Antinous: The Tragic Life of Emperor Hadrian’s Lover

Antinous, a young favorite of the emperor Hadrian, lost his life when he was less than 20 years old. Soon after, Hadrian deified Antinous.

Dec 10, 2023By Mirjana Uzelac, PhD Anthorpology, MA Ethnology & Anthropology

tragic life antinous hadrian


Antinous, a young man from Bithynia, was a favorite of the Roman emperor Hadrian. Not much is known about his life except that he possessed a rare beauty. Antinous was not yet 20 years old when he drowned in the Nile in 130 CE under suspicious circumstances. Hadrian grieved the young man and made a cult in his honor. While the cult was suppressed in the 4th century, the legend of Antinous continued to live as a symbol of same-sex love.


Who Was Antinous (c. 111-130 CE)?

antinous ecouen
Antinous Ecouen, from Villa Adriana at Tivoli, 18th-century copy of the Roman original, via Wikimedia Commons


We know very little about Antinous’ early life and background. He was born near Bithynium (Claudiopolis) in the Roman province of Bithynia and Pontus, located in Asia Minor. The exact year of his birth is unknown; it is calculated based on his age at death, in 130 CE. According to Royston Lamberts Beloved and God: The story of Hadrian and Antinous, Antinous was called meirakion and ephebe in Greek texts, which were terms used for youth. Based on this, it is probable that he was younger than 20 when he died. It is generally believed that he was between 18 and 20 at the time of his death in 130 CE. Based on this, his birth year is placed around 110-112 CE, during the reign of Trajan. Traditionally, his birth month was said to be November, and Lambert insists, based on Roman-era inscriptions, that it was the 27th of November.


Antinous’ background is not fully known. Historical records do not provide any substantial details regarding his lineage, making it difficult to ascertain his ancestry or social status. A lot was said about his background, ranging from a slave to a possible prince or even an illegitimate son of Hadrian himself. Considering his probable origins, it is unlikely that Antinous belonged to the upper echelons of society. While such ideas might carry a certain allure, they lack substantial historical grounding.


antinous aristaeus
Antinous as Aristaeus, 2nd century CE, Louvre Museum


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One of the most popular theories about his origins is that he was a slave. While this idea seems logical, there are indications that it was most probably not true. It is documented that there were not many slaves in Bithynia at the time. Also, the presence of an obelisk at the Pincian Hill in Rome, which mentions his family, implies that Antinous was not a slave, as it would have been scandalous for Hadrian to take a slave as a favorite or to deify him.


Another indication that Antinous was not a slave is that he was educated. At the age of 11-13, around the time when he met Hadrian, he probably had some basic education typical for a free boy of his age. Later in life, he was known as a good rider and skilled with the spear; hunting seemed to have been an activity he enjoyed.


The lack of substantial evidence about his lineage, education, and social connections points to the possibility that he came from a background of peasant farmers or small business owners. These professions were considered undistinguished during that era, which aligns with the limited information available about Antinous beyond his association with Hadrian.


Physical Appearance and Character 

antinous patras
Antinous Bust from Patras, 130-138 CE, via Wikimedia Commons


The most striking thing about the young man was his physical appearance. He was known for his great beauty, which was depicted numerous times by artists, often long after his death. The sculptures portray a young man with thick, curly hair and a full mouth. From his radiant countenance to his sculpted physique, Antinous personified the epitome of physical attractiveness and became an eternal symbol of timeless beauty. Based on the existing busts and other artistic portrayals, Antinous physical appearance was sometimes taken as a clue that the young man was not solely of Greek ancestry. However, there is no proof of this.


Given the limited information available, it is challenging to pinpoint facts about Antinous’ personality or accomplishments. Some historical accounts mention his fondness for hunting, highlighting one of his known pursuits. However, beyond his physical beauty, little else is recorded about his personal attributes or achievements.


Hadrian praised his intelligence, saying that it is “that of a grown man” and he seemed to have valued Antinous’ personality. However, not much is known about Antinous as a person. In many ways, the young man is an unknown. There are only three things firmly associated with him: his beauty, his relationship with the emperor, and his death.


Relationship with the Roman Emperor Hadrian

Bust of Hadrian, via Wikimedia Commons

It is not known how Antinous first met Hadrian, but there are strong indicators that it happened in 123 CE, during Hadrian’s tour of the provinces. As part of the tour, the emperor visited Bithynia’s capital Nicomedia, which had suffered an earthquake around 120-122 CE. Hadrian visited the city to oversee the restoration efforts. It is probably then and there that he met Antinous for the first time. The boy was between 11 and 13 years old. Another possibility is that they met in Claudiopolis, where Antinous likely lived in 123 CE.


Given Hadrian’s visit to Bithynia, it is probable that he met Antinous in the context of a public celebration for the emperor’s visit or a similar public function. It is likely that Hadrian noticed the boy and selected him for his entourage.


However, in these early years, Antinous did not follow Hadrian on his travels. The boy was sent to be educated in the Paedogogium, a boarding school in Rome, where he stayed for at least several years. The Paedogogium was a school preparing young men for service in the imperial palace or for the personal service of highly ranked individuals.


It is not known when Antinous left Paedogogium, or when he joined Hadrian as a companion. It was probably between 125 and 127 CE. It is likely that he became Hadrian’s favorite only around this time.


hadrian antinous statues
Hadrian and Antinous, marble busts, Townley Marbles, via Wikimedia Commons


Not much is known about their relationship. It may seem surprising since Antinous’ story is so closely linked to Hadrian but there are only a few details that are confirmed about their relationship. Hadrian, who was known for his love for Greek culture, was a man who valued art, architecture, and literature. He traveled extensively throughout the empire during his reign, often taking an interest in public works. He was married to Tajan’s grand-niece, Vibia Sabina, a relationship that is generally described as tense and poor. Hadrian seems to have favored men as sexual and romantic partners, and Antinous was his most famous favorite. Historians today agree that there was a sexual component to their relationship, a fact that was well-known in Roman times. Antinous was not the first male companion that Hadrian took in his life, and this sort of relationship was socially acceptable then.


However, it is probably not possible to reduce their relationship to a sexual one. An imperial favorite was also a companion, who is to be respected; there was an expectation of a spiritual and emotional connection. There is a possibility, often mentioned, that Hadrian was in love with the young man.


Hadrian took Antinous on his numerous travels. Antinous was probably with the emperor when Hadrian got afflicted with an unknown illness in 127 CE. While the nature of this condition remains unknown, we know that it did not prevent the emperor from traveling. Antinous remained by his side through these travels: from the city of Rome to Athens, where the emperor and possibly Antinous, were inducted into the Eleusinian Mysteries. After this, Hadrian traveled through Asia Minor, and then to Egypt in 130 CE. He was accompanied by Antinous on all these travels. The visit to Egypt proved fatal for the young man.


How Did Antinous Die?

medallion smyrna
A bust of Antinous on the reverse of the bronze medallion minted by the city of Smyrna, the reign of Hadrian, via Wikimedia Commons


Hadrian and Antinous arrived in Egypt in August 130 CE. They visited the sarcophagus of Alexander the Great before moving to Libya. In Libya, they set out to hunt a lion that was terrorizing the local population. They managed to hunt down the lion; it is said that during the fight, the lion charged at Antinous, and Hadrian saved his lover’s life. This event was highly celebrated by the emperor, who commissioned artists and writers to depict the killing of the lion.


Soon after, Hadrian’s party set off for a trip on the Nile River. They arrived in Heliopolis, where the emperor consulted a priest Pachrates about his illness, possibly seeking a cure or a spell to remove it. Not long after, Hadrian and his group celebrated the Festival of the Osiris, in October 130 CE.


Antinoë (Antinoöpolis), Vue de l’arc de triomphe, 1809-1828, via Wikimedia Commons


This is where Antinous lost his life. The events surrounding his death are unknown to his day. It is well-established that he drowned in the Nile but the circumstances during which this happened have never been proven. His body was found floating in the river but it was never fully explained what led to the tragedy.


Hadrian himself briefly mentioned that Antinous’ death was an accident. However, there are sources pointing to a different explanation. Historian Cassius Dio claims that Antinous was offered as a human sacrifice to cure the emperor. Another possible explanation is that Antinous committed suicide or that he willingly sacrificed himself for Hadrian’s health. Yet another theory claims that Antinous was assassinated as a result of court intrigue, although there is no concrete proof for this. Out of all of the possibilities, the most intriguing one is that of a possible human sacrifice, which adds an additional veil of mystery over the young man’s death.


It is reported that Hadrian was devastated by the loss. Shortly after Antinous’ death, the emperor deified the young man and made a cult in his honor. This was the beginning of Antinous’ legacy and the birth of his legend.


The Cult: Antinous’ Life After Death

osiris antinous
Statue of Osiris-Antinous, c 131-138 CE, via the Vatican Museums


Soon after Antinous’ drowning, Hadrian ordered that a city be built near the place of his death. The city, Antinoöpolis, was to serve as the young man’s resting place. However, it is more likely that Antinous was buried on Hadrian’s estate. In any case, the city was built, and Antinous was deified. Because he drowned during the Osiris festival, the young man was associated with Osiris, first probably by the Egyptian priests themselves. Hadrian nurtured the cult of Antinous, and the worship soon spread throughout the Roman Empire.


The cult quickly rose in popularity. Antinous was particularly worshipped for his healing power since it was believed that his sacrifice cured the emperor. The cult had its temples with Antinous statues that were given offerings. Numerous statues, busts, and coins bearing Antinous’ likeness were created and spread throughout the Roman Empire. This act of deification elevated Antinous to the status of a divine figure, allowing his memory to persist long after his death.


brachi antinous
The Brachi Antinous, a colossal statue depicting Antinous in the Dionysus-Osiris pose, via the Vatican Museum


What is particularly interesting about the cult is Hadrian’s decision to deify his dead lover. This was a highly unusual practice, especially since the emperor did not consult the Roman Senate about it. The cult of Antinous remained popular for the next few centuries, until the 4th century CE. It was finally banned by Theodosius in 391 CE.


Antinous’ Legacy 

antinous medallion
Antinous medallion, 18th century, via Louvre Museum, Paris


For his beauty and untimely death, Antinous became a symbol of love, beauty, and tragic youth. His appeal remained popular through the centuries, especially since the Renaissance and early modernity. Antinous remained a prime example of a Greek male beauty from antiquity, as well as a strong symbol for same-sex desire, particularly in the 18th century.


Countless sculptures and statues depict his youthful beauty, often showcasing the idealized aesthetic of the era. Artists throughout history have drawn inspiration from the tragic tale of Antinous and Hadrian, exploring themes of love, loss, and the fleeting nature of beauty.


As a man, Antinous remains an unknown — not much can be said of him as a person and only a few biographical anecdotes survive. In many ways, it is precisely his tragic death that made this young man such an enduring symbol for centuries.

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By Mirjana UzelacPhD Anthorpology, MA Ethnology & AnthropologyMirjana is a socio-cultural anthropologist and archaeologist with a keen interest in history of science, gender, and constructions of legacies. She has a PhD in anthropology from the University of Alberta, a MA in ethnology and anthropology, and a BA in archaeology from the University of Belgrade.