Emperor Hadrian’s young lover: Antinous. 

Who exactly was this guy, how did he mysteriously die, and why do we find hundreds of portraits of him throughout the Roman Empire?

We don’t actually know a lot about Antinous as a person himself. We do know that he was a Greek from western Asia Minor, but it remains unclear as to whether he was even a slave, or free. Roman emperor Hadrian probably meet Antinous when he toured the region in 123 AD -if this is the case, then their relationship probably lasted for several years. 

With a lack of historical information to record, I now move to the death of Antinous. His death essentially remains a mystery to us, and has become shrouded in imaginative myth, but we do have a few historical leads. During the year 130, Hadrian and his entourage spent a considerable about of time in Egypt, and at one point, traveled up the Nile to Hermpolis. The Egyptians celebrated the traditional festival of the Nile on the 22nd of October, and then, a few days later, they commemorated the death (by drowning in the river), and subsequent rebirth of the Egyptian god Osiris. This is possibly the day that Antinous died.

It is mostly agreed upon that Antinous drowned. However, the nature of this drowning remains ambiguous. Roman historian Cassius Dio (155-235 AD) reports the following on the matter:

“[Antinous] had been a favourite of the emperor and had died in Egypt, either by falling into the Nile, as Hadrian writes, or, as the truth is, by being offered in sacrifice. For Hadrian, as I have stated, was always very curious and employed divinations and incantations of all kinds.” (Book LXIX, translation via uchicago)

Dio here curiously suggests that Hadrian, under some strange superstitious belief, either forced, or persuaded, Antinous to cut his life short, in order to prolong his own. We will probably never know exactly what happened to Antinous, except for the fact that it left Hadrian in all-consuming grief. 

After his death, Hadrian deified Antinous, elevating him to a god, constructed multiple temples and shrines to him, and founded the centre of the new cult, the city of Antinouspolis, next to the Nile, near where he had died. Throughout the Empire at this time, we see huge numbers of portraits of Antinous, and at least 10 marble images of him have been found at Hadrian’s Villa in Tivoli. Often in these images, Antinous will be given attributes of one of the Olympian deities, in the example at the top of this post, for example, he is shown in a syncretic Dionysus-Osiris pose. This colossal statue is titled the Braschi Antinous, and is thought to be from the villa of Hadrian at Praeneste. This sculpture dates to the years immediately after the death of Antinous. On his head we can see a crown of ivy berries and leaves. Although the diadem on top of his head has been restored to (what appears to be) a pine cone of sorts, it would originally have displayed either a lotus flower or a cobra (uraeus). 

Shown sculpture courtesy of & can be viewed at the Vatican Museums: Museo Pio-Clementino, inv. 256. Photos taken by Jastrow via the Wiki Commons. When writing up this post, James Morwood’s publication Hadrian (Bloomsbury 2013) was of use.

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