The recent debate about the authenticity of the Warren Cup in the British Museum reminded me that we have a bronze coin in the Numismatic collection at Manchester Museum that depicts Antinoos or Antinous, the male lover of the Emperor Hadrian. It was part of the collection of Harold Raby, a former Keeper of Coins at the Museum, who bequeathed his coins to Manchester Museum. Raby acquired it as part of the Nathan Heywood collection, which he bought en bloc in February 1919.
It is important not to interpret the relationship between Hadrian and Antinoos in modern terms. At the time what was significant was not the sex of the emperor’s sexual partner but whether he took the active role. As Thorsten Opper in Hadrian Empire and Conflict (The British Museum Press, 2008) makes clear in his chapter about Antinoos, Roman men of the upper class were, to all intents and purposes, to be regarded as bisexual. This is why the Warren Cup is so interesting.
The silver Roman drinking vessel depicts two sets of male lovers enjoying sexual intercourse. It is thought to date from the reign of Nero in the first century AD. Luca Giuliani, Professor of Classical Archaeology at Humboldt University in Berlin, has claimed that the cup is in fact an early 20th century forgery because the sexually explicit scenes are otherwise unknown on Roman silverware. The cup was purchased by Edward Perry Warren in Rome 1911. As Warren was gay it has been suggested that the cup was made expressly for him. However, Professor Dyfri Williams, author of a book on the Warren Cup, disagrees, saying that the unique design is not necessarily evidence that the vessel is a fake.
The coin in Manchester Museum Numismatics collection shows Antinoos in profile on the obverse or ‘heads’ side of the coin and Antinoos on horseback on the reverse or ‘tails’. The obverse gives his name very clearly in Greek letters and the reverse also shows some letters from the Greek alphabet. This coin is a so-called ‘Greek Imperial’, i.e. a coin issued by town or city of the Greek-speaking world but under Roman rule. Such towns were allowed to strike low-value coins as a concession by the Roman emperors. This coin was struck in the mint of Alexandria in what was then the Roman province of Egypt where there was a sizeable Greek-speaking population.
Campbell Price, Curator of Egypt and the Sudan, told me recently that people who drowned in the Nile were regarded as gods. It is interesting that Antinoos, the lover of Hadrian, drowned in the Nile and was deified. However, it has been suggested that Antinoos’ death may not have been accidental and that his influence with the emperor was resented by other members of the imperial court. Whatever the cause of his death, a city was founded in his name: Antinopolis.
The relationship between Hadrian and Antinoos was the subject of a critically-acclaimed historical novel, Memoires d’Hadrien (1951) by Marguerite Yourcenar (1903 – 1987). Yourcenar’s personal life may shed some light on why she chose this subject. Yourcenar was bisexual. She met the American literary scholar Grace Frick in 1937. They became lovers and lived together until Frick’s death in 1979. Yourcenar wrote many novels, essays, and poems, and produced three volumes of memoirs of her own. She was elected a member of the Academie Francaise.
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