Hadrian and Antinous: How Roman Emperor Hadrian's Gay Lover Became a God
How Roman Emperor Hadrian’s Gay Lover Became a God

How Roman Emperor Hadrian’s Gay Lover Became a God

Patrick Lynch - November 26, 2017

How Roman Emperor Hadrian’s Gay Lover Became a God
Another Statue of Antinous Found in Hadrian’s Villa – Following Hadrian

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.

How Roman Emperor Hadrian’s Gay Lover Became a God
Hadrian and Antinous – IBTimes

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.

How Roman Emperor Hadrian’s Gay Lover Became a God
Statue of Osiris-Antinous – Vatican Museums

The Growth of the Cult of Antinous

The spread of the cult of Antinous was mainly down to a desire to show reverence to Emperor Hadrian. For example, the citizens of Lepcis Magna in Roman North Africa rapidly set up images of Antinous with the expectation that Hadrian would visit the city. The cult quickly spread throughout Egypt, and within a few years of Antinous’ death, there were altars and temples dedicated to him in several major cities including Luxor, Alexandria, and Hermopolis.

While the cult was smaller than the cults of Hadrian, Serapis, and Isis, traces of Antinous have been found in at least 70 cities although it was significantly more prevalent in specific regions. Although the growth was down to a desire to please the emperor, some people liked the fact that Antinous was once human which made him more relatable than other gods. Overall, there were at least 28 temples, possibly thousands of sculptures, and 31 cities in the Empire issued coins depicting the ‘deity.’ Most of them were minted in 134 & 135.

If there were any doubt about the reverence Hadrian had for Antinous, a quick look around his Villa Adriana would have dispelled those notions. There were over 20 statues of his lover there, about half of the total found in Italy. Furthermore, at least nine cities held games in Antinous’ honor and the festivities at Athens and Eleusis continued until the 260s.

How Roman Emperor Hadrian’s Gay Lover Became a God
Emperor Hadrian – Liverpool Museums

The Decline of the Cult

Naturally, the cult of Antinous had plenty of critics, especially people in other pagan cults. Important Christian figures such as Jerome and Origen viewed the cult as blasphemous and said that Antinous was a mere mortal who participated in ‘immoral’ sexual activity with Hadrian. The fourth-century involved a bitter struggle between the pagans and Christians with the former championing the cult of Antinous.

Towards the end of the fourth century, Christians and barbarian tribes destroyed statues of the deity, but they were rebuilt elsewhere. Finally, Emperor Theodosius outlawed non-pagan religions in 391 which spelled the end of the cult of Antinous. Nonetheless, a significant number of statues and other tributes to the young lover of Hadrian survive today, almost 1,900 years after his death.

In fact, it is believed that he has more sculptures depicting him than any other figure in classical antiquity which is astonishing. Although the cult ended in the late fourth century, Antinous remained a relevant figure for several centuries. Caroline Vout referred to him as “arguably the most notorious pretty boy from the annals of classical history.”

There was something of a revival in interest in the second half of the nineteenth century as Antinous featured in the work of several writers and scholars; including Karl Heinrich Ulrichs and Oscar Wilde. Although he endured a tragic, and unsolved, death, Antonius lives on through the arts.