 12 out of the 21 years of his reign traveling all over the empire to visit the provinces, oversee the administration and check his armies’ discipline. He was said to have been so devoted to the army that he would sleep and eat among the common soldiers. Therefore, although his regime is marked by relative peace, Hadrian is commonly depicted in military attire. The Love Affair of the Roman Emperor Hadrian and the Handsome Antinous .

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Hadrian Return to Italy

Hadrian Return to Italy 

 On his return to Italy, Hadrian made a detour to Sicily. Coins celebrate him as the restorer of the island though there is no record of what he did to earn this accolade. Back in Rome he was able to see for himself the completed work of rebuilding the Pantheon. Also completed by then was Hadrian's villa nearby at Tibur a pleasant retreat by the Sabine Hills for whenever Rome became too much for him. At the beginning of March 127 Hadrian set off for a tour of Italy.

 Once again, historians are able to reconstruct his route by evidence of his hand-outs rather than the historical records. For instance, in that year he restored the Picentine earth goddess Cupra in the town of Cupra Maritima. At some unspecified time he improved the drainage of the Fucine lake. Less welcome than such largesse was his decision to divide Italy into 4 regions under imperial legates with consular rank. Being effectively reduced to the status of mere provinces did not go down well and this innovation did not long outlive Hadrian. Hadrian fell ill around this time, though the nature of his sickness is not known. Whatever the illness was, it did not stop him from setting off in the spring of 128 to visit Africa. 

His arrival began with the good omen of rain ending a drought. Along with his usual role as benefactor and restorer he found time to inspect the troops and his speech to the troops survives to this day. Hadrian returned to Italy in the summer of 128 but his stay was brief before setting off on another tour that would last three years. 

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Hadrians and Second Roman-Jewish War

Hadrians and Second Roman-Jewish War

In 130, Hadrian visited the ruins of Jerusalem, in Judaea, left after the First Roman-Jewish War of 66–73. He rebuilt the city, renaming it Aelia Capitolina after himself and Jupiter Capitolinus, the chief Roman deity. A new temple dedicated to the worship of Jupiter was built on the ruins of the old Jewish Second Temple, which had been destroyed in 70. In addition, Hadrian abolished circumcision, which was considered by Romans and Greeks as a form of bodily mutilation and hence "barbaric". These anti-Jewish policies of Hadrian triggered in Judaea a massive Jewish uprising, led by Simon bar Kokhba and Akiba ben Joseph. Following the outbreak of the revolt, Hadrian called his general Sextus Julius Severus from Britain, and troops were brought from as far as the Danube. Roman losses were very heavy, and it is believed that an entire legion, the XXII Deiotariana was destroyed. Roman losses were so heavy that Hadrian's report to the Roman Senate omitted the customary salutation "I and the legions are well". However, Hadrian's army eventually put down the rebellion in 135, after three years of fighting. According to Cassius Dio, during the war 580,000 Jews were killed, 50 fortified towns and 985 villages razed. The final battle took place in Beitar, a fortified city 10 km. southwest of Jerusalem. The city only fell after a lengthy siege, and Hadrian did not allow the Jews to bury their dead. According to the Babylonian Talmud, after the war Hadrian continued the persecution of Jews. He attempted to root out Judaism, which he saw as the cause of continuous rebellions, prohibited the Torah law, the Hebrew calendar and executed Judaic scholars. The sacred scroll was ceremonially burned on the Temple Mount. In an attempt to erase the memory of Judaea, he renamed the province Syria Palaestina (after the Philistines), and Jews were forbidden from entering its rededicated capital. When Jewish sources mention Hadrian it is always with the epitaph "may his bones be crushed" an expression never used even with respect to Vespasian or Titus who destroyed the Second Temple.

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Hadrian's Wall

Hadrian's Wall

Hadrian's Wall (Latin: perhaps Vallum Aelium, "the Aelian wall") is a stone and turf fortification built by the Roman Empire across the width of what is now northern England. Begun in 122, during the rule of emperor Hadrian, it was the middle of three such fortifications built across Great Britain, the first being from the River Clyde to the River Forth under Gnaeus Julius Agricola and the last the Antonine Wall. All were built to prevent raids on Roman Britain by the Pictish tribes (ancient inhabitants of Scotland) to the north, to improve economic stability and provide peaceful conditions in Britain, and to mark physically the frontier of the Empire. Hadrian's Wall is the best known of the three because its physical presence remains most evident today.

The Hadrian's wall marked the northern limes in Britain and also the most heavily fortified border in the Empire. In addition to its use as a military fortification, it is thought that the gates through the wall would also have served as customs posts to allow trade taxation.
A significant portion of the wall still exists, particularly the mid-section, and for much of its length the wall can be followed on foot by Hadrian's Wall Path or by cycle on National Cycle Route 72. It is the most popular tourist attraction in Northern England, where it is often known simply as the Roman Wall. It was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987. English Heritage, a government organization in charge of managing the historic environment of England, describes it as "the most important monument built by the Romans in Britain".

Hadrian's travels

Emperor Hadrian's Travels 

  Emperor Hadrian, The Stoic-Epicurean Emperor traveled broadly, inspecting and correcting the legions in the field. Even prior to becoming emperor, Hadrian had traveled abroad with the Roman military, giving him much experience in the matter. More than half his reign was spent outside of Italy. Other emperors often left Rome to simply go to war, returning soon after conflicts concluded. A previous emperor, Nero, once traveled through Greece and was condemned for his self indulgence. 

Emperor Hadrian, by contrast, traveled as a fundamental part of his governing, and made this clear to the Roman senate and the people. He was able to do this because at Rome he possessed a loyal supporter within the upper echelons of Roman society, a military veteran by the name of Marcius Turbo. Also, there are hints within certain sources that he also employed a secret police force, the frumentarii, to exert control and influence in case anything should go wrong while he journeyed abroad. Hadrian's visits were marked by handouts which often contained instructions for the construction of new public buildings. Hadrian was willful of strengthening the Empire from within through improved infrastructure, as opposed to conquering or annexing perceived enemies. This was often the purpose of his journeys; commissioning new structures, projects and settlements. His almost evangelical belief in Greek culture strengthened his views: like many emperors before him, Emperor Hadrian's will was almost always obeyed. His traveling court was large, including administrators and likely architects and builders. The burden on the areas he passed through were sometimes great. While his arrival usually brought some benefits it is possible that those who had to carry the burden were of different class to those who reaped the benefits. For example, huge amounts of provisions were requisitioned during his visit to Egypt, this suggests that the burden on the mainly subsistence farmers must have been intolerable, causing some measure of starvation and hardship.[23] At the same time, as in later times all the way through the European Renaissance, kings were welcomed into their cities or lands, and the financial burden was completely on them, and only indirectly on the poorer class.

  Emperor Hadrian's first tour came in 121 and was initially aimed at covering his back to allow himself the freedom to concern himself with his general cultural aims. He traveled north, towards Germania and inspected the Rhine-Danube frontier, allocating funds to improve the defenses. However it was a voyage to the Empire's very frontiers that represented his perhaps most significant visit; upon hearing of a recent revolt, he journeyed to Britannia. Emperor Hadrian... emperor hadrians-cultural-pursuits

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His popularity as emperor is attested to by the fact that Hadrian was absent from Rome for the better part of his reign. Earlier Roman rulers, such as Nero, were harshly criticized for spending less time away from the city. Professor D. Brendan Nagle writes that Hadrian “spent most of his reign (twelve out of twenty-one years) traveling all over the Empire visiting the provinces, overseeing the administration, and checking the discipline of the army. He was a brilliant administrator who concerned himself with all aspects of government and the administration of justice” (278). His devotion to the army was such that he would sleep and eat among the common soldiers and he is commonly depicted in military attire even though his regime is marked by relative peace.

Hadrian’s building projects are perhaps his most enduring legacy. He established cities throughout the Balkan Peninsula, Egypt, Asia Minor, and Greece. His love for Greece and Greek literature was such that he was known as `Graeculus’ (Greekling) in his youth and his philhellenism did not dissipate with age. He visited Greece at least twice (probably more) and participated in the Eleusinian Mysteries, of which he was an initiate. The Arch of Hadrian, constructed by the citizens of Athens in 131/132 CE, honor Hadrian as the founder of the city. Inscriptions on the arch name Theseus (the traditional founder) but add Hadrian owing to the latter’s substantial contributions to Athens (such as the Temple of Zeus). He dedicated a number of sites in Greece to his young lover Antinous, who drowned in the Nile River in 130 CE. Hadrian was deeply attached to Antinous and the young man’s death so greatly affected the emperor that he had him deified (from which the mystery cult in honor of Antinous grew). In Egypt he founded the city of Antinopolis in his memory.  In Rome he rebuilt the Pantheon (which had been destroyed by fire) and Trajan’s Forum as well as funding construction of other buildings, baths, and villas. Many of these structures survived intact for centuries, some as late as the 19th century CE, and the Pantheon, still perfectly preserved, may be visited in the present day. Hadrian had a great interest in architecture and seems to have contributed ideas, or even plans, to the architects though scholars no longer believe that he was the lead architect on any single project. 


Policies as Emperor

Policies as Emperor

Hadrian wrote to the Senate requesting honours for his adoptive father and ratification of the army’s proclamation; all this was granted. The new emperor began a slow return to Italy. He had to make sure of the crucial provincial commands; it was also expedient to have some dissidents rounded up at home before his return and (he would be able to argue) on someone else’s orders. Trajan’s conquests in Armenia and Mesopotamia were quickly abandoned.

Acilius Attianus, as prefect of the Praetorian Guard, directed affairs in Rome before Hadrian’s return. He ordered the summary executions of four senators of exalted, consular rank, all (it would seem) threats to the security of Hadrian. This bloody prelude to the new regime was unsettling, and Hadrian affirmed it was contrary to his will; he laid the blame on Attianus, just as he often blamed instructions of the dead Trajan for other unpopular acts. When Hadrian reached Rome in the summer of 118, his position was reasonably stable. He courted popular sentiment by public largesse, gladiatorial displays, and a formal cancellation of debts to the state. Attianus, however, was replaced, and his colleague in the prefecture, Sulpicius Similis, was also dismissed. Hadrian installed as prefects the distinguished Marcius Turbo, a general to whom the new emperor owed much, and Septicius Clarus, the patron of Suetonius the biographer. Before many years had passed, both of these men had fallen into disgrace. Hadrian was mercurial or possibly just shrewdly calculating in dispensing favours.

The new emperor remained at Rome for three years. In 121 he set forth on a tour of the empire, west and east, to inspect troops and examine frontier defenses. He went to Gaul and Germany, thence to Britain in 122. From there he moved on to Spain and spent the winter in Tarraco, where he made arrangements for coping with an uprising in Mauretania (Morocco). He next passed eastward, approaching Asia Minor (Anatolia) by the Aegean after an overland trip through the Balkans. He quickly negotiated some problems with the Parthians and then visited northwestern Asia Minor. Returning to the west coast in 124, he sailed to Athens and finally reached Rome again in 125. This prolonged absence from the capital of the empire had its administrative justifications. There had been disturbances in some provinces, and the Parthians had to be dealt with; there was a general need for imperial supervision. Nevertheless, another motive impelled the emperor in his journeys—namely, an insatiable curiosity about everything and everybody. The Christian writer Tertullian called him rightly omnium curiositatum explorator, an explorer of everything interesting. That curiosity was bred of a keen intellect and an anguished spirit. These together drove him inexorably, and by a roundabout path, to the Greek East. After he left Spain early in 123, he never saw the western provinces again. Hadrian soon came to look upon his reign as a new Augustan age. In 123 he began to style himself Hadrianus Augustus, deliberately evoking the memory of his great predecessor; he announced a golden age on his coinage. The peace he so much cherished was a latter-day Augustan peace, and he bequeathed to posterity a public statement of his exploits that imitated the one left by Augustus.

Hadrian spent another three years in Rome, but in 128 he set forth again. After a visit to North Africa, he went to Athens, and from there he sailed to Asia Minor; he penetrated far eastward into Syria and Arabia. Crossing over into Egypt, he explored the Nile; then, for the third time, he went to Athens. It is not certain whether Hadrian returned to Rome in 132 or a little later; he was certainly there in May of 134, but by then a revolt in Judaea forced him abroad still another time. He went to Palestine, not as a tourist but as a commander. That journey was Hadrian’s last.

Northumberland National Park; Hadrian’s Wall [Credit: Keith Edkins]The emperor’s travels show the man better than anything else and are marked by some of his most-memorable achievements. In northern Britain he initiated the construction of the tremendous frontier wall that bears his name from Wallsend-on-Tyne to Bowness-on-Solway. At Lambaesis, in Algeria, his rigorous inspection of the troops and his severe standards of discipline can be seen in a long inscription preserving an address he made to the soldiers in 128. In Athens the emperor’s benefactions were numerous. At the Athenians’ request, he had their laws professionally redrafted, and he brought to completion the massive temple of Olympian Zeus that the Peisistratid tyrants had begun more than five centuries before. He created the Panhellenion, a federation of Greeks that was based at Athens, which gave equal representation to all Greek cities and thereafter played a conspicuous part in the history of Roman Greece. At the shrine of Delphi, Hadrian gave his support to a building renaissance. The impact of all this on Hadrian personally cannot be exaggerated. Like Augustus before him, he was initiated into the Greek mystery religion at Eleusis, and, after the temple of Olympian Zeus was dedicated, he assumed the title Olympius.

The irrational element in Hadrian was important. He was an adept in astrology, like many intelligent Romans of the time. He was also an aesthete who ascended Mount Etna, in Sicily, and Jabal Agraʿ, near Syrian Antioch, simply to watch the sunrise. He had a lively sense of the past, preferring older writers to more recent ones, favouring archaism for its own sake. He revolutionized style in the empire by wearing a beard and setting a precedent for generations of emperors.

Antinoüs [Credit: Ricardo André Frantz]In Bithynium-Claudiopolis (modern Bolu) in northwestern Asia Minor, Hadrian encountered a languid youth, born about 110, by the name of Antinoüs. Captivated by him, Hadrian made Antinoüs his companion. When, as they journeyed together along the Nile in 130, the boy fell into the river and drowned, Hadrian was desolate and wept openly. A report circulated and was widely believed that Antinoüs had cast himself deliberately into the river as a part of some sacred sacrifice. Although Hadrian himself denied this, the sober 3rd-century historian Dio Cassius thought it was the truth. The religious character, if such there was, of the relation between Hadrian and the boy is totally elusive. The emotional involvement is, however, quite clear. Seeing Hadrian’s grief, the Greek world strove to provide suitable consolation for the bereaved and honour for the deceased. Cults of Antinoüs sprang up all over the East and then spread to the West. Statues of the boy became a common sight. In Egypt the city of Antinoöpolis commemorated his death.