Antinous (approx. 110–130 A.D.) – a youth, for whom the emperor lost his mind

Portraits of Hadrian and Antinous, Museo Nazionale Romano, Palazzo Massimo

Portraits of Hadrian and Antinous, Museo Nazionale Romano, Palazzo Massimo

The main qualities of Antinous were probably grace and allure, but there were many such youths in the history of Rome, and nobody would probably remember him either, if it had not been for the hundreds of works of art, created in his honor and for the most part kept until today. How did it happen, that this particular twenty-year old was the subject of the works of so many artists, to an extent not enjoyed by but a few emperors and certainly by no other mortal alive at that time.

Portraits of Hadrian and Antinous, Museo Nazionale Romano, Palazzo Massimo
Antinous, Museo Nazionale Romano, Palazzo Massimo
Hadrian, Museo di Sant'Angelo
Antinous, Museo Centrale Montemartini
Bust of Antinous, Musei Vaticani
Statue of Antinous as Bachus-Osiris, Musei Vaticani
Statue of Jonah in the Chigi Chapel, Basilica of Santa Maria del Popolo
Hadrian hunting, on the left the nude figure of Antinous, medallion from the Arch of Constantine
Hadrian hunting – on the right Antinous, medallion from the Arch of Constantine
Antinous as Bachus-Osiris, fragment, Musei Vaticani
Obelisk of Antinous on the Pincian Hill
Statue of an athlete, Stadio dei Marmi, XX century, Foro Italico
Antinous, sculpture in Hadrian’s Villa in Tivoli, presently in Musei Capitolini
Antinous, sculpture in Hadrian’s Villa in Tivoli, fragment, presently in Musei Capitolini
Antinous, sculpture in Hadrian’s Villa in Tivoli, fragment, presently in Musei Capitolini

The main qualities of Antinous were probably grace and allure, but there were many such youths in the history of Rome, and nobody would probably remember him either, if it had not been for the hundreds of works of art, created in his honor and for the most part kept until today. How did it happen, that this particular twenty-year old was the subject of the works of so many artists, to an extent not enjoyed by but a few emperors and certainly by no other mortal alive at that time.

The reason for this was the love, bestowed upon Antinous by Emperor Hadrian, an admirer of not only Greek philosophy and literature, but also a proponent of the so-called Greek love. It was a kind of an understanding of body and soul, which developed between master and student – a youth and a mature man.

       
Even before, at the age of 41 Hadrian became emperor, he did not hide his interest in adolescent boys, but true passion was aroused in him by Antinous – a Greek from Bithynia, who caught the emperor’s attention during Hadrian’s trip to Asia Minor. Since that time the boy and the nearly fifty-year old emperor became inseparable. It should be assumed, that Hadrian introduced the boy to the secrets of the knowledge and art which he himself partook in, while philosophical passions and mutual amusements, including hunting and travelling, created a strong bond between the two men. How old exactly Antinous was at the time, we do not know – probably when they met around fourteen. The chroniclers did not devote much attention to him, just as they did not do so with other boys who served to amuse the emperor.  They became interested in him at the time of his mysterious death, which came about around the year 130, during a trip to Egypt. They speak of Antinous drowning in the Nile, near the village of Besa, as well as an incomprehensible to his contemporaries sorrow showed by the emperor when losing his companion, weeping for him, as it was written in “a truly womanly fashion”. This fact, as well as the determination of Hadrian to have Antinous worshipped, led to speculations about the youth himself and the circumstances of his death. This is how the legends came about. The drowning was looked upon not so much as a tragic accident but as a sacrifice, which Antinous wanted to give to his master and emperor in order to – in accordance with ancient Egyptian beliefs – prolong his life. These stories were supplemented by ancient Egyptian stories about the drowning of the god Osiris in the Nile, which caused the annual, life-giving flooding of the river. The drowning was interpreted as a sacrifice to the gods, for the good of the living. Those who drowned, were, after death, treated with godly respect. Another cause of Antinous’s death was connected with the sorrow the youth had to deal with – but what could have been its cause? And here the chroniclers remain mute: some point to the unbridled desire of the emperor and his fondness for other young boys, others to the difficult position, which Antinous would find himself in at the moment of maturity – he was no longer attractive due to his age, and moreover what was allowed for a boy, was disgraceful for a man.
Until today, similar speculations, stimulate the minds of researchers, but most of all writers and even filmmakers, but there is no proof confirming any of the hypotheses.
       
Funeral  ceremonies, games and the emperor’s mourning lasted many months, during which poets created poems to honor the dead teenager and praised his godly nature. It is not difficult to imagine, that obsessive love and unconcealed sorrow of Hadrian found a sort of solace in establishing Antinous’s cult. It was strange to Romans, contrary to Roman traditions and unacceptable to people who were not from the emperor’s inner circle. Even more so because it was extremely broadly encompassing and disproportionate to the ceremonies, which took place at the time, mourning the death of the emperor’s sister. Despite all that, Hadrian, as the archpriest of the Roman religion declared that Antinous, just as the gods, had conquered death and settled among the stars.  He ordered to give his name to a star which was discovered by astronomers at that time. The words and the will of the emperor, reached the farthest reaches of the empire, also due to annually inaugurated games in the honor of the god Antinous (Antinoea). Moreover, near the place of the death of his favorite, Hadrian ordered the city of Antinoopolis to be constructed, and after 137 A.D. a temple and other buildings devoted to him, sprung up around his tomb, including an obelisk today found on Pincean Hill in Rome. The Egyptian city was settled by Greeks, who wanting to please the emperor and show him respect, worshipped Antinous. He himself was often connected with Mercury, Bachus, Apollo and the Egyptian god Osiris, and that is how he was represented. There was also no shortage of figures depicting his beautiful body and regular facial lines, busts, paintings on wood, intaglios, cameos, and mosaics. 250 different kinds of coins and medallions were minted in honor of the emperor’s favorite. Until today we can speak of one hundered images of Antinous sculpted in marble, spread around the world, where we will find the same type of beauty – exceptional body proportions, small but full lips, straight nose, curly hair, and most of all a melancholic gaze.  In time his cult became widespread not only in areas of strong Hellenization, among Greek peoples, but in all parts of the empire, including Italia and Rome itself. Here, it was continued after Hadrian’s death by his successors. It held fast until the end of antiquity, also among the faithful who connected the youth’s name with the belief of attaining immortality. However, this is not the end of the long posthumous life of Antinous. After the Middle Ages, when his name was not spoken too often, the artists of the Renaissance once again discovered the beauty of his image and claimed his figure for their works, therefore, extending the fascination with his manly body and delicate type of beauty. The presentation of Jonah in the Roman Chigi Chapel (Church of Santa Maria del Popolo) can serve as an example, the work of Lorenzetti, for which the design was provided by Raffaello (Raffaello Sanzio) himself. Without a doubt, the inspiration for it, was the statue of Antinous, which at that time, was a part of the collection of the Chigi family (currently in Naples).
In further reception of this figure, an important role was played by two other images of a handsome youth, although, both were confirmed by later researchers to be a representation of not Antinous but Mercury (Hermes). The first was discovered in the middle of the XVI century near the Castle of the Holy Angel (Castel Sant’Angelo), today is found among the Vatican collections is known as The Belvedere Hermes; the second is part of the Capitoline collections (Musei Capitolini) and is still known by the name of Mercury-Antinous, since in an obvious way it was inspired by the facial lines of Hadrian’s favorite. Both these statues had a significant impact on the development of art in the classical period. However, this is still not the end: if we carefully look at the figures of monstrous athletes placed on the stands of Stadio dei Marmi in the Foro Italico complex, we notice, that for artists of the time of Benito Mussolini, Antinous was also an ideal model.



The most important images of Antinous and the structures connected with him in Rome:
  • Vatican Museums (Musei Vaticani) – several representations of Antinous, including spectacular statues of Antinous (Sala Rotonda) and Antinous as Osiris (Museo Gregoriano Egiziano)
  • Museo Nazionale Romano – Palazzo Massimo – relief with an image of Antinous-Silvanus (guardian of famers) as well as two heads representing Antinous
  • Museo Nazionale di Castel Sant’Angelo – Antinous’s head, a fragment of a larger composition
  • Capitoline Museums (Musei Capitolini) – statue of Mercury-Antinous
  • Museo Centrale Montemartini, head, bust and heavily damaged whole-figure sculpture of Antinous
  • Banca d’Italia building by via Nazionale – a statue of Bachus-Antinous in the courtyard
  • Constantine’s Arch (Arco di Constantino) – medallions on the roundels representing Hadrian and Antinous.
  • Church of Santa Maria del Popolo (Chigi Chapel) – figure of Jonas by Lorenzetti made in the image of the statue of the Farnese Antinous (currently at Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli)
  • Antinous Obelisk on Pincean Hill, initially found in the Egyptian city of Antinoopolis, commemorating Antinous