The Emperor Hadrian is best known for the wall that was built on his order to define the northernmost limit of the Roman Empire in the early 2nd century AD. He may have also ordered the reconstruction of London’s Roman Amphitheatre and Forum-Basilica during his visit to Britannia in AD 122. At one point a locally made, one and a quarter life-size bronze statue of Hadrian stood somewhere in Londinium, but was later hacked up and bits of it thrown into the river, including the head.
The private life of the emperor is less well-known, though there are plenty of sources out there detailing his life and works. Hadrian was married to Vibia Sabina, the great-niece of the previous emperor, Trajan, and claimed to be his appointed heir when Trajan died. During life, the official account of Hadrian and Vibia Sabina’s relationship stressed the respect he had for her. Statues were raised in her honour and her portrait appeared on coins. He gave her the title Augusta. When she died, Hadrian had Vibia Sabina deified, as was usual. Some sources suggest that in private the two hated each other, with Hadrian calling his wife harsh and irritable (aspera and morosa),and Vibia Sabina boasting that she had taken steps never to have his children.
Hadrian met a young man called Antinous from the Greek province of Bythnia in what is now Turkey. By AD 128 Antinous was Hadrian’s constant companion, thought it’s unclear how much choice Antinous had in the matter. They only had two years together before Antinous drowned in the Nile in mysterious circumstances in AD 130.
Same sex relationships were common in the Roman world, though Romans had a view of homosexuality very different to our own. They stressed the need for Roman men to be dominant in whatever sexual relationship they had, so older men would often have much younger male lovers, alongside a wife and possibly sex with other women, either enslaved or free. Previous emperors, such as Trajan, Nero and Domitian, are also known to have had sexual relationships with men.
What was different about Hadrian’s relationship with Antinous was the former’s actions after the death of his favourite. He set up a city dedicated to Antinous, identified a star in the sky to be called Antinous, and decided the rosy lotus that grew on the banks of the Nile was the flower of Antinous. Hadrian deified Antinous after his death, a fate usually only reserved for emperors and their close relations. He created a cult of Antinous, identifying his late lover with the Egyptian god Osiris and the Greek god Hermes. This suggests a deep emotional bond between Hadrian and Antinous, and that surprised his contemporaries, drawing much criticism and resentment. Hadrian may have also used the death of his favourite to strengthen Greek culture in Egypt, inviting Greeks to settle in the new city dedicated to his love, Antinoöpolis, in the Middle Nile region of Egypt.
Antinous has had a long legacy, being celebrated also in 18th to 19th century homosexual subculture. He is mentioned in several of Oscar Wilde’s works, statues of him were available from the newspaper The Artist from 1893. Perhaps cameos made around this time were part of this celebration of Hadrian and Antinous’ relationship?
And what of Vibia Sabina? During the visit to Egypt, on which she accompanied her husband, the party visited the Colossi of Memnon after the tragedy occurred. These statues of the Egyptian pharaoh Amenhotep III date to the 14th century BC. The statues had been damaged in an earthquake centuries before and as they heated up in the light from the sunrise, they emitted a noise like singing. It was a popular tourist attraction.
One of the women in Hadrian’s party, the poet Julia Balbilla, who was a companion of Vibia Sabina, had some verses inscribed on the ancient statues in Aeolic Greek, the dialect used by the famous poet Sappho, extolling the fine features of both emperor (“loved by all the gods”) and empress (“lovely form of our queen”). Evidence for same-sex relationships between women is much rarer in the Roman world though hopefully Vibia Sabina may at least have had a good friend in Julia Balbilla, and other women of the court.