09 June 2012
Last year we stationed a number of poets in the Museums and Archives of London to report back on the queer histories hidden therein. Celebrated poet John McCullough explored the British Museum, where he took a bust of the boy god Antinous as his inspiration.
The bust is from Rome, Italy AD 130-140 and represents the emperor Hadrian’s young lover Antinous. Antinous was Greek and born in Mantineum, a small place near the city of Bithynion-Claudiopolis (now northern Turkey). This bust originally belonged to a full-length statue, which was found in the eighteenth century, built into a wall on the Janiculum Hill in Rome. It is known that the Roman emperor Hadrian passed through the area where Antinous was born in AD 123 and many scholars believe this was when they met. Later sources make it very clear that Hadrian and Antinous formed a homosexual relationship.
Although we know little of their personal relationship, it is understood they shared a passion for hunting. In AD 130 Hadrian visited Egypt with the imperial entourage, including his wife Sabina and Antinous. After an extended stay in Alexandria, they embarked on a voyage up the River Nile. On 24 October Antinous drowned in the river, on the same day the locals were commemorating the death, by drowning in the Nile, of the Egyptian god Osiris.
Hadrian maintained Antinous’ death was an accident, nevertheless, malicious rumours soon spread. Some thought he had committed suicide or that he had been sacrificed. Others claimed Antinous sacrificed himself to prolong the life of the emperor. For the Romans homosexual relationships were not unusual, but the intensity with which Hadrian mourned Antinous’ premature death and encouraged his cult in the eastern empire was without precedent.
We think John has beautifully imagined the passion and agony of this ancient love affair, see what you think...
By John McCullough, commissioned for Write Queer London 2012
He rose through Hadrian: a winding steam
that cooked each swollen vein and bone. A lad
so fathomless and blue a river thought
he was the sky, plunged down his throat.
His lover made all Rome lament, decreed
the birth of towered cities for a god,
each dominated by the marble stares
of busts of that sweet head, remote as stars.
They weren’t enough. The emperor’s blue wound
remained. He cursed the world, its lustful noise.
Hadrian, who could not stop the waves
that sizzled on the shore, the thunder’s boil
and, round his busts, the scratch of shrivelled leaves,
transported by a promise from the wind.
Image © Trustees of the British Museum