I’m always on the lookout for new books, articles, and other things on the topics that interest me polytheism-wise; and, I’m especially interested in books and articles on Antinous, Hadrian, and their friends. So, you can imagine that when I heard of the book noted below, I jumped at the chance to get it, since it is not only about Roman Britain, but it has Hadrian on the cover.
The book is Sam Moorhead and David Stuttard’s The Romans Who Shaped Britain (London: Thames & Hudson, 2012). I’ve seen an article on Hadrian written by Moorhead previously in Minerva a few years ago. More on the book itself in a moment.
The question of which Romans shaped Britain is a large and important one, and a variety of obvious names spring to mind: Julius Caesar’s ostensible “conquest” of the island; Claudius’ more comprehensive invasion and colonization of it; the many years that Septimius Severus actually spent in his late principate in Roman Britain (mostly in Arbeia, a.k.a. South Shields near Newcastle); and of course, Constantine’s being named Emperor when he was in Britain (at Eboracum, a.k.a. York). But, the one Emperor everyone in Britain knows the name of has to be Hadrian, because of Hadrian’s Wall, a World Heritage Site with many forts, ruins, museums, and other attractions along a nearly 80 mile area. When I visited that region in July of 2003, I remarked that Hadrian is still very much a god there, and a great deal of the tourism and cultural heritage of the place certainly derives from Hadrianus Graeculus.
I am happy to say that Moorhead and Stuttard’s book is the first one that deals with Romano-British history that acknowledges the role of Antinous in Hadrian’s life, and that makes mention of his deification and his cultus in Roman Britain. (As many of the discoveries that have lead to this conclusion have been made in the last twenty or thirty years, and most of the major histories of Roman Britain were written before that, it’s not a surprise that not much has been said about it before now!) One of the major pieces of material evidence for Antinous’ cultus is pictured in one of the book’s color plates, and Antinous likewise features in a kind of 3/4 page sidebar under the boar hunt tondo from the Arch of Constantine in a brief mention.
However, I’m sad to say that the small further bits of info on Antinous in the book, despite being based on good and reliable sources, is so full of conjectural and poor information with shaky conclusions as to be almost useless as anything other than “what not to conclude” where Antinous is concerned. Let me explain by giving the full paragraph (with small bits of others) that deals with Antinous. After talking about Hadrian’s spiritual interests and mystery cult initiations, it goes on to say:
His quest found one fulfilment in his invention of a new god, Antinous, a chameleon creation promising rebirth, who combined elements of Greek and Roman deities such as Hermes, Pan and Dionysus as well as the Egyptian god Osiris. At the same time, he encouraged tales of how Antinous had been the emperor’s companion, how he had drowned in the Nile, how in death he had become immortal–a carefully constructed matrix in which Antinous could be all things to all peoples, designed to bind the Roman world together in one universal belief. Of course, the new god’s worship came to Britain, too. From Littlecote Villa in Wiltshire to Capel St Mary in Essex, worshippers adored their small bronze busts of Antinous as Bacchus (Dionysus).
It then continues further in the next paragraph,
Ironically, at the same time that Hadrian was creating this new god of harmony, a dangerous rebellion was erupting, the result of the emperor’s uncharacteristically crass mishandling of another religion, Judaism.
Details of the Bar Kochba rebellion follow, and the next paragraph starts:
Jewish resentment boiled over into violence. Shortly after the death of Antinous, a star had appeared in the sky, which Hadrian had interpreted as evidence of Antinous’ divinity. The Jews saw it differently: it was a sign that they must shake off Roman rule.
Unfortunately, someone without a better and fuller knowledge of the sources cited by the authors (including Birley and Opper) might read this and go “Oh, okay, so that’s the story of Antinous,” but almost all of it is poor conjecture rather than solid fact. Egyptian tradition deified Antinous, not Hadrian; and, while Antinous’ cultus was syncretistic (which is not the same as “chameleon”) and rather surprisingly widespread for a deified hero cultus of its sort, there is no evidence that Hadrian wanted it to be some sort of “universal religion.” As nice as it is to think Hadrian aimed for some sort of “god of harmony” to be embodied in Antinous, there’s very little actual evidence to support such an assertion. Furthermore, the fact that Antinous did drown in the Nile and had been Hadrian’s lover is, in Moorhead and Stuttard’s characterization, propaganda and invention rather than fact. While we cannot know for utter certain that Antinous drowned in the Nile, or that he was Hadrian’s lover, all evidence we currently have available suggests that this is the case, rather than it being something that Hadrian entirely invented…and, why would he invent such things at all in the first place? “Oh, I’m the Emperor, and my boyfriend was the hottest young man ever” was all an invention by an Emperor who was considered handsome and charming, and who was the fucking Emperor and thus not desirable enough to get a boyfriend on his own? Let’s be serious, here, folks…
So, on the one hand, the rest of the book may be interesting. (Let’s hope so!) And, it’s worth it for the pictures, certainly. But, based on what little of it I’ve read thus far, I can’t say I’m too optimistic. It’s good that Antinous is now part of the history of Roman Britain; it’s unfortunate that his first entry into wider discourse on this particular subject area has to have been in such a poorly skilled and and unmarked conjecturally laden set of statements.