I sat down to read just a few pages of Eromenos by Melanie J. McDonald and I couldn’t put it down. I read the entire novel in one sitting and wanted more. Though there are numerous books about the emperor Hadrian and from his viewpoint, this is the first one I’ve come across that features the dead lover Antinous. Here the young Antinous tells his life and how he became the emperor’s favorite and the events that led to his death. The story is beautifully written with obvious historical research but a fascinatingly complex twist to Antinous’ actions and reasons. This isn’t a romance, though there is love, it’s more a compelling examination of a young man’s life.
The story is told from Antinous’ first person perspective as he reflects on his life. He describes his early childhood with his parents before they died, his grief and how he learned about vulnerability and strength. Growing up as he did, outside of a big city, changes how Antinous views the world and the people in it. From those defining years to his appointment as page to the emperor and eventually favorite, Antinous is always set apart and in many ways different from the people around him. He writes and observes with a detached perspective. He wants a connection, desperately yearns for emotion that will move him, change him, and form him into something better than he is but never seems to find it. Instead he observes those around him, their actions and their weaknesses while inherently knowing how to avoid the same pitfalls.
Much has been made historically about Antinous’ death and whether it was murder or something else. Eromenos offers a very realistic version of events and complicated reasoning resulting in Antinous’ death and here, suicide. This isn’t a spoiler for those that are familiar with the historical characters and those new to them can easily glean this through the numerous foreshadowing passages. These asides are often obvious in their purpose but seen through Antinous’ eyes give new meaning. How he interprets these events is what is important and they form the framework of what Antinous will realize about his life.
Antinous spends the novel struggling to define who he is and what he wants out of life. This is juxtaposed to what he will be able to have as the soon to be ex-favorite. Once he’s nineteen he will no longer allowed to be the emperor’s favorite and must be cast aside for a new boy. Antinous describes how his youthful worship of Hadrian turns into love and eventually how the love and relationship changes him in numerous ways. These changes aren’t always good and Antinous struggles with the lack of choice. He comes to realize that his life and his love are not what he wanted or what he would have chosen but the series of lucky events and a pretty face have forced him into this life.
One of the main aspects of the story is of course Hadrian’s relationship with Antinous. Hadrian falls for the young man’s face but is warped by the lack of love in his life so he can’t trust Antinous’ love. Antinous has incredibly insightful and intelligent analysis of Hadrian, far more than a boy his age would have so that’s clearly the author’s inclusion but I can’t say that bothered me at all. The sometimes brilliant glimpses into the real character of the emperor provide a fascinating look. Antinous sums up their relationship perfectly with this statement towards the end:
Once I believed our life together represented a great love, like the heroes of old, the bonds of the Sacred Band. Instead, it is about power and control. Hadrian holds all that power, always has, and always will.
Hadrian’s need for control warps Antinous and eventually changes his love for Hadrian. The change is fascinating as Antinous gives examples of how it happens and why it could have been another way. Antinous talks about how he willingly would have given his love and submission to Hadrian had he asked but instead Hadrian’s need to take and not trusting any love ends up ruining that love for Antinous.
The excellent characterization blends seamlessly into the excellent writing. The prose is crisp, clean and evocative. The descriptions are lush and the actions are obviously historically accurate, or they seem that way to me. In some cases the detached manner of the story also works against it. I would have liked more personal inflection in the narrator’s voice as he talks about events that happen over years. It’s almost a recitation and while these events are interesting, they also feel somewhat dry without the personal connection. They discuss important events in Hadrian’s life and reign but only sometimes are these events connected to Antinous’ life in a meaningful way. Those that are really shine and I occasionally wished for more.
Overall though, Eromenos is a stunning debut novel filled with fascinating characters and an interesting struggle. The main character steals your attention and affection, compelling you to follow as he tries to define himself and realizes the only choice left to him. His reasons are complicated yet honest and very real. It’s easy to see how this alternate explanation could have been true. This is definitely a book I’ll reach to again and again for something satisfying and intriguing.