A TEMPLE built by the Roman emperor Hadrian to honour the death of his young male lover and lost to the world for almost 2,000 years has unexpectedly come to light.
The ruins of the enormous semi-circular structure were uncovered during new excavations at Hadrian’s sprawling villa about 20 miles east of Rome. They provide fresh insight into one of the world’s most famous homosexual relationships.
“This is the most important archaeological discovery in this region for years,” said Anna Maria Reggiani, the superintendent of archaeology for the Lazio region. Comparing the excavation to the twists and turns of a soap opera, she said: “No-one knew what to expect, but we are convinced that we have found the missing monument to Antinous.”
Hadrian lived from 76-138 AD and was regarded as one of Rome’s finest emperors. The 73-mile long Hadrian’s Wall was built on his orders, probably given during his visit to Britain in 122 AD, and in order, it is thought, to make the northern boundary of his vast empire.
But he was said to have been grief-stricken when his teenage Greek lover, Antinous, drowned in the Nile in 130 AD.
Hadrian and Antinous’s relationship scandalised early Christian historians who wrote of Hadrian’s “unlawful pleasure” with the “scandalous boy”. Gay activists counter that prudish versions of history have swept their romance under the rug – or even touted it as one more cause of the Roman Empire’s decline.
That the emperor kept a boy lover was hardly worthy of note in classical Rome, nor was there evidence that their relationship did anything to bring the house of Hadrian into disrepute.
Born Publius Aeliues Hadrienus in 76 AD, Hadrian was said to have developed such an early fondness for Hellenic culture that he earned the nickname “the Greekling”.
He married the future Empress Sabina in the year 100, when she was about 13. Joining the army as a teenager, he made his mark as a military man but was better known for his love of architecture.
Antinous was about 25 years younger; he is thought to have become the emperor’s favourite when aged about 14.
Antinous drowned in the Nile in about 130 AD, but it is not known whether he fell in, committed suicide or was murdered. One theory has him as the victim of a court plot. Either way, Hadrian immediately declared him a god, and founded the memorial city of Antinopolis in Egypt on the spot where his body was found.
Until now, however, it appeared that Hadrian had never built a temple to his favourite at the villa that served as both the government headquarters and his luxurious personal residence.
Statues of Antinous made to honour the new deity were erected throughout the Roman empire after his death, providing a kind of photographic record of the beautiful teen. They often mimicked the form of the Egyptian god Osiris, who also drowned in the Nile.
Hadrian ensured relative peace and prosperity for the Roman empire during his reign from 117 AD to 138 AD. But he is said to have mourned Antinous until the day of his own death, eight years later. His villa was abandoned when he died and pillaged during the Renaissance to build the neighbouring gardens and Villa d’Este.
Zaccaria Mari, the head archaeologist on the site, started to dig outside the main villa complex in 2000 on a hunch that he would find a new gateway into the complex.
He uncovered a piazza marking the main entrance to the villa and the original rectangular flagstone driveway that leads to carriage “garages”, but he also made what is being called the most important recent discovery in the region.
Archaeologists have dug up parts of the walls of the monumental temple that dates to 134 AD, shortly after Antinous’s death, and made a couple of exploratory excavations.
“We found a series of fountains and planters for interior gardens, niches for statues and very important marble fragments, some with Egyptian hieroglyphics,” Mr Mari said.
“I’m sure this discovery will cause a lot of controversy, because it flies in the face of previously accepted theories, but only further excavations will give all of the answers,” said Ms Reggiani.