Ever sat down to a succulent meal, let’s say Pizza, and wondered where the ruby red tomatoes adorning your meal came from? Or scrolled through Instagram and thought, who was the first celebrity? Did old empires face climate change? Well, in CUB Magazine’s Column ‘The Peculiar Past’, columnist Hannah Cragg has all the answers to your questions. Follow her as she uncovers the dust-coated ancient civilisations, to which we owe more than you might think.
The end of Pride Month always seems like a slightly solemn occasion to me. It’s not that I’ll particularly be missing the parades or the festivities, and I certainly won’t be missing corporations sticking a rainbow flag on their products in a shameless bid to make a quick profit. No, as we leave capricious June behind us, it’s the weight that our queerness will have to wait another year to be celebrated openly that makes me look back with guilt. It’s that feeling of time slipping away between grasping fingers. But hey, the Romans (and Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society) told us to ‘seize the day’, so that’s exactly what we should do; June is a celebration of queerness, sure, but personal pride is a year-round thing, and shouldn’t be confined to the constraints of time. And speaking of Romans, I thought I’d say goodbye to June with an article about one of their rulers. Today is all about Emperor Hadrian, whose love was possibly one of the clearest and undisputed expressions of homosexuality in all of antiquity.
Listen, back in the day, people had different attitudes, and approaches to gay love have always shifted, based on when and where you are. You might be surprised to discover that in antiquity, being gay wasn’t a crime. In fact, a lot of societies tolerated it. You don’t have to look far to find signs of queerness in Greek myths: from Zeus, Lord of the Heavens, falling in love with youthful Ganymede and taking the form of an eagle to carry him to the heavens, to the poet Sappho’s boundless love for woman. The Egyptians, too, had a few (rather graphic) inclusions of gay love in their mythos, and although a lot of stories have been lost to time, remnants of ancient lovers can be found in the histories of every region on the planet. But we’ve got to be careful- it wasn’t all rainbows back then. Most of these civilisations didn’t particularly care about which gender you loved, as long as you were the dominant one in the relationship. If you were the one in power, you could love who you liked. If you weren’t, you were seen as inferior. So, at least in the realms of Ancient Greece and Rome, the ‘lover’ (top) and ‘beloved’ (bottom) dynamic was essential in any relationship, and bottoms basically had no rights. What else is new?
Now that we’ve gotten that context out of the way, let’s talk about Hadrian. Brandishing a distinguished curly beard, the Emperor shattered Roman fashion standards at a time where rulers were expected to be clean-shaven. Actually, he kind of started a trend, and it soon became popular to don facial hair all over the Empire. Further breaking the mould, Hadrian also withdrew the Roman army from what is now Iraq, ushering in a more peaceful era in the region- it had been conquered by his predecessor and the locals didn’t appreciate being invaded, to say the least. Instead of pursuing the expansionist policies that we now associate with Rome, Hadrian instead chose to focus inwards, restructuring and fortifying existing territories. Any Northerner will be familiar with Hadrian’s Wall, and the impressive stone structure still stretches an astounding 73 miles across the rugged crags of England’s North East. He can also be accredited as having changed the name of an area called Judea to what we now know as Palestine, which has repercussions even to this day. Despite his accomplishments, though, he never got a big head like some other notable Emperors (I’m looking at you, Nero) and was even known as the ‘people’s king’ and ate the same food as his soldiers. And what’s more, he did all of these things while openly loving another man. He wasn’t held back as a leader because of his sexuality, and rightly so. Sexuality shouldn’t hold anyone back.
Who was Hadrian’s lucky man, then? We don’t know much about his partner, Antinous, a Greek servant, apart from the fact that he was a gentle soul. Oh, and he was drop-dead gorgeous, apparently. Either way, much like the mythical Zeus with his lover Ganymede, Hadrian was completely devoted to youthful Antinous, except this time, it was all real. His consort was invited to lavish state dinners and fanciful ceremonies, just like a married couple. Their love wasn’t challenged by anyone, and how could it be? You don’t tell a Roman Emperor who he can or can’t love… unless you want your head on a pike. In true honeymoon fashion, they toured the Empire together, from the spectacular sights atop the rugged Pyrenees to ever-enchanting Egypt. The great poets didn’t tell tales of their love, so we’re left to fill in a lot of the gaps, but I think it’s safe to say that Hadrian was only ever in love with Antinous. All rulers were expected to produce an heir, but Hadrian never had any with his wife Sabina. The marriage, after all, was more political than anything else.
Alas, as many queer stories go, this one doesn’t have a happy ending. In good news, Hadrian and Antinous never fell out of love. In bad news, Antinous mysteriously drowned in the Nile. It’s entirely unclear how that happened, but hey, the world was a lawless place back then. And in his grief, Hadrian never forgot his lover. In tribute to graceful Antinous, he founded and named a city nearby- Antinoopolis. But that’s not all- he turned his dead lover into a God. He deified his boyfriend. Temples across the Empire were raised in his honour, thousands of elegant statues were crafted by the best artists, and many still stand today. In spite of the countless attempts to cover up and forget fragments of queerness, their love still stands. The indisputable love of a great Emperor for another man is still remembered, centuries upon centuries later.
So, what can we learn from this Roman relationship? They were more than just Romemates, that’s for sure. Well, long-standing queer history is always inspirational, at least to me. It’s clear-cut evidence that queerness is not, and never has been, a fad, or something new. If being gay didn’t hinder an Emperor from (arguably) being one of the greatest leaders in Roman history, why should it hold anyone else back? Unfortunately, LGBT rights are being challenged across the world- in the USA you can still choose not to provide a service to someone on the basis of their sexuality. Trans rights are continuously being targeted and revoked, even in the USA and UK. Authors and influencers such as JK Rowling are still given a platform despite attacks on trans women. Even though loving a man didn’t ruin Hadrian’s career, it is still, over 1900 years later, a source of discrimination in the modern world.
It’s not all bad news, though. More and more people have the courage to be open about themselves, and who they love. There are more films out that normalise queer lives and love. Even advertisements on tv have a role in creating a safer, or at least, a more accepting world. And Hadrian’s gay legacy lives on at museums, and in history books, and hopefully in you. The poets of old may not have sung of his love, but we can. I hope you’ve embraced queer history this month, and thanked those who came before us for the rights we have today- whether that’s Hadrian or Marsha P. Johnson- I’m sure they’re smiling knowing how much better the world is today for LGBT people.
CUB’s Hannah Cragg is a QM historian with a passion for all things Incan. In writing ‘The Peculiar Past’ column she aims to spread her appreciation and passion for forgotten and untold histories. Adding to her impressive character is her skill at playing cello and the bass as well as her previous residence in five different countries.