Monthly Archives: February 2015

Desire & Deceit in Alexandria

Desire & Deceit sml

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.

JJJ & Mike walker

‘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.

St Valentine & the Gnostics

cupid14th February has been a holiday since ancient Roman times. The Roman festival of Lupercalia, a spring festival coincided with this date.

As with many pagan festivals, St. Valentine’s Day appears to be an example of the Roman Catholic Church substituting a saint’s feast day for a popular pagan holiday. There were three saints called Valentine who could be associated with the theme of love. Valentinus, the Gnostic mystic is a less likely contender as he would have been condemned as heretical by the Nicenes (Catholics), however if he was the inspiration for this date, it is the only Gnostic Christian day in the Christian calendar.

Valentinian literature is filled with the imagery and metaphor of spiritual love and marriage.

Valentinus did not deny the physical dimension of love, but sought something greater, something transcendent and hidden, which can be missed if we do not penetrate beneath the surface of sexual union.

‘That fire burns only at night and is put out. But the mysteries of this marriage are perfected rather in the day and the light.’ (The Gospel of Philip)

Two books in RUFIUS were possibly Valentinian: The Gospel of Philip and the Pistis Sophia.* 

Both The Gospel of Philip and the Pistis Sophia were condemned as heretical by the bishops and after much destruction of temples and libraries across the ancient world, on 4 March 398 A.D., a law was promulgated that condemned all heretical books to the pyres. That would have included not only religious books, but books of mathematics and astrology.

‘We command that the books containing the doctrine and matter of all their crimes shall immediately be sought out and produced, with the greatest astuteness and with the exercise of due authority, and they shall be consumed with fire immediately under the supervision of the judges.’ (Theodosian Code, Law 16.5.34)

Thanks to book-loving monks and, of course, thanks to Rufius, the Pistis Sophia survived. When I first came across it in the British Library in 2004, I was intrigued as to how it got there. It must have had an interesting journey from ancient Egypt to Georgian London (it was probably copied in the Ancient Library of Alexandria.)

Rufius tells the story of the Pistis Sophia’s survival. In the novel I call it The Book of Wisdom.

The story of the Pistis Sophia, or the Askew Codex (named after Dr Askew, the collector who bequeathed it to the British Library) is fictional, but thanks to many experts including the curator of the manuscript at the British Library, Dr. Nersessian, it is a plausible tale.

Askew Codex Image 

Askew Codex (MS 5114) 


*In RUFIUS, I assign the Pistis Sophia to the Ophites, but it is just as likely to be the work of Valentinus, or another Gnostic group.