Antinous ( 27 November, c. 111 – 30 October 130) was a Bithynian Greek youth and a favourite, or lover, of the Roman emperor Hadrian.
He was deified after his death, being worshiped in both the Greek East and Latin West, sometimes as a god (theos) and sometimes merely as a deified mortal (heros).
Little is known of Antinous’ life, although it is known that he was born in Claudiopolis (nowadays Bolu, Turkey), in the Roman province of Bithynia. He likely was introduced to Hadrian in 123, before being taken to Italy for a higher education. ‘
He had become the favourite of Hadrian by 128, when he was taken on a tour of the Empire as part of Hadrian’s personal retinue. Antinous accompanied Hadrian during his attendance of the annual Eleusinian Mysteries in Athens, and was with him when he killed the Marousian lion in Libya.
In October 130, as they were part of a flotilla going along the Nile, Antinous died amid mysterious circumstances. Various suggestions have been put forward for how he died, ranging from an accidental drowning to an intentional human sacrifice.
Following his death, Hadrian deified Antinous and founded an organised cult devoted to his worship that spread throughout the Empire. Hadrian founded the city of Antinopolis close to Antinous’s place of death, which became a cultic centre for the worship of Osiris-Antinous.
Hadrian also founded games in commemoration of Antinous to take place in both Antinopolis and Athens, with Antinous becoming a symbol of Hadrian’s dreams of pan-Hellenism.
Antinous became associated with homosexuality in Western culture, appearing in the work of Oscar Wilde and the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa.
The Classicist Caroline Vout noted that most of the texts dealing with Antinous’s biography only dealt with him briefly and were post-Hadrianic in date, thus commenting that “reconstructing a detailed biography is impossible”.
The historian Thorsten Opper noted that “Hardly anything is known of Antinous’ life, and the fact that our sources get more detailed the later they are does not inspire confidence.” Antinous’s biographer Royston Lambert echoed this view, commenting that information on him was “tainted always by distance, sometimes by prejudice and by the alarming and bizarre ways in which the principal sources have been transmitted to us.”
It is known that Antinous was born to a Greek family in the city of Claudiopolis, which was located in the Roman province of Bithynia in what is now north-west Turkey. T
he year of Antinous’s birth is not recorded, although it is estimated that it was probably between 110 and 112 CE. Early sources record that his birthday was in November, and although the exact date is not known, Lambert asserted that it was probably on 27 November.
Given the location of his birth and his physical appearance, it is likely that part of his ancestry was not Greek.
There are various potential origins for the name “Antinous”; it is possible that he was named after the character of Antinous, who is one of Penelope’s suitors in Homer’s epic poem, the Odyssey. Another possibility is that he was given the male equivalent of Antinoë, a woman who was one of the founding figures of Mantineia, a city which probably had close relations with Bithynia.
Although many historians from the Renaissance onward asserted that Antinous had been a slave, only one of around fifty early sources claim this, and it remains unlikely, as it would have proved heavily controversial to deify a former slave in Roman society.
There is no surviving reliable evidence attesting to Antinous’s family background, although Lambert believed it most likely that his family would have been peasant farmers or small business owners, thereby being socially undistinguished yet not from the poorest sectors of society. Lambert also considered it likely that Antinous would have had a basic education as a child, having been taught how to read and write.
The Emperor Hadrian spent much time during his regime touring his Empire, and arrived in Claudiopolis in June 123, which was probably when he first encountered Antinous.
Given Hadrian’s personality, Lambert thought it unlikely that they had become lovers at this point, instead suggesting it probable that Antinous had been selected to be sent to Italy, where he was probably schooled at the imperial paedagogium at the Caelian Hill.
Hadrian meanwhile had continued to tour the Empire, only returning to Italy in September 125, when he settled into his villa at Tibur. It was at some point over the following three years that Antinous became his personal favourite, for by the time he left for Greece three years later, he brought Antinous with him in his personal retinue.
Lambert described Antinous as “the one person who seems to have connected most profoundly with Hadrian” throughout the latter’s life. Hadrian’s marriage to Sabina was unhappy, and there is no reliable evidence that he ever expressed a sexual attraction for women, in contrast to much reliable early evidence that he was sexually attracted to boys and young men.
For centuries, pederasty had played an accepted societal role among Greece’s leisured and citizen classes, with an older erastes (aged between 20 and 40) undertaking a caring sexual relationship with an eromenos (aged between 12 and 18) and taking a key role in their education. Such a societal institution of pederasty was not indigenous to Roman culture, although bisexuality was the norm in the upper echelons of Roman society by the early 2nd century.
It is known that Hadrian believed Antinous to be intelligent and wise, which might explain part of the attraction.
Another factor was potentially a shared love of hunting, which was seen as a particularly manly pursuit in Roman culture. Although none survive, it is known that Hadrian wrote both an autobiography and erotic poetry about his boy favourites; it is therefore likely that he wrote about Antinous.
Early sources are explicit that the relationship between Hadrian and Antinous was sexual. During their relationship, there is no evidence that Antinous ever used his influence over Hadrian for personal or political gain.
In March 127, Hadrian – probably accompanied by Antinous – traveled through the Sabine area of Italy, Picenum, and Campania. From 127 to 129 the Emperor was then afflicted with an illness that doctors were unable to explain. In April 128 he laid the foundation stone for a temple of Venus and Rome in the city of Rome, during a ritual where he may well have been accompanied by Antinous.
From there, Hadrian went on a tour of North Africa, during which he was accompanied by Antinous. In late 128 Hadrian and Antinous landed in Corinth, proceeding to Athens, where they remained until May 129, accompanied by Sabina, the Caeserii brothers, and Pedanius Fuscus the Younger.
It was in Athens in September 128 that they attended the annual celebrations of the Great Mysteries of Eleusis, where Hadrian was initiated into the position of epoptes in the Telesterion. It is generally agreed, although not proven, that Antinous was also intitiated at that time.
From there they headed to Asia Minor, settling in Antioch in June 129, where they were based for a year, visiting Syria, Arabia, and Judea. From there, Hadrian became increasingly critical of Jewish culture, which he feared opposed Romanisation, and so introduced policies banning circumcision and replacing the Jewish Temple with a Temple of Zeus-Jupiter. From there, they headed to Egypt.
Arriving in Alexandria in August 130, there they visited the sarcophogus of Alexander the Great. Although welcomed with public praise and ceremony, some of Hadrian’s appointments and actions angered the city’s Hellenic social elite, who began to gossip about his sexual activities, including those with Antinous.
Soon after, and probably in September 130, Hadrian and Antinous traveled west to Libya, where they had heard of a Marousian lion causing problems for local people. They hunted down the lion, and although the exact events are unclear, it is apparent that Hadrian saved Antinous’ life during their confrontation with it, before the beast itself was killed.
Hadrian widely publicised the event, casting bronze medallions of it, getting historians to write about it, commissioning Pancrates to author a poem about it, and having a tondo depicting it created which was later placed on the Arch of Constantine. On this tondo it was clear that Antinous was no longer a youth, having becoming more muscular and hairy; thus, it is likely that his relationship with Hadrian was changing as a result.
In late September or early October 130, Hadrian and his entourage, among them Antinous, assembled at Heliopolis to set sail upstream as part of a flotilla along the River Nile. The retinue included officials, the Prefect, army and naval commanders, as well as literary and scholarly figures. Possibly also joining them was Lucius Ceionius Commodus, a young aristocrat whom Antinous might have deemed a rival to Hadrian’s affections.
On their journey up the Nile, they stopped at Hermopolis Magna, the primary shrine to the god Thoth. It was shortly after this, in October 130 – around the time of the festival of Osiris – that Antinous fell into the river and died, probably from drowning.
Hadrian publicly announced his death, with gossip soon spreading throughout the Empire that Antinous had been intentionally killed. The nature of Antinous’s death remains a mystery to this day, and it is possible that Hadrian himself never knew; however, various hypotheses have been put forward.
One possibility is that he was murdered by a conspiracy at court. However, Lambert asserted that this was unlikely because it lacked any supporting historical evidence, and because Antinous himself seemingly exerted little influence over Hadrian, thus meaning that an assassination served little purpose.
Another suggestion is that Antinous had died during a voluntary castration as part of an attempt to retain his youth and thus his sexual appeal to Hadrian.
However, this is improbable because Hadrian deemed both castration and circumcision to be abominations and as Antinous was aged between 18 and 20 at the time of death, any such operation would have been ineffective.
A third possibility is that the death was accidental, perhaps if Antinous was intoxicated. However, in the surviving evidence Hadrian does not describe the death as being an accident; Lambert thought that this was suspicious.
Another possibility is that Antinous represented a voluntary human sacrifice. Our earliest surviving evidence for this comes from the writings of Dio Cassius, 80 years after the event, although it would later be repeated in many subsequent sources.
In the second century Roman Empire, a belief that the death of one could rejuvenate the health of another was widespread, and Hadrian had been ill for many years; in this scenario, Antinous could have sacrificed himself in the belief that Hadrian would have recovered.
Alternately, in Egyptian tradition it was held that sacrifices of boys to the Nile, particularly at the time of the October Osiris festival, would ensure that the River would flood to its full capacity and thus fertilise the valley; this was made all the more urgent as the Nile’s floods had been insufficient for full agricultural production in both 129 and 130.
In this situation, Hadrian might not have revealed the cause of Antinous’s death because he did not wish to appear either physically or politically weak. Conversely, opposing this possibility is the fact that Hadrian disliked human sacrifice and had strengthened laws against it in the Empire.