Saturday, May 12, 2012


SOMETIMES re-reading a favorite old book with fresh eyes provides insights which you didn't see the first time you read it. You think you know the book inside-out. But when you re-read years later, you suddenly spot a detail which seems to leap out at you.

That's what happened with Ben Pastor, the award-winning Italian-American historian and author. She knows more about Hadrian and Antinous than almost any other living expert. Her historical novel THE WATER THIEF is an example of fine scholarly research, as are indeed all of her books.

This novel traces the efforts of Aelius Spartianus to discover the fabled LOST TOMB OF ANTINOUS. Aelius Spartianus is a true-life figure who did in fact write a biography of Hadrian nearly 200 years after the death of Antinous, and this fine historical novel shows him at his best in solving the mystery of what secrets lie buried with the Beauteous Boy. Ben Pastor's historical research is superb.

So it was a bit of a surprise when Ben contacted us today with this new insight into the relationship between Hadrian and Antinous. Ben writes:

I am rereading an old favorite of mine, Gregory Nagy's scholarly The Best of the Achaeans: Concepts of the Hero in Archaic Greek Poetry, and something struck me as especially significant regarding the Hadrian-Antinous relationship, especially in view of the Emperor's philohellenism. I quote from page 33, where Patroklos and Achilles (=Man of Sorrow) are discussed:
"Patroklos, however, had not vied directly with Achilles for the title 'best of the Achaeans.' Rather, he became the actual surrogate of Achilles, his alter ego. The death of Patroklus is a function of his being the theràpon of Achilles: this word theràpon is a prehistoric Greek borrowing from the Anatolian languages (most likely sometimes in the second millennium BC), where it had meant "ritual substitute." In death, the role of Patroklus becomes identified with that of Achilles..."
Below, a note mentions the figure of the hero as isos Arei, equal to Ares, hence a hero dies as theràpon of Ares, who is of course immortal.
Interesting, isn't it?
More later as I keep delving into this,

Ben Pastor is touching upon one of the most subtly important linguistic points about the Hadrian-Antinous relationship. We have all read that Antinous was the "favorite" of Hadrian, or variously that Antinous was his "slave" or "servant." But that is because English lacks a word for the sort of relationship which they had.

This is a linguistic problem which has plagued scholars for centuries, in translating texts (such as biblical scriptures) that refer to someone being a "servant" of a man or a god. The original Greek word was "theràpon" in most cases, which is far more than just a servant who is doing a job.

The word theràpon (related to therapeúo = to voluntarily serve) denotes a faithful friend to a superior, who solicitously regards the superior's interest or looks after his affairs, and definitely does not denote a common or domestic servant (oiketes). Theràpon is someone who serves willingly regardless of whether he is a free man (eleútheros) impelled by love, or a slave (doulos) bound by duty.

Thus the devotion of a theràpon was voluntary and higher than that of an ordinary doulos or slave. And so theràpon denotes the willing devotion rendered as well as the relationship between the one serving and the one he serves. It also emphasizes a position which was most honorable and dignified.

It reminds us a bit of the Egyptian concept of the "ushabti," a spirit which is selflessly devoted to someone and who, in fact, is the spiritual equal of that person. In English, ushabti is translated as "slave" or "servant." But the Egyptian word literally means "he who answers" on someone's behalf -- a surrogate, if you will. The ushabti, represented by a poppet or figurine bearing the likeness of the deceased, accompanies that person to the next world,  willingly serving on behalf of that person, meeting all his needs and enabling him to fulfill his spiritual destiny throughout eternity.

Antinous was not a "slave" or "servant." He was a "theràpon" ... a spiritual equal and ritual surrogate for Hadrian just as Patroklos was for Achilles ... selflessly devoted in an exhalted and highly respected way ... identified with his beloved friend for all eternity ... a relationship that quite literally cannot be put into modern words.

1 comment:

  1. As the author of recent novel postulating a fictional scenario of the relationship of Rome's emperor Hadrian with his Bithynian 'Favorite' Antinous ("THE HADRIAN ENIGMA: A Forbidden History", 2010), I am ashamed to admit I have not read Ben Pastor's 2007 novel on the same subject "THE WATER THIEF". I will now chase up a copy from Amazon, it sounds to be an intriguing high priority for me not to be missed.

    With Hadrian's emotional despair at the death of Antinous in Egypt being recorded in the HISTORIA AUGUSTA (Hadrian XIV 6-8), a late-4thCent work assigned to Aelius Spartianus three centuries after the events depicted, the precise factual details of their relationship remain cloudy. Over time Antinous has been seen to be a slave, a servant, a student of Rome's public service college, or - as we see here in Ben Pastor's interesting summary - a "therapon".

    To add to the difficulty it is not only the time distance between our cultures which gets in the way, it may also be a further category of relationship: the adopted, non-elite foundling or son-substitute family status known as "trophimoi". The best known examples of this are the three young trophimoi Memnon, Achilleus, & Polydeukion attached to the household of Herodes Attikos in Athens late in Hadrian's era.

    One wonders whether Hadrian himself considered Antinous to be accorded this socially acceptable form of relationship other than a sexually intimate one? However, it is possible the sexual one more suited the polemical agenda of the 4thCent & its Christian apologists?

    This site's P. Sufenos Virius Lupus may have a better-informed view of this issue than I do, despite my current endeavors scribbling a sequel to "THE HADRIAN ENIGMA" which intersects with this phenomenon.