Friday, 10 February 2012

Boy = God

When the beautiful youth Antinous, favourite of the Roman emperor Hadrian drowned in the Nile one autumn night in 130 AD, his legacy appeared slight. However, this was not to be the case...

From a web page written by the mysterious "Lady Hedgehog" :
"Little is known as to how Antinous came to be in the house of Hadrian. It is thought that he was taken from Claudiopolis during one of Hadrian's tours of the provinces in 123, when the boy was around eleven or twelve. Whether he was taken by force or went willingly is open to speculation, but that he later became the Emperor's favorite seems to preclude his ever being a slave since Hadrian was known to accept social boundaries. The fact that many busts where made of an Antinous aged around thirteen would indicate that he was a member of the Emperor's circle soon after leaving his home. It is thought that he was taken to Rome as a page and perhaps entered into the imperial paedagogium. The paedagogium may have, in part, served as a harem of boys, but its official role was that of a polishing school designed to train the boys to become palace or civil servants. It is impossible to say exactly when Hadrian became enamored of Antinous but it is thought to have been sometime between the Emperor's return to Italy in 125 and his next trip to Greece in 128, on which tour Antinous accompanied him as favorite.

Precisely what happened to Antinous in October of 130 is unknown. The Historia Augusta reports, "he [Hadrian] lost his Antinous along the Nile." Hadrian simply wrote, "He fell into the Nile." That this is all the extant written comment from the Emperor on the subject is made all the more frustrating by the fact that the word he used for "fell" can imply either an accident fall or a deliberate one. It is quite impossible to definitely pick one of these options, particularly in light of the fact that the body of Antinous has been lost. An accidental fall seems unlikely, but it is an option that modern scholars are unable to completely disregard. Most historians prefer instead a theory of self-sacrifice."

"That Antinous may have sacrificed himself has much support. Firstly, he was at the time in Egypt. The last two floodings of the Nile had been unsatisfactory and there was an ancient tradition in Egypt to send a sacrifice to drown in the river as a way of influencing the river gods to send better floods in upcoming years. There was undoubtedly much talk of reviving that custom in 130 for a third drought would bring famine to Egypt, which would lead to turmoil in the Empire. That persons drowned in the Nile tended to be deified on death may well have appealed to Antinous.

Secondly, there was a theory in ancient Greece that by dying one could add years to the life of the one for whom one died. The anti-psyche, as the Greeks referred to the custom, was a furthering of the concept that love freely given has the power to heal. That Hadrian was at the time suffering from the illness that was later to kill him is quite possible and Antinous may have thought that his death would heal the Emperor, who had only days before saved Antinous's life when a hunted lion nearly felled him.

For whatever reason Antinous entered the waters of the Nile, he did obtain a form of immortality. Had he passed quietly from his role as favorite he may well have disappeared from history, but with his death and Hadrian's response to it, he was assured a place in future remembrance."
Many bizarre theories surround the death of the most beautiful boy acolyte of Emperor Hadrian's royal court. What is known, however, is that after his tragic death, Hadrian went through a period of intense, obsessive mourning and "wept for him like a woman" when his lover's body was presented to him.

But more hysterical than his immediate grief, one of Hadrian's most lasting acts (walls excepted, of course) was to create the boy Antinous as a God. Not just any god - but one with his own city (Antinoopolis), his own creed of worship, and even his own constellation in the heavens. This was an astonishing act, because previously in the Roman Empire, deification was only conferred upon emperors.

"Throughout the Empire, Antinous's divinity took on several forms. Most popularly in Greece, he was frequently seen as the divine ephebe who personified the beauty and spirit of youth. On many coins, he is seen as a divine hero, a man who gained immortality and deity through value, virtue, and deed. Another aspect of Antinous is of a lesser god, an aspect of a major god. As an aspect, Antinous was generally connected with Hermes, Dionysos, Iachos, or Osiris, but could also be seen in Apollo, Pan, or various local deities."
In addition, it is fairly obvious that given the era in which his cult emerged, many of his traits were assimilated into those of another, rival, deity - Jesus. His creed was also one of kindness, of healing, and of course, of sacrifice. Regardless, the "beauty" cult of Antinous superseded his "Christianisation", and remained a powerful symbol of gay love for centuries. It helped that Antinous evidently possessed the shapeliest bottom in antiquity!

"Antinous was the last great god to arise from the Roman Empire. A beautiful provincial youth who became the beloved of an Emperor and then a god, Antinous was a strikingly popular figure and a last manifestation of an Ancient spirit that would soon be lost to the world. His name is still known, his features still recognized, and his story even now kindles interest, reverence, and moral controversy. His name is paraded as both a banner of gay pride through history and as a symbol of the decadence of the Roman Empire.

However, no matter what may be thought of his morals and deeds, it is very hard to argue that providing fuel for close to two millennia of debate and speculation is not a remarkable achievement for a small town Grecian boy.
More on Antinous


  1. One of my favorite tales, still affecting people so many centuries later...

  2. A very significant moment in history, indeed... Jx


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