British Museum examines Rome’s premier gay couple

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He is best-known in the UK for building a defensive wall as protection against the fierce Scots.

However, back in Rome the Emperor Hadrian was noteworthy for taking his gay lover as a consort, a new exhibition about his life reveals.

Hadrian: Empire and Conflict opens at the British Museum later this year.

Publius Aelius Traianus Hadrianus, to give him his full name, was made emperor in AD117, when the Roman Empire was at its prime.

Many of the artefacts at the exhibition relate to his male companion, Antinous, a young Greek.

Antinous accompanied Hadrian during his travels. There is a poem written on papyrus, with an image of the couple hunting together, and written memorials Antinous wrote to Hadrian after his death at the exhibition.

It was not uncommon for the ancient Romans to have gay lovers, even if they were married.

However, Hadrian was the first emperor to announce his love officially.

When Antinous died, Hadrian was so distraught he named an Egyptian city after him.

The curator of the exhibition, Thorsten Opper, said that the way how Hadrian publicly ‘worshipped’ Antinous was unusual.

“He had to marry, and he had a politically arranged marriage to Sabina, who was the great-niece of the former emperor Trajan, which in effect, set up his succession,” he told The Independent.

“But clearly, it was a loveless marriage with no children.

“What was unusual is that he had a lot of flings, and then after his lover drowned in the Nile AD130 he made him a god.

“Hadrian was clearly bereaved and he had lots of images put up.

When a city was founded close to the spot where Antinous drowned, he named it Antinopolis. It was a sort of hero cult-worship of Antinous.”

Hadrian insisted on the deification of Antinous, a distinction usually for former emperors and their family. But this wasn’t appreciated by the Romans as they did not believe this distinction should be awarded to a foreigner.

It was not their relationship in it itself that was offensive to the public opinion but instead the religious and political dimension that Hadrian gave to his relationship with Antinous.

However, Hadrian’s sexual orientation wasn’t the only unusual aspect of his reign.

He was seen as a peacemaker because he pulled his soldiers out of Mesopotamia or today’s Iraq.

Hadrian was also an educated art lover and he designed the still existent Pantheon in Rome, at the time a bold construction and a breakthrough in design.

Hadrian: Empire and Conflict opens at the British Museum in London on 24th July 2008.