Religion, the need to display imperial power, and the Emperors’ own hubris were the main catalysts for the creation of new cities, artwork and religious cults. However, during the reign of Emperor Hadrian (117-138 CE), it would be the love for a young Greek man that would spur on these significant creations, successfully changing the landscape of the Roman Empire.
The young man in question was a beautiful boy named Antinous. From the city of Bithynia, Antinous was relatively young when he encountered Hadrian whilst the Emperor toured through Greece, and quickly became a favourite of Hadrian. Traveling with Hadrian, the two were together for numerous years until, in October 130 CE, Antinous drowned in the River Nile under circumstances still unknown to us even to this day. Grief stricken, Hadrian was said to have “wept for the youth like a woman” at news of Antinous’ passing, and it would be through this extreme grief and love that the landscape of the political, artistic, and religious world of the Roman Empire would be changed. In ancient Rome, same-sex relations between men were not seen to be anything significant in the Empire, and indeed, it was not Hadrian’s relationship with Antinous (a foreign boy) that would raise any eyebrows. However, what Hadrian did after his passing is what really matters. Just days after Antinous died, Hadrian dedicated a plot of land near to the place Antinous drowned as a new city—Antinoopolis. This city would become an important location for placing Greek culture in Egypt, further narrowing in the walls of Roman control by placing Roman, Greek and Egyptian cultures in close contact with one another. It should be noted that Hadrian was planning on creating a city in Egypt beforehand, but Antinous’ death opened up a political opportunity, one that Hadrian clearly, even in his grief, could not give up.
In addition to creating a new city, Hadrian quickly created a cult surrounding Antinous. Bypassing the Senate, Hadrian declared Antinous a deity, and stated that the Egyptian people should venerate Antinous as the incarnation of Osiris. Shortly afterward, Antinous was paralleled with the Greek god Dionysus, and the Roman gods Vertumnus and Silvanus. By doing this, Hadrian successfully linked Antinous to the three main cultures and their religions in the Roman Empire. Antinoopois would quickly become a pilgrimage spot for those who were worshippers of the cult. As well, festivals were set up in Antinous’ honour, such as the Antinoeia festival in Athens.
In addition to changing the religious landscape of Rome, Antinous’ death would also be politically beneficial to towns and cities in Rome. Just a year or so after Antinous’ passing, the Greek city of Thessaloniki approached Hadrian and asked if they could install a cult for Antinous. They appealed to Hadrian in this manner in hopes of gaining his favour, and therefore becoming recipients of tax breaks, special grants and a variety of other beneficial projects.
Finally, Antinous’ death brought about numerous long lasting artistic expressions in Rome, such as new buildings and artwork. Hadrian built a temple to Antinous called the Antinoeion at his villa in Tibur, and decorated it with numerous statues of Antinous. Indeed, statues of Antinous became incredibly popular during Hadrian’s reign and well after. Youthful, beautiful and often coy, Antinous’ image would permeate the art world of Rome, and indeed become synonymous with Classical art. Dio stated that “[Hadrian] set up statues, or rather sacred images of him, practically all over the world.” Dio was not exaggerating, for statues and other depictions of Antinous have been found all over the Mediterranean. It is estimated that there were about 2,000 statues created, but so far only 115 have been discovered.
It was through Hadrian and his devotion to his lover that the Roman Empire would be forever changed in many respects. The world the people were living in now had a new deity, a new figure to admire, and a love that would be romanticised—even up until this day. As Thorsten Opper stated, “—we can see Hadrian’s relationship with Antinous as a mirror of Roman society and the development of his cult as a revealing metaphor for the subtle workings of Roman rule.” Hadrian and his love would change the Roman world.