In one stage in the process of looking back over his life with Antinoüs, Hadrian can be seen to apply his knowledge of the conclusion to the story by retrospectively punishing Antinoüs for abandoning him. In turning Antinoüs into an art object, Hadrian risks reducing him to an impoverished image. Hadrian’s abandonment of certain beliefs and of his tranquillity voices his melancholic state. Firstly, there is Hadrian’s loss of faith in myth. Although Hadrian espoused Greek legend in his own writing earlier in the text, where a succession of evocations proceeded from mythical place to mythical story in eulogy and commemoration, Hadrian now understandably distrusts the evocation of literary predecessors. At the tomb of Hector, ‘Antinous stood dreaming over Patroclus’s grave but I failed to recognize in the devoted young fawn who accompanied me an emulator of Achilles’ friend : when I derided those passionate loyalties which abound chiefly in books the handsome boy was insulted and went bright red’ (177-8). Later he will re-discover the relevance of the myth, but at this point he is succumbing, as he admits, to the Roman disgust for passion, considered as ‘a shameful folly’ (178).
Hadrian focuses on Antinoüs’s forehead and eyes in a passage of fixating gazes and punishment: ‘Dangerous whims and sudden anger shaking the Medusa-like curls above that stubborn brow alternated with a melancholy which was close to stupor, and with a gentleness more and more broken. Once I struck him; I shall remember forever those horrified eyes. But the offended idol remained an idol, and my expiatory sacrifices began’ (178). The stylised motifs of whim, anger, melancholy and tenderness cannot hide the trouble experienced by Hadrian in sustaining the look of and from Antinoüs. Following one of the versions of the story of Medusa, Antinoüs’s locks of hair have become serpent’s coils, signalling the transformation that has occurred following the violation of the sacred aura of their love when Hadrian mocks Antinoüs’s identification with Patroclus. The sight of Antinoüs has Medusan power and Hadrian can only break that stare through violence. Shortly afterwards Hadrian and Antinoüs attend an orgy of self-emasculation in honour of ‘Cybele’.
The public feature of Hadrian’s reaction to the death of Antinoüs is to displace his grief onto other people. Although the organisation of a cult has to be simple and grandiose in order to have any chance of finding a place among the many cults of the Roman Empire, the cult of Antinoüs as presented by Hadrian is at times over-determined in Yourcenar’s text. Hadrian plans exactly how Greece, Asia and Egypt will worship: ‘Egypt, who had witnessed the death agony, would have her part in the apotheosis: it would be the most secret and sombre part, and the harshest, for this country would play the eternal role of embalmer to his body’ (198). Hadrian’s careful strictures enact his desire to lay down every detail of ritual.
Although the idea of the metamorphosis from statue to flower means that the memory of Antinoüs in human form risks being supplanted by statuary and by literary versions of transformation, Hadrian is attempting to create differences within his eclectic picture of Antinoüs. The metamorphosis resulting from a statue is spelt out more explicitly in comments on the marble piece by Papias of Aphrodisias: ‘There is that marble where Papias of Aphrodisias has outlined a body tenderly nude, with the delicate resilience of narcissus’ (133). Again Narcissus appears alongside the reference to love in the name Aphrodisia, both a town and an island where Venus was worshipped; the narcissus flower figures Hadrian’s preoccupation with transformation, guilt and literature.