Saturday, July 16, 2022


HERE's a riveting book you must be sure to read … the mystery of the death of Antinous. 

George Gardiner's THE HADRIAN ENIGMA: A FORBIDDEN HISTORY masterfully recreates that fateful tour up the Nile and the tragic death which changed the course of history.

Gardiner's novel is written in the form of a whodunnit with possibly the most original investigator imaginable ... the Roman historian Suetonius, who is traveling with the entourage. 

Author of such juicy tomes as "De vita Caesarum" (commonly known as "The Twelve Caesars") and "Lives of Famous Whores" and other tell-all books, Suetonius has the investigative skill and the jaundiced eye to peer behind the veil of Roman dignity to see the sordidness underneath.

Suetonius and two other Patricians, with Strabo as their forensic stenographer, uncover a tale of sex, intrigue and treason which sends such powerful shock waves through the Imperial coterie that Hadrian is compelled to order a cover-up ... hence, the subtitle "A Forbidden History". 

Thus, the official line is Hadrian's pronouncement that "he fell into the Nile" while only Suetonius's secret manuscript reveals the true story ... a manuscript "found" by Gardiner.

The reader sees the case through Suetonius's eyes as he investigates the death, looking for clues.

Gardiner superbly describes the elaborate Imperial compound along the banks of the Nile ... basically a tent city on a fabulously grand scale, a palace made of fabrics with the entire Imperial court transferred from Rome to this remote stretch of the Nile.

Antinous had shared his quarters with a couple of other "ephebes", though he had a private sleeping area ... where only Hadrian had ever been. Suetonius and his Patrician assistants (with Strabo as their scribe), sift through his belongings and interrogate everybody, half of whom are either disconsolate with grief or else they have shifty eyes and their own motives ... there are lots of "red herrings" in this book, people who possibly could have done Him in.

Hadrian refuses to allow Suetonius to touch the body, which was found at dawn by fishermen who were trying to net ibises in the reeds for sale during the Festival of Osiris and Isis. 

They plucked a "silver body" out of the water ... Antinous was clad in his Lion Hunt garb which was silver and ivory breast plate and a solid silver mask, and his ornate bow and adamantine-tipped lance .... the fishermen knew He was a God, especially since He drowned on the day of Osiris' Death!

Suetonius wonders why in Hades Antinous was wearing all this ceremonial garb (otherwise worn only during Parades) and also wonders about a cut on the left wrist of Antinous and strange red marks around his throat. 

But Hadrian refuses to let him touch the body or perform an autopsy, saying His beauty will be preserved by the priests of Egypt through mummification. 

Indeed, Priest Pachrates is standing in the shadows, with kohl-rimmed eyes, and dripping with amulets and talismans, giving Suetonius the creeps.

Then Hadrian tells Suetonius to get out and find out what happened in 48 hours ... or else! 

Whereupon Hadrian throws himself over the body of his Beloved, kissing his cold lips and his hollow eyes (the fish have already eaten the eyeballs) and cradling his naked body — all the ceremonial garb is strewn on the floor of the tent. 

A Nubian slave languidly fans the air through mosquito netting which is continually sprayed with water in a vain attempt to slow down the process of decay.

The author knows his Antinous History and so the reading is deliciously slow-going for any true fan of historical crime novels.

The author peppers the text with Greek and Latin terms and names and expressions which cause the reader to go to the book shelf to dust off reference works. The historical details are a delight.

And the characters are outlined in a vivid way which is like meeting old friends. The description of Hadrian is perfect and the author also brings to life flamboyant heir-apparent Lucius, the Empress Sabina, her confidante Julia Balbilla, the Egyptian magician/priest Pachrates and indeed the entire Imperial coterie.

Even the Oracle of Siwa Oasis makes a cameo appearance, uttering seemingly incoherent clues which ultimately lead to the unravelling of the mystery.

Gardiner's Antinous is blonde with blue-grey eyes and pale skin.

He is left-handed we learn as Suetonius wonders if He had inflicted the slash to his left wrist in an attempt to commit suicide and someone says, but sire, the Boy was left-handed, so it is unlikely he would have held his ceremonial dagger in his right hand to do such a deed. 

And where is the lapis-lazuli talismanic ring (a magical gift from Hadrian) which Antinous always wore on his finger? The ring was supposed to ensure immortality.

What was it that caused such passions among all those who encountered Antinous? Suetonius learns the answer to that question from one person who loved Antinous whole-heartedly.

What is it, Suetonius demands, which inspires such ardor among the admirers of Antinous? He is told:

"It is beauty, my lord. A beauty of character, a beauty of spirit, a beauty of humanity. Beauty, too, of form and shape, but this was not the primary beauty. It would pass soon into time. Antinous was a beguiling personality whose openness communicated sincerity, security, and wholeheartedness. His spirit was alive to life and love .... Antinous was Apollo incarnate, he was Apollo alive in this world, here, now, with us to see and touch today. He was not distant, out of reach, silent. Old philosophers tell us Greeks how human beauty is a reflection of the divine among us. Yet unlike remote Apollo ... Antinous possessed an emotional warmth no god displays to devotees. For Antinous, LOVE must be tangible and active. In him, it was, generously."

In the end, Suetonius discovers precisely how and why Antinous died. And the discovery is such a devastating blow to the Emperor that he suppresses the investigation findings and forbids any mention of the case under penalty of exile. And that is The Hadrian Enigma ... A Forbidden Story.

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