The emperor Hadrian made the curious decision to deify his deceased favourite, Antinous, and to build temples and a city in his memory.
It’s worth reflecting a little Hadrian’s absurd-seeming action of deifying his bum-boy. It’s too easy to dismiss this action as merely the product of grief. To do so makes a good story, but politicians are very capable of exploiting grief. Men like Hadrian, who have obtained supreme power by virtue of their own ability, do nothing without a reason.
Let’s be realistic. Is it really possible that Hadrian himself supposed that a boy, whom he picked up while on tour, and whose pleas and tears and cries of pain he ignored for his pleasure, was any sort of deity whatsoever? Can anyone else in Rome have thought so either? Surely every ordinary Roman must have smirked or scowled at the very thought, precisely as they would have laughed at the emperor deifying a mistress. It’s either a joke or an impiety. So … why did the wise, intelligent emperor – and Hadrian was both these things – do this?
If we leave aside the picture of an oriental despot enacting his whims – for Hadrian’s rule was not that absolute – then we have to ask what practical effect the measure had. The most obvious effect is that it subordinates the gods to the emperor. A god is nothing, if Antinous is a god. What matters is the emperor. Indeed we already see this attitude in Martial’s flattery of Domitian. There can be no sensible criticism of an emperor as impious, if piety is whatever the emperor says it is. I wonder, in fact, whether this action is related to some kind of now lost criticism of Hadrian as impious for not spending more of his time in Rome?
If the gods are the creatures of the emperor, then this is a measurable step towards despotism, towards the late empire. It’s impossible to imagine Augustus doing this.
We must also ask what the effect was, on Roman social capital. The effect, obviously, is to degrade Roman self-image. Romanitas and pietas and virtus are all diminished by the act of deifying Antinous.
Finally we have to ask what the effect in the long term was. If a god is just a man – even a vile one – whom a ruler has marked out for distinction, then what becomes of Olympian Zeus and his band of allies? Are they too just men, “deified” by men of the past? It must be a natural inference that they are. So … are there any real gods at all? And, if there are, mustn’t they be something quite other than the regular pagan pantheon, which is populated at the whim of a man? Something like the Sun, which no ruler can affect? Something like the God of the Hebrews, who is universal?
It’s impossible to say. It is a strange act by a clever man. Maybe it really did lay open the way for the Christians.