Hadrian’s Wall was built by a gay man

Illustrated rainbow pride flag on a pink background.

One of Britain’s best-known historical landmarks was built by a gay man.

The National Trust’s Prejudice and Pride podcast, hosted by Clare Balding, this week looked at the history of Hadrian’s Wall.

The site was built during the rule of the Roman emperor Hadrian (117-138 AD) to divide Roman-ruled England from the rebellious north and Scotland.

The wall is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most famous historical landmarks in the country, even serving as inspiration for the Game of Thrones setting.

But you may not have known that the man whose name the landmark bears is believed to have been gay.

The emperor Hadrian is said to have been enamoured with the young man Antinous, and their love was no great secret at the time.

Hadrian’s Wall was built by a gay man
Busts of Hadrian (L) and Antinous (R) sit side-by-side at the British Museum (Creative Commons photo/Carole Raddato)

Historian E-J Scott explained: “The Wall was built with the might of 15,000 Roman soldiers, but it’s know widely acknowledged that Hadrian was enamoured with one soldier in particular.

“His name was Antinous, and to put it in modern terms, Hadrian was very much ‘out’ about it.

“When Antinous drowned in the Nile river under mysterious circumstances, Hadrian grieved publicly and made a deity of him. Many adopted him as their god.

“Evidence of his feelings for Antinous still flood the world today in the shape of marble busts of his likeness. It is thought that more representations of Antinous survive than any other figure in ancient history.”

Yes, you read that correctly – Hadrian raised his gay lover to the level of godhood. That’s one hell of a statement.

The head of interpretation at the British Museum, Stuart Frost, explained that many artefacts from the time are indicative of Hardian’s deep love for Antinous.

Hadrian’s Wall was built by a gay man
A section of Hadrian’s Wall still stands 1900 years later (Creative Commons photo/Mike Locke)

An ancient poem preserved on papyrus even reveals a story of Hadrian and Antinous hunting together, recalling the emperor holding back to “test the full sureness of aim of his beauteous Antinous”.

Stuart Frost said: “We’re fortunate that we have a very large collection with a number of representations of Hadrian and Antinous.

“We have an exhibition called ‘Desire, love, identity: exploring LGBTQ histories’, and that display features a magnificent silver medallion of the emperor Hadrian, and facing him we have a copper alloy coin from after Antinous’ death and before the death of Hadrian.

“That coin was issued by a city after Antinous’ death to show support for the emperor – to win his favour. There are lots of other coins like that in the collection.

“There are 30 cities across the Greek-speaking part of the empire that issued those coins, which are testament to the unusual status of Antinous’ relationship with Hadrian.

“In our permanent collection we also have two spectacular marble busts, side by side. One of those depicts Hadrian, and that dates to his reign as emperor. Alongside him in the gallery is a larger bust of Antinous.”

Hadrian’s Wall was built by a gay man
Busts of Hadrian and Antinous at Berlin’s Altes Museum (Creative Commons photo/Carole Raddato)

Robyn Brown of the National Trust said: “It’s really important to acknowledge the queer history of the Wall because we have become so uptight. We’re becoming less uptight.

“The history of Hadrian and Antinous is fantastic. It’s a real emblem. This is the furthest reach of a Roman Emperor who happened to be queer. It’s a fantastic emblem of live and let live.

“But incredibly, this was under our noses – we knew about it, but we kind of ‘forgot’ about it. It’s a brilliant story, there’s even coins minted with Antinous’ face on it, which is really neat.

“Hadrian was married and had kids because that was what the emperor ‘had to do’, but he also had this person who he obviously really adored and cherished and immortalised.

“God knows what his wife’s name was, haven’t a clue what his kids were called, but Antinous still lives on. Now that is real love.”

Stuart Frost of the British Museum also opened up about the slowness of museums to address LGBT history.

He said: “There’s been work going on in museums over the last 10 or 15 years, as queer history’s begun to be addressed more frequently.

” think the reasons for that happening relatively late is obviously linked to the legal framework… the framework in previous decades made it difficult to address these subjects.

“I think museums have slowly changed from that point onwards. There’s obviously been campaigning from the LGBT community.

“From 2000 onwards, museums and heritage sites began to be more active in addressing queer histories.”

Related: Anne Frank was attracted to girls

Related: National Trust shouldn’t let modern-day prejudice derail attempts to tell LGBT history