Hadrian and Antinous: Daddy and Hunter

November 23, 2008

Just think, if you had been Antinous (pronounced an-tin-oh-us), you could have said, "my gay daddy is the most powerful man in the world"... and it would have been true. Many don't realize that one of the Roman Empire's greatest rulers was an openly gay man. The first time I heard about Hadrian and Antinous I was daydreaming in my Roman and Hellenistic Sculpture course in college. Professor Connelly brought up the bust of a Roman Emperor on the slide projector and I thought to myself, "hmm... he looks like a sexy bearded daddy".

Truth is, that's one of the reasons I took the course. I love all those sexy sculptures of the hot daddies. I used to drool over the Farnese Hercules and the Laocoon, and a host of other sculptures of gods, philosophers and emperors. Unlike our culture, the Greeks and Romans really celebrated an older ideal, not just youth.

The professor brought me out of my daze as she said, "Hadrian was gay and had a young lover named Antinous". Wow, a gay Roman Emperor. I knew that the Greeks and Romans were a little less uptight about gay sex, but I didn't know it was possible to have that much power as an openly gay man.

Hadrian was born on January 24 in 76 AD. After his parents died he was put under the care of Trajan who was a cousin of his father and happened to be Emperor at the time. In 117 AD he was named emperor and he ruled until his death in 138 AD.

Hadrian has been described as the most versatile of all Roman Emperors. Trajan was a warmonger, but Hadrian ushered in a time of peace. Hadrian was also an intellect, a patron of the arts, and quite a great architect himself. Among his accomplishments were building the Pantheon and Hadrian's Villa.

The Pantheon is my favorite piece of architecture anywhere. Hadrian built it as a temple to all the gods. It seems that his intention was to create a symbol of unity to bring different belief systems together. The dome is 43.3 meters in diameter and holds the record for the world's largest un-reinforced concrete dome. Modern architects and engineers are still baffled at how he achieved this feat nearly 2,000 years ago. Michelangelo designed the dome in St. Peter's to be 1 meter smaller than the dome in the Pantheon in deference to Hadrian. He didn't want to overshadow his hero's great architectural triumph.

In addition to his architectural prowess, Hadrian wrote poetry in both Latin and Greek. Much of what we know about Greek art is due to Hadrian, since he commissioned countless bronze replicas of older Greek statues and many of the originals are now lost or destroyed. He was a Hellenophile through and through, so much so that he was called "The Little Greek" in his younger days. Bears will love to hear that he was the first to make the beard fashionable in Rome. The men in ancient Greece had sported beards, but before Hadrian, Romans were usually clean-shaven. Hadrian was a humanist and was considered wise and just. Historian Edward Gibbon said that Hadrian's rule was "the happiest era of human history".

Despite all these accomplishments, Hadrian is most famous for his relationship with a young Greek named Antinous. He met Antinous in Bithynia in 124 AD. It is said that they had an immediate mutual attraction. Some stories claim that Hadrian had the empire searched for the most beautiful young man while others say he just stumbled upon Antinous. Soon Antinous became his lover and accompanied him on his journeys throughout the empire. Everywhere they went Hadrian erected statues of Antinous in many forms-- Antinous as Dionysus or Antinous as Mars. By all accounts, Antinous was not only beautiful, but was very intelligent and witty, as well as a great athlete and hunter.

Antinous met an untimely death in 130 AD. They were on a boat trip down the Nile when Antinous fell over and drowned. No one knows whether it was an accident, murder or suicide. A grief stricken Hadrian deified Antinous. He named cities after him, erected stat

It's wonderful looking back on their romantic, yet tragic relationship. I'm always struck that the Greeks and Romans seemed to understand inter-generational relationships. In our culture there is so much judgment and suspicion when you see a couple with a 20 or 30 year age difference. In ancient Greece and Rome, it was recognized that different ages really had something to offer each other. I believe this is because they respected age and wisdom in their culture as well as youth and beauty. We live in such a youth-obsessed society that doesn't recognize that attraction and importance of the older generations.

There is a wonderful book by Margeurite Youcenar called Memoirs of Hadrian which is a fictitious retelling of the story of Hadrian and Antinous. Since Professor Connelly turned me onto Hadrian I've been a huge fan. That's why I named this company Pantheon Productions-- in honor of Hadrian's greatest work.

I spent about nine months in Rome in my mid-twenties and I never got bored of wandering into the Pantheon to meditate on the perfection of the place. Of course, it's not exactly as it was in 125 AD when it was built. The statues of the various gods that sat in nooks around the perimeter were removed by the Catholic Church when it took over, and the bronze that lined the ceiling of the portico was taken out by the Barberinis in the Renaissance. But the simplicity of this massive circular structure with it's amazing dome is still awe-inspiring. Whenever I'm there, I daydream of what it must of been like for Hadrian to walk around this structure with his young lover when it was just built. Antinous must have been proud of his partner for creating such an amazingly beautiful place with its intention of bringing people together. Maybe I'm just romanticizing, but I'd be proud of my talented, wise, good-hearted, handsome daddy, ruler of the world if I were he.

Statue of Antinous as Mars overlooking a reflecting pool at Hadrian's Villa

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View all posts by Chris Turner


Hi Chris, I'm a Hadrianophile too! It started when I read Yourcenars at a tender age and I was launched into the world of classical antiquity. My 28 y/o classics prof at Cal was an expert in the Roman Secret Service and I became good friends with him and his much older partner.

I spent a year in Rome and, like you, spent much time at the Parthenon, which is at the top of my favorites too. I thought it odd that Hadrian built his villa in such an ordinary spot -- found out later that his mother-in-law owned much of the land out there. Still, an enchanted place. Did you know that there are more statues of Aninous than of any other figure from antiquity?

Happy Holiday!


Hi Chris!

But you're missing the actual painting by Edouard-Henry Avril of Hadrian and Antinoo at "IT" here! I scrolled down and I was expecting it, as the pinacle of your note :-(

I know just the painting... pretty racy and wonderful. Here's a link to it on Wikipedia-


Let me try the link again-

<a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Édouard-Henri_Avril_(18).jpg" target="blank">Hadrian and Antinous in Egypt by Edouard-Henri Avril</a>

yeah but the relationship ended tragically,
and depressingly, Hadrian was married.

Hi Chris,

Thanks for the article and the pics. Have you seen this one?



Terrific news feature with pics and details about the Hadrian show in London. According to the article, "The Romans had no concept of, or word for, homosexuality, while in the Greek world the partnering of older men with youths was an accepted element of education. "

If we're giving Hadrian and other Greek/Roman Emperors/Philosophers modern day sexual orientation labels they'd be bisexual.