Posted by: aediculaantinoi | August 4, 2013

Homophobia and “Pagan-phobia” in Scholarship about Antinous and Hadrian

I have written about the homophobia that I’ve seen behind many “scholarly” treatments of Antinous and his life and death previously in a variety of places, including on this blog. But, I think there might be other things that can come into the picture when LGBTQ books are written and speak of Antinous and Hadrian in this same sort of light.

Yesterday, when I was in Seattle, I was in a few different bookstores, and one new book caught my eye, which I checked really quickly to see if it had anything on Antinous and Hadrian. I did this at one of the very best bookstores in the Seattle area, The Elliot Bay Book Company, and the book was Gay Lives by Robert Aldrich, published by Thames & Hudson in the first half of 2013. It has a short section, with a few photos, on Hadrian and Antinous on pp. 27-31. It’s not uncommon to find books that talk about them for five to ten pages that are historical overviews of gay (or homosexual) lives…and that, in itself, tends to be slightly problematic, since those ideas didn’t exactly exist then, and Hadrian himself did actually have relationships with a variety of women as well (which such books, and many modern people who like or even worship Hadrian and Antinous, never admit). But beyond that, there were other problems with this book that I found…and while I didn’t get the time to scrutinize whether or not it had notes and references, I saw none in what parts of it I was able to read in the few minutes I had.

In the section on Antinous’ death (and it says that Hadrian declared him a god–another common mistake), it lists a variety of possible motives or causes for his death, including that he was murdered by a rival, or that he sacrificed himself for the Emperor’s health (and it says that a source of a century later did this, which isn’t quite correct), or perhaps that Hadrian himself had him sacrificed (as Daniel Ogden and others have sometimes suggested). It offered no critical evaluation or contextualization of these opinions, and it spent more time on the far more salacious possibilities than it did on the possibility that it was an accident (and, it didn’t state that such was Hadrian’s own opinion on the matter).

While I have stated that on occasion, I think these sorts of suggestions, especially when they are treated not simply as possibilities, but are entertained as likely theories, tend to reek of homophobia, I think there is another possibility in this case. I would like to state, first, though, that it is perfectly possible and even likely that a person writing LGBTQ history, and/or who is queer in some manner themselves, can be homophobic–internalized homophobia is something that can often creep up quite unexpectedly on even the most self-affirming and unapologetic queer person–and this could very well be the case in this instance also. But, I suspect there is another possibility, too.

We don’t exactly have a word for it, but it is a force that most modern pagans, polytheists, and other people involved in non-mainstream religions have experienced in some form in their lives, whether overtly and in offensive and destructive ways, or in more covert and nearly unnoticeable ways. I’d like to call this force “paganphobia,” which is the motivation behind the prejudice and discrimination against pagans that many of us face in our daily lives. There are all sorts of assumptions about pagans that come into such a view, often originating from the same places that homophobia originates (i.e. conservative dominant monotheistic religions), and they include such notions that a variety of questionable or outright immoral things–including ritual murder or human sacrifice–are to some extent “norms” or “expectable” in pagan contexts. Hadrian was not a Christian, and was one of those awful–so unexamined paganphobic notions would suggest–Roman pagans, and therefore he’d have not thought twice about sacrificing his lover to the gods if it might benefit him…because, even if he was “gay,” that doesn’t mean he wasn’t ignorant and permissive and misguided like all pagans were (and still are, so this viewpoint would suggest), and thus such actions would not be beyond him…I mean, we know other Emperors like Nero did it, and aren’t all Roman Emperors pretty much the same, after all?

This view, of course, ignores that no matter to what extent Romans may have had human sacrifice (for foundations of buildings, for example) in their earlier history, or continued to practice it in forms that they didn’t consider to be sacrificial (e.g. execution of criminals, the ritual killing of Gauls to keep further invasions at bay, etc.), in the Imperial Period in particular, the Romans were very much against the idea of human sacrifice, and in fact branded their enemies (like the Gauls) with such accusations to discredit them and their religions. (I often wonder if this is one of the reasons why so many Romans were indifferent to, or even hostile towards, Christians in the early centuries of that religion, since their religion does depend upon human sacrifice and its periodic symbolic re-enactment; likewise, this might have been a fear at the roots of some of the anti-Dionysian legislation that took place in Rome at various periods as well.) This trend would have been no less present during the lives of Hadrian and Antinous as it was in earlier and later centuries, and thus the way in which this is ignored so often when it comes to Hadrian and Antinous’ situation is baffling to me…

But, I think it’s a larger problem that can occur in a great deal of scholarship on these matters, whether by professional academic classicists and religious studies scholars, LGBTQ scholars, and others who come from a default Christian background with little knowledge of, nor appreciation for, the realities of polytheistic religions in the premodern periods and cultures (or, in contemporary culture either). This is sad and upsetting, and can make for all sorts of unfounded assumptions and assertions, and we as pagans as well as LGBTQ people need to be aware of them when we encounter them, which will be far more often than not in many cases.

What do you think?


  1. Very briefly, your essay raises many interesting questions about Hadrian & Antinous, most of which I suspect may not be readily answerable.

    In researching through 2005-2009 the background for my strictly-fictional novel “The Hadrian Enigma: A Forbidden History” (Amazon & iBookstore etc), I tried very hard to account for the possible circumstances of this famous relationship & Antinous’ untimely death by surveying a large number of relevant, respectable sources.

    Despite my personal library on Hadrian’s times alone exceeding 150 works in several genres, there are only a dozen or so scholarly works which offer a degree of insight into the Hadrian/Antinous affair, with none of them truly authoritative in terms of facts, dates, & even places. I aimed to weave the recorded historical events & known personalities with sufficient fictional colour to produce ‘a good read’ novel very different from the existing fiction on the subject. Only a reader could tell me if I had succeeded, though I took occasional liberties to help produce a decent yarn.

    Historians know a great deal about Hadrian & his era but, not-too-surprisingly, very little about Antinous himself. Among many things, we do not know Antinous’ year-of-birth, his social status (freeborn or slave?), nor the precise details of his death (accident or suicide?). The fact that Hadrian named a new city after him, Antinoopolis in Egypt, and declared him ‘divus’ (god-like), a postmortem status reserved for emperors & their family, tends to suggest Hadrian at least regarded the young man as possessing extraordinary value.

    Nevertheless my primary purpose as an author was to utilise the few recorded events of the Hadrian/Antinous relationship to present a fictive yet reasonably historically accurate account set in the gender realities & sexual climate of the Greco-Roman elites of the Second Century, as increasingly revealed by many specialist historians. It could be argued contemporary times are in many ways returning to some of the social values of the pre-Christian Roman era, as depicted in my novel.

    George Gardiner
    “The Hadrian Enigma”
    (eBook or paperback at Amazon)

    • Part of what you’ve said here is patently incorrect: Hadrian never declared Antinous a Divus; in every inscription, coin, or text that speaks of Antinous in a manner that suggests cultus, he is called Theos, Heros, or (on only one occasion) Daimon. Divi were always Imperial persons and their family members only.

  2. Thank you for your acute comment. I regularly enjoy your posts & poetry, and admire your clear command of Latin texts. However, with respect, you too have been known to write of Antinous from a very similar perspective. I note for example your exaltations to Antinous in your 133 praises titled “Adorations Antinoi CXXXIII” of January 16, 2012. It’s a lovely list of heartfelt sentiments about Antinous which includes phrases such as “the deified one”, “the new god”, & “the human god”, etc. I suspect Hadrian would have agreed with you too.


    • There is a very large difference there, though: none of the terms you’ve cited is exactly the same as the Latin Divus; deificatus would be “the deified one” in the case of the poem I wrote (and the other two would be homo deus and novus deus). I would not apply the term Divus to Antinous now/in the modern period in the ancient form, since that form is reserved for the Emperors and Empresses (and the other Augusti/Augustae who received that title), and likewise none of the ancient people (including Hadrian) did either, which is the point I was making.

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