The Antinous Cult: The Story Of The First Gay Superstar
Dave R writes . . Love, romance, sex and death, are the classic ingredients of a good soap opera. Combine them with empire, power and political machinations and you have Hadrian and Antinous; a 2,000 year old story of the making of a global gay icon.
Two crocodiles approached slowly, only eyes and snout above water. A farmer beat the water with a stick to distract the predators while his slave dragged the corpse onto the bank. It was a youth at the end of his teens, not long dead but clearly drowned. At first glance there was no evidence of injury or attack, therefore probably ruling out violence. However, this was no ordinary youth; clearly not Egyptian but probably Roman by the robes he was draped in. He couldn’t be a slave but possibly came from one of the Roman ships accompanying the imperial visit to Hir-Wer, near the temple of Rameses II just up the river. Even in death, his finders were struck by the fineness of his features and considering the fact that all people drowned in the Nile assumed a sort of minor divinity, they decided to take the body to the authorities – this was maybe a find that carried a reward...
He was born in 111 AD, in the north of Turkey, in a town called Bithynian. Some say he was a slave but what seems undisputed is that he was lowly born and given the normal way of things, might have grown up relatively unnoticed in an obscure corner of the Roman Empire. However, this boy was anything but ordinary and was blessed with a beauty that was to lead him to the highest levels of Roman society. Yet twenty years after his birth and meteoric rise, his body was found floating lifeless, in the sluggish waters at the edge of the Nile.
This first paragraph may have borrowed some poetic licence but the basic facts were well-documented at the time. However, the mystery of this young man’s untimely death in the Nile was to cause reverberations across the Empire and the known ancient world. The 20 year old Antinous became the partner and lover of the emperor Hadrian. This emperor ruled over the Roman world at the height of its strength and power, so it’s no exaggeration to say that the history of Antinous is the story of a local boy who astonished the world!
The emperor Hadrian is widely regarded as one of the greatest Roman emperors. He was a patron of the arts as well as being a tough and lead-by-example military man. He conquered lands and then travelled extensively to all corners of the Empire, in order to give the power of Rome a physical presence in people’s minds. Amongst other great building works, he is best known for Hadrian’s Wall, built to keep out the barbarian Picts and Scots. He was obsessed with successful administration and asserting Roman power as efficiently and justly as possible but at the same time was fascinated by architecture, design and creating elaborate gardens with spectacular water features (the villa at Tivoli for instance). He was driven by classical Greek civilisation ideas and concepts and that in itself gives him a contemporary feel in people’s eyes today.
It was in 123 AD, during one of his grand tours that he passed through Bithynian and spotted the young teenager Antinous. The details are lost in time but writers described him as being smitten at first sight by the boy. You have to consider the mores of the times. There was nothing unusual about an older man creating an attachment to a young boy and at this time, Hadrian was in his forties and married to the allegedly, extremely mean-spirited Sabina. They were childless, possibly because the marriage was one of convenience which possibly didn’t help Sabina’s mood. There were also many rumours of a previous sexual relationship between Hadrian and his mentor the emperor Trajan before him and then jealous spats as the two quarrelled over new young men at court.
Yet apart from the relative ‘normalcy’ of younger and older men having sexual relationships, there was also a culture of ‘adopting’ an heir and grooming him for future leadership. Having children as heirs wasn’t always the wisest option – Roman history is littered with siblings who killed each other, or their fathers, in order to gain power more quickly. Possibly for that reason, just as Trajan had done with him, Hadrian ensured that Antinous received the best education possible, either in Rome or by his side on his travels. Antinous was clearly a quick learner and became as knowledgeable of classical culture and languages as anyone in the court. That may have been necessary to justify his constant presence. Roman imperial courts were not known for their acceptance of rivals or favourites and many were rapidly ‘removed’ before they could climb too high.
However, Antinous and Hadrian were inseparable for almost a decade and he will have needed both intelligence and his wits about him to survive in that sort of environment, emperor’s favourite or not. Recently discovered art of the time shows both men involved in various activities, especially wrestling and hunting which they both loved. One famous story talks about a hunting trip for a man-eating lion, during which Hadrian saved Antinous’ life in the nick of time. Pancrates, a poet, wrote of how red lotus flowers sprang from the lion’s blood and that Antinous adopted them as his emblem. This was one example of how his image was romantically promoted after his death.
Antinous also took the opportunity to improve his own looks and physique; possibly realising that youth is temporary and determined to preserve his attractiveness for as long as possible. He became famous for his physical perfection and stunning looks and charisma and even before his death, was seen as a model of how the ideal man should look. Just as today, that sort of image must have attracted jealousy as well as adoration. Imagine what Antinous and Hadrian could have done with social media!
Then he died! Was he pushed? Was it suicide? Why did it happen at that moment? Nobody knows but at the height of his physical powers and attraction and at the beginning of permanently establishing his status in the Empire, he mysteriously drowned in the Nile. Isn’t that the best way though, with gay icons? James Dean for instance, is one of several twentieth century parallels. It was no different with Antinous; his death at twenty helped preserve his image and attraction for ever but there may have been much more to it than that.
The background to the Emperor’s visit may have also played a significant role. He was on one of his regular tours of the empire anyway. The Nile had failed to flood in its normal way for two years and not only Egypt’s agricultural economy was in dire straits but also that of the great Roman cities throughout the empire. Egypt was a large supplier of food and failing crops there caused ripples across the Mediterranean. If the Nile failed to flood again and nourish the land along its banks; the knock-on effects would be serious, leading to civil unrest and famine for some. Hadrian’s visit was therefore of enormous symbolic importance. Fortunately, his visit coincided with a normal Nile flood and he could benefit from the associations in people’s minds. As the flood subsided, Hadrian took to his opulent, gilded, imperial barges and made his way slowly up the river, with Antinous at his side. As a PR exercise, it couldn’t have had more value. For Antinous however, it would be his last journey and Egyptian superstitions may have played a part in his death.
For a start, the Egyptians believed that anyone drowning in the Nile assumed the status of a minor God. After all, the god Osiris was himself drowned by Seth in the river and became immortal. As they believed that Hadrian himself was a pharaoh and thus a living God, the sudden reversal of drought and return of the Nile waters also seemed to have divine inspiration attached. The high priests of Osiris and other important Egyptian dignitaries may have quickly worked out that a confirmation of divine intervention would both cement their unsteady positions at the Egyptian court and enhance Hadrian’s reputation. It’s not difficult to put two and two together and see how Antinous’ death could conveniently achieve their aims.
Some have hinted that Hadrian himself might not have been too upset by the death of his lover. During their trip, Antinous seems to have been influenced by various poets, philosophers and others and had become much more spiritual. Who knows what effect this had on their relationship? Only guesswork remains. It was also true, that both the Jews and other religious groupings in the near east, thoroughly disapproved of Hadrian’s ‘catamite’. Hadrian was also responsible for oppressing the Jews and the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, eventually resulting in the Diaspora, the effects of which are still keenly felt today. Also in the Middle East, with Jesus only being dead for a hundred years, the Christians were an emerging but significant group and the idea of Antinous being the last pagan god was an anathema for them too. There was clearly opposition to the emperor’s private life and a great deal of political tension and Hadrian’s obsession with good order and diplomatic stability may have swayed his opinion regarding Antinous.
That said, what happened after his death suggests exactly the opposite. The Egyptian priests came to Hadrian and highlighted the symbolic importance of Antinous’ death and maybe his sacrifice to the river. Antinous was adopted as a god in the eyes of the Egyptian people and the high priests inferred that Antinous had been taken by the river god and had become the river god himself. However, the result of that was that Hadrian announced in October, AD130, that a new city would be built in honour of Antinous and set about creating Antinoopolis; one of the greatest cities Egypt had ever seen. This doesn’t seem to be the move of a man ashamed of his lover, or afraid of diplomatic disapproval.
Yet even that fades into insignificance when compared to Hadrian’s first reaction at the news of Antinous’ death. It is said that he wept uncontrollably in full view of his court and was inconsolable for days afterwards. This shameless display of emotion became somewhat of a scandal across the Roman world and his enemies took the opportunity to spread as much malice as possible. Hadrian’s reputation was in danger of being seriously damaged. One thing was clear though; these weren’t crocodile tears, they were a genuine expression of grief at the loss of the man he loved. Accusing Hadrian of being complicit in his death just doesn’t ring true.
Even more than that, Hadrian made a point of commemorating his love for Antinous by naming a star in the night sky after him, believing that the boy’s soul had risen to the heavens. He had monuments and institutions built to commemorate Antinous and commissioned nearly two thousand likenesses, statues and plaques which were created all over the empire. Schools, gymnasiums and temples dedicated to the new god were scattered throughout the Roman world and official Roman coins were struck showing his portrait.
This was promotion and image-building at the highest level but also showed the depth of Hadrian’s feelings. There was not the way of an emperor ashamed of his lover and perhaps no greater tribute could have been given. Strangely enough, ordinary people across the Roman world, both in the cities and on the land, accepted Antinous as a god and worshipped what he stood for; male beauty, strength, athleticism and perfection. A cult was born.
As further evidence of this general approval for Hadrian’s actions, his unification of the always sensitive Greek city states, established one Greek nation. The Greeks adopted Antinous as a symbol of their relationship with Rome. Such was the impact of Antinous that more statues of the boy are to be found in the world’s museums today than any other figure of the ancient world and that includes all the emperors and other world leaders. Even in the 16th century, his features were instantly recognisable; such was the admiration for his ideal as a symbol of physical perfection.
For such a romantic story, you have to wonder why the feature film hasn’t been made but Hollywood still can’t get its collective head around portraying homosexuals as being good (unless they’re dying). Hadrian is widely regarded as the best of all Roman emperors but has never been filmed in an epic. Even the ancient world’s other great gay icon, Alexander the Great, has had his homosexuality played down or obliterated in film portrayals. Yet surely in the 21th century, we should be able to witness the lives of a Roman ‘daddy’ and his ‘boy’!
For a low-born nobody from northern Turkey, the boy Antinous became the lover of an emperor; the symbol of youthful beauty across an empire and a God who was worshipped in many lands. He may have died an untimely death but you have to admit, the boy done extraordinarily good!