Hadrian leans in to kiss me, but stops short, eyeing my jaw distastefully. Fear overtakes my every thought, drowning the joy I had hoped to feel upon pleasing Hadrian into nonexistence. He takes my chin, turning my head this way and that, surveying the bit of stubble that has just begun to pepper my jaw. “Hmmm…” He grumbles disapprovingly as he tightens his hold on my face, his fingernails digging into my skin. I force myself not to move, not to weep at Hadrian’s aversion towards the signs of my aging, yet whether it be the wine I had drunk, or my tension wishing to be released, I find myself asking Hadrian the question that’s been agonizing me for months on end.

“What is it that I am to you, Hadrian?” I whisper finding it impossible to meet his gaze.

“I do not believe I understand your question.” Hadrian admits, releasing my jaw, and awaiting patiently for my answer with critical eyes.

“Why is it that you keep me around? Is it that you love me, or do you merely love the pleasures I can offer you, the culture I can bind you to?”

“Of course, that’s not it—”

“I do not believe you, Hadrian.” I find myself rudely interrupting, but I cannot help it. I’ve asked myself this very same question time and time again. I have observed it’s every angle; I’ve picked it apart so often; it has become more known to me than my own body. I wish to know the answer, for if I don’t, I shall unravel; I shall lose all sense of stability, forever destined to plunge deeper into every insecurity, every worry, every shame I harbor until I am nothing but a teetering framework of self-doubt, prepared to collapse at a single push. “I do not believe you, and here is why.” Hadrian attempts to silence me, but I continue. “You are a Greek trapped in the body of a Roman, in a time not meant for you. You are plagued with a desperate yearning to connect with the man you were supposed to be. Is this not why you have grown a beard, to imitate the eloquent Demosthenes? Is this not why you have statues erected in your honor, each matching the heroic stature of Herakles? Is this not why you have grabbed yourself a youthful boy so you can play the part of the wise erastes? I am here to ensure your dream is all that more authentic; I am here so you can pretend as if you were living in the Golden Age of Athens, living in a Homeric tale. If we are to continue down this logic, must I die for you next? Is that where my life is leading? Have you taken to me, taken to ‘love’ me because you wish to mirror the life of Achilles? Am I your Patroclus, Hadrian?”

I expect Hadrian to yell at me, to beat me, to throw me out of his quarters and refuse to ever speak to me, but he does no such things. Hadrian stares at me with a mix of sorrow, betrayal, and confusion. He remains like this for some time, gazing into my eyes, searching for something or desiring to convey a message, but I cannot comprehend it if that is what he is attempting.

“Well?” I ask, feeling tears burning my eyes. I will not let them fall, I will not, for I do not wish to lose this foreign sense of confidence and determination, driving me to unveil Hadrian’s true intentions.

Hadrian takes my hand, rubbing his thumb across my knuckles, into my palm. “There is much I love about you, Antinous.” His fingertips stroke my calf, slowly traveling up my ankle to the base of my tunic, stopping when he reaches my thigh. My resolve for answers ebbs away, my cast out joy returning, my self-effacing tendencies overruling the need to understand. “I love your beauty—”

I recoil from Hadrian, scrambling frantically from his deceitful touch. “Of course, that is what you love.” I hear myself spit bitterly. “That is what you love because that is all I am. I am not the beautiful youth that led a victorious cavalry charge; I am not the attractive boy that poured riches into a chariot race; I am not the charming eromenos who produced a masterful tragedy; I am merely the pretty lad who gets fucked by an emperor.”

Of a sudden, Hadrian’s face grows livid, cold, terrifyingly harsh. “If it were not for me, you’d be a nameless boy, another faceless commoner destined for anonymity.”

I shake my head incredulously at Hadrian’s massive oversight. “How can you not see that what you say is a curse! I have been eternally branded with the notion of ageless beauty, but what shall happen when I grow old, when my hair grays, when my forehead creases with wrinkles, when my skin no longer shines with that of youth? What then, Hadrian? The minute you cast me aside, I will be labeled the pathetic whore who had once been in Hadrian’s favor, the alluring youth no more, a pathetic has been.”

“You do not know that will happen.” Hadrian states matter of fact. You may be emperor, you may have the ability to govern whomever you wish, but you cannot govern thoughts, humiliating whispers, degrading glances.

“You are not a naïve man, Hadrian, so why now are you acting it?” I ask sourly. I should not be treating Hadrian so cruelly, he does not deserve it, yet the more truth I speak, the harder it is to contain the mess of anxieties and vulnerabilities that long to speak, to scream at how frequently they’ve been slighted. “If I had the background, the riches Alcibiades had, this eternal brand would not be so detrimental. For him, he was something more than mere looks, he had wealth to sponsor games, political prestige from his ancestors, renown for his skills in battle. I have nothing and even if I were to do something great, it would be forgotten. I am your property and what your property does, you alone are attributed to the accomplishments it brings. Your shield is not gifted honors when it protects you from an onslaught of arrows, your pen is not famed for the words you write, nor are your shoes thanked for the many miles they have helped you trek. Does this not fit for me too? Will my victories, my achievements be ascribed as me having done them, or will they be lumped into yours, my paltry name readily ripped away as to make your reign all that more successful.” The room grows frighteningly quiet. What have I done? I should not have said this, not to a man such as he. It is not that I am afraid of how he will react, but ashamed at having disrespected him so. I do not have the right to judge him when I have aided no one whereas he has heightened the prosperity of Rome and paid many kindnesses to the provinces.

Before Hadrian can lift himself from the bed to berate me, I am kneeling at his side, overrun with shame at what I allowed myself to speak. “I’m sorry, Hadrian.” I weep, gently taking his wrist, kissing his knuckles, and attempting to keep my tears from pattering onto his skin. I wish not to contaminate his divinity with my own impiety. Hadrian does not respond, but why would he? He mustn’t waste his time consoling someone who does not deserve such treatment; he mustn’t dishonor himself by forgiving a boy who cannot control his own thoughts, who cannot portray gratitude to his protector, who cannot hold his tongue on trivial worries. “I am afraid of the future, for if you are true to the Greek way, then you shall leave me.” My voice hitches at which point I lose all control over my body. My hands tremble, unable to keep a hold on Hadrian’s own. No matter how hard I concentrate on ceasing their trembling, it all comes to naught. Every command comes to naught; my tears continue to spill, my breathing continues to come in desperate pants, my humiliation continues to exhaust every sensible thought.

Hadrian is speaking to me, I can see his lips moving, but I cannot hear it, I cannot hear it for my own thoughts are shouting at me, smothering me, paralyzing me. There are so many eyes, so many staring at me, analyzing my every movement, calculating the days in which I have left with Hadrian, exploiting my every fault. Yet all these criticisms are quieted under hushed breaths, neatly tucked from Hadrian’s view, from mine even. When Hadrian inevitably discards me, what is stopping the hushed breaths from morphing into inescapable howls echoing all around me, trailing behind me wherever I go. I shan’t be able to walk the streets without hearing the laughter directed towards my rejected inadequacy. I shan’t be able to enter the baths without captious gazes naming my faults, without demeaning sneers chuckling at my misfortune, without vicious commentators noting my declining appeal. I shan’t be able to travel within my own mind for every thought, every reflection, every feeling will lead me to one unavoidable outcome, the persistent craving to die, to finally reach peace, a place with no eyes, no gossip, no jealousy, no expectations.

“Deep breaths, Antinous.” I hear Hadrian advise, but it’s too far off to take hold of, too weak to reign me back into reality, too slight to see the benefit of considering. My chest heaves, labors tremendously to fill my lungs with oxygen, yet barely if any is acquired. I am gasping even though oxygen is all around me, embracing me. How is it I have no control over this chaos, over my own body? If I sought to cease from choking on my tears, I must simply force the tears from falling; if I sought to breath, I must simply slow down my breathing, restrain the depression that demands to witness my undoing; if I sought to stop my quivering, I must simply command my hands from shaking, my unraveling from ensuing. Though, how can one conquer these trivial actions when they have no experience in dictating their own existence, leading their own life? They cannot. One cannot miraculously become a writer of histories if they had never been taught to write, just as I cannot hope to achieve stability if I have had no experience in directing my own mind, commanding my own body, discovering who it is I am, not who Hadrian needs me to be nor who the masses label me as. I am a possession that has reached its expiry, one that is but moments away from suffering its predestined conclusion, but the question remains on how I shall arrive there. I refuse to wait, to further see Hadrian’s increasing dissatisfaction in my appearance, to experience Hadrian abandoning me, to endure the endless taunts awaiting me, to withstand the torturous whispers reminding me of my every defect.

A knock sounds at the door followed by a faint creak as Commodus enters, a cheery smile heightening his handsome complexion. Hadrian positions himself between Commodus and I, concealing my pathetic quivering. He desires not to be humiliated by my unwarranted convulsions and unforgivable manner. One does not persist on showcasing a horse once deemed dependable, otherworldly if it has succumbed to illness. One does not continue displaying a masterful statue if it has been corrupted with cracking. No, they are cast aside, hidden beneath the floorboards, believed diseased by all save for the owner who periodically reaps what little pleasure the castoffs still hold in utter secrecy.

Commodus refrains from peering past Hadrian, although it is clear he yearns to know what foul creature is pitiful enough to conduct themselves as anything but gratified when bestowed with Hadrian’s presence. “You must come and join in on the festivities, Hadrian. The people ache to see their emperor, their savior.” Commodus exclaims excitedly.

“Yes…” Hadrian considers quietly. What is it he is contemplating? There is nothing to contemplate, for this is how it stands: does he stay with me, consul me, reassure me everything I have predicted shan’t have the possibility of occurring or… does he leave me for Commodus, for the people, the hundreds of subjects who each need him just as I? Hadrian turns to face me, mind made up. “We will discuss this later.” He whispers, squeezing my hands one last time before following Commodus out the door.

Why is it that his absence, his expected partiality to the people hurt me so? I knew he would leave me; I knew he’d favor his subjects’ presence over mine, yet the agony is no easier to face. The truth is, I am insignificant, I am meaningless, I am nothing. He must appease the masses, appeal to those that matter, for they will grant him victory, wealth, immortality, whereas the only gift I can offer is a brief moment of pleasure… but now I am broken, tainted, polluted, rotten. He shan’t come back to discuss my worries, for I am replaceable, one Greek out of many. Why try and hold onto a boy which is as damaged as I, when he could find one with less disrespect and their hysteria kept veiled behind closed doors.

I am replaceable… I am nothing… I hold no purpose for Hadrian … That is not true. There is but one more kindness I can impart onto Hadrian. If I were to die now, would I not be relinquishing Hadrian from having to rid himself of me? If I were to die now, would I not be considered to have traded my life for that of Hadrian’s, curing him of the sickness that so often overtakes him? If I die now, would I not be sacrificing myself for the prosperity of Egypt, another nameless boy offering forth their spirit to bring about a fruitful harvest? Part of me believes this to be untrue, but I do not care.

If my death is labeled as suicide, I do not care. If Hadrian wishes to cloak my misery and mark my death as a gracious offering to Rome, I do not care. If the masses trust my death to have been an accident, a hapless slip, an unfortunate fortuity from too much drink, I do not care. I long for my thoughts to quiet, expectations to whither, and serene nothingness to numb my every fiber. That is all I wish, not too great a request for an insignificant such as I.

Without further consideration, I sprint outside, staying close to the shadows, ensuring no one will be around to stop me… no that is not right. I remain hidden as to ensure no one will try to save me. I stop at the edge of the Nile, staring into the black water, my reflection muddled with that of the stars.  It is said, those who drown in the Nile will be endowed with Osiris’ sympathy, his protection. Whether this is the truth or not, I jump.


Malcom Bell currently attends Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland studying Ancient and Medieval History.