Skip to main content
Busts of Hadrian and Antinous

5 gay rulers from ancient history

Image: Busts of Hadrian and Antinous at the British Museum | (CC BY-3.0)

After being marginalised and brushed over for so long, the true stories of LGBTQ+ people throughout history are now increasingly being brought to light. But what many people still may not realise is that numerous great figures from very long ago were known to have been gay or bisexual.

1. Julius Caesar

The most iconic of all the Ancient Romans, Julius Caesar is famed for many things: his incredible military successes, his rise as a dictator, and his bloody assassination at the hands of his own senators. What’s less well-remembered is that, during his younger years, Caesar was widely thought to have been involved in a passionate romance with another man. And not just any man: his squeeze was said to have been King Nicomedes IV of Bithynia, an ancient kingdom located in modern-day Turkey.

The love affair was such an open secret that a military song celebrating Caesar’s victories featured the line, ‘Caesar laid the Gauls low, Nicomedes laid Caesar low’ – a reference to Caesar taking what they considered the feminine role in the relationship.

Caesar’s political rivals ran with the theme, mocking him as ‘the Queen of Bithynia'. The great statesman and orator Cicero is even reported to have directly rebuked Caesar in the senate for being biased towards King Nicomedes, saying, ‘No more of that, pray, for it is well known what he gave you, and what you gave him in turn.’

2. Hadrian

Synonymous with the famous wall erected during his reign to mark the northern border of Roman Britain, the Roman Emperor Hadrian was also known for his widespread tours through his lands, and for his deep love of Greek culture and history. It’s perhaps no coincidence that his most famous gay lover, Antinous, was a Greek youth he met during one of his travels.

Hadrian made no secret of his deep passion for his beautiful male consort, but their relationship came to a tragic end when aged just 19, Antinous drowned while sailing with the emperor on the River Nile. A distraught Hadrian ‘wept like a woman’ over his lost love and ordered that Antinous be regarded as a literal god. A cult grew around the young man, and there was even a city built in his name: Antinoopolis.

Intriguingly, some have theorised that Antinous may have actually been murdered on that barge – perhaps by a conspiracy of rivals in Hadrian’s entourage, or even by the emperor himself in a heated argument. In any case, Antinous remained a celebrated figure for thousands of years, feted by Oscar Wilde and many other writers and poets.

3. Alexander the Great

King of Macedonia, empire builder, and one of the greatest military geniuses of all time, Alexander the Great amassed many achievements in his short life. He racked up three wives, while also perhaps finding time to have affairs with men.

Hephaestion, a Macedonian general, was so intensely close to Alexander that their friendship was compared to the bond between legendary Greek heroes Achilles and Patroclus. Despite a lack of concrete evidence, it’s been widely speculated they were lovers, with Paul Cartledge – an eminent historian of Ancient Greece – writing that, ‘rumour had it – and rumour was for once surely correct – that [Hephaestion] and Alexander had once been more than just good friends.’

It's also been speculated that Alexander had been besotted with a Persian eunuch named Bagoas. The Greek historian Plutarch recounts Alexander kissing Bagoas in full view of his troops, while the Roman historian Curtius describes Bagoas as a ‘eunuch exceptional in beauty and in the very flower of boyhood… with whom Alexander would later be intimate.’

4. Emperor Ai of Han

Many ancient Chinese emperors had same-sex relationships and one of the most notable examples was the Emperor Ai of the Han dynasty. Reigning in the 1st century BC, he had a celebrated love affair with Dong Xian, a minor court official whose closeness with the emperor propelled him to become one of the most influential figures of his time.

Emperor Ai lavished Dong Xian with money and gifts, including a residence so elaborate it was said to rival the imperial palace. Yet it was a more low-key anecdote about the couple that achieved lasting notoriety.

According to an oft-told story, the pair fell asleep one afternoon in the same bed. Upon waking to realise Dong was resting on the sleeve of his robe, the emperor chose to cut off the sleeve rather than risk disturbing his lover. This incident spawned a Chinese euphemism for homosexuality, ‘cut sleeve’.

5. Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum

Living in the 25th century BC, Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum were servants to a Fifth Dynasty pharaoh rather than rulers themselves. But the pair, who were head manicurists in the royal household, deserve mention in any discussion of queer culture in the ancient world. That’s because of the remarkable artwork on their joint tomb, which seems to sideline their wives and emphasise a romantic intimacy between the men.

The imagery shows the men embracing, holding hands, touching noses, and perhaps kissing. There have been huge debates about the true nature of the connection between the men. Some believe they were most likely brothers. However, given the clear affection shown in the art, and given how rare it was for two men of equal standing to be buried together like this, many believe Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum are in fact the first gay couple in recorded history.