Hadrian’s Wall’s gay history hailed by English Heritage

Milecastle 39, an ancient Roman Fort along Hadrian's Wall, Northumberland
Hadrian's Wall stretches 73 miles across Northumberland, Cumbria and Tyne and Wear - Marc Guitard/Moment

Hadrian’s Wall is a symbol of LGBT history, English Heritage has said.

The 1,900-year-old structure in northern England is known as one of the best-preserved relics of the Roman Empire.

But perhaps less well known is that it is “linked to England’s queer history”, as English Heritage said in an email to its membership last week to mark the end of LGBT History Month.

The charity said the evidence was in Emperor Hadrian having had several gay relationships while still being married to his wife Sabina, which has been well-documented in recent years.

This included his passionate relationship with Antinous, a younger Greek man whom he invited to join his tours of the Roman Empire.

Statue of the Roman Emperor Hadrian
Statue of the Roman Emperor Hadrian - Print Collector/Hulton Archive

When Antinous drowned in the River Nile in AD 130 Hadrian, who took control over the vast Roman Empire in AD 117, was said in ancient accounts to have wept “like a woman”.

A Roman man was free to choose sexual partners of either gender so long as a relationship involved a dominant partner in any sexual encounter, which meant homosexual relationships were not uncommon.

English Heritage said: “To understand Hadrian’s Wall you have to understand the Roman emperor who built it – his career, his life and the times in which he lived.”

Antinous, mid 2nd century
Sculpture of Antinous. Emperor Hadrian was distraught when he drowned in the River Nile - Print Collector/Hulton Archive

To this day, Hadrian’s Wall stretches 73 miles between the east and west coasts across Northumberland, Cumbria and Tyne and Wear.

It contains forts, towers, turrets and towns that once kept watch over the wall and was constructed between AD122 and AD130.

One of its most recognisable sights was the Sycamore Gap tree, which had stood in a dip in the wall in Northumberland since the 1800s but was cut down at night, sparking a police investigation.

The links between Emperor Hadrian and LGBT history are not new. National Museums Liverpool has described him and Antinous as “the most famous homosexual couple in Roman history”.

The Museum of London has also invited visitors to “discover the fascinating and moving story of immortal devotion between these two male Roman icons: Hadrian & Antinous”.