The Mystery Continues
By Karen Andreas
Melanie McDonald has taken on one of the enduring mysteries of the ancient world: the love of the emperor Hadrian for the boy Antinous and Antinous’ mysterious death on the Nile.
On the surface, this might seem to be a simple story. The emperor Hadrian had a relationship, generally assumed to be sexual, with a Greek youth, Antinous. Hadrian loved all things Greek, and so it is not hard to believe that his Greek passion included the concept of love between men. While on a progression through the empire with Hadrian, Antinous drowned in the Nile. The circumstances of that death were never explained; Hadrian returned to Rome, and Antinous was simply dead. The reason this story endures is because Hadrian had Antinous deified. From that deification arose a widespread and pervasive cult, celebrating the youth who was forever young and beautiful.
This is not an historical novel in the terms of understanding the motivations of Hadrian and his time. It is, instead, the journey of a country boy into the intrigues of the Imperial court and his growth into the lover of a jealous sexual tyrant. Told in the first person, McDonald captures the naiveté of the teenage mind forced to jockey for favor in Hadrian’s school for young, attractive boys aspiring to serve in the court, the school being a thinly veiled harem for Hadrian’s future favorites. As Antinous navigates the perilous path to Imperial favorite, the reader goes along for a read liberally sprinkled with mythological references, famous names dropping in and quickly out, with a nod to the philosophers known to educated Romans. The reader had best be prepared for this name dropping, at times heavy-handed, or will miss out on many a nuance.
Superficial, vain, self-absorbed, Antinous is a typical teenager – in that, McDonald has captured a true voice. This provides limited insight to the story of an emperor and his beautiful boy. There is no understanding how Hadrian’s presumed love or fascination grew for the boy, other than the emperor’s propensity for young lovers. Hadrian comes across as petty, jealous and one dimensional. After all, Antinous can only judge by the emperor’s actions towards him. Antinous is, in turn, enthralled, disgusted, bitter, and insecure as he ages towards adulthood and worries his pre-eminence will end.
Missing is the context in which this love affair thrived. It actually does make sense as this story unfolds in Antinous’ mind: most self-absorbed teenagers are blithely unaware of the complexities of their worlds and relationships.
Historians have mused over the death of Antinous and its impact on Hadrian. Because of the first person construct of this book, the poignancy of an older man’s love for the beauty of a certain youth is missing as is the crushing loss that led to Hadrian’s deification of Antinous. Hadrian, in this book, is a serial lover, a sexual predator – beyond his beauty, what makes Antinous so special to the emperor is not known.
McDonald’s theory of Antinous’ death is melodramatic – while it indeed may have been a case of teenage drama, missing is the element of tragedy and poignancy of a life ended so young. The conclusion of the book abruptly ends the story when the most interesting part of the story was about to begin.
If you are looking for a book that creates the interior dialog of a very young man at the time of Hadrian’s Rome, this will be an intriguing read.
about If you are looking to explore the life and times of Hadrian’s Rome and how this affair thrived within the confines of conservative society, the lack of historical context is disappointing.
At the end, it seemed that Antinous realized that his path was towards deification, which depended on his untimely and abrupt death. Whether Antinous’ death was self-sacrifice, despair, accident or nefarious deed, Hadrian ensured that Antinous’ beauty, forever young, and his own love for a Greek boy, endured. As for the details, the mystery continues.
About this Author
Melanie McDonald was awarded a 2008 Hawthornden Fellowship for Eromenos.
She has an MFA from the University of Arkansas. Her short stories have appeared in New York Stories, Fugue, Indigenous Fiction, and online. An Arkansas native whose Campbell ancestors were Highland Scots, she now lives in Virginia with her husband, Kevin McDonald, the author of Above the Clouds: Managing Risk in the World of Cloud Computing.
This Review was written by Karen Andreas
"My first introduction to historical fiction was in the mid-1960s, when I read Sword at Sunset; thus began a life-long love of reading this genre. One of my dearest treasures is a hand written letter from Rosemary Sutcliff. I am in awe of the masters of this craft.
My own background is in nonfiction. I was editor of a fire service publication in Washington, D.C., and am currently the editor and chief writer of a quarterly botanical publication. I live in Florida with my husband Michael, three cats (Yardley, Sparky and Boo Radley) and one horse, Mr. Bojangle"
|Karen and Mr Bojangle|
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