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

Emperor Hadrian ruled the Roman Empire from 117 AD to 138 AD and is deemed to be one of the best Roman emperors of all time. As well as building the famous Hadrian’s Wall in Britain, he rebuilt the Pantheon and ordered the construction of the Temple of Venus and Roma. While the Empire reached its peak in term of expansion under Trajan, Hadrian withdrew from several of his predecessor’s conquests including Assyria, Armenia, and Mesopotamia.

Hadrian is also known for his favoritism towards a young Bithynian Greek named Antinous who became the emperor’s lover. Little is known about Antinous’ early life although he was probably born in modern-day Bolu in Turkey. It is likely that he was introduced to Hadrian in 123 before traveling to Italy to receive further education.

Over the next few years, the two became lovers, and Antinous became Hadrian’s favorite sometime in 125. According to historian Royston Lambert, Antinous was “the one person who seems to have connected most profoundly with Hadrian.” The two traveled together on a tour of the Empire with Antinous part of the emperor’s personal retinue. When the young man died in 130, the emperor was heartbroken and deified his young lover. This cult was devoted to the worship of Antinous and spread throughout the Empire.

How Roman Emperor Hadrian’s Gay Lover Became a God
Bust of Antinous found in Hadrian’s Villa – Following Hadrian

Antinous & Hadrian’s Story

In the modern era, a sexual relationship between a grown man and a boy is obviously illegal, but at the time of Hadrian, sexual relations between adult males and boys had been deemed socially acceptable for centuries in Greece. Older men (known as erastes) were aged between 20 and 40, and they would engage in a sexual relationship with boys (known as eromenos) who were usually between 12 and 18 years old. The adult would care for the boy and play an important role in their education.

In the Roman Empire, bisexuality was common by the second century AD so there wouldn’t have been any open objection to the relationship between Hadrian and Antinous. The emperor met Antinous in 123 or 124 in the young man’s hometown of Claudiopolis (Bolu) and was probably attracted to him due to the boy’s perceived wisdom. The duo both enjoyed hunting, and it is known that the emperor wrote erotic poetry and an autobiography about his young favorites; it is likely that Antinous was the subject of these writings.

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

The duo traveled together through Italy’s Sabine region in March 127, but for the next two years, Hadrian was struck down by an unexplained illness. Nonetheless, he embarked on another tour, this time to North Africa, and once again, his young lover was in tow. They settled in Antioch in June 129 and set up a base there. Then the duo went to Syria, Arabia, and Judea.

In 130, they went to Alexandria and visited Alexander the Great‘s sarcophagus. While the emperor was welcomed, the Hellenic elite, angered with some of Hadrian’s actions, began to gossip about his sexual activities. While in Libya, it is claimed that the emperor saved Antinous’ life as they encountered a Marousian lion that was causing problems. If Hadrian thought his actions would prolong their relationship for many years, he was sorely mistaken.

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.