Anthony Bridgen shares a story from his LGBTQ+ history tour of the Fitzwilliam Museum, part of the University of Cambridge Museums' Bridging Binaries tour programme.



HI! I’m Anthony, volunteer tour guide for the Bridging Binaries project at the Fitzwilliam museum

I’m going to talk to you briefly today about this large marble bust found at Hadrian’s villa in Tivoli of representing a powerful relationship between an emperor and a member of his retinue

This was Amongst the many objects bequeathed by Ricketts & Shannon & depicts a Bithynian youth best known for being the favourite of the Emperor Hadrian. Hadrian, one of the ‘5 good emperors’, is probably best known for the eponymous wall in the North of England, defining the limits of Britannia. In fact, he oversaw a wide-ranging programme of building and consolidating the empire, rebuilding the Parthenon amongst other things.

He is thought to have met Antinous fairly early in his reign & he quickly became one of Hadrian’s favourites and part of his retinue. It was on one of Hadrian’s tours of the empire, as part of a flotilla travailing the Nile, that Antinous died in rather mysterious circumstances, with rumours suggesting everything from suicide to human sacrifice.

Whilst it was not exceptional for emperors to have male lovers, what does appear unique is the apparent depth of feeling Hadrian held for Antinous.
Upon his passing, Hadrian was said by contemporaries to have been distraught and to have ‘wept like a woman’. He then set about commemorating Antinous in a wide range of ways.

  • He deified him as Osiris-Antinous, an honour usually only reserved for the imperial family, founding a cult in his name.
  • At the centre of this cult was Antinopolis, founded near the place of his death
  • Games were held in his honour in both Athens & Antinopolis
  • Sculpture, portraits and coins were made in his image and are found across the empire.

It is common for Antinous to be depicted as a deity, for example here as Dionysus god of wine.

Such pederastic relationships were fairly common in the ancient world, with an older man taking a younger man as a lover. It is only in the relatively recent past that homosexuality became viewed as deviant and it is only recently that legal and societal norms have changed to bring homosexuality back into relative acceptance in this country, although sadly not in many others.