Review: Eromenos by Melanie McDonald

Eros and Thanatos converge in this story of a glorious youth, an untimely death, and an imperial love affair that gives rise to the last pagan god of antiquity, Antinous.

In this coming-of-age novel set in second century Rome, the Greek youth Antinous of Bithynia recounts his seven-year affair with Hadrian, the fourteenth Roman emperor. In a partnership more intimate than Hadrian’s political marriage, Antinous captivates the most powerful ruler on the earth.

This version of the story of the emperor and his beloved ephebe envisions the life of the youth who after death achieved apotheosis as a pagan god whose cult of worship lasted for hundreds of years, and gives voice to Antinous, whose image still appears in museums around the world.

Review by Aleksandr Voinov

There are plenty of books in the genre that are a struggle to read even once. Even more aren’t worth being read more than once. There’s nothing left to discover, and I delete these off my reader without regrets. Then there are books like “Eromenos” by Melanie McDonald, which I read twice to be able to review it, and will very likely read a couple more times. (This from somebody who rarely, if ever, re-reads fiction books – non-fiction is a different matter.)

What made Eromenos so compelling for me was the style and the authenticity. Frankly, few authors in the genre write as well as McDonald, and even fewer look behind the mask of their characters, so when you find a book like that, it’s a rare ray of sunlight in what threatens to be fairly drab and mediocre world – at least when I despair over the genre, as I sometimes do and every time I read a bad book that somehow got published.

Here’s one of the rare gems that make it worthwhile. And if “Eromenos” is a gem, it’s an opal. Glittering depths and sparks of light and brilliance, a complex array of meaning that is great to discover a first time, even better the second time around, and strong enough to earn a permanent space on my bookshelf.

On the surface, it’s another novel (or short novel/novella, it’s pretty short at under 180 pages in the formatting on my e-reader, of which around 30 pages are appendices and intro) about Antinous, the Greek favourite of Roman emperor Hadrian. It’s the second Antinous novel I’ve read (after Gardiner’s “Hadrian Enigma” and it’s fascinating how different the two books are.

McDonald’s book is written in first person from the view of Antinous just before he commits suicide. The mysterious death of the emperor’s lover on the cusp of manhood has always intrigued historians and writers, and every one has found his or her own solution. In this case, it’s suicide.
But it’s more than that (so I’m not really giving away the twist of the story here). It’s a short memoir where we learn about Antinous’s youth in Bythinia, his training, how Hadrian chose him, and about life at court. It’s not a historical romance by any stretch of the imagination, and certainly not an erotic romance. Sex is hinted at and more or less symbolic. Hadrian must have what Hadrian wants, and as the most powerful man of his time, who would deny him?

At the same time, Antinous knows about the vulnerabilities of the great man, and plays dumb to survive the power struggles at court. He’s not a player, he’s not a pawn, he’s an outsider in a very privileged position and defined as “Hadrian’s favourite.”

In this is the true tragedy of the character. He’s defined as Hadrian’s lover, and yet about to lose his position (as he’s getting too old, and while it’s fine for an emperor to take a boy or youth as a lover, it’s unseemly to have a man as a consort). And once the emperor has severed those ties, where else does he have to turn to? What else could he possibly be? From the dizzying heights he has climbed (or rather, has been elevated to due to his good looks and a healthy portion of luck), anything after that would be a fall and descent into anonymity and insignificance.

The tragedy is that because of Hadrian, Antinous can’t be Antinous. He can’t discover who he really is, because he is the emperor’s consort. But even without Hadrian, he’ll only be the ex-consort. Who and what he is beyond that is the question that makes suicide such a tempting option. He can be tied forever to Hadrian, becomes eternal in joining – according to the magical thinking of the time – his lifeforce with that of the Emperor and prolong his life.

The memoir we read is that search for identity, which ask these questions. Who could I be? Who could I have been? And many of those questions have no answers. The search for these answers is what defines Antinous in the book – he is a cypher, both for historians and writers and for himself. The suicide makes him even more that.

If that makes it sound like a self-pitying, whining book, it’s not. It’s an earnest quest for identity and purpose (this is where the authenticity comes in). The book is literary in style and depth, and treats both the history and sexual mores of the time with great respect. There’s a lot of research in this, both how a man of the times would frame things, what he’d refer to and how he’d express himself.

References to mythology and history firmly ground the character in history. The relationship between Hadrian and Antinous is an unequal one. An eromenos is the beloved, and the junior partner to an erastes, supposedly to be taught and prepared to become a man, but ultimately, it’s not the equal partnership of two men that romantic love would suggest. And while there’s fondness and affection in the text, I don’t read Antinous as being romantically in love with Hadrian. He was clearly infatuated and loved him during the early stages of the relationship, but that emotion is tempered and changes into something else during the telling.

And how could Antinous, now more mature, really truly deeply madly love Hadrian? In the end, he is “just” the consort. He plays his role because that’s his duty, he’s been chosen, but he’s never an equal partner and can’t possibly be. Hadrian calls all the shots.

Here’s a small piece of text from the start:

“When I was six, wandering about the cook’s garden behind our villa, I discovered a field mouse dead in a thicket of berry brambles as high as my waist. Gazing at those translucent claws, his fur the color of bark and stone, I wondered how he came to be suspended there between earth and sky, like a tiny Antaeus. Maybe he had climbed up to escape one of our cats or wriggled loose from the talons of a hawk or owl only to drop down and become entangled in those thorns he mistook for his salvation. Perhaps he had been summoned there by Apollo Smynthius, Lord of field mice and the plague, my favourite god in the story of the Greek war against the Trojans.

Studying the creature’s unnatural position, my wonder turned to pity, for death had left him in a state of indignity. Heedless of the bramble spines that scored my forearms, I reached into the thicket to dislodge him, an effort frustrated by the clumsiness of my childish fingers. I carried him away and deposited him on solid ground at last beneath a rosebush, where his tiny stink bothered no one as he returned to the soil.

I wondered if mice went to Hades, and imagined their tiny shades scrabbling about among the tall ones of famous men.”

This little piece foreshadows the whole book – the similarity of the names – Antaeus and Antinous – is hardly accidental. And Antinous, too, writing this just before he dies, is suspended between earth and sky. Compared to Hadrian, the “famous man”, he’s nothing but a field mouse.

It’s layers like this that make the book such a joy. While eminently readable, historically accurate, there are depths to discover, symbols, foreshadowings, and it’s all written beautifully, too, which made this a five star read for me.

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3 Responses

  1. Thanks for reviewing this (and The Hadrian Enigma, as well)! I’m definitely interested. I’ve read a few biographies of Hadrian & Antinous, but the facts are so sparse that I was dying for some well-written, well-imagined, well-researched fiction. I didn’t know where to start–and now I do, thanks to you!

  2. Dorinda – you’re welcome. Happy my reviews are helpful. :)

  3. I have to say, while I’m only 3/5 of the way through Eromenos, it’s really not capturing my interest.

    There’s potential there – there are moments when I am genuinely interested in Antinous – but for the most part, it feels like I’m reading a narrative text book.

    Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate having a rich, detailed, fleshed out setting. My problem is that it feels like I’m only getting the barest of details about anything. It skims the surface, both in terms of the details provided for a setting – lists of things that occupy an area is a common occurance – and the actual plot.

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