Regarding the Importance of Antinous
One may say with some degree of conviction that the pederastic relationship between the emperor Hadrian and his Greek ephebe, Antinous, is merely a curiosity in the scheme of history, of interest only to those who make it a habit to dabble in queer studies. However, there is relevancy to both the student of history and the humanities to the episode which scandalized the Roman World--the tragic romance between Hadrian and Antinous.
Even before Antinous' death, there was scandal among the roman populace; Hadrian and his wife, the empress Sabina, were estranged and no heir seemed to be forthcoming. Hadrian, however, remained a popular emperor for much of his career; the circumstances surrounding the death of his lover, however, would soon change that.
Both from his behavior after Antinous' death and from mentions of his conduct before it, we can infer that Hadrian loved Antinous more than any other thing in his life, possibly more than the civic crown itself; it is recorded that Hadrian 'grieved for Antinous like a woman', unable to perform his duties as emperor for months after the boy died. Of Antinous' feelings we have no record; there is speculation in equal parts that he was worshipfully in love with the emperor and that he drowned himself out of shame, as supposed by The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, where he receives an unflattering mention as 'the object of Hadrian's unnatural lust'. One theory suggests that, in accordance with the Egyptian belief that to drown oneself in the Nile would bring long life to the one you most loved, he ended his life in order to cure Hadrian of the illness that would eventually claim his life.
This leads us to an interesting social conundrum regarding age of consent laws and unbalanced relationships. It is very possible that Antinous was unwilling in his involvement with Hadrian; he was taken from Bithynia as a boy of twelve to be educated in the imperial finishing school for civil servants and may have been simply impressed into the Emperor's bed by the various powers aligned against him. It is certainly worth mentioning that the vast difference in ages between Hadrian and Antinous were a cultural norm for the Hellenistic system of pederasty still prevalent, though diminished, in the time of the Five Good Emperors. According to such an arrangement, an older man would take a boy, nine to twelve years old, and educate, refine, and care for him--while sometimes receiving sexual favors for his trouble. This is, in fact, precisely what Hadrian did; it is unfair, as the Decline and Fall implies, to say that Hadrian wrought an unnatural and culturally unacceptable deed on a powerless boy. Indeed, Antinous received one of the best educations in the Roman nation for his trouble, and was raised in the lap of luxury--far more than he could have ever expected in Bithynium-Claudiopolis. Similarly, one must remember that all speculation regarding the circumstances surrounding Antinous' death are merely that; it is perfectly probable that he really did accidentally fall into the river and drown. One must, however, consider the following:
According to the Hellenistic system of pederasty, it was perfectly normal for a boy to serve as a man's sexual partner until he began to grow a beard; at this time, if he continued to take a passive role in sexual activities, he was termed pathetic, pathicus. Antinous himself was taken near the age of twelve; by the time of his death, he was eighteen to twenty. Hadrian, who was clearly a homosexual by nature rather than a pedophile, showed no sign of relieving him from his position as the emperor's favorite. As such, Antinous may very well have experienced severe depression as a result of secret censure by his peers as pathicus or cinaedus, a more severe term implying a sort of mercenary perversion like that of a prostitute. Indeed, it is reasonable in this light to suppose that he may very well have ended his life by suicide; he may have taken both a love for Hadrian (motivating Egyptian self-sacrifice for his benefit) and his despair as the Emperor's male lover and combined them into a very real mori voluntus. Similarly, Hadrian and Antinous were by no means equals, and Antinous was most certainly aware of this. This in itself may have caused great internal distress for the boy, again pointing to the possibility of suicide on his part.
What, then, is the present application for these things? In modern terms, one may consider the history of Hadrian and Antinous to be a reflection on our socialis mos against workplace relationships between a superior and subordinate. On a deeper level, however, one mus consider: Hadrian clearly loved the boy, and it seems very possible that Antinous returned his affection in part. Taking the situation into a modern context, would it still be correct to prohibit such a thing, assuming the same mutual affection were there, despite the consequences? This is a matter for philosophers, however, and outside the ken of the author.
It was not only Hadrian who suffered from the death of Antinous, but the Roman Empire--most specifically, the Jews. This seems a rather wild connotation until one considers that Hadrian was functionally unsound after the death of his lover, which unfortunately occurred shortly before the Bar-Kochba rebellion in Jerusalem. The Jewish people had been long clamoring for independence, with perennial messianic revolts and zealot resistance against Roman Occupation. This final rebellion seems to have been the last blow against Hadrian's patience, and the emperor cracked down on the Jewish people with an unprecedented viciousness completely out-of-character with the rest of his reign. Indeed, this was the end of the Jewish nation until the twentieth century--Hadrian ordered the Jews dispersed from their homeland and scattered across the earth, and then burned and rebuilt Jerusalem as a Roman Colony.
The constant strain, however, had taken its toll on Hadrian; tortured by the illness that Antinous' death had aggravated, the emperor was now tormented by constant pain. He begged his physicians daily to poison him; during this time, he became paranoid, violent, and ordered several high-ranking Romans executed. Thus unhinged by Antinous' death, Hadrian died a hated ruler; it was, in fact, only with his successor's plea to the senate that he was allowed to have the deification owed to all Roman Emperors conferred on him.
And yet, the imagination is captivated by the tragedy of Hadrian and Antinous' short-lived romance. Antinous was deified and a nation was destroyed; an emperor was ruined and a new city, Antinoopolis, built. One is impressed by the almost-mythical scale of this romance, on par with the face that launched a thousand ships. What other romance in Roman history can compare to this power, this tragedy, and this earth-shaking consummation in the waters of the nile?