The Death of Antinous
In either late September or early October 130, Hadrian, Antinous, and a number of members of the royal entourage set sail upstream from Heliopolis along the River Nile. Shortly after stopping at Hermopolis Magna, Antinous apparently fell into the Nile and drowned. The emperor publically announced his death but soon, rumors started to spread throughout the Empire. There are various theories as to how the young man was killed, and it is suggested that Hadrian may have been unaware of the cause of death.
One theory is that he was the victim of a court conspiracy. However, although the emperor was enamored with Antinous, there is no evidence that the young man had any real political influence. Another theory is that Antinous agreed to castration to retain his youth and sexual appeal to Hadrian. This is far-fetched since Hadrian believed castration and circumcision were abominations.
According to Cassius Dio, Antinous agreed to sacrifice his life to ensure the emperor recovered from his illness. If the young man was indeed sacrificed, it is more likely that it wasn’t voluntary. In the ancient Egyptian tradition, sacrifices of boys in the Nile during the October Osiris festival were commonplace. The goal was to ensure the Nile flooded to its maximum capacity and fertilized the valley. At the time of Hadrian’s visit, the Nile wasn’t providing enough water for the usual level of agricultural production.
The Formation of the Cult of Antinous
Hadrian is said to have broken down in full view of his court and wept openly. The emperor was inconsolable for several days afterward, and his emotional display caused scandal throughout the Empire. It’s clear that his grief was genuine which makes it unlikely, but not impossible, that he was complicit in the young man’s death.
One of Hadrian’s first acts after the death of his lover was to name a star in the sky after Antinous as he believed the young man had risen to the heavens. The emperor also had various institutions and monuments named after Antinous. Ultimately, there were approximately 2,000 likenesses of Hadrian’s lover across the Empire. There were even gymnasiums, schools and temples dedicated to Antinous who soon became worshipped as a deity.
Egyptian priests came to Hadrian after Antinous’ death and outlined the symbolic importance of the manner of his death and perhaps his sacrifice to help the River Nile. After the high priests suggested that the young man had been taken by a river god and became one himself, Antinous became seen as a deity in the eyes of many Egyptians.
In October 130, Hadrian announced that Antinous was a god and proclaimed his intention to create a city in honor of his lover; it was called Antinoopolis. It’s unlikely that Hadrian believed his deceased love was a god, but it made sense to create a cult as it ensured a group of people was personally and politically loyal to him. Whether he expected it to last for over 200 years is another story.