Lion-Hunting, Water and Flowers: Tim Whitmarsh lectures on Greek literature

The latest of this year’s Lennox Seminar lecture series brought another lauded speaker from the University of Cambridge to Trinity. On Monday, Nov. 6, Tim Whitmarsh gave a talk titled “Lion-hunting with Hadrian and Antinous.”

Whitmarsh has taught Greek literature at Cambridge since 2014 and has previously worked at the universities of Oxford and Exeter. Whitmarsh conducts research in Greek literature and culture, but takes particular interest in the Greek world under the rule of the Roman Empire.

The Roman emperor Hadrian ruled from A.D. 117–138 and championed both Greek and Egyptian culture. Hadrian took particular interest in history, antiquity and culture and made many efforts to preserve places, stories and traditions. In A.D. 130 he visited Egypt and soon after began promoting faith in the universal god Serapis.

During this same visit, his beautiful Greek lover Antinous drowned in the Nile River. Hadrian founded a new city called Antinopolis on the site and venerated the boy as the god Osiris-Antinous, also known as Antinous-Dionysus to the Greeks. Images in his likeness were raised across the empire.

Whitmarsh began his lecture with a brief discussion of the Nile and its importance to the Egyptians. Once a year the river floods, and while there were both rational and mythic explanations for the phenomenon, Egyptian life consistently relied on the Nile as it supplied water, food and transportation.

The late 19th century saw an immense interest in Egyptian antiquity, particularly from the European countries. Fragments of papyrus were discovered in the village of Oxyrhynchus, which reveals portions of a poem dedicated to two men on a lion hunt in Egypt, art memorializing and lauding both Hadrian and Antinous.

“Hadrian’s defeat of the lion is comparable to Zeus’ defeat of the Titans. He is standing as an icon of order against destruction brought by the natural world. He is shown as having stewardship of humanity,” Whitmarsh said.

This heroism however, suggests Whitmarsh, is fused with tragedy. Red lotus flowers are said to have sprang on the bank of the Nile, where the slain lion bled. The symbolic significance of the Nile’s flowing water, lion-slaying and the blooming flower are artfully twined together.

“The flower is, in a sense, Antinous,” Whitmarsh said.

The same flowers crowned the winners of the Greek-style games held in Antinopolis.

“But it was the wetness that is the theme of the poem,” Whitmarsh said.

The water of the Nile brings life to Egypt. To many Egyptians the seasonal flooding represented the death of Osiris and the tears of Isis, the palpable presence of the gods. The water took away Antinous, but gives life to his flower, which is brilliantly colored by the blood of Hadrian’s slain lion.

While we may never know who precisely put pen to paper for Hadrian and Antinous’s poem, or what the story looks like in its entirety, we do possess a great deal of interconnected literary ideas that form unique connections between Roman, Greek and Egyptian traditions.