The story of Hadiran and Antinous has provided great fodder for gay historical romance. After all, there are few male historical figures that we know had sexual relationships. Even Alexander and Hephastion may have enjoyed a purely platonic affair. But that Antinous was Hadrian’s sexual partner there can be little doubt. The many memorials left by Hadrian to Antinous seems to suggest there was love there as well, and the fact that Antinous died so young makes the story a tragedy worthy of Shakespeare.
It’s no wonder the story has been so romanticized, but where does the truth lie?The chances are we will never know exactly how Antinous felt about Hadrian, or what Hadrian really thought of Antinous. Each book on the topic, no matter how well researched, is nothing but conjecture. However, of all the books I’ve read on the subject, Eromenos comes off as the most ‘honest’. And the truth hurts.
The hard facts begin with Antinous’ age. Most authors gloss over this, or even try to fiddle with the young man’s age when he died, but the thing is history is pretty clear that Antinous was 19 when he died. He had been with Hadrian for several years by that point. So, while the author doesn’t rub it in your face, if you pay close attention it’s clear that Antinous was no more than 13 when Hadrian first beds him. You can gloss that over any way you like, but for me it’s hard to believe a boy barely into his teenage years is really in a position to understand love and commitment. It kind of takes the romance out of the story.
But then, this is no romance. The book deals with the relationship in ways that seem to make sense, even if they don’t paint a pretty picture of history’s great lovers. Antinous, who tells the story in his own words, isn’t exactly forced. While he may not like the idea at first, he does know what’s required of him, and that he has no choice in the matter – something that becomes a recurring theme. He has no great feeling of love for Hadrian that compels him. At least not at first. He does respect the man, and develops a certain affection for him. Antinous sees Hadrian’s greatness, as well as all his foibles. He also sees much of the empire, and understands the weight it puts on Hadrian’s shoulders alone.
Like other recent books on the subject, such as the last one I read, Eromenos suggests that Antinous took his own life, as a sort of sacrifice. I’m not spoiling anything here, as it’s evident from the first few paragraphs that this is where the book is headed. But in this telling, Antinous’ suicide is not a final great act of love, for while Antinous does love Hadrian by this point, he’s also realized that there really is no future for him. His relationship with Hadrian must end now that he’s becoming a man. Society will accept the emperor’s affair with a boy, but not with a man. He has no family and no estate to return to (in this telling).
The writing of Eromenos is superb, painting a vivid picture of the two men and the world they inhabit. The timeline got a little muddled for me towards the end of the book, but other than that the writing and editing is excellent. It is a bit depressing, in an almost unrelenting fashion, which to be honest is one of the reasons I’m giving four stars and not five. The few tender, romantic moments were just so overwhelmed by the rest of the story that it’s hard to ‘like’ this book, no matter how honest I think it is.