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Hadrian's Wall

Roman Emperor Hadrian was a reformer, tireless traveller and great patron of architecture. His relationship with his lover Antinous has been the subject of fascination and speculation for centuries. Although now accepted by historians as being gay, the Emperor's own auto-biography hasn't survived.

Marble busts of Emperor Hadrian and Antinous
Marble busts of Emperor Hadrian and his lover Antinous at the British Museum © Creative Commons/Carole Raddato

As Emperor, Hadrian reformed the Roman world and travelled extensively across the Roman Empire to get to know the people and places he ruled.

Outside Rome, Hadrian built a colossal Villa at Tivoli with pavilions and water features in a landscaped park. In Rome, we can still walk beneath the extraordinary dome of the Pantheon - a Temple rebuilt by Hadrian and dedicated to the Gods.

The northern boundary of the Roman world

As part of his tour of the Empire, Hadrian visited Britain in 122 AD. He journeyed to the north of the province to the site of his third, great architectural monument: Hadrian's Wall. This 73-mile-long fortification (80 Roman miles) marked the northern boundary of the Roman world and of the Province of Britania.

Hadrian’s Wall, aerial view of Housesteads Fort
Hadrian’s Wall, aerial view of Housesteads Fort © Historic England Photo Library N061001

A later biography of the Emperor described this trip:

And so, having reformed the army quite in the manner of a monarch, he set out for Britain, and there he corrected many abuses and was the first to construct a wall, eighty miles in length, which was to separate the barbarians from the Romans.

Unattributed biography

Amongst the well-preserved sites that mark the length of the Wall are Housesteads, Chesters Fort and the Temple of Mithras, Carrawburgh.

Their well-preserved architecture and the finds that have been made at these sites, that even include letters,  give a very good idea of the life of a Roman legionary at the frontiers of the then known world.

Changing Rooms at Hadrian’s Wall
Hadrian’s Wall, Changing Rooms, Chesters Roman Fort © Historic England Photo Library N000049

Meeting Antinous

Hadrian is thought to have met Antinous shortly after his tour of Britain in about 123 AD. At the time he was visiting Bythinia, a Greek-speaking province of the Roman Empire in what is now northern Turkey.

Although he was married to the Empress Sabina, Antinous clearly made a deep impression on the Emperor. When they continued their tour to Egypt in 130 AD, Antinous accompanied the Imperial party.

The modern term homosexual didn't exist in the Roman world. It was acceptable in Roman society for an older man, especially of high social status, to have a sexual relationship with a younger man of lower standing. The roles that the partners took were also socially circumscribed.

Hadrian’s loss and grief

In Egypt, on the 24 October 130 AD, tragedy struck and Antinous drowned in circumstances that are still difficult to explain. Hadrian was grief stricken and, in an unprecedented move, he encouraged the belief that his dead lover was now a God.

The Emperor's later biographer explained:

During a journey on the Nile he lost Antinous, his favourite, and for this youth he wept like a woman. Concerning this incident there are varying rumours; for some claim that he had devoted himself to death for Hadrian, and others - what both his beauty and Hadrian's sensuality suggest. But however this may be, the Greeks deified him at Hadrian's request, and declared that oracles were given through his agency, but these, it is commonly asserted, were composed by Hadrian himself.

Unattributed biography

Hadrian founded a new city named Antinoopolis after his deceased lover. It was located on the banks of the Nile, near to the spot where Antinous drowned. Across the Roman Empire beautiful statues of the deified Antinous were erected in temples.

You can see a statue of Antinous at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, which shows him as Osiris, the Egyptian God of the Dead.

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