(c) Rev. Doug Slagle, Minister to the Gathering at Northern Hills, All Rights Reserved
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If you search through history, there are many truly beautiful love stories. The love stories of Antony and Cleopatra, Abigail and John Adams, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, Marie and Pierre Curie, and Jackie and Rachel Robinson are examples of almost legendary affection and commitment. But as diverse as those couples were, they shared a love that never had to be hidden – or was subject to persecution.
As the theme for my message series this month says, my intention is to discuss examples of diverse love stories that highlight not only the wide spectrum of human affection, but also the universality of how love is expressed. As I said in last week’s message, and as I say in every marriage ceremony at which I officiate, love is love no matter who the two people are.
No bond between two consenting adults is better or worse than another. Since love is the highest sentiment one can have for another, then it stands to reason that every coupling between two people, since the dawn of humanity, was and is deserving of respect.
In that light, I offer today the example of profound love between the ancient Roman Emperor Hadrian and his male lover Antinous. On any list of history’s great love stories, their’s is included.
Hadrian was from an elite Roman family. At a young age he had ambitions to be Emperor but he was unfortunately not related to one. After marrying into the extended family of Emperor Trajan, Hadrian later persuaded Trajan to adopt him as his son and thus as his successor.
Once he became Emperor, Hadrian worked to strengthen and protect the Roman Empire. He ruled from 117 to 138 CE and for the majority of that time, he traveled across the vast Empire – from Spain to India and from Britain to Morocco – all to oversee it in person. Edward Gibbon, writer of the definitive History of the Roman Empire, said Hadrian was one of only five effective Emperors.
During one of his visits to northern Italy, he met Antinous who was from a common but respected family. Antinous was either 17 or 18. He was considered to be remarkably handsome, if not beautiful. Hadrian, who was in his late thirties, was immediately taken with him. Hadrian declared Antinous to be the handsomest man in the entire Empire and he asked him to join his royal entourage.
For three years, the two were inseparable. Antinous was educated and quite capable to be the close companion of the worldly Hadrian. He had skills of hunting and horsemanship – which endeared him even more to the athletic Emperor. The two hunted lions together in Africa, criss-crossed the Mediterranean in open ships, led the Roman Army in battle, and were a publicly recognized couple. They did not hide their love.
That was despite Hadrian’s marriage which was apparently loveless. Emperors were expected to produce heirs but Hadrian and his wife never had children. Having a lover of either gender was widely accepted, especially for those who had married for political purposes.
Antinous was more than a lover, however. From all accounts, he was Hadrian’s constant companion, confidante, and partner. He was the subject of hundreds of love poems Hadrian wrote about him. He was equally Hadrian’s health advocate and caretaker because the Emperor suffered from a chronic and often incapacitating kidney condition. On several occasions, he nearly died from it.
During a visit to Rome’s colony in Egypt, Hadrian was again ill. While the historical record is unclear, during their cruise south on the Nile, Antinous drowned in the river. Details of how and why it happened are unknown. But it is known that Antinous died on the same day Egyptians celebrated Resurrection Day of their god Osiris. Every year Egyptians believed Osiris sacrificed himself to die in the Nile in order to insure it will seasonally flood – and thereby enrich the vital fields alongside it. The god died so that life would thrive.
Romans at the time, and historians today, surmise that Antinous copied Osiris’ example by sacrificing himself so that Hadrian might be cured. While it cannot be proven, since nobody at the time knew how or why Antinous drowned, the fact that he drowned alone, on the same day the myth of Osiris was celebrated, seems more than coincidence.
As further evidence for that conjecture, Hadrian’s reaction to Antinous’ death was epic. Within a week of the drowning, Hadrian ordered that a new and lavish Roman city named Antinopolis be built exactly where his lover drowned. He also declared that Antinous should henceforth be worshipped as a god – an honor previously reserved only for Emperors.
The cult and worship of Antinous then became widely popular across the Roman Empire for over two hundred years — outlasting memories of Hadrian himself. The cult’s popularity was primarily due to Antinous’ probable self-sacrifice for the one he loved.
To encourage worship of Antinous, Hadrian commissioned over two-thousands statues of him and built 28 Temples in his honor – all distributed throughout the Empire. At Hadrian’s villa, one that archaeologists discovered in the 18th century, there were over 80 statues and busts of Antinous. Even more, Antinous’ face, as a god, was featured on literally millions of ancient Roman coins. By all accounts, Hadrian deeply mourned Antinous until his own death twenty years later.
Interestingly, the cult of Antinous began at approximately the same time that Christianity was expanding. And reaction to the cult by Christian leaders was predictable. Tertullian, one of the early Christian leaders, asked how a god could be a sodomite. He and other Christian leaders denounced Antinous’ sacrifice by saying it was done not for love – but for immorality. Such criticism came despite his death’s similarity to Jesus’ death who, according to Christian theology, likewise sacrificed himself as a gesture of love.
What is inspiring to me, therefore, is not just the example of profound love between two men, but what their story says about love in general. Ancient Greek philosophers said that love is expressed in four ways. The first type of love, called “storge” in Greek, is the caring and empathetic bond between closely related family members – like that between parents and children. The second kind of love, called “phillos”, is affection between friends who share common values and interests. The third kind of love, named “eros”, is one between romantic lovers. It is passionate love, based on attraction. The final kind of love, called “agape”, is unconditional and pure and it is the type of love Antinous offered to Hadrian with his likely self-sacrifice.
Modern psychologists note that love is often defined by two or more types of expression. I love my daughters because they are related to me as offspring. But the emotions I’ve formed by raising and caring for them also elicit in me unconditional love. I have both “storge” and “agape” love for them. Multiple forms of love are also felt by many married and partnered couples. They first come together by passion and attraction – “eros” love. They remain together by often becoming best friends – “phillos” love. And that love can evolve, as it did for Hadrian and Antinous, to be unconditional or “agape” love. Couples often feel a mix of “eros, phillos and agape” love.
It’s unconditional or “agape” love, however, that’s considered the most sincere. Jesus, as a Christian god, is worshipped because he supposedly submitted to a sacrificial death as a way to show agape love for humanity. The Bible indicates, however, that such love was NOT unconditional since only those who believe in Jesus’ sacrifice will enjoy eternity in Heaven. In other words, Jesus set a condition for his love.
The problem for me with Christianity is not just its supernatural beliefs in miracles, but its claim that God loves all people. The truth of Christianity says the opposite. God will love and reward people only if they believe in and obey him. If you don’t, God will punish you with an an eternity in Hell.
Whatever is the creative force in the universe, be it a supernatural God, the power of love, or a scientific theory of everything, I don’t believe that force is manipulative or hateful toward anyone. Indeed, the Bible contradicts itself by saying God created humanity in his image and loves them as his children, even though it also says he sends many who don’t believe in him to Hell. Once again, that is a problem I have with Christianity. The kind of love it believes in is transactional and selfish. You will only be loved if you selfishly believe Jesus is God in order Togo to Heaven.
A more noble love, for me, is that defined by Unitarian Universalists. We believe that whatever great force there is that defines everything, it loves and accepts everyone. Nobody goes to Hell, which thereby renders hell as impossible to exist.
Universalists believe every person has dignity and worth. Everyone is to be loved no matter what. That is unconditional love. It’s available to every person, just for being human, and is independent of what one does or doesn’t do. We are loved no matter what.
That gets at the kind of love Antinous had for Hadrian. He sacrificed his life for the one he loved. That’s a love I find stunning in its intensity. It challenges me to wonder if I am capable of offering it. To sacrificially love another is to willingly give up something of tremendous value – a significant amount of one’s time, health, or wealth – without wanting anything in return. That even includes loving someone without expecting them to love you back. You simply love. No ifs, ands or buts.
I imagine it is for that reason that Hadrian was so devastated by Antinous’s likely sacrificial suicide for his sake. It’s also why the worship of Antinous became so widely popular in the Roman Empire and why early Christian leaders were compelled to attack it because it threatened their Jesus cult based on his sacrifice. Like some religions, they condemned honoring Antinous in ways that are familiar for same-sex couples today. Same sex love is today often attacked as perverted, unnatural, and deserving of death.
The story of Antinous’ suicidal sacrifice, however, is one for the ages. Not many people willingly die so that the one they love may live. One modern writer named Fulton Sheen says, “True love isn’t about you – and what you can get. It’s about you – and what you have to give.”
An anonymous commentator added to that idea by saying, “True love is sacrifice. It is in giving, not in getting; in losing, not in gaining; in realizing, not in possessing, that we love.”
As with many ideals of right behavior, the difficulty is not to believe sacrificial love is good, but to believe that so strongly that we do our very best to practice it.
Last week I said that every person longs to love and to be loved. In reality, that order should perhaps be reversed. We long to be loved and only then are we willing to love another. The fictional character Carrie Bradshaw, in the famous TV show “Sex and the City”, once said, “Our culture does not love love. It values the emotion without paying anything for it.”
I confess to sometimes feeling that way. I like being loved. But how much do I sacrificially love others by serving, giving, forgiving, and accepting their flaws without implicitly wanting something from them in return? Too often my love is conditional. If I love you – you must love me back.
Ultimately, sacrificial love is about what I believe is our purpose in life. We don’t exist to serve, please and love just ourselves. While we need our basic needs met first, our purpose is to be selfless and not selfish. In truth, we should be sacrificial lovers.
I encourage all of us, therefore, to reflect on the nature of love. In doing so, it’s important to know that unconditional love does not mean one should endure abuse by another. We can and must love every person, but we need not love their bad actions. We should set boundaries for how we expect people to act – and establish consequences if they don’t. But we must still love them as people.
Antinous and Hadrian’s love is a beautiful example for the ages. We do not need to die for someone to still be sacrificially giving in how we love our partners, families, friends, and total strangers. Reason tells us that if everyone was truly selfless and sacrificial in loving all others, everyone would thereby be loved. Nobody would feel the sting of being hated, ignored, or forgotten. To love another person sacrificially, is to never count the cost. If I truly love you, then I simply love you no matter what.
And I wish you all peace, joy and much love.