Tonight I watched a live performance of Mike Walker’s radio play set in Egypt in 130 AD, The Glass Ball Game. It brought to life the tragic love story of Hadrian and his young lover, Antinous.
The cast delivered a brilliant performance among the glass cabinets of London’s Petrie Museum. Egyptian mummies and statues of Horus peered out at them and time stretched as we were transported back to ancient Roman Egypt.
The flamboyant, ever fabulous John J Johnston (Rufius would love him) asked Mike Walker about his version of this rarely dramatised love story.
‘It’s a great love story,’ Mike impressed upon the audience of academics who know the tragedy and the ancient Roman social mores that would have ridiculed the Imperial couple.
Marguerite Yourcenar writes about the great love of Hadrian’s life in her Memoirs of Hadrian. Hadrian fell in love with Antinous in Bithynia when Antinous was a boy. When Antinous is 21 years old he drowns on a boat trip down the Nile with Hadrian. Hadrian deifies Antinous and founds many temples in his honour.
Over two hundred years later in RUFIUS the Temples of Antinous burn along the Nile as the Christians run riot when the destruction of the temples in Egypt was at its height during the long fall of paganism. Centuries after Hadrian and Antinous’ tragedy, the political atmosphere under the Christian Emperors resulted in Roman law becoming increasingly intolerant to heretical worship. Intolerance was behind the laws that condemned cinaedi, men like Rufius and Antinous who took the ‘passive’ role, becoming more severe. Antinous would have faced a loss of dignity. Rufius faced public burning in 391 AD.
If Antinous did take his life, it would have been the only honourable escape. The alternative would have been to have lived the life of Rufius. This young man was no Rufius. You would have had to be a certain type – thick-skinned and with an exhaustive sense of humour – to live openly as a cinaedus in ancient Rome, by Bacchus!
Antinous was too old at 21 years to play the boy without feeling shame. He likely would have been ridiculed. In Mike’s brilliant play, Antinous commits suicide, rather than live his life in shame, never able to live as a man.