Who was Antinous?
Antinous was a Bithynian Greek man, best remembered as Roman emperor Hadrian’s homosexual lover. Hadrian came across Antinous while he was on a trip to Bithynia. Beguiled by his beauty, Hadrian immediately admitted him to the imperial court. Antinous was then sent to Rome to be educated. Not much is known about Antinous’s life, except that he was a proficient hunter and accompanied Hadrian on his various expeditions. It is believed Antinous drowned in the Nile, while he was accompanying Hadrian on one such journey. Following his death, a grieving Hadrian built scores of temples in his honor. Hadrian also built an entire city named Antinoöpolis near the place where Antinous died. Antinous was also declared a god and is still revered as a hero. Later, Antinous became a classic symbol of homosexuality. His references were found in the works of Oscar Wilde and many such noted literary figures. Owing to his stunning good looks and charming appearance, Antinous was also compared to Greek mythological figures such as Ganymede, Narcissus, and Hyacinth.
Childhood & Early Life
Antinous was born in Claudiopolis, also known as Bithynion, a city in the Roman province of Bithynia (present-day Turkey), into an average Greek family. Not much is known about his family, except that they were perhaps farmers or small business owners. No records have been found to ascertain the year of his birth. However, it is estimated that he was probably born between 110 and 112 AD. Biographer Royston Lambert claimed that Antinous was most likely to have been born on November 27.
It is also assumed that he was not entirely of Greek descent. Some sources also mention that he was probably a slave.
The name "Antinous" possibly originated from the character ‘Antinous,’ one of ‘Penelope's suitors in Homer's the ‘the Odyssey.’ Another source claims that he was perhaps the male equivalent of Antinoë, a woman who was one of the founders of Mantineia, a city that was closely associated with Bithynia.
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Relationship with Hadrian
Emperor Hadrian was married to Vibia Sabina, Emperor Trajan’s grandniece. Vibia was expected to produce an heir to the Roman throne. However, Hadrian failed to produce a son.
Back then, sexual relationships between older men and younger boys was socially acceptable in Greece. Such older men, usually aged between 20 and 40, were known as “erastes,” and the boys, between 12 and 18, were known as “eromenos.” In most cases, the older men would sponsor the education of the boys.
It is said that Hadrian noticed a young Antinous while passing through Bithynia in 123 A.D. and fell in love with his captivating good looks and charm immediately. Hadrian got him admitted to the imperial court.
Some sources claim Antinous was sent to Rome to be educated at the best schools, where he was trained in Latin, history, poetry, and the arts.
Other sources mention that he remained with Hadrian and received education in private. Antinous was also physically trained in the gymnasium. This helped him build an attractive physique.
Antinous was a remarkable hunter. Hunting was Hadrian's favorite leisure activity, too. It is believed they spent a lot of time hunting wild animals. Antinous and Hadrian had 7-year-long relationship and were extremely devoted to each other.
Hadrian had a keen interest in religion, spirituality, and theology. Antinous is believed to have undergone secret initiations offered by the priests of Eleusis. Antinous also accompanied Hadrian in his many expeditions across the world.
Antinous also received the consecration of Proserpina, the goddess of the underworld, which made him ready for his own death and resurrection.
During the summers of 130, the imperial court ventured toward Egypt. Hadrian was considered a Pharaoh, or a living God, there. Several scholars of Alexandria, however, did not accept Hadrian as the Supreme Being. They opposed his reforms. A significant Christian section refused to accept Antinous and his association with Hadrian.
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After facing a lot of opposition, some of Hadrian’s close aides, consisting of poets and philosophers, fled to Libya. Legend has it that a man-eating lion had been terrorizing the deserts of the Libyan countryside at that time and that Hadrian’s companions tracked the beast down. It is believed that Antinous then attacked the lion but lost his weapon. The lion attacked Antinous and was about to kill him when Hadrian charged at it and killed it. Pancrates, a poet, later described this incident. He mentioned how red lotus flowers had emerged from the blood of the lion. Antinous was then presented with these flowers, and they later became his emblem.
Following their return to Alexandria, Hadrian’s entourage gained more people and included the High Priests of various cults of Egyptian gods. Soon, Hadrian and Antinous set off on a journey on the Nile.
Antinous is said to have died on October 28, 130 A.D. There are many theories regarding Antinous’s death. Most believe he fell into the river Nile accidentally, perhaps as a result of intoxication, and drowned, while sailing with Hadrian.
Another theory states that Antinous probably committed suicide by jumping into the river, as he did not wish to prolong his homosexual relationship with Hadrian.
A third angle states that Antinous could have been killed to ensure a longer life for Hadrian, as it was believed back then that human sacrifice was required to extend another person’s life. An extension of this theory claims that Antinous could have made a voluntary sacrifice for the same reason, as Hadrian, at that time, had been ill for a long time. The writings of Dio Cassius, 80 years after this incident, point at the possibility of this theory being true.
There is another angle that states Antinous died during a voluntary castration, which was part of his attempt to retain his youthful appeal to Hadrian. However, this is unlikely because Hadrian considered castration an abomination.
Others believe Antinous was murderd on the Nile as a conspiracy of the court. Experts, however, think this is unlikely, as Antinous was not a threat to Hadrian and did not have much influence over him.
After His Death
It is believed Hadrian had cried in front of his court after Antinous’s death. The High Priests of Osiris and Hermopolis visited Hadrian that night. They told Hadrian that they believed Antinous had become the river god. The local people then began worshipping him as a god.
On October 30 that year, Hadrian established the holy city of Antinoöpolis on the banks of the river where Antinous had died, in honor of Antinous.
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By virtue of being an emperor, Hadrian was also Rome's “pontifex maximus,” a person who was responsible for all religious affairs and the operations of all official religious institutions in the empire. Thus, as the “pontifex maximus,” or the High Priest of the Roman religion, he declared Antinous a god. Hadrian stated that Antinous had defeated death and had found his place amidst the stars. Thus, he gave rise to the cult of Antinous.
Hadrian built countless temples and statues in memory of Antinous. When the Roman Empire was taken over by Christianity, many such temples and statues were destroyed. Only about 80 such artifacts exist today and most of them are found in the Vatican museums. Hadrian also organized many games in honor of Antinous, which were held in both Antinopolis and Athens.
Antinous was perhaps the first homosexual person who was declared a god and for whom an entire religion was created. As a result, Christianity resisted homosexuality furthermore. Antinous is also known in history as the last god of the ancient Roman religion.
Antinous later became a key figure of cultural significance. He began to be held as the symbol of homosexuality, replacing Ganymede. He is also compared to mythological figures Narcissus and Hyacinth.
Renowned author Oscar Wilde mentioned Antinous in ‘The Young King’ (1891) and ‘The Sphinx’ (1894).
The character ‘Enjolras’ in ‘Les Misérables’ was compared to Antinous.
The tale of Antinous's death was showcased in the radio play ‘The Glass Ball Game,’ the second episode of the second series of the ‘BBC’ radio drama ‘Caesar!’
Antinous was showcased with other gods in Neil Gaiman's novel ‘American Gods.’
The ‘Canadian Opera Company’ premiered ‘Hadrian,’ on October 13, 2018, in Toronto. It narrated the tale of Hadrian’s grief after Antinous's death.