Anyone who has visited the world’s great collections of classical antiquities will surely recognise the face of Antinous, the young favourite of Emperor Hadrian. He died in the Nile in AD 130, to then be deified as god and hero, with Hadrian even creating a religious cult in his memory. The bestowing of such honours upon a private individual was without precedent in Roman history, with the third-century historian, Cassius Dio, observing that portraits of Antinous were set up “practically all over the world”. With the exceptions of Augustus and Hadrian himself, more images of this youth have survived than of any other figure from classical antiquity. Indeed, the most striking aspect of this cult must be its longevity across the centuries. This handsome Greek youth has since come to embody the aesthetics of neoclassicism and romanticism, and has also become an icon of male homosexuality. Today, the gay community still fly their flag fervently for Antinous, while some internet sites even extend this remembrance to the level of religious worship.
Frustratingly, all records of Antinous are posthumous, and little is known for certain about his biological life, besides three key facts: his striking looks, his journeys with Hadrian, and his premature death. One reliable contemporary source was the Greek geographer, Pausanias, yet even he “never saw him in the flesh.” We know that Antinous was born around AD 110 (the twelfth year of Trajan’s reign), to a Greek family on the southern shore of the Black Sea (then the Roman province of Bithynia, and now northwest Turkey). He entered the large entourage of Emperor Hadrian, accompanying his various journeys around the empire, and it was during one such tour of Egypt, in late October of 130, that Antinous met his end in the River Nile. The drowning was officially reported as an accident, but rumours soon circulated that he had been sacrificed, or had even sacrificed himself, in order to prolong the life of his Emperor, who was himself in poor health during this period. Others said that Antinous had simply committed suicide. Either way, this tragic event plunged Hadrian into a state of grief so intense that he “wept for days on end like a woman”. Not content with weeping, Hadrian would grant Antinous divine status within days, and then had a new Greek city built on the east bank of the Nile close to the site of his lover’s death, to be named Antinoopolis (Antinous City). Games were instituted in his honour, and portraits of the youth were commissioned as a way of promoting Hadrian’s new religious policy. Soon, this new cult spread throughout the empire, honouring the deceased Antinous in every possible way.
My main project, Following Hadrian, has naturally led me to seek out any trace of Antinous wherever I go. Meandering through the world’s museums over the last decade I have been able to photograph almost all extant images of Hadrian, his wife, Sabina, and his lover, Antinous. Indeed, the latter’s depictions in classical sculpture are staggering in their sheer number, bearing witness not only to his Emperor’s fascination but also the popularity of his cult across the empire. Portraits of Antinous were placed in temples, shrines, theatres, libraries, bath-houses, civic spaces and private villas. They tend to emphasise his youth and looks, with a characteristically broad face, smooth skin, pouting lips, almond-shaped eyes, striated eyebrows, an unusually full chest, and hair in wavy locks. His head is usually turned to the side and facing slightly downward, expressing melancholy. Antinous is most commonly represented with divine or heroic attributes and in various religious guises, as Dionysus, Apollo, Osiris or Silvanus, befitting his deification and subsequent worship.
With this standardised physiognomy and the so-called “lock scheme” of his hair, portraits of Antinous are now easily identifiable. Professor Hugo Meyer made an exhaustive study of this corpus in 1991, showing that representations of Antinous were not based on one sole model, but rather categorised into three distinct styles. The most commonly seen “Haupttypus”, or “main type”, took its inspiration from the Tiber Apollo, the other two being the “Egyptianizing” and “Mondragone” types. Currently, more than eighty statues, busts and reliefs survive in various states of preservation, depicting Antinous as hero and god.
I lived in London for seven years and it was at the British Museum that I first encountered Antinous and, moreover, where my interest in the ancient world really took root. The portrait in question was the “Townley Antinous”, a head of Parian marble depicting him as Dionysus, with a thick ivy wreath knotted at the back (Figure 1 above). The head was reportedly found in 1770, on the Janiculum Hill in Rome, together with fragments of the statue it would originally have surmounted. It is part of the Townley Marbles, which took their name from the eighteenth-century antiquary and collector, Charles Townley, and are now housed in the British Museum’s Department of Greek and Roman Antiquities. A naked bust of Hadrian stands at his side, from the same collection. Being French, I am also well acquainted with the Louvre in Paris, which houses another personal favourite, the Antinous Mondragone. This colossal head has been exceptionally well-preserved, but was once part of an even greater acrolith, constructed from stone, wood and ivory, and intended for cult worship (Figure 2).
The eminent German art historian, Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717–68), pronounced this piece “the glory and crown of art in this age as well as in all others”. Among many other things it also showcases the “Mondragone type”, with the boy’s long waves of hair knotted at the back, as in classical depictions of Dionysus and Apollo. The same hairstyle can be seen on the Lansdowne Antinous, at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, England. This particular head was found at Hadrian’s Villa in 1769, by Scottish artist and dealer, Gavin Hamilton. It is wreathed with ivy (depicting Antinous as Dionysus) and would also have once belonged to a full statue. Back in the Louvre can be seen another Antinous-Dionysus head (Figure 3), a statue from Cyrene depicting Antinous as an imperial priest (Figure 4), two more statues and a bust from Hadrian’s Villa depicting Antinous as Osiris (Figure 5).
It was inevitable that Antinous would also come to be associated with Osiris, a figure of Egyptian mythology, killed by his jealous twin brother, Seth, and then thrown into the Nile. After the body was retrieved by his sister/wife, Isis, and pieces of him were then scattered throughout Egypt by Seth, Osiris was resurrected and thereafter revered as God of the Nile, death and rebirth. For Egyptians, to drown in the Nile was to be reborn de facto like Osiris, and Antinous was no exception. His own death coincided with both the festival of the Nile, on October 22, and the festival of Osiris, on October 24. This Egyptian tradition would help Hadrian to establish and legitimise his own new cult of Antinous, with its main temple to be constructed in the newly founded city of Antinoopolis (Figure 6).
Here, Antinous would be worshipped as an incarnation of the god, Osiris (now amalgamated as Osirantinous). The discovery of various statues at Hadrian’s Villa, depicting the youth in Egyptian headdress, gives some idea of the legacy that Hadrian had in mind for Antinous, and the success of his cult. This set of sculptures can now be categorised as the “Egyptianizing portraits”. In the four surviving statues of this type, Antinous wears the striped nemes of the pharaohs, covering the head, hanging behind the ears and then folding down in front of both shoulders. Around his waist, Antinous also wears a shendyt (a kilt-like garment). The posture is also reminiscent of Egyptian sculpture, whilst the body and face still follow a more Greek mode.
The most famous Antinous-Osiris was unearthed at Hadrian’s Villa at Tivoli near Rome in 1740 and is now housed in Vatican City’s Museo Gregoriano Egizio (Figure 7). The marble is still perfectly preserved and highly polished. It may have come from the Antinoeion, a section of the villa consisting of two small tetrastyle temples and a colonnaded exedra, where Antinous was worshipped. A further fifteen marble statues of deities and priests were later excavated in 2002, along with a pair of telamons in red granite. These figures were all previously assigned to the so-called Serapeum of the villa, and the monumental triclinium (dining room, now at the end of the Canopus) may also have come from this area of worship. The Vatican Museums also house the colossal Braschi Antinous, whose more syncretic pose combines different beliefs, evoking both Dionysus and Osiris (Figure 8).
Above a wreath of leaves and berries his diadem would originally have held a cobra (uraeus) or a lotus flower. However, modern restorers have replaced this with a pinecone, and also placed a thyrsus in his left hand (an attribute of Dionysus, considered the closest Greek equivalent to Osiris.) Both gods were associated with the cycle of death and rebirth.
Perhaps the best example of Egyptianized sculpture from the Hadrianic period is the Obelisk of Antinous, found at the end of the sixteenth century near Rome’s Porta Maggiore, and now standing again in the Pincian Hill gardens (Figure 9). On each of the four faces the red-granite is covered with reliefs and hieroglyphs. The text, assumed to have been composed by Hadrian himself, provides key information about the tomb of Antinous, his Osirantinous cult and the new city of Antinoopolis. The obelisk was used for a time to mark the actual tomb of Antinous, but the latest archaeological research suggests it may originally have stood in the Antinoeion, at Hadrian’s Villa (Figure 10).
Of his other representations in Rome’s museums, the famous relief of Antinous in the Palazzo Massimo alle Terme cannot go unnoticed. Originally from Lanuvium, this finely sculpted Pentelic marble presents Antinous as the woodland god, Silvanus, cutting grapes and attended by a dog. The work is signed by Antonianos of Aphrodisias, a city in western Turkey known well for its output of marble sculpture (Figure 11).
Also hailing from Lanuvium is a marble plaque, now in the Baths of Diocletian (inv. 1031), whose Latin inscription definitively marks the birthday of Antinous as November 27 (CIL XIV 2112). According to the text, a collegium (association) dedicated to Antinous and Diana hosted feasts on their respective birthdays every year. Hadrian was, of course, an avid hunter which makes this link with the huntress, Diana, particularly interesting. He had spent much of his youth in this pursuit, at his father’s hometown of Italica in Spain, and continued hunting wherever he went as Emperor. Hadrian and Antinous may even have been depicted hunting together on two of the Hadrianic tondi which flank the Arch of Constantine in Rome (although the identity of the youth is not certain). In any case, their joint hunting expeditions are still documented well enough in other media. A papyrus from Oxyrhynchus preserves a fragment of verse by the Alexandrian poet, Pankrates, describing one such lion-hunt in the Libyan Desert: in epic fashion, Hadrian deliberately fires his own shot off target, in order “to test to the full the sureness of aim / Of his beauteous Antinous” (P. Oxy. 8 1085).
Although the exact circumstances remain unknown, it was probably during a tour of Asia Minor in AD 123 and a visit to the provincial metropolis of Bithynion-Claudiopolis that Hadrian first encountered Antinous, then about thirteen years old. The boy might have been sent to Rome at this time to attend the imperial paedagogium, where he would receive further education and be trained to become a court servant. Important trade routes between Greece and Syria passed through Bithynia, and the province was also noted for its oak forests, hunting grounds, fertile valleys and coast-line. Today, its main city is known as Bolu, (the Turkish pronunciation of the Greek polis), and in October 2017 I passed through this cultural cross-roads myself, whilst following Hadrian’s 117 journey between Ancyra (Ankara) and Byzantium (Istanbul). In Claudiopolis, Hadrian would also establish a local cult to Antinous, as the remains of marble columns, inscribed pediments and even a theatre can likely attest (Figure 12).
These fragments are now displayed at the archaeological museum in Bolu, while the clearest depiction of the temple is left to us on a mere coin, minted in Claudiopolis during the reign of Elagabalus (218–22). It is now displayed in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (inv. 64.534). The eight Corinthian columns of this temple would have stood proudly above the city’s stadium, which itself hosted the sacred games of Antinous (Hadrianeia Antinoeia). By the end of the 2nd century, a tribe of Bithynion was named “Antinois”, while the city itself received the title of “Hadriane”. A series of coins honouring Antinous was issued, with one even referring to him as “the god”. The other main centre of Antinous worship was Mantinea in Arcadia, traditionally regarded as Bithynion’s mother-city. Like Antinoopolis and Bithynion, Mantinea also had a stadium for the integral Hadrianeia Antinoeia. Pausanias would visit Mantinea, reporting that a room in the gymnasium contained multiple Antinous statues, most of them conflating the young man with Dionysus. He also mentions a temple, the institution of annual mysteries and quadrennial games.
Depictions of Antinous have been traced in over thirty cities, as far west as Spain and as far east as Syria, while analysis of find-spots continually points to Italy and Greece as the primary sources for marble sculpture. Hadrian’s peregrinations led him to many different provinces, especially in the Greek-speaking half of the empire where, as mentioned above, he likely met Antinous. It naturally followed that the worship of Antinous would become most popular in this eastern section, where Hadrian’s philhellenism had transformed Athens into a new cultural centre. This spirit shone through much of the policies he enacted and the benefactions he bestowed on whomsoever he deemed worthy, from Greek individuals right up to entire Greek cities. A new League of Greek cities was formed (the Panhellenion), which focused on religious, cultural and political activities. Through this Hadrian sought to further unite the different regions of the empire with Rome, inviting the Greeks themselves to actively participate and help administer his program. In turn, his own participation in Hellenistic rites such as the Eleusinian Mysteries and his reorganisation of sacred sites would further strengthen this bond on a religious level.
The Greek East has also yielded some fifteen statues of Antinous, including the well-known statue from Delphi and the statue of Antinous as Asclepius, found within the sanctuary of Demeter and Kore at Eleusis (Figure 13). Hadrian had Antinous initiated into the Mysteries in AD 128, and ephebic games (the Antinoeia) were soon being held in his honour . Another noteworthy discovery of 1856 is a bust from Patras, in the northern Peloponnese, and now housed in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens (Figure 14): the naked Antinous strikes the characteristic pose of the “Haupttypus”, which would prove to be his most popular in other sculptures.
This bust was found together with another of similar dimensions, perhaps unfinished, and representing a more youthful Antinous (inv. 418). The latter is usually kept in storage, but was brought to light in 2018 (see here), as part of the temporary exhibition, “Hadrian and Athens Conversing with an Ideal World” (see here), itself part of the “The Unseen Museum” rotating-object programme. Also exhibited publicly for the first time that year was yet another portrait of Antinous, at the ‘Hadrian, Saviour and Builder’ exhibition in Athens (see here). While it had probably originated in a private house or a small public shrine, this smaller marble statuette had actually been discovered in a cistern on Hermes Street, in 1960. These exhibitions were designed to celebrate 1900 years since the beginning of Hadrian’s Principate, in August AD 117. The anniversary was observed in various ways by many European museums and cultural institutions, across 2017 and 2018. I managed to attend all the exhibitions in Athens, and also in Seville and Budapest, providing full reports on my blog, Following Hadrian.
Once Hadrian had his lover deified and made the subject of cult worship, Antinous also came to be venerated by leading individuals, even in the privacy of their own homes. A portrait was found in the Spanish seaside villa of El Munts, near Tarraco (modern Tarragona), owned by a local magistrate, Caius Valerius Avitus, and his wife, Faustina. It would have stood in a porticoed gallery, with a mosaic floor, mural frescoes and superb views along the coast, and thus the owner expressed his domestic loyalty to the Emperor. Only the head, torso and part of the extremities remain of the marble statue, and they are now exhibited in the National Archaeological Museum of Tarragona (Figure 15).
During his tour of the western provinces, Hadrian himself would spend the winter of AD 122/3 in this very place, and El Munts would have made a suitable retreat from the hustle and bustle of the provincial capital. In October 2021, I also visited this Roman villa as part of my Hadrian1900 project, and then on to the museum at Tarragona to photograph the statue of Antinous. While the likeness to Antinous is clear, his head is tilted back, giving the body a rather unusual posture.
Another portrait I recently photographed at the Württemberg State Museum in Germany may also have come from a more private setting. This small bust is believed to be from Antinoopolis (Figure 16), and is carved from Egyptian alabaster, rather than marble. It stands just 29.8 cm in height and comprises four individual parts that could be easily dismantled, most likely for transportation. Another bust of Antinous from Baniyas in Syria remains the only one of its kind to be identified with an inscription, confirming his status as hero, and also just how domesticated his cult had become. In 2018, this particular piece took centre stage at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, England, for their “Antinous: Boy Made God” exhibition (see here). The nude bust is carved from Thasian marble, and is dedicated thus in Greek: “to (the) hero Antinous, Marcus Lucceius Flaccus (dedicated this)” (Figure 17).
Flaccus may have been part of the Baniyas elite, whose family had acquired Roman citizenship. The Pincio Obelisk claims that Antinous could, in his godly status, answer prayers through dreams and cure diseases, so probably came to be venerated in households like this one, even as far east as Syria. Therefore we can see that this cult extended both culturally and geographically, far beyond the Emperor’s own commemoration program, and took on a life of its own.
The “Antinous: Boy Made God” exhibition at the Ashmolean offered a rare opportunity for comparative study by including plaster casts of busts, reliefs and statues from other locations, alongside original artefacts. His image was traced from its real life origins in antiquity, right across a millennium to the modern world. One of his biggest resurgences actually came in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when young aristocrats would make the ‘Grand Tour’ of Italy, collecting antiquities, ancient sculptures or casts of Antinous. As approved models of sexual behaviour changed in Victorian England, the Bythinian boy came out even further as an icon of male homoeroticism, especially for a progressive writer like Oscar Wilde. In the next century, Marguerite Yourcenar would develop the love relationship between Antinous and Hadrian into a principal theme for her own book, Mémoires d’Hadrien (1951). In our own century, the 2017 exhibition at Oxford would mark the 50th anniversary of Britain’s decriminalisation of male homosexuality, also celebrated by the British Museum and other institutions with a touring show called “No Offence: Exploring LGBTQ+ Histories”.
“Sing to me of that odorous green eve when
crouching by the marge
You heard from Adrian’s gilded barge the
laughter of Antinous
And lapped the stream and fed your drouth and
watched with hot and hungry stare
The ivory body of that rare young slave with
his pomegranate mouth!”
Oscar Wilde, “The Sphinx” (1894)
Antinous has certainly managed to outlive his relationship with Hadrian, and today has come to be recognised as “the Gay God”, with some members of the gay community even seeking to revive his worship. Now his faithful can flock together electronically from across the globe, as they reverence and reinterpret the rites of this ancient cult for the 21st century.
Carole Raddato is an ancient history enthusiast and self-taught photographer. She runs the photo-blog Following Hadrian, which documents her travels in the footsteps of the Roman emperor Hadrian. She can be found on Twitter, Instagram and Flickr.
Anthony R. Birley, Hadrian: The Restless Emperor (Routledge, London, 1997).
Royston Lambert, Beloved and God: The Story of Hadrian and Antinous (Viking, New York, 1984).
R.R.R. Smith, Antinous: Boy Made God (exhibition catalogue, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, 2018).
Caroline Vout, “Antinous, Archaeology and History,” Journal of Roman Studies 95 (2005) 80–96.
Caroline Vout, Antinous: Face of the Antique (exhibition catalogue, Henry Moore Institute, Leeds, 2006).
Caroline Vout, Power and Eroticism in Imperial Rome (Cambridge UP, 2007).
|⇧1||Roman History 69.11.4. The text can be read in Greek here and in English here.|
|⇧2||Description of Greece 8.9.7. The text can be read in English and Greek here.|
|⇧3||That is, a staff tipped with a pine cone and sometimes twined with ivy and vine branches, borne by Dionysus, satyrs and others engaging in bacchic rites.|
|⇧4||Pausanias, Description of Greece 8.9.8.|