To a normal reader the novel will probably appear like a tour de force: almost 500 pages of historical fiction, full of details, with different point of views, and with interleaves of Greek and Roman words. This last point it’s probably easier for an European reader, especially an Italian one, since we study Roman culture and Latin as other students all around the world study their own origins. The strange thing, considering our strict upbringing on regard of homosexuality, is that Antinous, the favourite of Imperator Hadrian, was never “hidden” away like a skeleton in the closet; probably the tragic love story was bigger than the restriction of morality. The tragedy itself is probably the reason why this story was not buried with the layers of time, these two lovers had not the change of an happily ever after, and so it was allowed to them to be remembered. Sure, Hadrian’s behaviour after Antinous’s death, his tentative to turn him in a god to be worshipped, he was even given a constellation in the sky as only ancient gods were allowed to have, all of this was seen as sign of madness, the madness of a disrupted lover.
So yes, when this novel starts, Antinous is already dead, and Hadrian assigns to historian Suetonius Tranquillus the task to investigate on this strange death, officially recorded as accidental death; but too much mystery is behind this death and probably too many people gained from that for being really an accident.
This is for sure not an easy read, and probably the novel stands in the middle between fiction and non fiction; if during the read someone wonders on the abundance of details, indeed you have to consider that the starting point of this novel is to be a recording of Suetonius Tranquillus’s investigation on the death of Antinous. So yes, it’s like if a modern reader is going through the files of an old buried case, a case that was filed as suicide or accident, but too many hints let it go that it was something else. You have not the chance to ask to who was there, and so you basically rebuild what it was, what they though, what they did, all on the basis of some old papers.
What is the purpose of this research? Antinous is dead, there is no way for Hadrian to have him back again, so what he is searching? What the author is trying to prove? Probably that Antinous was not “superfluous” to history, that he was not only a shiny accessory to Hadrian’s arm, that he was something more than a pretty face Hadrian forced artists to immortalise. Above all that Antinous really loved Hadrian and that was his condemn; if it was only a question of sex, sex between men wasn’t so uncommon, under specific “rules” (the old and more important man was always the one “on top”, only slaves, women and young men could be penetrated); love instead was not an option. Indeed it was not even a question of being both men, love at that level was out of question point; marriage was a political agreement, murder was the common resolution to get free of enemies, and plotting a normal activity at dinner time.
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