In the Night
Hadrian had woken up so many nights that by now it felt as if he’d always done so. Outside, a low hanging moon casted its serene glow over their balcony. It must be the moonlight, he thought.
Beside him, Antinous slept soundly, guileless as only the youths can be. His face mesmerized him even in sleep, though in a distinct way from when the boy was awake, when his power felt nearly like a conspiracy to Hadrian, a plot to overthrow him, the mightiest man in all of the empire, from his supremacy.
Hadrian remembered how disorienting it had been when he’d first perceived Antinous’ hold over him. A delirious head rush accompanied the knowledge that here was the man, the boy really, whom he was meant to worship. The only one who could dethrone the emperor of Rome in a single frown. In the beginning, he was certain Antinous hadn’t known what he could do with the curve of his neck as he tilted it towards the light to bite a bunch of grapes, or the shy, invigorating smile on his flushed face after a sprinting match in the garden, but later, as Hadrian’s affections became apparent and his loyalty – who else could even demand loyalty from an emperor – reviewed itself unshakeable, the boy grew confident, eventually petulant. His beauty, which had always been mobile and expressive, took on the assured radiance of the beloved. Hadrian felt as if Antinous demanded things from him not for genuine desire but for testing just how far he, the emperor, could be pushed. Hadrian was Antinous’ willing toy. It must have occurred to the boy that he could be discarded or worse, struck down at any time. Wasn’t an emperor’s humor meant to be fickle? That too, was part of Antinous’ childish game, and the glint that the thrill of this game brought to the boy’s eyes, and the trepidation that glint in turn triggered in himself, those were the things Hadrian lived for.
Watching the boy sleep, as he’d done many times before, Hadrian felt safe. Antinous’ power was muted in his naïvely sleeping face and Hadrian, for the thousandth time, always deep into the night, imagined he was just a boy. A boy he could dash down the balcony this instant, and tomorrow he would demand the empire find him a new favorite, just as fair and twice as docile. It wouldn’t be hard and the boy wasn’t irreplaceable. He told himself. Why live with the fear, he asked himself. How, he asked, can you allow yourself to be so weak?
Years later, he would furtively search for that glint in the statues, coins, paintings and relieves he’d commissioned, and frustrate himself with how singular it had been and how foolish he was for thinking otherwise. Just as Antinous had tested the emperor’s limits, Hadrian tested his own. He lost, and Antinous won, utterly, as Antinous always did. The master to his slave.
Still more years later, a millennium later, others would invent a new terminology for Hadrian and Antinous’ kind of love, and be puzzled as to what drove him to murder his own happiness.
None of it mattered. What survived far longer than any statues and would outlive even their own legend was this: he loved, and was loved in return. It’s impossible – nor is there any need – to categorize that.