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The Image of Antinous: The Reimagination of an Icon

Figure 1: The Braschi Antinous.

Antinous. If you have not heard his name, you might recognise his face. Of all the known portrait sculptures remaining from antiquity, Antinous is the third most likely to appear (Vout 2007: 53), with nearly one hundred statues surviving to the present day (Opper 2006: 645). He is only overtaken by Augustus, the first Roman emperor, and Hadrian, both an emperor and Antinous’ lover. Unlike Augustus and Hadrian, he was not explicitly a figure in power, but rather a figure who, despite a humble background, came close to the seat of power. This fact alone provides ample motivation for an exploration of Antinous, and what in his story or image allowed him to so capture the public imagination through the ages. Rather than Antinous as a person, this article hopes to explore the impact of his image during antiquity and compare it to the ways in which Antinous was reinterpreted as a queer icon during the 1800s (especially in the anglophone world), and post-millennium up until today.

Figure 2: Antinous' home province of Bithynia, highlighted in maroon.

Before diving into an analysis of Antinous’ impact post-antiquity, his personal history should be addressed. Antinous was born in the province of Bithynia in around AD 110 and died young in AD 130 (Waters 1995: 197). However, over the course of his short life he managed to become the emperor’s favourite, travelled with him around the empire, and made enough of an impression on Hadrian that when he died, the emperor was famously said to have ‘wept like a woman’ (Hist. Aug. Hadrian XIV 5). While his personal life was somewhat shrouded in mystery, the circumstances of his death were even more so: it was put out that he had accidentally drowned in the Nile, but there were also rumours that he had either killed himself or been killed for sacrificial purposes (Waters 1995: 197). It is, however, impossible for us to know the truth of the matter since all that we have access to is a few literary accounts briefly documenting the event of his death. Of these, most were composed long after the event (Vout 2007: 54). Even the closest chronological figure Pausanias admits that he ‘never saw him [Antinous] in the flesh’ but had only seen images (Description of Greece III, Arcadia IX 7). As well as being potentially unreliable due to being composed so long after the death of Antinous, many Christian sources attack his character and position, with Saint Athanasius describing him as ‘Emperor Hadrian’s minion and the slave of his unlawful pleasures’ (Waters 1995: 197).

Although he was certainly important while alive due to his proximity to imperial power, Antinous’ fame grew exponentially after his death. According to Vout, it was Egyptian tradition for victims of the Nile to be deified in some way (2007: 117), but Hadrian took this a step further, creating and diffusing a cult in Antinous’ honour. He founded an entire city at the site of Antinous’ demise and called it Antinoopolis, an enormous honour for somebody not officially part of the imperial family. Like famous mythological dead boys Narcissus and Hyacinth, Antinous became associated with his own flower, the lotus. He even had a star named after him (Waters 1995: 198), which is paralleled in the figures of the Hellenistic queen Berenice as well as Julius Caesar, both of whom were said to have ascended to the heavens and become stars in the night sky (Lambert 1997: 147). An important question to consider when thinking about the cult of Antinous is what purpose it served Hadrian, and it seems that there are two potential but not mutually exclusive possibilities. The first is that Hadrian was genuinely grieving because he had lost the love of his life and, like Cicero with his daughter Tullia, felt the need to honour Antinous’ memory by encouraging his worship. The other more cynical possibility is that the whole relationship and treatment of Antinous served political purpose. For instance, the city of Antinoopolis was no ordinary city. In AD 130, Egypt was a province in crisis with deep divisions between its native and Greek inhabitants. While there were Greek centres in two of Egypt’s three administrative zones, there was no such centre in the Heptanomia or central district, where Antinous had died. Antinoopolis took on this role, but unlike other Greek centres in Egypt, Hadrian advocated for a fusion of local and Greek tradition in the new city. This included religious aspects, meaning that the worship of the local deity Bes was continued, while the old temple of Rameses (which had stood in the city previously located at the site) remained a part of the new city. Meanwhile, the temple dedicated to Antinous incorporated local Egyptian architectural elements. One of the most important aspects of Antinoopolis was that it allowed marriage between Greek settlers and local Egyptians, which was ‘unprecedented’ in the other Greek centres of Egypt (Lambert 1997: 150). The city of Antinoopolis served to foster Greek-Egyptian relations, and thereby played an important role in Hadrian’s rule of the Roman Empire. Not only did it do this, but Lambert argues that the unificatory effect of Hadrian as a divine figure in the Greek east was repeated manifold by the new cult of Antinous, who was a ‘true son of Hellas’ and, unlike Hadrian, had been born in the Greek-speaking world (Lambert 1997: 148). Likewise, continued worship of Antinous through the centuries ensured that Hadrian remained in the public consciousness, even after being replaced by his successors.

Figure 3: Antinous-Osiris, found at Hadrian’s Villa at Tivoli.

While it has been argued that the worship of Antinous was solely an emperor-pleasing tactic and a way of showing obedience to Hadrian, this is not demonstrated by the surviving evidence, which in fact suggests that Antinous was an important deity for many people. One of Antinous’ most important attributes was his malleability, which is evidenced in his depiction in portraiture. He has been found depicted in Egyptianizing style such as in the obelisk erected by Hadrian which can now be found on the Pincian hill in Rome, or a statue of Antinous-Osiris found at Hadrian’s villa at Tivoli (Vout 2007: 71). Likewise, he is often associated with Dionysus, as in the Braschi Antinous (also from Hadrian’s villa), which presents a Dionysus-Osiris fusion. An important point to make about the Braschi Antinous is that a lot of the Dionysiac elements of the piece are modern reconstructions; these include the thyrsus held by Antinous, the pinecone in his wreath (originally a cobra or a lotus flower), and the basket at his feet. However, the ivy berries and leaves in his wreath are thought to be ancient and bestow Antinous with the attributes of Dionysus (The Braschi Antinous). Antinous was also syncretised with religious figures on a more local level across the empire. Vout suggests that a statue of Antinous from a bath in Leptis Magna which shows him with a mixture of Dionysiac and Apolline elements is in fact a way of assimilating Antinous with Echmoun, the Phoenician god of healing (2007: 109). It seems then that Antinous had a special power to unite different groups across the Empire, thereby making both Antinous and Hadrian relevant to everybody (Vout 2007: 111).

Figure 4: The Braschi Antinous (full length).

Though the cult of Antinous died out with the end of paganism, Antinous himself experienced a resurgence amongst writers (many of them LGBTQ+) during the 1800s. This could be linked to the colonial archaeology of the period, which saw a rush to fill the first public museums with foreign objects as a display of imperial power. The British Museum, founded in 1753, was the first national public museum in the world (The British Museum Story). The creation of such museums provided an unprecedented opportunity for members of the public to access material culture from far-flung places and different time periods. In the case of ancient statuary, this marked a key turning point for gay men in particular. According to the BBC, such museums were ‘one of the few spaces where they could look at naked male bodies in a culturally respectable sort of way’ (British Museum launches gay history guide). Sure enough, in the century following the foundation of the British Museum and other such museums across Europe, Antinous experienced a sudden revival in the public imagination. The reception of Antinous post-antiquity was extremely different to his reception during the Classical era due to the difference in context. Antinous was seen in a cultic context in the ancient world with easily recognisable religious attributes and echoes in his portraiture, while he was exclusively seen in a museum context in the 1800s. However, while the ancient world was thought to have essentially seen sexuality in terms of who was penetrating whom (Vout 2007: 18), the Victorian period was one deadly set against homosexuality. This meant that during the 1800s, much more focus was placed on Antinous being in a homosexual relationship than the value he had as a dying-and-rising god in the ancient world. Antinous’ homosexuality made him an extremely taboo topic during this time. John Addington Symonds was a key proponent of gay love, and in fact one of the first people to use the word ‘homosexual’. When he asked the British Museum for more information about Antinous, he was told that ‘it was very courageous to ask even artistic questions about him’ (Waters 1995: 205), demonstrating the extent of the censorship around Antinous during this period. Despite the difficulty in bringing him into the mainstream, Waters suggests that Antinous came to fulfil the role previously held by Ganymede in the Renaissance as a representative for gay love (1995: 195). He makes an appearance in the works of several writers including John Addington Symonds, Annie Adams Fields, Willa Cather, Hugh McCulloch, Abbie Carter Goodloe, Kate Everest, Fernando Pessoa, and Oscar Wilde (Waters 1995: 217). Of these figures, Symonds, Cather, and Wilde were known to have been gay, lesbian or bisexual, while it has been speculated that Annie Adams Fields and Kate Everest were too. The prevalence of LGBTQ+ writers in Antinous-inspired literature reflects his growing status as a queer icon during this period. According to Waters, the figure of Antinous appealed to sapphic women as well as gay or bisexual men due to the lack of ‘recognized or prestigious historical models and traditions’ that sapphic women could appeal to (1995: 212). This was especially the case when looking for models in the classical tradition since pederasty was so much celebrated. It seems then that during the 1800s, Antinous became an important muse for LGBTQ+ writers in particular. However, their positive and romanticising depictions of Antinous were met with some pushback; in his 1880 novel ‘Antinous’, Adolf Hausrath presents a relationship forced by the emperor upon an unwilling Antinous whose manhood was being wasted, all while bringing the many cults of the ancient world into opposition with a steadily-growing Christianity (towards which he shows obvious bias) (Waters 1995: 214).

Figure 5: The Townley Hadrian and Antinous, now displayed side by side at the British Museum.

Antinous’ status as a queer icon did not stop in the 1800s, and he has experienced yet another resurgence post-2000 in the Ecclesia Antinoi, a new pagan religion. The Ecclesia Antinoi falls under the umbrella of Neo-Paganism; such religions aimed to resurrect the worship of pagan gods, with many neo-pagan groups being founded in the second half of the twentieth century (White 2016: 32). It should be emphasised that this new cult of Antinous is in no way a continuation of the ancient cult of Antinous, though it has certainly been inspired by it. For example, the cult was officially founded on 30 October 2002, or the anniversary of the foundation of Antinoopolis. Much like the ancient cult, it allows worshippers to syncretise Antinous with other pagan gods such as Dionysus (White 2016: 48). However, this modern religion has approached Antinous in a context completely different to that of the ancient world and is much more comparable to the reinterpretation of Antinous in the 1800s. Antonius Subia, one of the three founding fathers of the cult, first discovered Antinous in an art history book and was struck by his story before taking him on as ‘a personal god’ (White 2016: 39). This can be compared to the LGBTQ+ writers of the 1800s, who first encountered Antinous’ image in an art-historical context in museums. Another similarity to his reception in the 1800s is that for the modern-day cult, one of the most important aspects of Antinous’ character was the fact that he was in a gay relationship. This is clearly evident from the website, which has the heading ‘TEMPLE OF ANTINOUS: THE GAY GOD’ ( emblazoned across the top of the page. According to White, the majority of the cult’s members are gay men, but some members believe that the cult should and does incorporate the whole LGBTQ+ community (2016: 34). One cult member interviewed by White states that his personal worship of Antinous began following the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, since it seemed that the Christian god had abandoned the gay community (2016: 46). The cult prioritises the struggles of LGBTQ+ people and has even compiled a list of saints which includes key figures from queer history (White 2016: 48). However, while authors in the 1800s secularised Antinous and removed him from his cultic context to serve as a queer icon, the modern-day cult represents a re-sacralisation of Antinous, while incorporating all the homosexual meaning that his character had adopted during the 1800s (White 2016: 37-8). The group is currently split into different factions including the original Ecclesia Antinoi (also known as the Temple of Antinous), the similarly named Ekklesia Antinoou, and the Aedicula Antinoi (White 2016: 42). While still a very small religion, the use of the internet to promote the growth of the separate groups has allowed for an international community to develop, with celebrations of festivals such as the Lupercalia taking place virtually. According to White, despite the existence of a physical temple (the Hollywood Temple of Antinous) in Subia’s home, the cult’s main activity has been online with a Facebook page for the cult having received 4374 likes by 2015 (2016: 43). This figure has now increased to 18,408 likes in 2022. The celebration of the cult also allows for a great deal of diversity, just as the ancient cult of Antinous did. Members of the cult tend to ‘construct altar-shrines on an individual basis’ (White 2016: 48) while carrying out their own unique dedications to the god. For example, one worshiper offers milk and honey as a reference to the land of milk and honey, as well as red wine to reflect Antinous’ ‘spilled blood’ (White 2016: 48-9). Meanwhile, another worshiper decorates her altar with natural adornments such as flowers and pebbles, as well as cuddly toy lions (White 2016: 51), presumably in relation to Hadrian and Antinous’ famous lion hunt, as immortalised by Pancrates’ poem. One of the rites most common amongst all members of the cult, however, is the ritual bath as a form of purification and a reflection on Antinous’ fate of drowning (White 2016: 51).

While Antinous seems, in a way, to have come full circle with his celebration in yet another cultic context, as a symbol, the meaning which he carries is vastly different to that conveyed by his worship in the ancient world. He has been on quite the journey; even during antiquity, his rise to fame as a religious figure, from humble origins in Bithynia, can be described as meteoric. The ways in which he has been interpreted and reinterpreted post-antiquity bear testament to his continued importance throughout history, even when removed from his original religious context. His ubiquity in classical art, and consequently in museums, has allowed for generations of LGBTQ+ people to forge themselves a new icon, with the outpouring of secular Antinous-inspired literature in the 1800s leading the way for his re-sacralisation in a modern-day cult. However, despite all the changes which Antinous has undergone, one thing is for certain. He still retains his power to unite, whether that be for worshipers in the ancient world, an underground LGBTQ+ community of artists in the 1800s, or modern-day neo-pagans searching for a religion by which they feel personally represented.


Vout, C. (2007) Power and Eroticism in Imperial Rome. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Opper, T. (2006) ‘Antinous’, The Burlington Magazine, 148, pp. 645-646.

Magie, D. (1921) Historia Augusta, Volume I. DOI: 10.4159/DLCL.historia_augusta_hadrian.1921. (Accessed: 15 February 2022).

Waters, S. (1995) ‘“The Most Famous Fairy in History”: Antinous and Homosexual Fantasy’, Journal of the History of Sexuality, 6(2), pp.194-230.

Jones, W. H. S. (1933) Description of Greece, Volume III. DOI: 10.4159/DLCL.pausanias-description_greece.1918. (Accessed: 24 February 2022).

Lambert, R. (1997) Beloved and God: The Story of Hadrian and Antinous. Available at: (Accessed: 16 February 2022).

The British Museum (2019) The British Museum Story. Available at: (Accessed: 15 February 2022).

BBC News (2013) British Museum launches gay history guide. Available at: (Accessed: 15 February 2022). (2010) (Accessed: 20 February 2022).

Musei Vaticani (2021) The Braschi Antinous. Available at: (Accessed: 24 February 2022).

Figure 1: Photo by Ajwm8103, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Figure 2: Image by ThomasPusch, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Figure 3: Photo by Carole Raddato, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

Figure 4: Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic license.

Figure 5: Photo by Carole Raddato, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

Rene Russell is an MML with Classics undergraduate at St John’s College, Cambridge, currently studying at the Universidad de Sevilla on a year abroad. She has a particular interest in the intersection between the two halves of her degree, namely the Roman history of the Iberian Peninsula, and the ways in which the archaeological heritage of Spain has been received and preserved. She is also The Antiquarian’s Archaeology Editor.

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