Hadrian was in a hurry. The summer of 128 was drawing to a close and he had an appointment he wanted to keep in September. The date of the Eleusinian Mysteries was approaching and he meant to attend for a second time. So he and his traveling court sailed back to Rome, where he spent a few quick weeks dealing with essential business before setting off for Greece.
He was an epoptes, a full and complete initiate, and, we may guess, so was Antinous, now about eighteen and on the verge of beards and adulthood. No account has come down to us, but one wonders if, in this Greek setting, they felt able to present themselves publicly as an honorable and traditional couple, a mature erastes with his maturing eromenos.
Having witnessed the most secret rituals, Hadrian broadcast the significance of his participation through an Asiatic coin, a tetradrachm worth six sesterces, which showed him holding a bunch of corn ears; the legend reads Hadrianus P[ater] [Patriae] Ren[atus], “Hadrian, Father of the Fatherland Reborn.” The corn ears indicate his status as an initiate of Eleusis, and renatus his spiritual rebirth. On the obverse is a head of Augustus, the first emperor to attend the Mysteries.
In the heyday of Athens in the fifth century B.C., its undisputed leader was Pericles. For many years, he was its democratically elected first citizen (its princeps, as a Roman might put it). His contemporaries nicknamed him, flatteringly, “the Olympian,” a title usually reserved for Zeus, king of the gods.
Greece was still recovering from the destruction wreaked during the Persian invasion. The Persians had been driven back, and Athens headed a league of city-states and island communities whose aim was to continue the struggle against the “barbarians.” Pericles transformed the league into a maritime empire and spent much of the wealth Athens acquired thereby by rebuilding the city as splendidly as possible; the masterpiece was the Parthenon, Athena’s temple on the Acropolis.
Plutarch writes that Pericles “introduced a bill to the effect that all Hellenes wheresoever resident in Europe or in Asia, small and large cities alike, should be invited to send deputies to a council at Athens.” The aim was to discuss matters of common interest—restoration of the temples the Persians had burned down, payment of vows to the gods for the great deliverance, and clearing the seas of pirates. The Greek colonies of Sicily and Italy were not invited, for they had not been directly involved in the war. Nothing came of the project owing to opposition from the Spartans, then the great military rival of Athens. Pericles let the idea drop.
More than half a millennium later Hadrian picked it up where it had fallen. During his previous visit, his attention had been caught by the synedrion, or council, at Delphi for the Amphictyonic League, but it did not include enough Greek cities. He decided to launch a new Panhellenion along Periclean lines. As before, a grandly refurbished Athens was to be the headquarters and Greek cities would be invited to send delegates to an inaugural assembly. Member communities had to prove their Greekness, both culturally and in genetic descent, although in practice some bogus pedigrees were accepted.
The enterprise had a somewhat antiquarian character. So far as we can tell from the fragmentary surviving evidence, Hadrian aimed at roughly the same catchment area as Pericles had done—in essence, the basin of the Ionian Sea. Italy and Sicily were excluded once again, and there was no representation of Greek settlements in Egypt, Syria, or Anatolia. The emperor made a point of visiting Sparta, presumably to ensure that it did not stay away as it had done in the fifth century.
A renaissance of old glories was reflected in the development of archaized language; so, for example, Spartan young men (epheboi) suddenly took on an antiquated Doric dialect in their dedications to Artemis Orthia, a patron goddess of the city. It seems clear that one of the purposes of Hadrian’s policy was to recruit the past to influence and to help define and improve the decadent present.
Hadrian began to call himself the “Olympian,” echoing the example of Pericles as well as reflecting the completion of the Olympieion, the vast temple to Olympian Zeus. He was soon widely known throughout the Hellenic eastern provinces as “Hadrianos Sebastos Olumpios,” Sebastos being the Greek word for Augustus, or indeed “Hadrianos Sebastos Zeus Olumpios.”
What did the Panhellenion actually do? It administered its own affairs, managed its shrine not far from the Roman Agora and offices, and promoted a quadrennial festival. It also assessed qualifications for membership. But Hadrian was careful to give it no freestanding political powers. All important decisions were referred to him for approval. Rather, the focus was cultural and religious, and a connection was forged with the Eleusinian Mysteries. In essence, the task was to build spiritual and intellectual links among the cities of the Greek world, and to foster a sense of community. The Panhellenion also furthered the careers of delegates, who were usually leading members of Greek elites (but not necessarily Roman citizens), and created an international “old-boy network” of friends who advanced one another’s interests.
A good deal of notice was required for the summoning of the new assembly, and the buildings the emperor had commissioned in 125 were probably not yet finished. But the future look of Athens was already evident. The city was being transformed and the area around the Olympieion was defined as a new district, named (not difficult to guess) Hadrianopolis. At its boundary an arch was erected, which can still be seen today. On the west side, facing the Acropolis, an inscription on its architrave reads, “This is Athens, the onetime city of Theseus,” Theseus being the city’s legendary founder. On the east side, facing the Olympieion, another reads, “This is the city of Hadrian, not of Theseus.”
It was cheek of a very high order. However warmly they welcomed the emperor’s pro-Hellenic policies, this expropriation of their city must have irritated many Athenians. But they had no alternative to biting their lips.
About March 129, with the sea lanes open again, Hadrian set sail for Ephesus. He roamed around the eastern provinces, scattering buildings, instructions, and benefactions in his wake. As usual, he refused to tolerate poor performance by public officials, punishing delinquent procurators and governors, the Historia Augusta reports, “with such severity that it was believed that he incited those who brought the accusations.”
The emperor’s main political object for this tour was a gathering of client kings along the frontier with the Parthian empire. This “durbar” was the mirror image of the Panhellenion, originally summoned as it had been to manage a continuing Persian threat. The Parthians had now assumed the role of the sinister Other. Hadrian, of course, had not the slightest intention of provoking a war. Instead, he mounted a spectacular but peaceful demonstration that the Roman empire was safe from invasion.
We do not know if the Parthian king, Chosroes, still embattled by ambitious relatives, was invited to another riverine summit meeting, but he was at least offered sweeteners for good behavior. His daughter, held as hostage in Rome for twelve years, was at last sent back to Parthia and the emperor promised to return the royal throne, which Trajan had captured during his ruinous invasion of Mesopotamia. However, before anything could be decided, Chosroes was deposed and his successor had more important matters on his mind than playing a walk-on role in Hadrian’s political theatricals.
So far as the client kings were concerned, they were a mixed bunch with uncertain loyalties. Conventional opinion disapproved of Rome’s purchasing peace with subsidies, but the emperor was proud of his achievements. According to the Epitome de Caesaribus, “after procuring peace from many kings by means of secret subventions, [Hadrian] liked to boast openly that he had won more by doing nothing than from waging war.”
Dealing with distant rulers who knew that it was impractical for the Romans to punish lack of cooperation by military action sometimes led to embarrassment. Pharasmenes was king of the Iberi, a tribe that lived between the Black and Caspian seas (today’s Georgia), and was a case in point. He haughtily declined Hadrian’s invitation to his grand assembly, despite being the recipient of generous gifts—among them an elephant and a detachment of fifty soldiers. When Pharasmenes reciprocated with some gold-embroidered cloaks, the irritated Hadrian apparently ridiculed the king’s presents by sending three hundred condemned men to be killed in the arena dressed in cloth of gold.
The emperor’s next destination was Egypt, for which he planned an extensive tour, but en route he passed through Judaea. Here he made a fateful decision.
Since the devastation that followed Titus’ capture of Jerusalem in 70, the ruined and depopulated province had hardly recovered. Jewish society became localized into villages. The high-priestly families that had dominated Judaea disappeared from history, the Sanhedrin, ancient Israel’s supreme court, ceased operations, and the old upper class vanished. As for Jerusalem, the city’s fortifications were left in ruins and the Temple remained rubble. This was typical Roman 'margin-top:12.0pt;margin-right:0cm;margin-bottom: 12.0pt;margin-left:0cm;line-height:normal'>The bitter uprising among Jews of the diaspora at the end of Trajan’s reign seems not to have affected Judaea, presumably because the Moorish general Lusius Quietus had been appointed its governor with a brief to stamp out any discontent. Once the uprising had been quashed, Hadrian, newly in power, had won a reputation for being sympathetic to the Jewish cause when he acted as a disinterested arbiter in disputes between Alexandrian Jews and Greeks.
The emperor’s sympathy seems to have been tactical and did not represent his real opinion. He now determined that enough time had passed to reconstitute Judaea as an ordinary province, by which he meant that it should be Hellenized. Quite a number of affluent Jews, he observed, were willing to become collaborators. It may even be that some of them actively encouraged the emperor to pursue his Hellenizing agenda.
Circumcision had been outlawed by Domitian and Nerva. Interestingly, Christians, too, disapproved of the procedure: Paul of Tarsus called it mutilation and argued that those who inflicted it should be “cut off,” or castrated. Hadrian renewed the prohibition and made the offense punishable by death.
At Jerusalem the emperor refounded the city and commissioned a temple of Jupiter Capitolinus, to be built on the ruins of Herod’s temple. He brought in settlers and seems to have established a colonia of Roman citizens, which in the course of time would produce recruits for the garrison legion that had been based nearby for sixty years, the X Fretensis.
To underline the point that Jerusalem was now a Roman city with Greek-speaking inhabitants and no longer had the slightest association with Jewry, Hadrian named it Aelia Capitolina, in honor of his own family, the Aelii, and the king of the Olympian gods whose great shrine stood on Rome’s citadel. Jehovah was banished. If we can trust the new city’s celebratory coinage, the emperor personally helped to plow a furrow around its boundary. Cities in the neighborhood also signaled his presence. Shrines in his honor were founded at Caesarea and Tiberias, and Gaza launched a Hadrianic festival.
So far as Hadrian was concerned, the Jewish question was settled.
The emperor had been greatly looking forward to touring Egypt, with its strange animal-headed gods, its lauded skill in magic, and its extraordinary temples and palaces. Here was a mysterious, age-old civilization that had largely preserved its unique character. The Macedonian dynasty of the Ptolemies, ruling from Alexandria on the Mediterranean coast, had only partly Hellenized it. A Roman province since the defeat and deaths of Antony and Cleopatra, Egypt was the emperors’ private domain, and nothing was allowed to imperil its huge strategic value as a grain producer for the capital. Senators were forbidden to visit, and few emperors bothered to go there either, despite their having the title of pharaoh. The kingdom’s governance was entrusted to a prefect, who was always a nonpolitical eques. Unless there was trouble, Egypt was largely left to its own devices.
Hadrian, ever the missionary, was determined to deepen Egypt’s conversion into a worthy member of the Greco-Roman world. What he had in mind was to found yet another Hadrianopolis, somewhere many miles south in the country’s traditional heartland.
He may have had another, more personal reason for his visit. A fourth-century church father, Epiphanius, claims that he suffered from leprosy, which none of his doctors could heal, and that he went to Egypt to find a cure. At first sight, the story is unconvincing. It is highly unlikely that he contracted leprosy, a disease which is hard to catch and often associated with poverty and a bad diet. However, the assertion may be a faulty echo of the emperor’s previously reported subcutaneous affliction. Egypt had a high reputation for medicine; the healing and magical arts were closely allied, something that would have appealed to Hadrian. A recurrence of erysipelas could well have made him abandon conventional treatment for the arcane nostrums of the Egyptian priesthood.
No later than the end of August 130, Hadrian traveled down the coast road from Gaza to Pelusium, the fortress town that guarded the entry into Egypt. It lay between the marshes of the Nile and the Mediterranean shore. It was on the beach here that in 48 B.C., at the start of Rome’s long civil war, Pompey the Great (Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus) was lured ashore from his ship and stabbed to death by a renegade legionary in Egyptian pay. He had been fleeing from Julius Caesar after his army’s decisive defeat in Pharsalus in Greece and was hoping to find sanctuary with the pharaoh. “Dead men don’t bite,” said one of the king’s advisers. Pompey’s head was cut off and presented to Caesar.
The body was buried on the shore and a small monument erected above it. With the passage of time sand blew over it and covered it from view. Never one to pass up the chance to mourn a dead celebrity, the emperor located the grave and had the sand brushed away. And, of course, he wrote a poem, which was inscribed on the monument. Referring to the fact that many shrines had been erected in Pompey’s name throughout the empire, one line reads:
How pitiful a tomb for one so rich in temples.
The high point of Hadrian’s visit was to be a journey up the Nile. The expedition had to wait until late September or October, when the river’s annual flood would abate. In the meantime the emperor spent some time in Alexandria, where there was plenty to see and do. The Greek community had long believed that the Romans always favored the Jews at their expense. Now there were hardly any Jews left in the city, following the suppression of their uprising, and Hadrian the Hellenizer made himself popular by investing in restoration projects to make good the damage that had been done.
The old palace of the Ptolemies was not a single edifice but a royal campus filled with buildings of every kind. Among them was the Mouseion, which housed the ancient world’s most distinguished scholars, intellectuals, and authors. Membership was a high privilege, and brought with it the honor of free meals. “By Mouseion,” wrote Philostratus, a third-century expert on Greek intellectuals, “I mean a dining table in Egypt to which the most distinguished men from all over the world receive invitations.”
Hadrian took a close interest in the Mouseion’s work. He is known to have appointed two members, and, as already noted, his ab epistulis, successor to the dismissed Suetonius, was a former head of the Mouseion, the Gallic scholar Julius Vestinus. The emperor was not going to miss dinner at the high table for anything. However, it is not certain that his visit was well received. Behaving as usual with uneasy uppitiness to the gathered scholars, the emperor “put forward many questions for consideration,” claims theHistoria Augusta, “only to provide the answers himself.”
The emperor’s relations with intellectuals were often fraught.
Although he wrote verse and composed speeches with great facility he treated academics as though he were their intellectual superior and liked to ridicule, scorn, and humiliate them. He competed with these professors and philosophers, with both sides in turn publishing books and poems.
He was said to have been jealous of celebrated philosophers and rhetoricians, and promoted others to attack them and try to destroy their reputations. In response, a victim, Dionysius of Miletus, said acidly to one of Hadrian’s officials, who had tried to rival him in public speaking, “The emperor can give you money, but he can’t make you an orator.”
Apparently Hadrian did not publish under his own name, but under those of his freedmen with literary reputations. One of his offerings was Catachannae (presumably some sort of miscellany, for the word refers to a tree onto which several different types of fruit have been grafted). This was an “extremely obscure work” of which nothing is known except that it was a homage to Antimachus, himself an extremely obscure poet from about 400 B.C. who sought consolation for the death of his mistress by retelling stories of legendary disasters.
One of the most original academics of the age was the Sophist Favorinus of Arelate (Arles); he was described as a hermaphrodite and was beardless with a high-pitched voice. When Hadrian criticized a word he had used, he accepted the point. His friends later reproached him for giving way, to which he replied: “You are giving me bad advice. You must allow me to regard as the greatest of scholars the man who commands thirty legions.”
However much he tormented them with his cross-examinations, Hadrian lavished honors and money on anyone who professed the arts. At the beginning of his reign he conferred a series of immunities on practitioners of the liberal professions—philosophers, rhetoricians, grammarians, and doctors—that remained in force until the latter part of the second century. Although he was himself responsible for hurting people’s feelings, he took it to heart, he used to say, whenever he saw anyone upset as a result of his disputatiousness.
Hadrian allowed himself some free time with Antinous. He relaxed at the Canopic canal, which ran from Alexandria to the port of Canopus. Although it was well known for a temple of Serapis where the sick could sleep overnight and hope for healing, the place was mostly notable for its disreputable pleasures. Strabo, the Greek travel writer and geographer, observed:
Some writers go on to record the cures, and others the virtues of the oracles there. But to balance all this is the crowd of revelers who go down from Alexandria by the canal to the public festivals; for every day and every night it is crowded with people on boats who play the flute and dance without restraint and with extreme licentiousness, both men and women.
By an odd coincidence there was a village called Eleusis on the canal. But there were no mysteries there, rather rooms for hire and “commanding views for those who wish to engage in revelry.” Shameless things were done that marked the “Canopic lifestyle.”
There is no record of an imperial visit, but the fact that Hadrian gave the name Canopus to a stretch of water and a large nymphaeum, or artificial grotto, at his villa at Tibur suggests that the Egyptian resort held some special meaning for him. We can infer that he and Antinous went there—and memorably enjoyed themselves.
Hadrian would not have been Hadrian without finding time for a hunt. He and Antinous made a foray into the countryside in Cyrenaica, the province adjoining western Egypt, and went in search of lions. On a fragment of papyrus a poem, composed in the high, heroic epic manner by a certain Pancrates, describes what happened. This is, in fact, the only occasion where there is an explicit written record of the couple being together in one place.
There is also evidence in stone confirming that the pair hunted together. Eight large tondi, or circular reliefs, now displayed on the Arch of Constantine in Rome but once adorning a memorial of the emperor’s exploits, show Hadrian and his party hunting various kinds of animals including a lion, and making sacrifices. In at least one of the carvings a huntsman can be seen who strongly resembles the young Bithynian—but with a difference. What we see is no longer a boy but a short-haired young man of about twenty with sideburns and down on his cheeks, no longer gracefully feminine but strong and active.
The desert adventure nearly had an unhappy ending. Hadrian and Antinous came across a fierce lion. According to the poet,
First Hadrian with his brass-fitted spear wounded the beast, But did not kill him, for he purposely missed the mark, Wishing to test to the full the sureness of aim Of his lovely Antinous, son of the Argus slayer.
The infuriated lion charged at Antinous and gored his horse. It was then struck in the neck, evidently by Hadrian (the papyrus breaks up at this point), and fell beneath the hooves of the emperor’s horse. It was a close shave, but the lover had triumphantly rescued the beloved from the threat of serious injury, or even death.
At last Hadrian was able to set off on his journey up the Nile. We may suppose that a grand barge was prepared for him and a flotilla of boats assembled, including warships from the Alexandrian fleet, to carry the court and the guard. As usual, places warned to expect an imperial visitation had been making preparations for many months and stockpiling generous supplies of food and other necessaries. One of these was the town of Oxyrhyncus, which laid in 700 pecks of barley, 3,000 bales of hay, 372 suckling pigs, nearly 200 pecks of dates, and 2,000 sheep, together with olives and olive oil. The imperial cavalcade, locustlike, consumed everything in its path.
Pachrates (whose Hellenized name was Pancrates) was a magician and priest, as well as a poet. He looked the part of a holy ascetic—“with shaved head, clothed in white linen, speaking Greek with an accent, tall, flat-nosed, with thick lips and thin legs.”
He was based at the ghost town of Heliopolis (a Greek name meaning Sun City; the Egyptians called it Iunu, or “place of pillars”). Since time immemorial it had been a revered center of learning, but competition from Alexandria, founded in 334 B.C., removed its raison d’être. By the first century A.D. the place was deserted except for a handful of hierophants, who, according to Strabo, “performed the sacrifices and explained to strangers what pertained to the sacred rites.”
With his lifelong interest in the dark arts, Hadrian stopped off at the city for an explanation of the rites. He consulted Pachrates and, according to an ancient papyrus, received instruction in the art of a spell to “attract those who are uncontrollable … It inflicts sickness excellently and destroys powerfully, sends dreams beautifully.” The priest prepared a magic recipe, which included, among assorted ingredients, a field mouse and two moon beetles, all drowned in the Nile, the fat of a virgin goat, and the dung of a dog-faced baboon, pounded together in a mortar. A little of this unpleasant paste was burned on a charcoal fire as an offering, and a charm recited. The papyrus warned that the procedure should not be used rashly and only in the case of “dire necessity.”
Pachrates knew how to lay on a good performance. He cast the spell, which was credited with never failing: one victim fell sick in two hours and, apparently, another died in seven. Hadrian received dreams “as he thoroughly tested the whole truth of the magic.” Deeply impressed, he doubled the magician’s fee.
What was the emperor’s purpose in making this consultation? Curiosity is a likely enough motive, for Egyptian magic was an exotic mix of spells and remedies drawn from Greek and Jewish as well as indigenous religious traditions. But, one wonders, did he also have anyone in mind whom he wished to fall ill, or even die? Did he anticipate a “dire necessity”? The questions are relevant, for some days later an astonishing death did occur.
A few miles south of Heliopolis, Hadrian, Antinous, and their entourage toured Memphis, founded more than three thousand years previously and the original capital of the old kingdom of Egypt. They inspected the pyramids and the Sphinx. Then the imperial party sailed on upriver and moored at Hermopolis (Egyptian Khemennu). Situated on the border between Upper (or southern) and Lower Egypt, this was a populous and opulent city, with a famous sanctuary of Thoth, god of magic, heart and tongue of Ra, arbiter of good and evil and judge of the dead.
On October 22 the festival of the Nile was celebrated—usually a happy celebration of the renewed fertility that the river’s annual inundation brought about, but on this occasion a glum affair, one suspects, for it was the second year when there had been a disastrously poor flood. Then two days later came the anniversary of the death of Osiris and worshippers chanted for his yearly rebirth, analogous with the rise and fall of the river.
Opposite Hermopolis the riverbank curved and the current strengthened. A small, impoverished settlement of mud huts lay along the shore and close by stood a modest temple of Ramses the Great, Egypt’s most famous pharaoh (1298–1235 B.C.). One day during the last week of the month, here or hereabouts, the lifeless body of Antinous was recovered from the river. He had drowned.
Hadrian broke down. The Historia Augusta noted, disapprovingly, that he “wept for the youth like a woman.” He declared that he had seen a new star in the sky, which he took to be that of Antinous. Courtiers assured him that the star was new and had indeed come from Antinous’ spirit as it left his body and rose up into the heavens. The emperor decided that Antinous was to be deified. Dead, he was to be reborn as a god.
From the point of view of Roman convention, such a thing was unheard of. Emperors, and wives or close relatives, received divine honors by approval of the Senate—but not boyfriends of no political or social significance. Hadrian did not even trouble the Senate with the matter, for “the Greeks deified him at Hadrian’s request.” What precisely this means is unclear, but there was a long-standing tradition in the eastern Mediterranean of potentates declaring themselves gods, and in the popular mind the boundary between the human and the divine was porous.
As it happened, there was a local precedent for the conferral of divine honors. A drowning in the Nile had magical properties. When Pachrates’ spell called for a mouse and beetles to be drowned in the Nile, the actual word he used was “deified.” This was because many believed that the Nile conferred immortality on anyone it took to itself by drowning. (Importantly, suicides were excepted.) Only the priests could touch the corpses and these were buried at the public expense. Two brothers, Petesi and Paher, who drowned in Roman times even had a temple devoted to them. In the second-century tomb of a girl, Isidora, who drowned in the river, a funerary poem has her father say: “O my daughter, no longer will I bring you offerings with lamentation, now that I know that you have become a god.”
So Antinous joined the immortals—but how did he come to die in the first place? This is difficult to ascertain, for nothing is known about the exact circumstances. In his memoirs Hadrian asserted that the death was an accident, but the ancient sources were not so sure. Three texts give accounts of what happened—Dio Cassius, the Historia Augusta, and Aurelius Victor. They were written long after the event, are not altogether reliable, and (some say) betray signs of malice. According to Dio, the best of the bunch,
Antinous … had been a favorite of the emperor and had died in Egypt, either by falling into the Nile, as Hadrian writes, or, as the truth is, by being offered in sacrifice. For Hadrian, as I have stated, was always very curious and employed divinations and incantations of all kinds.
Aurelius Victor agrees, reporting that
when Hadrian wanted to prolong his life and magicians had demanded a volunteer in his place, they report that although everyone else refused, Antinous offered himself and for this reason the honors mentioned above were accorded him. We shall leave the matter unresolved, although with someone of a self-indulgent nature we are suspicious of a relationship between men far apart in age.
The Historia Augusta takes a similar line, but with less certainty.
Concerning this incident there are varying rumors; for some claim that he had devoted himself to death for Hadrian, and others—what both his beauty and Hadrian’s excessive sensuality indicate.
What is intended by this insinuation is unclear; presumably the reader is to infer that Antinous killed himself in order to escape the emperor’s sexual advances.
The first and most ordinary of explanations is that the emperor’s favorite was drowned by accident, just as Hadrian claimed. A youth, high spirits, unpredictable currents or underwater plants trapping an unwary diver or swimmer—this is a familiar and plausible concatenation of circumstances. But a personage of Antinous’ importance would seldom be alone, and if he went for a swim help would surely have been close at hand.
A second possibility is that he committed suicide, evading notice and slipping silently into the river, perhaps under cover of darkness. It is not too hard to guess at motives. He was now about twenty, and no longer the pretty lad who had first caught the emperor’s eye. If Hadrian fancied only smooth-cheeked teenagers, then indeed Antinous faced an uncertain future. What use would his patron and lover have for him once he had graduated from puer, boy, to iuvenis, young man?
There is evidence, though, that Hadrian had catholic tastes. Aurelius Victor claims that “malicious rumors spread that he debauched adult males (puberibus).” While no necessary blame attached to a youthful eromenos for having sex with his erastes and even privately allowing himself to be buggered, it was, as we have seen, shameful for an adult to accept the receptive role. Antinous, having reached manhood, may have been unwilling to go on sleeping with the emperor. In his eyes, if he allowed things to continue as before, he would be little better than a male prostitute. All too credibly, he could imagine himself aging into the superannuated gigolo of Juvenal’s satire.
Even if there was something to these fears, that one member of the pair was losing interest or that the other was feeling shame, the evidence of Hadrian’s behavior after the drowning points to the passionate sincerity of his love, and so surely mitigates them. That is to say, Antinous could count on the emperor’s continuing affection even if for one reason or another the love affair itself were to end. He had no grounds for anticipating that he would either be discarded or abused.
We are left with the opinion of the literary sources, although from a modern perspective they propose by far the most implausible of the options. However, the idea of compensatory self-sacrifice was familiar to the ancient world. Euripides’ famous tragedyAlcestistold the story of a wife volunteering to hand herself over to death in place of her husband, Admetus, whose time was due. Admetus would be permitted to survive
if he could find another
to take his place and join the dead below.
He asked in turn of all his family,
his father, and his mother; but found no one
willing to quit the world and die for him—
except his wife.
This account neatly parallels Hadrian’s alleged search for a volunteer, according to Aurelius Victor.
At some point after 130 or 131, Hadrian’s friend the historian and public official Arrian wrote a guide to part of the Black Sea coastline in the form of a long letter to the emperor. It includes a description of an island called Leuke, deserted except for a few goats. Here, legend had it, the Greek hero Achilles once lived as a boy. Visitors left votive offerings to him and his older erastes, Patroclus, for whose death Achilles had wreaked a terrible vengeance during the siege of Troy before himself being killed. Arrian concluded:
I myself believe that Achilles was a hero second to none, for his nobility, beauty, and strength of soul; for his early departure from mankind … and for the love and friendship because of which he wanted to die for his beloved.
Although Hadrian and Antinous are hardly a perfect match for the Greek couple, Arrian was surely linking two doomed eromenoi who, in different ways, put their lives on the line for their lovers. It was a delicate allusion, well judged to touch and comfort his desolate correspondent.
In sum, then, Hadrian was suffering from a serious illness of some kind; he and Antinous believed that the emperor would recover his health if he, Antinous, gave up his life in his stead. So the verdict of suicide stands, but for religious or magical reasons rather than from private unhappiness.
Another unappetizing option is that, with or without Antinous’ consent, Hadrian arranged for his sacrificial execution, as he had sacrificed the piglet during his Eleusinian initiation. This would have been very odd behavior. The Romans had outlawed human sacrifice long ago during the Republic, and the Egyptians are not known to have practiced it in remembered times. But magic may be a different matter: the Pachrates papyrus at least purports to deal in spells that cause death. The lethal power of witches was widely believed: Horace summed up the fearful fantasies of popular opinion in his little horror poem about a boy who was buried alive up to his neck and starved to death so that his marrow and liver could be used in a love potion. Whether such crimes were commonplace may be doubted, but it is conceivable that Pachrates or some other magico-religious authority was consulted about a ritual sacrifice to restore the emperor’s health, and that Antinous was, willy-nilly, cast into the river. At least that would justify Hadrian’s denial of suicide.
Any conclusion on these matters has to be guesswork. Such evidence as there is points to the offering of one life for another. Two marble busts, one of them from Tibur, and dating from about this time or later seem to offer confirmation. They show the emperor as a young man again. A new coin type shows an equally youthful Hadrian. Thanks to wishful thinking, it was supposed that the death in the Nile had worked its magic. The emperor had been aging and ill, but now, look, here was the proof—he had been rejuvenated, this time literally, not symbolically, renatus.
Within a week of the drowning the emperor decided to found a new city opposite Hermopolis where Antinous had been taken from the water. He had already had in mind the creation of a Hadrianopolis to be located at some as yet undetermined place in the center of Egypt, but now this general project was transformed into a massive memorial to the dead boy.
Plans were quickly drawn up for a splendid new city, to be called Antinoopolis after its founding divinity. Settlers, a mix of people of Greek descent and army veterans, were attracted by generous tax concessions from other Hellenized Egyptian cities. Although almost nothing remains today (thanks to the depredations of local people), three centuries ago many buildings were intact. An eighteenth-century visitor remarked: “This town was a perpetual peristyle.” Antinoopolis was arranged in a grid and two main streets with double colonnades crossed in the city center, where a large shrine was erected, dedicated (we may reasonably suppose) to the new divinity.
This layout echoes that of Alexandria where the Sema, a building that housed the body of Alexander the Great, stood at the intersection of two grand avenues; here the mummified conqueror lay in a crystal coffin. It is possible that Hadrian’s first thought was to inter Antinous at the new foundation, within hailing distance of where he died. If so, he soon changed his mind and commissioned a shrine to house his remains at his villa at Tibur. Construction began almost at once in a very prominent location just by the villa’s grand entrance and proceeded with great speed.
The Antinoeion was a walled enclosure with two small temples inside it. Facing the entrance was a semicircular colonnade, or exedra, at the back of which a porch led into a sanctum, the tomb itself. In the center of the enclosure a specially commissioned obelisk was installed (now called the Barberini obelisk, it stands on the Pincian Hill in Rome). It bears four inscriptions; the first expresses good wishes to the emperor and empress, and the other three concern Antinous and his cult as the new god Antinous-Osiris. One passage reads: “Antinous rests in this tomb situated inside the garden [that is, Hadrian’s villa and its park], property of the emperor of Rome.”
Antinous had a marvelous life after death. His cult spread with great speed and his popularity grew with the years. As a god who dies and is resurrected, he even became a rival to Christianity for a while; it was claimed that “the honor paid to him falls little short of that which we render to Jesus.”
One of the characteristics of religion in the Mediterranean was that an equivalence was assumed among the gods of different religions. Antinous was associated immediately on deification with Osiris, something he may dimly have guessed at while still alive. It is likely that he died on October 24, the day of the festival of Osiris; if so, this was a date he or Hadrian very possibly chose for its spiritual resonance. Osiris was the merciful judge of the dead and, by the same token, the underworld power that gave life. He inspired the annual flooding of the Nile and the vegetable renewals of spring.
Antinous did not only overlap with Osiris, he was also linked to Hermes (the Egyptian Thoth and the Roman Mercury), patron of boundaries and the travelers who cross them. This is why Pancrates called him “son of the Argus slayer” in his poem about the hunt, which was written in the weeks following the drowning. Argus was a many-eyed monster whom Hermes killed. As well as being the messenger of the gods, he was a psychopomp, a conductor of souls to the underworld. In Athens Antinous merged with Dionysus, and the priest of his cult was allocated a best seat for the theatrical performances of the Dionysia, which the new god had originally attended, we may assume, as an ordinary member of the audience.
A coin has been found that shows Antinous as Iakchos, the minor deity who played a part in the Eleusinian Mysteries. Having first encountered the visions and secrets of Demeter as a humble initiate, he returned as a divine being.
Apart from founding Antinoopolis and establishing a cult at Mantinea, Hadrian did not insist on the worship of his lost lover. But local elites seeking his favor quickly realized that commissioning temples and statues was one sure way to obtain it. When the contemporaneous travel writer Pausanias visited Mantinea, he noticed a new temple dedicated to Antinous. “I never saw him in the flesh,” he commented, “but I have seen statues and images of him.”
This was no exaggeration. Soon Antinous was everywhere. Dio writes that Hadrian “set up statues, or rather sacred images of him, practically all over the world.” The emperor must have commissioned an artist of great ability to produce a sculptural paradigm, which was then widely copied. It is an unforgettable type of masculine beauty—melancholy, heavy-locked, large-chested, eyes modestly downcast.
Around the Mediterranean, temples, altars, priesthoods, oracles, inscriptions, and games were established in his name, all of which required images. It has been estimated that as many as 2,000 were carved, of which more than 115 still exist, and more are emerging from the ground as the years go by. A colossal seated statue recently excavated in the Peloponnese shows Antinous tying a fillet around his head as if he were a victorious athlete. The villa at Tibur was filled with Antinous; at least ten statues have been found there. At Delphi his effigy was ritually oiled for so many generations that it acquired, and even now possesses, the translucency of alabaster. Remarkably, the distant Iberi, realm of the difficult-to-please King Pharasmenes, yielded to the spell. In the grave of one of his noblemen, a very fine silver dish embossed with Antinous’ head has been unearthed. It was probably an official gift, much prized by the recipient.
The worship of Antinous long outlasted the reign of his imperial lover. Free of Hadrian he drew his own mass following, and his image can be found not only in high-status artworks but in the artifacts of daily life—lamps, plates, and bowls. Whatever the original intention behind his deification, the ageless Bithynian became a talisman by which the Greek inhabitants of the empire could simultaneously celebrate their own identity and their loyalty to Rome. He personified the reconciliation between the two dominant cultures of the Mediterranean world. He was the ideal of the Panhellenion made flesh.
Even today his is the most instantly recognizable and memorable face from the classical world. Antinous is one of the very few ancient Greeks and Romans to have his own active websites.