”The bust is classically Roman, the face imperious. But this is no ordinary emperor. Publius Aelius Traianus Hadrianus was not only a peacemaker who pulled his soldiers out of modern-day Iraq. He was also the first leader of Rome to make it clear that he was gay.Hadrian, to be sure, is something of an enigma. He has the reputation of having been a splendid sort for a Roman
emperor, able and efficient, in possession of most of the better qualities valued by a modern democratically elected ruler; though we also hear that he was especially interested in having himself worshiped as a deity and that his efforts to this end were remarkably successful in the eastern portions of his empire.
”His zeal, too, to deify his favorite Antinous after that young man had evaded the problems of aging by drowning in the Nile would strike us as even worse form in a Victorian.B ut the size of his undertakings t, he avidity of his search for culture, and the gold-plated quality of his success at finding it are nothing short of Texan. And the sheer endlessness of his construction at Tivoli outdistances Versailles (which was, after all, based on a fairly simple idea) and competes with the scale ofthe twentieth century…. Hadrian’s entry in the megalomania division, though, since it bears so heavily the stamp of one man, seems to come much closer to the edge of madness. It is the product, as Eleanor Clark pointed out, of a craze to build, very like those nineteenth-century follies in
the United States whose owners, obeying only the dictates of some irresistible inner urge, added crazily, continually to them, and were generally stopped only by death. But this is not crazy in quite the same way, because this is often beautiful. ” ( Charles W. Moore)
South of Rome the Emperor Hadrian constructed a vast labyrinth of rooms, gardens, fountains and colonnades; the largest, most luxurious, and certainly the most peculiar memorial ever left behind by a single man.
” Under his reign, the Empire flourished in peace and prosperity,” says Edward Gibbon of the Emperor Hadrian. ”He encouraged the arts, reformed the laws, asserted military discipline, and visited all the provinces in person. His vast and active genius was equally suited to the most enlarged views and the minute details of civil policy. But the ruling passions of his soul were curiosity and vanity. ”
Hadrian had been dead for more than eighteen hundred years, and nearly all the achievements of his ” vast and active genius” are null and void and forgotten. But evidence of the passions which rules that genius; boundless curiosity and unembarassed vanity, still survives, particularly among the ruins of the most sumptuous, most extensive, least cozy, most odd and remarkable country seat ever built: Hadrian’s Villa at Tivoli, outside Rome.
Not a great deal is known about Hadrian’s personality. He wrote an autobiography but it is lost, and his only ancient biographers lived in the second and fourth centuries, some time after his death. His public and military accomplishmants can be pieced together from contemporary, coins and inscriptions, but to find out what he was like as a man is much more difficult. This amazing villa of his, which he built for his own personal delight and solace, is the closest thing we have to a memoir; even though in its very ruined state it makes enigmatic and abstract reading.
If you approach Hadrian’s Villa along the route prescribed for tourists, you encounter, first of all, an enormous masonry wall. Its dimensions are so imposing, about twenty-eight feet high and more than seven hundred
long, as to raise your hopes that these ruins will not be very ruined. But after you have passed through a gate, you perceive that the wall is just standing there by itself, like an upsided ruler, and that on the other side of it is simply a very big, rectangular, grassy space containing a pond. There are various ruins in the distance, but there is not a statue, not a column, not so much as stone on stone.
If you consult a guidebook, you find yourself called upon to imaginethat this huge rectangle is enclosed by three moore walls, that these walls plus many marble columns, are the supports for spledidly painted porticoes, that the grassy space is enriched by flowers, statues, fountains, and that here and there the courtiers of Hadrian are strolling or marching about getting up an appetite for lunch.
This only the beginning of a considerable job of imagining. Ahead, spread out on the rolling plain that skirts he Sabine Hills, lie one hundred and fifty acres of thoroughly ruined ruins. Much more is still to be excavated, for it is known that when Hadrian died in A.D. 138, his Villa covered more than seven square miles, three fourths the area of Rome itself. This was not a villa in the modern sense, but a collection of building complexes; an out of ordinary sort of town, long on splendidly decorated piazzas, domed halls and belvederes, and short on the more usual amenities , such as bedrooms, kitchens and nurseries.
The place has been called the Versailles of the Ceasars, but Versailles, for all its glitter and show, was essentially a house; while the Villa seems an abstraction, an assemblage. Hadrian was, as Tertullian said of him, ”omnium curiositatum explorator” ; as a student in Greece, a soldier in Dacia, a governor in Asia Minor, and Roman emperor traveling in every corner of his empire, he was a tireless collector of beautiful things, and he needed a place to put all the treasures, and copies of treasures, that he brought home with him.
If he could have collected the Acroplis and the pyramids, one feels he would have done so. His particular passion was architecture. As an ordinary man putters in his tool shop, Hadrian, on the plains of the Tiber, puttered with life sized domes and vaults and peristyles, sometimes copying, more often improvising, but always building for building’s sake and for the sake of housing statues and paintings.
The story of Hadrian and Antinous, seen by some as a real life version of the myth of Zeus and Ganymede, is a romance and a tragedy. That the young Antinous was the lover of the Emperor, who is known for his Hellenistic ways, is of little true amazement and in itself would not have caused a scandalous cry to echo through the centuries. However, when the boy who is thought to have been the only true love in Hadrian’s life was found drowned in the Nile it sent the Emperor into a swell of grief so mighty that it altered the Roman world.
”That seems little enough reason, but then there was little enough reason for all the fuss over the Bithynian shepherd boy Antinous, who was bland and pudgy, sulky, and very probably quite brainless. It was the Emperor’s energies that turned him into a deity. Perhaps it does not force the issue too hard to suggest that the site below Tivoli was as tractable as Antinous, capable of being molded to the Emperor’s design, something fairly positive to start from but capable of being, in the end, swallowed up into the grand scheme.” ( Charles W. Moore )
”Born in Bythnion around the year 105 of the Common Era, Antinous was a beautiful adolescent when he first caught the eye of the Emperor of the western world. Hadrian was already in his late forties by the time the two met; their sexual chemistry appears to have been mutual, eclectic, and immediate. Antinous became Hadrian’s favorite, sharing the Emperor’s bed and his life. For a period of a little less than a decade, the two were inseparable, much to the disgrace of Hadrian’s legal wife, the childless and spiteful sabina. Imperial art and literature of the times show the men in a variety of guises and activities, particularly hunting: a sport the two enjoyed immensely.
In the course of their relationship, Antinous matured from a beautiful youth into an intelligent and well-muscled young man. the Greeks referred to the visible maturation of a youth (the growth of his beard and body hair) as “clouds hiding the sun.” It was shortly after the Emperor’s young lover had reached this stage of his development, and just after his hair had been cut short in the style favored by the mature men of the period, that Antinous drowned mysteriously in the Nile river during and Imperial visit to the province of Egypt.”
To commemorate their great love, Hadrian worked relentlessly to build monuments and institutions to his beloved. The Emperor found the Greek-Egyptian city Antinooplois on the banks of the Nile near where Antinous died; commissioned nearly two thousand likenesses, carved from various stone materials; erected temples and altars to the new young God all over Asia Minor; established schools, gymnasiums, panhellenic games and contests in His name. Official Roman coins were struck in all parts of the Empire except Rome to commemorate the beautiful young man. (One of many distinctions relating to Antinous is that, of all the citizens of the Roman Empire, His is the only non-Imperial image ever to have been struck on coins of the realm.) Medallions bearing Antinous’ image were issued and quickly became religious icons.
The early Christians, struggling at that time to win converts to their new religion, were dismayed and enraged at the deification of Antinous, whose worship in many cities of the Empire eclipsed the cult of the dead Jesus. Records and artifacts show that for centuries the likeness of Antinous was worn as a talisman against evil, kept as a bust in homes and businesses, and worshipped publicly throughout the Mediterranean world. It was not until the ascendancy of Christianity, three hundred years later, that the worship of Antinous was extinguished through vigorous and systematic persecution by the Church.