Eromenos by Melanie McDonald
Book Review by Ludovicus
Melanie McDonald’s Eromenos, is a fictional journal in the voice of the youthful Antinous of Bithynia, second century beloved of the hellenophile Emperor Hadrian. In this richly worded and well-researched novel the author skillfully imagines Roman history’s most famous same sex relationship. As confidants we accompany Antinous while he unburdens his heart in chapters titled Earth, Air, Fire, and Water, the basic elements of Greek science.
The author takes great care to detail the second century settings of her tale. Antinous's boyhood Bithynia in Asia Minor is a provincial town steeped in Greek identity and newly refashioned both by Roman engineering and by obligations to Roman power. While the town’s new aqueduct has provided a better quality of life, citizens are drafted to fight or build in faraway Britannia and Dacia. Our handsome young protagonist, born into a family of small farmers recently ascendant in the Romanized world, absorbs the Greek classics of his proud ancestry while gaining grace and skill in hunting.
But competing cultures also form part of this world as we travel from Bithynia to Rome and then to points throughout the Empire. This is an aspect of the narrative that really held my attention. Greeks feel secure in their intellectual superiority over the Romans; the latter put off the Hellenes by displays of unrestrained power. Both cultures view the barbarian races with disdain. Thus a major theme of the book is the multicultural character of the Roman Empire, a feature that provides not only the setting of the tale but also the tension at the heart of the relationship between Hadrian and the youth he chooses as his lover.
Roman insecurities, the emperor’s among others, in the face of acknowledged Greek cultural gifts play out in several points in McDonald’s story. Hadrian’s desire for the young Antinous imitates the Greek pattern of erastes/eromenos, older male lover and compliant adolescent. Incorporated into the imperial paedagogium (school for pages) at Rome, the comely and classically educated youth soon becomes the emperor’s new favorite. There the young patrician Gracchus, displaying a moment of Roman self-doubt, badgers Antinous with interrogations about Socrates. “If the Greeks were so advanced, why did they condemn Socrates to death?” At one point, the emperor and his consort partake in a cycle of Greek initiation rites around the Mediterranean. They visit Athens, capital of Greek intellectual heritage. Despite these attempts at Roman self-Hellenizing, Hadrian is described as exhibiting “fears and pretensions” in the company of philosophers in Athens. The emperor’s Greek language skills are “no match for a native’s.” In the end, Roman is unable to best Greek.
His peach fuzz darkening, the teenage Antinous must confront the eventual end of his role as eromenos. After all, what is love? Can it exist between people of unequal status? What are the costs of such a love? These questions now shape Antinous’s self-reflection. In the last chapter Water, in Egypt, unavoidable conclusions drive Antinous toward his end.
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Visit the Pincian Hill in Rome. There you will see Hadrian’s obelisk dedicated to the deified Antinous. Though early Christian writers condemned his relationship with Hadrian, the Vatican nonetheless displays a magnificent full-length sculpture of the youth. Several of the great museums of the world also feature his statue, often in the guise of a young god. The beautiful youth’s image was minted on Roman coins, the only non-imperial to appear. Hadrian ordered cities, temples, festivals, and a constellation named in honor of Antinous. The affair of the Emperor and Antinous of Bithynia has left a lasting imprint in the memory of the West. In Melanie McDonald’s very enjoyable short novel we get an opportunity to imagine the source of the legend.