I’ve loved historical fiction ever since I picked up Robert
Graves’ I, Claudius, so I was excited to put Christopher Rimare’s Blinded
by Paradise: The Rise and Fall of Hadrian on top of my “to-read” stack. I
wasn’t disappointed. Rimare’s account of the Roman emperor, his accomplishments
and his lover Antinous is compelling and vivid reading.
Beginning with the (forged) letter which names Hadrian as
Emperor Trajan’s successor and ending with his death from suspected lead
poisoning, Rimare takes us through Hadrian’s successes in government and
architecture as well as exploring in depth the emperor’s endless road trips. He
meets and falls in love with the stableboy Antinous, elevating him into the
Imperial household where they are constant companions up until Antinous’
mysterious drowning in the Nile River on one of their excursions.
Rimare expertly balances his research with good old
fashioned storytelling skills, creating characters memorable for their depth as
well as their contributions to the story. Hadrian’s publicly cuckolded wife,
Sabina, is by turns sympathetic and simply pathetic and Plotina, Trajan’s wife,
is wonderfully manipulative. Hadrian himself is both ambitious and
introspective, longing for a stable male/male match until he finally finds his
mate. As a character, Antinous is less well-drawn but their relationship is so
firmly grounded that it affects Hadrian’s rule even after Antinous’ death.
One of my favorite parts of this book was an exploration—and
explanation—of the ritual Mysteries of Elusis at Athens. This week long
celebration of the goddess Demeter was fascinating in both its approach and its
philosophy, and Rimare does a wonderful job of using these devotional exercises
to give Hadrian dimension as well as direction. Similarly, his creation of the
architectural masterpiece, The Pantheon, becomes as exciting for the reader as
it probably was for the man.
If there is a flaw here, it would be that the book becomes a
bit flat and oddly distanced immediately after Antinous drowns. Hadrian’s grief
is not well shown. By the time his lover’s body is mummified and carted back to
Rome, however, Hadrian’s remorse is sharp enough to turn the rest of the book
on and remains keen until his death. And that death scene is as dramatic and
involving as any I’ve read.
Even if you don’t like history and are put off by the Roman
place name chart in the front of the book, stick with this papyrus and you’ll
be rewarded with an intriguing, well-told story full of excitement, intrigue
and multi-faceted characters.
Or my name isn’t
Reviewed by Jerry Wheeler