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Hadrian is my favorite emperor1.
I’d have loved him for the Pantheon alone, with its soaring, unprecedented, unmatched dome. It’s still the largest unreinforced concrete one in the world. But better than the engineering is the psychology: the entire building was designed as a surprise. Given where it stood, we think that visitors couldn’t see that it wasn’t an ordinary temple with a rectangular cella until they were inside. The street level, lower than the present one, plus the buildings all around blocked any view of the dome from the outside.
Imagine the dropped jaws, the O’s of mouths matching the oculus above. Imagine a mind that could design2 such a jest.
And he’d done it before, with the Temple of Venus and Rome. In his design, the two cellae for the goddesses stood back to back, matched half-domes separating the palindrome: ROMA )( AMOR. The guy was a playful intellectual.
But that’s not why I fell for him as a historical figure. Stone is all very well, but I love story more. And the story that hooked me, when I heard it in my Topography and Monuments of Ancient Rome class in college, was that of Antinous.
Hadrian’s marriage to Vivia Sabina was wretched3. Instead, Hadrian lavished his devotion and his tenderness on a handsome boy he’d met while traveling in Bithynia, and whom he brought with him everywhere. Was their relationship sexual? We will never know. Was it abusive, since Antinous joined Hadrian’s entourage at 13? Probably, at the very least in the sense that the emperor had no equals, so that his wishes ever become his commands. Was it, for Hadrian, transformative, electrifying, inspiring, obsessive? Yes, very much. I don’t know that I approve, but I understand.
And then, in 130, the twenty year old Antinous drowned in the Nile.
Hadrian was devastated, and determined to seed the entire empire with the memory of the young man. He named cities after him, commissioned statues, struck medals. He had Antinous deified (he became associated with the cult of Osiris in Egypt) and built a shrine to him in his villa at Tivoli. He even placed him in the heavens.
And the loss broke some part of Hadrian forever. Except for those memorials, the only thing he designed after Antinous died was his own tomb.
I’m sure it’s all a farrago of spin and speculation, but as Philip Larkin says of another story told in statues:
Time has transfigured them into
Untruth. The stone fidelity
They hardly meant has come to be
Their final blazon, and to prove
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.