Not much was known of the young Antinous before he attracted the attention of the ruler of the Roman world at its height. He was born in Bithynia, the northwest corner of the country that we now call Turkey, in the year 111 CE. He was very likely not from a wealthy family. However, because of his mysterious bond with Roman Emperor Hadrian, by the end of his short life Antinous was a house-hold name all over the Roman Empire.
Antinous was deified upon his death and worshipped as a hero, a god and a conqueror of death – a city was funded in his name and games were held to commemorate him. More images have been identified of Antinous than of any other figure in classical antiquity with the exceptions of Augustus and Hadrian himself. However, despite his fame, we knew very little about him apart from his relationship with Hadrian.
After being made emperor 117 CE, Hadrian inherited a Roman Empire which had thrived on a policy of endless expansion and conquest. Although his politically arranged marriage to Vibia Sabina, the great-niece of the childless former emperor Trajan, would have played a role in laying the groundwork for his own succession, Hadrian also proved to be an able and popular administrator to the Empire. He spent twelve out of the twenty-one years of his reign traveling all over the empire to visit the provinces, oversee the administration and check armies’ discipline. He was said to have been so devoted to the army that he would sleep and eat among the c ommon soldiers. Therefore, although his regime is marked by relative peace, Hadrian is commonly depicted in military attire.
In 123 CE, Hadrian’s travels took him to Bithynia in the year 123 CE where he possibly encountered Antinous for the first time. The handsome, exotic boy quickly became his favorite and was soon admitted into the Imperial court. Although accounts of his education were unclear, it was possible that Antinous was either sent to Rome to be educated in literature, history and the arts at the finest schools for boys or he was educated in private to remain close to Hadrian. Under Hadrian’s trainers, Antinous also began to train his body in the gymnasium and over time sculpted it into what would become one of the finest examples of classical male beauty. Antinous was also an excellent hunter – hunting was also Hadrian’s favorite past time. Together, Antinous and Hadrian spent much of their free time hunting wild animals.
A surviving section of a fragmented, epic-style poem written by the Alexandrian poet, Pancrates, mythologizes a lion hunt by Hadrian and Antinous in the Western desert. In it, he portrayed Antinous as much more than an innocent young lover – Antinous was a trusted hunting companion for Hadrian. When he charged ahead to attack the lion, Antinous lost his weapon and the wounded lion attacked him. The lion would have killed Antinous had Hadrian not intervened and killed it. Pancrates proceeded to say that red lotus flowers miraculously sprang from the blood of the lion which were then presented to Antinous, and soon became his emblem.
This extraordinary poem hints at Hadrian’s future plans for Antinous. The Egyptian context of Pancrates’ epic lion hunt resonates with the Sphinx Stele, which indicates that Hadrian may have been grooming Antinous for an imperial office in Egypt. The Sphinx Stele, erected by Pharaoh Tuthmosis IV (c. 1397 – 1387 BCE), claims that, as a young man not directly in line for power, Tuthmosis fell asleep under the Sphinx while hunting lions in the Western desert, the same area Hadrian and Antious had their lion hunt. Pancrates’ poem would have brought this to his audience’s minds and connects Antinous’ imperial lion hunt with the right to rule.
Pancrates’ poem also evokes other cultural associations. Alexander the Great set the precedent that lion hunts proved the strength of Macedonian kings. The Alexander Sarcophagus in Istanbul depicts Alexander engaging in a lion hunt with his companion Hephaestion. As Pancrates’ lion hunt connects Antinous to pharaohs, Macedonian kings, and Roman emperors, Antinous involvement with Hadrian then would have gone beyond that of lovers. The poem provides a wide-ranging socio-political context for his relationship with Hadrian just prior to his suspicious death.
The Imperial Court, which at this point included Antinous, embarked on a grand tour of the East in the summer of 128 CE. Although the Empress Sabina and her attendants were members of the entourage, Antinous was the most favored of Hadrian’s companions in this voyage where their relationship was openly displayed before the eyes of the world. The display was so obvious, in fact, that the large Christian faction in Alexandria was especially disturbed by the presence of Antinous and his special relationship to the Emperor.
The Imperial Fleet arrived in the ancient city of Hermopolis just in time for the celebration of the death and resurrection of Osiris. These ceremonies coincided with the end of the flooding of the Nile that was very important to the fertility of the river valley. At the time of Hadrian’s voyage, there was a looming threat of starvation as the Nile had failed to flood properly for two years, thus also endangering the entire Roman Empire because Egypt provided food for the great cities everywhere. Failure of Nile to flood would result in famine leading to death, disease and civil unrest.
The legend behind this celebration was that the god Set and his accomplices murdered Osiris by drowning him in the river and dismembered him – scattering his limbs up and down the valley. Osiris’ death brought about the annual floods that brought life to the valley. It was then believed that Osiris arose from the dead, but needed the constant supplication of his devoted followers to strengthen his return. The priests mourned his death, prayed for his return and, at the moment of his resurrection, celebrated with dancing, singing, and feasting. Traditionally, young boys chosen for their exceptional beauty were thrown into the Nile to drown, just as Osiris had drowned, as a sacrifice for the benefit of the living. Those who drowned in the Nile were then considered to have become gods, especially if the water responded the following year with a flood.
After the festival of Osiris, the fleet continued up the river until it reached a place called Hir-wer. It was here that Antinous fell into the Nile. Although no explanation was given for his fall, the drowning of Antinous provided a few theories. One suggestion says that Antinous had died during a voluntary castration as part of an attempt to retain his youth and his sexual appeal to Hadrian. However, as Antinous was aged between 18 and 20 year old at the time of his death, any such operation would have been ineffective. Another possibility is that Antinous’ death was accidental due, perhaps, to intoxication. However, the surviving evidence does not describe the death as being an accident – Cassius Dio even described Antinous as having “voluntarily undertaken to die”. This leads us to two more likely possibilities: either Antinous was murdered by a conspiracy at court due to his perceived influence over Hadrian, or that Antinous represented a voluntary human sacrifice for the death and resurrection of Osiris.
Nevertheless, Hadrian was criticized for the intensity of his grief over the death of Antinous, particularly as he had delayed the apotheosis of his own sister Paulina after her death. Later, the High Priests of Osiris and those of Hermopolis, came privately to Hadrian and showed him that the local people had already taken up the lamentation and exaltation of Antinous, proclaiming that he had become a god – after their custom. Hadrian who, according to Cassius Dio, “was always very curious and employed divinations and incantations of all kinds”, took these sentiments to heart.
As Pontifex Maximus, Hadrian issued a formal proclamation that, because of his death in the Nile, Antinous was to be deified – an honor which was previously only given to Roman Emperors. However, this fits an older Greek tradition where apotheosis had been conferred upon heroic individuals such as Achilles and Hercules, as well as beautiful boys who were beloved by gods, such as Hyacinthus and Adonis.
Antinous was also compared to the gods who had given their lives for the benefit of mankind such as Osiris himself and Ganymede, the young deity who served the cup of immortality to the gods as well as lover of Jupiter. This would have provided another element to the symbolism of Antinous’ cult. Jupiter had swept down upon Ganymede in the form of an eagle and carried him to Olympus. Hadrian’s symbol as Emperor was also an eagle, and he had “swept down” upon Antinous and carried him to his divinity. Further, soon after the death of Antinous, Hadrian’s Astrologers noticed the new star which appeared suddenly within the constellation now known as Aquila, the Eagle.
In 130 CE, Hadrian founded the City of Antinopolis on the bank of the river where Antinous had drowned. He personally set to work surveying the plans for the new city and spared no expense for every aspect of its development. The new city was located at the very heart of Egypt, on a bend in the river between Akhetaten and Hermopolis (the sacred city of Thoth).
Special privileges, such as tax exemption, were given to any Greek resided in Antinopolis with further privileges given to those who joined the new religion of Antinous – although participation in the cult would have been compulsory to some degree. The residents of Antinopolis enjoyed all the comforts of Greco-Roman civilization in the middle of the Egyptian desert and were given special dispensation to intermarry with the local population – their children were given automatic Roman Citizenship, with all of its legal protections and privileges. Evidence of what it meant to be a Citizen of Antinopolis is demonstrated by the papyrus fragments found throughout the region – many of which are legal contracts where one of the parties is specifically named as a Citizen of Antinopolis.
Even centuries after its founding, Antinopolis was considered a place for novel and innovative approaches toward spiritual endeavours. A sacred brotherhood of priests was consecrated to service the sacraments and litanies prepared by Hadrian for the temple and mausoleum of Antinous. There, Antinous’ name was ritually sung and his oracles were read for almost five hundred years. Antinopolis became home to the mathematician, Serenus of Antinopolis, who devised an innovative method of calculating the geometry of a cylinder which is still used to this day. The city was also the breeding ground for the finest sculptors of the day. It is very possible that many of the sculptures of Antinous were produced in this city, where the image of Antinous was considered to be sacred.
Statues of Antinous were fashioned under Hadrian’s direction, using models that had been carved while Antinous was still alive. These statues often portrayed Antinous in the costume and symbols of the famous young gods. However, there are also a large number of statues which show Antinous without divine attributes, suggesting that Antinous was a new god. These statues were set up everywhere in the Empire within the official Temples of Antinous, and in private shrines within the homes of his worshipers.
Whether or not Hadrian really believed that Antinous had become a god, he would have also had political motives for creating the organized cult, as it enshrined political and personal loyalties specifically to him. Being Greek himself, the god Antinous would also have helped Hadrian’s cause in representing a symbol of pan-Hellenic unity.
Hadrian outlived his lover by about eight years. By 136 CE, the nosebleeds that he had long suffered intensified and the Emperor began to despair. His clinical and emotional condition worsened considerably by 138 CE that he often expressed the desire to kill himself and end his own sufferings.
Hadrian spent the last moments of his life dictating verses addressed to his soul. According to the Historia Augusta, Hadrian composed the following poem shortly before his death:
“Sweet little soul, little wanderer, my body’s guest,
Where do you go now?
Somewhere colorless, savage and bare;
Never again to share a joke.”
Even after his death, Hadrian was never to be reunited with Antinous. After his cremation and upon completion of the Tomb of Hadrian in Rome in 139 CE by his successor Antoninus Pius, Hadrian’s ashes were placed beside his legal wife, Vibia Sabina.