Category Archives: WC79 – Sanctuary

WC79 – Hadrian at the British Museum

Hadrian Hadrian at the British Museum

Reviewed by Paul Harmon

When most Americans think of Roman emperors, they think of the first five emperors: Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero. These emperors, all related to Julius Caesar, are usually referred to as the Julio-Claudian dynasty. Collectively, they reigned from 31 BC until 68 CE – some 99 years. In fact, of course, the Roman Empire in the West lasted from the inauguration of Augustus in 31 BCE to the abdication of the emperor Romulus Augustulus in 476 CE some 507 years later and was ruled by about 80 emperors from several different dynasties.

The dynasty that has long attracted the interest of historians and Gay readers is the third dynasty, often referred to as the Dynasty of the Adoptive Emperors. Gibbon famously referred to this period as the apex of the Roman Empire and suggested that during this period humankind was as happy and prosperous as it had ever been before or since. The period began in AD 96 when, following the murder of Domitian, a particularly nasty tyrant, the imperium was given to Nerva, an elderly senator with a reputation for fairness and intelligence. Having no sons, and knowing he needed to keep control of the army, Nerva adopted Trajan, the general in charge of the Roman armies of the Rhine. Trajan was officially married, like all Roman aristocrats, but he preferred the company of young men. Thus, Trajan, in turn, had no children, and decided to adopt his nephew, Hadrian, as his successor. Hadrian, in turn, adopted his successor. In fact, Hadrian adopted two generations of successors, first adopting an elderly Antoninus Pius as his son, and then arranging for Antoninus Pius to adopt Marcus Aurelius. Marcus Aurelius broke this series of adoptions, preferring the pleasures of married life and having children; he allowed his son, Commodus, to become emperor. Commodus was a nasty piece of work who got himself killed in 192 AD, ending the Adoptive Dynasty. 

Those who have seen the movie Gladiator will recall that the author of the movie script suggested that Marcus Aurelius may have been ready to adopt a military general, Maximus, as his successor, but was killed by Commodus to prevent that. There is no historical data to support that notion. However that may be, for a little over 100 years, Rome was ruled by a succession of intelligent, diligent men who chose their successors rather than simply passing on the imperium to their children. The fact that some were old and without sons and that others were homosexual contributed to the success of this period by avoiding unfit offspring, and giving the imperium, instead, to mature men who had already proved their ability to manage armies and administer a complex civil government. 

Under Trajan the empire grew to include the most territory it ever encompassed. It stretched from Gibraltar to England and the Netherlands, down along the Rhine, and across the Danube to the Black Sea and Turkey. It included every land touching the Mediterranean, all of the Middle East, and all of North Africa. Trajan, just before his death, completed the dream that so many Roman generals had failed to achieve, and conquered Mesopotamia, extending the boundary of the Empire, in the East, to include Babylon and the Persian Gulf. Then Trajan, his health having been damaged by his Mesopotamia campaign, died of a stroke. Hadrian, who had been a general in his own right for many years, was proclaimed Emperor on August 11, 117 CE. Hadrian proceeded to rule for 21 years, dying in July of 138 CE. During those 21 years, he established himself as one of the very great Roman emperors. As a result of his extended love affair with a Greek youth, Antinous, he also established himself as Rome’s most famous “Gay” emperor.

The first challenge Hadrian faced, following his accession, was the problem of managing the recently expanded empire that he inherited from Trajan. Hadrian decided that the Roman Empire was overextended, and he proceeded to withdraw from territories that would be hard to defend. He gave up, for example, all of Mesopotamia and reestablished the Eastern border of the empire in Syria. Within the area he chose to keep – which was most of the empire – he established forts and walls to make defense easier. Thus, Hadrian’s famous wall across northern England came to define the boundary between England and the wilds of Scotland. In a similar way he built walls and forts along the Rhine and the Danube in an effort to exclude the Germanic tribes from the Roman Empire. 

To accomplish this refinement of Rome’s borders, Hadrian personally traveled throughout most of his reign. In essence, his court traveled with him, setting up camp with the army, wherever Hadrian spent time. This is not to suggest that Hadrian moved quickly. His life was a slow progression from one Roman province to another. At each stop he would analyze the strategic position of the province and adjust and fortify the borders as needed. At the same time Hadrian loved architecture and built roads and commissioned civic and religious buildings throughout the empire.  

This same pattern was followed by his successor, Marcus Aurelius, who apparently built a large Roman bathhouse in a town in Southern Turkey that was subsequently destroyed by an earthquake around 580 CE. Recently, Belgium archaeologists have been excavating the site, and have unearthed the bathhouse in which they have found several large statues of the various emperors and empresses of the Adoptive Dynasty. Along with a statue of Marcus Aurelius and his wife, they have also discovered statues of Hadrian and his wife. This discovery stimulated the British Museum to mount a major exhibit on Hadrian. The exhibit ran from July 24 to October 26 of this year and provided what was probably the most complete display of Hadrian artifacts ever shown in one location. 

For those who know the British Museum, the Hadrian exhibit was in the library at the center of the Great Court. The original museum had been a square building with a large hollow courtyard in the center. When the museum was updated a few years ago, a round library a great dome that was build in the center of the building’s courtyard. A glass roof was then erected to cover all of the space from the top of the library dome to the walls of the original building, creating a large covered courtyard. The Hadrian exhibit was housed in the library. As one entered the Great Court, right in front of the library, on a raised platform, was the larger than life statue of Antinous, in the guise of the Egyptian god Osiris. This statue, which normally resides in the Vatican Museum, is probably the most exciting piece of soft-core porn created in the ancient world. The standing youth is wearing an Egyptian headdress and an Egyptian linen kilt. His strong masculine chest and legs are nude. Unlike other Egyptian figures, however, it is nearly impossible not to focus on how the tip of Antinous penis pushes forward his kilt, creating an unmistakable bulge. His head is upright, but his upper body is thrust backward, emphasizing not only his back muscles, but a powerful and very shapely ass. This wonderfully erotic statue, made for the grieving Hadrian after the youth’s death, was clearly designed to remind Hadrian of just how exciting the young man had been. So much for setting the tone for the exhibit.

The exhibit was organized to move viewers around the inside of the circular library. Curved canvas panels had been erected on the inside of the library to cover the book-lined walls. The exhibit took advantage of these panels to project color slides. Thus, the exhibit combined objects, narrative in the form of either textual posters or recordings one could listen to with headphones, and projected images. The three were combined about as effectively as I have ever seen it done.

The first pie shaped section of the exhibit focused on Roman society during the age of Trajan and Hadrian. The second focused on the size and scope of the empire, the military forces used to create and enforce the Roman peace, and the role of Trajan in creating, and Hadrian in bounding the empire together, at its height. There was also a collection of statues of the various emperors and their wives. Hadrian was variously portrayed via busts and statues as an adolescent, a young man, and as emperor. There, among the other statues, was the five-foot high marble head of the statue of Hadrian that had recently been excavated from the Roman bathhouse in southern Turkey.

The next stage of the exhibit focused on Hadrian’s various building projects. It being England, there were many pictures and artifacts of Hadrian’s wall that divided England from Scotland, but there were also models and wonderful photos of the Pantheon, the Forum of Trajan that Hadrian built in Rome, and Hadrian’s mausoleum. The Pantheon is, perhaps, the most famous and powerful example of monumental Roman architecture still in existence. The building was designed as a drum covered by a dome – much like the library in which the exhibit was located. The interior space is defined to encase a complete sphere. Thus, the dome is a hemisphere, and the drum is the same height, so that the dome could be reversed and sit within the drum. This created a very large space, and the concrete dome of the Pantheon emphasizes the skill of the Roman engineers who could assemble such a huge, open space. The building was created as a temple where all the gods of the empire could be worshipped equally – each having his or her niche in the circular wall. Hadrian’s mausoleum and the bridge approaching it, the Pons Aelius, were later desecrated by the popes who converted it into a fortress, the Castel Sant’Angelo.

The exhibit also provided good examples of buildings Hadrian built elsewhere. Hadrian was especially fond of Greek culture and adorned Athens with a library and a monumental temple to Zeus. The most extensive work of architecture undertaken by Hadrian, however, was his villa in Tivoli. He began working on the country villa, which was located about 20 miles outside Rome, soon after he became emperor, and continued to expand it all throughout his life. The scale was staggering, and it was said to ultimately contain some 900 rooms. More to the point, it contained whole areas in which Hadrian recreated scenes from countries he visited and enjoyed. Thus, there were Greek areas and Egyptian areas, canals and pools, baths, lakes, and vast Greek and Latin libraries. A wonderful scale model of the extensive grounds of the villa grounds covered the 8 x 10 surface of a table. Examples of wall carvings and pillars illustrated the quality of workmanship that a Roman emperor could command. These was complemented by pictures of the ruins of the villa, as it is today, projected on the round wall behind the architectural model.

Proceeding from the display of Hadrian’s architectural efforts, one finally arrived at a room that focused on the emperor’s famous love affair with Antinous. Love affairs between men were not unusual in Rome, but the intensity of the relationship between the emperor and Antinous was without precedent. Hadrian apparently met Antinous when he toured Turkey in 123 BCE. Thereafter, Antinous traveled with the Imperial court until the boy died in 130 CE in his early Twenties. 

Antinous drowned in Egypt under circumstances which will never be known. It may have been an accident or a suicide, or it may have involved participation in some ritual. Both Hadrian and Antinous were fascinated by occult mysteries and participated in various rituals throughout their travels. Whatever the cause, the emperor was stricken. He arranged to have Antinous declared a god in Egypt, renamed a town after him, and erected a major temple to the divine Antinous. He later created a copy of that temple at his villa at Tivoli, which is where the standing statue of Antinous as Osiris was discovered. But it didn’t stop there; to please Hadrian, statues of Antinous were erected throughout the ancient world. It’s still unclear whether there are more existent sculptures of the emperor Augustus or of Antinous. My personal favorite is a standing sculpture of the youth in the museum at Delphi – that wasn’t included in this exhibit – but there are many others, and the Hadrian exhibit had a number of the best. Most stress that Antinous was a strong, masculine young man, with a classically beautiful Greek face, who could easily have been taken to be a young Roman legionnaire or a Greek athlete. Other statues, like the one at Delphi, however, show him as a youth with a more wistful or melancholy look. As you might imagine, the Egyptian Christians found the whole thing quite offensive, and did what they could, when they eventually came to power, to suppress knowledge of the existence of the love affair between the youth and the great emperor. Luckily for us, the beauty of the Antinous sculptures were such that Roman cardinals competed to preserve each bust and statue of Antinous as they were uncovered during the Renaissance. 

The last area of the exhibit focused on Hadrian’s last years and his arrangements for his successors. The age of Augustus is usually referred to as Rome’s Golden Age. It was the age of Seneca, Ovid, Virgil, Juvenal, Horace, and Plutarch. The age of Trajan, Hadrian, and Marcus Aurelius is often referred to as Rome’s Silver Age. The writers of this period included Juvenal, Tacitus, and Apuleius. In his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius defined the stoicism of the age. Hadrian wrote an autobiography that was praised in the ancient world, but did not survive. He also wrote Greek and Latin poetry that is also mostly lost.  His famous death poem, Animula Vagula, Blandula… survives, and was, fittingly, written in large letters on the final wall of the exhibit so that it was the last thing one saw, just as one left the exhibit area and returned to the Great Court.

The catalog of the exhibit, Hadrian: Empire and Conflict, is very well done and available from the British Museum or Its 256 lavishly illustrated pages provide an excellent introduction to Hadrian’s life and times.    

The most important ancient source of information on Hadrian is the Historiae Augustae, a book written in the reign of the emperor Diocletian, who ruled from 284 to 305 CE. The Historiae Augustae is modeled on Suetonius’s Lives of the Caesars, which described the Julio-Claudian emperors. The Histroiae Augustae is said to be written by Aelius Spartianus and others, although everything about this book is disputed. The author or authors probably had access to Hadrian’s autobiography, but they also allowed themselves to include rumors and fantasies, bringing everything into question and providing an occupation for several generations of scholars. 

There are several modern biographies of Hadrian, none completely satisfactory. My current preferred history is Anthony R. Birley’s Hadrian: The Restless Emperor. Similarly, there are many specialized books on Hadrian. There are books on Hadrian’s architectural accomplishments, his wall in England, and on the places he visited while emperor.

The most famous modern novel on Hadrian is the monumental recreation of his memoirs by Marguerite Yourcenar. Mme Yourcenar, a French Lesbian, started her project in 1924 and published the French version of the Memoirs of Hadrian in 1951. She began by acquiring and studying all the books that Hadrian might have had in his library. Then she visited the places he had enjoyed, and proceed to try to imagine his life. As she explained it: “I fell to making, and re-making, this portrait of a man who was almost wise.” In 1981 Mme Yourcenar became the first women to be elected to the French Academy, a reflection of both the quality of her writing and the special place that the Memoirs of Hadrian occupies in modern literature.

If you would like to read a more recent novel, you might enjoy Ben Pastor’s The Water Thief. This amusing novel purports to be written by Aelius Spartianus, a young army officer who has been assigned by the emperor Diocletian to compile the Historiae Augustae. In essence, it is a murder mystery that describes Spartianus’s efforts to unravel just what happened to Antinous during his fateful visit to the Nile.  To remind you of the duration of the Roman Empire, Pastor has Spartianus complain, on several occasions, that it is nearly impossible for him to figure out what happen to Antinous, given that it all happened some 160 years before he got his commission. 

Paul Harmon is a writer living in San Francisco and working, on and off, on a novel about the famous Thebian general, Epaminondas.

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WC79 – Spirit Dancing: Radical Faerie Ritual Chants

Spirit Dancing:
Radical Faerie Ritual Chants

Reviewed by Mark Thompson

Shane Hill and Heron Saline, two enterprising musicians in Santa Cruz, California, have done the Gay men’s spiritual community and audiophiles the world over an enormous favor by recording this collection of Radical Faerie songs and chants, Spirit Dancing: Radical Faerie Ritual Chants. Some of these fourteen tracks were originally composed and heard during early Faerie gatherings in the 1980s. Others in this lively compilation have been spiritual standards for years within previous pagan and earth-centered faith traditions.

According to lead vocalist Shane Hill, “the chants are sung to invoke specific openings into ourselves, to each other and to the realms beyond our everyday experience.” The chants are arranged to match the structure of a Radical Faerie gathering or large ritual, from the opening circle to the invocation of elements and deities. Adds Heron Saline, who supplies guitar, percussion instruments, and supporting vocals, making the album was “a love gift for our communities.” That nurturing spirit resonates throughout Spirit Dancing, which has been recorded with obvious professional care as well.

A few of my favorite tracks are “Wearing Our Long Green Feathers,” adapted from an Arapaho song, “We Are an Old People,” composed by Will Shepardson,” and the tender tribal hymn, “Dear Friends,” adapted from a traditional English round. But anyone who has stood in a Radical Faerie circle, whether thirty years ago or today, will be sure to have treasured personal memories stirred and confirmed — as did I — by Spirit Dancing. Students, in general, of alternative spirituality and culture will also find this album equally valuable.

My only complaint in an otherwise wholesale praise of this project is that nowhere on the CD or its packaging is an address or other contact information given. Spirit Dancing would make a beautiful gift to a friend and useful addition to any Faerie library. But I guess prospective listeners will just have to rely on community word of mouth or on those spirits who come via the wind — as welcomed and entrancing as the songs thankfully recorded for posterity here.

To obtain the Spirit Dancing CD, please contact Shaynala or Heron. Heron Saline: 415-706-9740 with“chant cd” in the subject line) Shane Hill (Shaynala): 831-345-2412

Mark Thompson lives in Los Angeles.

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WC79 – Paul Murray’s Life in Paradox

Rvu_murray Life in Paradox:  The Story of a Gay Catholic Priest  By Fr. Paul Murray
O Books 231 pages, paperback; $24.95
ISBN 978-1-84694-112-2

Reviewed by Toby Johnson

Paul Murray was the first openly Gay priest in the Washington, D.C. Roman Catholic Archdiocese; he worked in a ministry to troubled homosexuals called Among Friends. He is now Catholic Chaplain and teacher at Bard College, Annadale-on-the-Hudson, in the Catskills north of New York City, still a priest, still openly Gay.

The autobiography, Life in Paradox, recounts the long journey he took from a conservative Episcopalian youth to the Catholic Church to the priesthood to Gay identity to battles with several layers of the Church hierarchy over his personal life, but more particularly over his ministry to Gay people, to final resolution—and success.

The book reads more like a novel than an autobiography; there is a kind of plot structure in it that most lives don’t contain. He set out on a quest — to be a good, religious human being; encountered obstacles, trials, and ordeals along the way; finally came to confront his religious superiors directly and did not back down or recant — even when threatened with trial for heresy; achieved his goal of personal integrity — as a Gay man and as a priest; and now bestows boons to his students.

And the story is amazingly detailed. Murray presents whole swathes of his life verbatim. This assists with the novelistic read of the book, though it is also a weakness because a lot of the details are more annoying to the reader than germane to the plot. He lived for a while as a resident in a small parish, for example, run by a pastor who did not like him and acted rude and insensitively toward him. As a reader and outside observer of his life, I kept wondering how he could put up with it. Why didn’t he leave?

Of course, THAT is precisely the message of the book: he didn’t leave because he really was a good priest and wanted to practice Catholic priesthood the right way. And it resulted in one ordeal after another.

Murray deals with his homosexuality rather matter-of-factly; it is simply part of who he is as a priest who is a homosexual. He does not tell much about his interior life. This book is about the Church, not about the spiritual struggle — or victory — in finding spiritual meaning in Gay identity.

The book ends wonderfully with a kind of priestly spiritual experience. As a priest ministering to the dying, he is called to give Last Rites to a young man dying of AIDS. There is such a sweetness in the way this story is told — and gentle humor. It is in the words of the young PWA questioning what he believes and what he has come to understand about faith that Paul Murray seems to present what he has learned. They joke together about reincarnation and afterlife and about the meaning of the sacraments. It’s the PWA, speaking almost with the voice of Christ, who affirms Paul Murray’s priesthood, inviting him as minister to join in the celebration of his life in the form of the consecrated wafer, washed down with a sip of lemonade. The episode offers a glimpse into the power that priesthood can muster, even without all the issues about Truth and Dogma and Church authority. It comes down to being a good human being with another good human being.

The book’s an easy, entertaining, interesting read — especially for Catholics, priests and former priests/seminarians who can appreciate the Byzantine ways of the Church hierarchy. It doesn’t give an answer to troubled souls about the meaning of life, though to Gay Catholics and Gay priests struggling to remain in the Church with their integrity intact, it offers a good role model in the life of a man who has achieved just that.

Toby Johnson is the former publisher of White Crane (White Crane Journal).  He is a frequent contributor to White Crane.  For more information visit

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WC79 – Matt Bernstein Sycamore’s So Many Ways to Sleep Badly

Rvu_sycamore So Many Ways
to Sleep Badly

By Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore
City Lights Publishers $15.95
ISBN-10: 0872864685,  256 pages

Reviewed by Steve Susoyev

A number of popular artists have fashioned their personal brands of neurosis into lucrative art forms. No matter how fucked up you feel on a given day, you may derive a certain comfort from the scene in Annie Hall in which Woody Allen rips up his driver’s license while explaining to a Los Angeles cop, “I have a terrific problem with authority, you know.”

In the realm of literary memoir, Anne Lamott’s agonizing descriptions of the drunken behavior with which she routinely alienated everyone in her early life who was worth caring about, and of her sometimes tortured relationship with her son Sam, now in his late teens, make me laugh so hard I have to pull off the road when I listen to her audio books in the car.

Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, who appears here for the first time without the now-familiar “aka Matt” designation in her name, has catapulted the whore’s memoir into the neurosis genre. No Moll Flanders-style stories of deprivation or exploitation introduce So Many Ways to Sleep Badly. The paternal incest that has been thoroughly explored in Pulling Taffy and Dangerous Families makes brief, oblique appearances here: “When my mother says you need to go to the root of your problems — get me a shovel! Lilie says: I like when you talk about incest because you can laugh about it.” And, “Why am I so fucking fragile? I’ll give you three choices: “(a) Incest. (b) Incest. (c) Incest.”

In what often feels like free-association but is in fact cleverly crafted narrative, this very savvy writer and social commentator manages, both in her novels and essay collections, to sound utterly clueless while skewering hypocrites and herself. We get earfuls about unsafe sex, sexual compulsion and meth addiction, Gay marriage and other symptoms of self-annihilating Gay assimilation, police brutality, and the outrageous prices of organic produce offered at designer supermarkets.

And so much more.

Readers who have not encountered Mattilda at her readings or read her other work may be surprised to find her unique even among gender-bending writers, displaying none of the indignation with which many M‑F trannies approach the subject of other people’s confusion concerning their sexual identities. Mattilda prefers to be called “She,” but in this volume we find frequent references to her penis, one of the chief tools of her trade as a whore: “I like the way this trick’s whole body clenches then releases every time my dick goes in and out of his ass.” Scenes from Mattilda’s sex career appear and retreat mid-paragraph, leaving the reader with the impression that tricks go and come in the slapdash way that wrestling competitions and Brazilian soap operas appear on the television screens of the late-night channel-surfer, between bites from slices of stale pizza and calls to the phone-sex lines.

Mattilda’s essays, and her introductions to the essay collections that she has edited, are incisive and focused. Her Foreword to the 2007 Lammy-nominated Nobody Passes hisses with outrage at GUPPYS in Bermuda shorts whose greatest aspiration — whose only apparent aspiration — is to assimilate utterly with their straight neighbors, preferably through the patriarchal institution of marriage. No matter where you stand on the marriage issue, this glitter-eyed, gender-bent, metallic-mesh-encased kid with the feathers in his/her hair will make you think.

If you’ve ever paid for sex, and wondered what sex workers think of their clients, after reading one of Mattilda’s novels you’ll remind yourself to be careful what you ask for:

This trick could be fun, except he’s so nervous I can’t stay hard, and his crotch smells like rotten eggs…. He’s one of those tricks who thought I was shorter, from the one-column-inch photo in the paper…. He pays me one-forty-eight plus two dollars in quarters…. Funny how the guy won’t kiss me afterwards, honey it’s your come…. It’s a good thing this guy’s dick is beautiful, because he’s — well, you know….

And so a fan of Mattilda’s politically charged essays could think we’re in some unfamiliar territory here. But politics is never far under the surface:

On my way home, the 7th and Market 24-hour check-cashing place is jammed and the cops drive up and arrest two black guys who are just standing there. The cop car drives off and then this one white guy chases after the only other white guy there with a baseball bat — racial profiling is so effective!

Despite the free-associative impression, the book has a plot, a theme, and a message. Of course it would be easy to read So Many Ways… as pure autobiography, particularly because our fictional narrator calls herself “Mattilda,” works as a whore, and has strong opinions. But in the temporally disoriented, casino-like world in which our narrator meets and dismisses tricks, haunts sex clubs, cruises parks, falls in love, tosses in bed until daybreak, frets about her digestion and other health issues, suffers heartbreak and disses hypocrites, the one thing she does not do is write. Unlike this fictional narrator, Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore is a prolific writer. And so, to whatever extent these vignettes from the fictional life of a neurotic, politically savvy whore are taken from the experience of the neurotic, politically savvy whore whose name appears on the title page, the thing the narrator does not share with us is her experiences as a writer and performance artist.

If City Lights Books ever releases Mattilda’s work in audio form, they surely will have the sense to make sure she reads it herself. In the meantime, catch her reading live whenever you can. She has learned much as a performer — with some tips, I think, from her friend the performance artist and whore Kirk Read. Her comic timing and the crackling intelligence of her ironic phrasing will bring you to your knees.

Steve Susoyev lives in San Francisco.

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