This Roman Emperor Lost His Lover and Turned Him Into a God

Antinous (left) and Hadrien (right).

Source Composite Sean Culligan/OZY, Image Getty

Why you should care

Hadrian had lost Antinous, but he wasn’t about to let the younger man’s face be forgotten.

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In the last week of October A.D. 130, a man died and a god was born. Primeval King Osiris drowned in the mighty waters of the Nile River, and upon his death became ancient Egypt’s most powerful god.

But this man was no king. In fact, not much is known about his lineage at all. Still, he was by no means ordinary. He was the lover of the most powerful man in the world at the time, Emperor Hadrian, and his name can be found scrawled beneath countless statues and busts scattered throughout museums the world over: Antinous.

If Antinous had not drowned when he did, if he had not been Hadrian’s great love, and, perhaps, if he had not been one of the most beautiful creatures of the ancient world, his death might have been swiftly forgotten within history’s march. But all of these factors combined turned this teenage boy from Bithynia (today’s Turkey) into a demi-god with a cult following so powerful that it nearly beat out Christianity as the new state religion of Rome. 

In addition to building Antinopolis, Hadrian minted coins depicting his beautiful lover’s face.

 

Until Constantine I and the rise of the Holy Roman Empire, all emperors were deified upon death. The deification of a lover, however — especially a homosexual lover — was unheard of. Pederasty, or a sexual relationship between an adult male (known as an “erastes”) and a pubescent or prepubescent boy (“eromenos”), was widely accepted in both ancient Greece and the early Roman Empire. But Emperor Hadrian’s feelings towards Antinous went beyond the standard social arrangement. It is said that he cried for days after Antinous’ death before finally erecting a city called Antinopolis on the banks of the river that killed his young lover, a city that became the center of cult worship for the new demigod. Furthermore, Antinous’ elevation to god status proves that he was never a slave, as it was impossible for slaves to be deified. 

All of the information available today was published after Antinous’ death, and very little is known about his early life. He was probably born Nov. 27 in A.D. 111 in the ancient city of Claudiopolis. At the age of 12, he was taken in by Emperor Hadrian’s entourage.

The first record we have of Hadrian and Antinous’ relationship is from five years after that, when they traveled to Greece together to participate in the Eleusinian mysteries. By this time, Antinous had become Hadrian’s favorite, most likely climbing the ranks from menial laborer to official lover. But the depictions of Hadrian and Antinous together are unlike those of other erastes and eromenos that depict the eromenos as slight and effeminate. In fact, Antinous is often depicted as a fully grown and impressively strong man who participated in dangerous hunts with the emperor. 

 

Antinous seemed to travel with Hadrian everywhere, including that fateful visit to Egypt in A.D. 130 when the emperor’s party assembled a cruise up the Nile. It was a strange moment for a boat trip: The Nile River had not flooded satisfactorily in two years, a sign, according to traditional Egyptian beliefs, that the gods were unhappy. In the past, the pharaoh would sacrifice himself by drowning to appease the gods and up until the fifth century, human and animal sacrifices were made for the Neilaia festival of the Nile on Oct. 22 each year. 

These factors combined lead some historians to believe that Antinous either drowned himself or allowed others to drown him, possibly because it would allow him to gain immortality, like the emperor. 

If this was indeed Antinous’ reasoning, it worked. In addition to building Antinopolis, Hadrian minted coins depicting his beautiful lover’s face — another unprecedented action, since only emperors were featured on coinage previously. Temples were erected, annual games were held and a constellation was named after him. But perhaps the most effective action Hadrian took in promoting the Cult of Antinous was to commission thousands of statues that depicted Antinous in the form of gods like Osiris and Dionysus. “Hadrian had this grand vision of what the world should be like, this Hellenistic idea of the perfect civilization, and Antinous was one of the central spiritual parts of that,” explains Antonius Subia, the man who single-handedly revived the ancient religion in the 21st century, “One of his policies was that all gods and all different pantheons of the Empire were all based on the same energy and spirit and he wanted to unify them into one religion.” 

The Cult of Antinous thrived for several decades, but it was swiftly stamped out with the rise of Christianity and remained forgotten for hundreds of years. That is until 2002, when Subia decided to revive it. Though Hollywood, California, at the dawn of the new millennium was a very different place from second-century Rome, Subia still saw a desperate need for queer spirituality. After all, for more than 2,000 years, the gay community had been shunned from major world religions or forced to accept spiritualities that violently opposed their sexuality. So Subia, using a deeply impressive wealth of autodidactic knowledge, set about reworking the original Cult of Antinous into an all-inclusive “gay religion” for the 21st century — featuring a pantheon of queer gods that includes the Greek goddess Diana for lesbian followers. It even canonizes victims of homophobic hate crimes.

Perhaps the Cult of Antinous was simply ahead of its time. 

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