Bust of Antinous, AD 130-50. Roman. Marble. He now lives at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, England.
Antinous, lover of the Roman Emperor Hadrian, drowned in the Nile under mysterious circumstances while accompanying Hadrian on a vacation in Egypt. Near the site of the drowning (was it murder? accident? suicide?) the Emperor founded a new city, Antinopolis. Antinous himself was declared a god. Often, he appears as an Egyptian in works of art, but here he has the features and ivy wreath of the Greek god Dionysos.
Antinopolis was a beautiful city named for a beautiful young man. It was filled with white marble temples, monuments and streets laid out on a grid pattern and adorned with hundreds of images of Antinous. A giant arch welcomed travelers arriving by boat at the marble docks. Broad streets with expensive boutiques and sumptuous condos led to a central intersection, where a colossal gilded statue of Antinous “coming forth” towered above the square. A north-south boulevard was matched by another going east-west which ran the length of the city, linking the Tomb of Antinous at one end with the Boylesque Theater at the other. Outside the city walls, on a dusty plain, was an enormous Hippodrome that dominated the view.
Hadrian’s tributes to Antinous included commissioning 2,000 naked or partially clothed statues of the beautiful teenager for display throughout the Roman Empire, building a temple to him at his swanky palace in Tivoli, north of Rome, and put Antinous’ likeness on money, the only non-Roman Emperor ever honored with his face on a coin.
In addition to the statues and busts of Antinous (more than 100 still survive), countless reliefs, medals, cameos and gems were crafted to honor Hadrian’s young lover. Private shrines dedicated to Antinous sprang up from Britain to North Africa. Priests of Antinous were appointed to perform the ceremonies that would perpetuate his memory for all eternity.
The competitors in the Antinous Games were young men called “Ephebes”. The festivals included swimming and boat races in the Nile, but the Antinous Games were unique because they included competition in the Arts also. The big winner was consecrated as the living embodiment of Antinous and given special Antinopolis citizenship, with an all-expenses-paid-for life of adoration. He was worshiped in the temple as the representative of Antinous, the essence of youth and masculinity. This image of Antinous was the last great ancient type of young male perfection, and his cult lasted for several hundred years, well into the Christian era and beyond. There is a Church of The Sacred Cultus of Antinous in Hollywood. There is also a gay strip club in Fort Lauderdale called Hadrian’s.
The “Cult Of Antinous” was extremely popular with a certain kind of guy throughout the Roman Empire and it flourished until it was condemned for being based on an “immoral relationship” and was suppressed by the new Catholic Church.
This head was found in 1769 on the site of Hadrian’s vast villa at Tivoli. It is now a landfill, although there is a campaign through the United Nations’ UNESCO to preserve the ruins. Today, what remains of Antinopolis is now called El Sheikh Ibada, a small village surrounded by a few crumbled ruins of what was once a beautiful city of gay worship.