Sunday, August 24, 2008

Hadrian and Antinous

I spent the afternoon at the British Museum today visiting the "Hadrian: Empire and Conflict" exhibition, which continues until October 26. It is well worth seeing, even if the presentation is somewhat superficial. One highlight for me was the display of a partial statue of the Roman emperor discovered recently at the site of Sagalassos in Turkey; I had visited the extensive excavations there a few years ago, before this particular find.

But the most interesting aspect of the exhibition was the considerable attention given to the story of Hadrian and the Greek Antinous, the emperor's male lover, who accidentally (maybe) drowned in the Nile--an event that sparked an Antinous cult all over the Mediterranean, which Hadrian encouraged (the cult seems to continue in some quarters even today.) Not only did the museum devote an entire room to the love story, but a statue of Antinous graced the entrance to the exhibition (see photo at right.) I noticed a few nervous parents trying to explain it all to their children, but the museum--and the British in general--deserve kudos for giving this ancient homosexual relationship prominence. The museum bookshop even carried several prominently displayed books about bisexuality in ancient times, which was more accepted than today (although only under certain circumstances; eg, the Romans thought it was fine as long as men engaging in same-sex behavior maintained their "virility.")

I wonder how an American museum would handle such a subject, or whether this aspect of Hadrian's life would be given more than a mention, if that? Many of today's curators are a timid lot, regularly caving in to pressure from Christian evangelists, "family values" groups, and other pressure groups, sometimes cancelling entire exhibitions due to political pressure.

Anyway, if you are in London between now and October, be sure to check it out.

Photo above: Statue of Antinous at the British Museum taken with my cell phone because I forgot to take my camera with me. French painter Édouard-Henri Avril did a much better job in this 19th century painting of Hadrian and Antinous in Egypt (Wikimedia Creative Commons.)


Carl Hernandez said...

if hadrian and antinous had an illicit relationship. =)). i saw that painting copy on wikipedia. thanks.=))

Anonymous said...

Do you know where this painting is now? (Hadrian and Antinous in Egypt)
please let me know