Celebrating hidden LGBTQ histories
This blog is written as an adjunct to the National Trust’s Prejudice and Pride programme celebrating hidden LGBTQ histories.
The Emperor Hadrian was gay. He was married to the Empress Vibia Sabina, but also famously had a male lover Antinoos. Antinoos drowned in the Nile. There are several theories as to exactly how and why he died, but one thing is certain, Hadrian mourned his death like no other. An Imperial cult was set up to worship him, and statues and temples can be found across the Roman Empire.
Over the almost 400 years the Romans were in Britain, official attitudes to homosexuality varied. In fact we have so few records surviving it is impossible to know what the official position was at any given time in the province.
However, there are objects that could perhaps reveal hidden histories.
The Tombstone of Victor. Arbeia Roman Fort and Museum (copyright NU Digital Heritage, Newcastle University.)
The Victor tombstone is one of the finest tombstones from Roman Britain. It is a memorial to Victor the 20 year old freedman of Numerianus, a cavalry trooper. The final section of the inscription can be translated as describing Numerianus as the person ‘who most devotedly conducted him to the tomb’. This is not a standard form of text for a military tombstone, does it hint at something more?
We cannot know what the relationship between Victor and Numerianus was, but it is conceivable that, like Hadrian and Antinoos, they were lovers. The quality of the tombstone – which stands out among those more generally found on the frontier - does speak of Numerianus’ devotion to his freedman.
Whatever the reality of the relationship between the two men, this tombstone serves to remind us to think more openly about the nature of relationships along Hadrian’s Wall in the Roman period.
refs RIIB no 1064, CSIR 1.1 No 248
Head of Programmes
Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums
More information about this tombstone and other objects that reveal more about sexual relations in the Roman provinces and frontiers will be available next year, in the book Un-Roman Sex, edited by Dr Tatiana Ivleva and Dr Rob Collins of Newcastle University.