An emperor in love
Hadrian married in about AD 100, but we do not know much about the life of his wife and empress, Vibia Sabina. Sabina's image was put on the official coinage and there are many statues of her.
However, ancient sources make it very clear that Hadrian formed a homosexual relationship with a young Greek male called Antinous. Homosexual relationships were not considered unusual in ancient Rome, but the intensity with which Hadrian mourned Antinous’ premature death was without precedent.
A Roman man was free to choose sexual partners of either gender and there is no word for homosexuality in Latin. As long as he remained the active partner in any sexual encounter, his masculinity was not in question. Romans believed that men should always be dominant, both socially and sexually. A concept of sexual transgression, defined by the term stuprum, did exist. However, this only included sexual relationships between adult male citizens or relationships with other citizen men’s wives, which were considered unacceptable.
Hadrian visited Egypt in AD 130 along with the imperial entourage, including his wife and Antinous. They embarked on a voyage up the River Nile and on 24 October Antinous drowned in the river, on the same day the locals were commemorating the death, by drowning in the Nile, of the Egyptian god Osiris.
Although Hadrian maintained Antinous’ death was an accident, malicious rumours soon spread. Some thought he had committed suicide or that he had been sacrificed. Others claimed Antinous sacrificed himself to prolong the life of the emperor.
Literary sources tell us that Hadrian was profoundly affected by Antinous’ death and mourned him with unusual intensity. While Hadrian did not pass any official decree ordering Antinous’ deification, he gave encouragement to those who wanted to make Antinous the object of a new cult. He also founded a new city on the banks of the Nile, and named it Antinoopolis. There he built a large temple and set up a festival in Antinous’ memory.
Other Greek cities began to establish their own cults and festivals in honour of Antinous, led by local and senatorial leaders, who wished to express their loyalty to Rome and to Hadrian. The Antinous cult became popular among the common people, where it seems to have competed with Christianity.
Building a legacy
Hadrian had a keen personal interest in architecture and some of the most famous buildings of the ancient world were constructed during his reign. He transformed the city of Rome and many places throughout the empire. New public buildings and religious monuments helped to spread prosperity and create a common identity throughout the empire. In other words, Hadrian built to unite the people of his empire under his rule.
His predecessor Trajan had been successful on the battlefield, but also transformed the centre of Rome by building baths, markets and a spectacular forum. The military situation at the beginning of Hadrian’s reign did not allow him to repeat Trajan’s success in that arena. Building provided an alternative, and, in consequence, architecture became one of the lasting legacies of Hadrian’s reign.