Antinous, an enigmatic and mysterious figure from ancient Rome, is famed for having been the lover of Emperor Hadrian. His life has been the subject of admiration, curiosity, and debate for nearly two millennia.
Who exactly was this young man of extraordinary beauty who captivated the heart of an Emperor? Was their relationship accepted within Roman society? What do we know of his tragic demise?
In this article, we shall delve into the life of Antinous, exploring his origins, his role as a gay icon, and his enduring influence on modern history and culture.
The youth of Antinous and his encounter with Emperor Hadrian
Antinous was born around 110 AD in the city of Claudiopolis, in modern-day Turkey. Little is known about his family or precise origins. Some sources suggest he came from humble beginnings and may have been a slave. His beauty was noticed from a young age, but it was not just his looks that struck those around him; his intelligence and spirit were also remarkable.
We know little about Antinous’s early formative years, but it is possible that he received an education in line with that reserved for talented youths of his era. This could include a grounding in literature, philosophy, and Greco-Roman art.
The encounter between Hadrian and Antinous likely occurred when the Emperor visited the province of Bithynia. Legend has it that Hadrian was immediately captivated by Antinous’s beauty and intelligence. The Emperor decided to bring the young man back with him to Rome, offering him opportunities that would have otherwise been inaccessible.
Once in Rome, Antinous was enrolled in one of the city’s premier schools, likely situated on the Caelian Hill. Here he would have studied rhetoric, philosophy, and other classical disciplines. The education he received would not only have refined his intellect but also prepared him for life at court, equipping him with the skills necessary to navigate the sophisticated and often dangerous world of Roman politics.
The relationship between Antinous and Hadrian soon became much more than a simple bond between mentor and pupil. They shared common interests such as hunting and literature, and Antinous became one of the Emperor’s favourite travelling companions.
The journey that Hadrian and Antinous took to Greece was a key moment in their relationship. During this period, their emotional and intellectual connection deepened even further. The three years they spent together in Greece were crucial in cementing their bond, which would have a lasting impact on both their lives and Roman history.
The journey to Egypt, where Antinous died
The journey to Egypt undertaken by Hadrian and Antinous represents a significant chapter in their shared history. During this trip, both experienced moments of discovery and adventure as they explored the ancient land of the gods.
While Emperor Hadrian was engrossed in touring the provinces of the Empire, his companion Antinous was by his side, participating in official ceremonies and visiting historical and cultural sites. Their stay in Hermopolis Magna is well-documented, as is the tragic incident on the Nile that led to Antinous’s deathat the young age of 20 in 130 AD. His mysterious fall into the river during a boat excursion would mark the end of their journey and the beginning of a new phase in the Emperor’s life.
The death of Antinous: under what circumstances he was struck
The death of Antinous on the Nile remains a topic shrouded in mystery. The official account speaks of an accidental drowning, but there are sources that suggest alternative theories. Some ancient accounts, such as that by Cassius Dio, speak of a possible sacrifice in which Hadrian would have offered Antinous’s life as a pact with the Egyptian gods.
Other rumors suggest murder, poisoning, or even castration followed by fatal complications. Whatever the cause, Antinous’s death devastated Hadrian, who subsequently deified him.
He transformed Antinous into various gods and mythological figures, such as Attis, Adonis, Narcissus, Hermes, Apollo, and Dionysus. His image was associated with symbols like ivy, the grape cluster, laurel, and the poppy, representing concepts of life, death, and rebirth.
Hadrian initiated a widespread cult of Antinous throughout the Empire and built a city in his honor, known as Antinoopolis.
Acceptance of the homosexual relationship in Roman Society
The homosexual relationship between Hadrian and Antinous was no secret and serves as a significant example of Roman society’s attitude towards homosexuality. In Roman culture, homosexuality was accepted and could be openly practiced, especially if certain social norms were observed.
The relationship between the Emperor and Antinous was unique, not so much for its homosexual nature, but for the intensity and passion with which it was lived and publicly displayed. Emperor Hadrian had no qualms about appearing in public with the young man, unconcerned about potential criticism. Their love story also fit into Hadrian’s desire to emulate classical Greek philosophers, for whom the emotional bond between an adult and a youth was part of a man’s formative process.
The idealised image of Antinous, the sincere passion the Emperor had for the young man, and the honors bestowed upon Antinous after his death, all show how their relationship was seen as a symbol of beauty and pure love, accepted and celebrated in the Roman society of the time.
Antinous as a gay icon and his legacy in modern culture
Antinous is a historical figure who has transcended the centuries, transforming into a universal symbol of beauty and homosexuality. His image has been celebrated in various forms of art, literature, and religion, and he has had a lasting influence on gay culture.
Antinous has been identified as the ultimate ideal of Greek beauty since the 18th century. Johann Joachim Winckelmann observed him in the relief from Cardinal Albani’s collection, elevating him to a symbol of male beauty. His likeness has been immortalised in numerous portraits and sculptures.
As we’ve seen, his name was eternalised in the city of Antinoopolis, and the obelisk dedicated to him was erected on the Pincian Hill.
Resonance in literature
Writers such as Oscar Wilde, Flaubert, Boccaccio, Shelley, Balzac, Proust, Barthes, D’Annunzio, Mann, Pavese, Pasolini, Rilke, Cavafy, and Pessoa have referenced Antinous in their works, celebrating both his beauty and the love between him and Hadrian.
InMarguerite Yourcenar’s novel “Memoirs of Hadrian“, Emperor Hadrian meets the young Antinous during a journey in Asia Minor. A deep and intense relationship develops between the two, profoundly involving Hadrian. After the unexpected suicide of Antinous, a devastated Hadrian elevates him to the rank of a deity and orders the construction of temples in his honour.
Impact on modern culture
Antinous has been depicted in over fifty marble, bronze, and precious stone portraits. His face has influenced modern art, such as the famous “Antinous” by Mapplethorpe, a 20th-century queer icon known for his homoerotic photography.
The story of Antinous is an extraordinary example of how a figure from antiquity can have a lasting impact on contemporary culture. His beauty, his deification, and his role as a gay icon are testaments to a story that continues to inspire and influence modern society, demonstrating that beauty and homosexual love can transcend the boundaries of time and space.