1,886 years ago, in Oct 28 of the year 130 of Common Era, a young man from Bithynia (in today’s northwestern Turkey) drowned in the Nile while touring all the provinces of the Roman Empire under the wing of his lover, the then most powerful man on Earth: Emperor Hadrian.
If Antinous had not been the emperor’s lover, if he had not been as beautiful as Adonis, and if he had not died by drowning in the Nile on the day of Osiris’ passion and death, his death would have been uneventful and quickly forgotten. But the priests of Egypt believed that anyone who drowned in the Nile was a demi-god, and his death during Osiris’ festival prompted the immediate syncretism of the new Man-God with Osiris. Also, Hadrian was so moved with grief that he “cried like a woman”, and a few days later established on the banks of the Nile where his young lover had died, the city of Antinoopolis as a cult center for the new Man-God.
Within a few years, thanks to Hadrian’s very active promotion of the cult, the face of Antinous became the best preserved–and probably the most beautiful–face from antiquity that we can still behold via sculpture. The Antinous Mondragone is still considered one of the most beautiful and highly-appraised sculptures on Earth. The remains of one ancient, Roman Antinous bust recently sold for 23 million dollars, and coins and other paraphernalia to this gay icon remain in circulation now that Antinous has been re-sacralized and has a small following of modern polytheists.
Many Christians (and others) have questioned the sincerity of ancient faith in Antinoos, but the fact is that his cult was in actuality serious competition for early Christianity, and that it survived for centuries long after the death of Hadrian in the year 138. If the faith had been feigned out of fear of the emperor, the cult would not have enjoyed such a long-standing history after Hadrian was gone.
Some of the ancient Christians who criticized Antinous’ cult for its “debauchery” (code for the homosexual nature of Hadrian and Antinous’ relationship), admitted the supposed miracles of the god and had to resort to peculiar kinds of apologetics, a fact which demonstrates a vitality and credibility that other Pagan cults apparently lacked. Origen even admitted that Antinous was a real spirit (though not a god) who could perform miracles, and that his followers merely had not had the “luck” to know Jesus. Trevor Thompson, in the conclusion of his Antinoos, The New God, said:
The cult of the new god Antinoos swept across the Mediterranean basin in less than a decade and continued to exist into the fourth century. For Origen, Antinoos was a real “daimon” with actual power. Belief in Antinoos or Jesus depended in most cases on the circumstances of one’s birth and the training received. Very few have the opportunity to examine religious claims. Most believe what they have been told.
The pagan philosopher Celsus also criticised it for what he perceived as the debauched nature of its Egyptian devotees, arguing that it led people into immoral behaviour, in this way comparing it to the cult of Christianity, which demonstrates that both the Jesus and the Antinous cults were perceived in a similar light.
Early Christians also claimed that the cult only grew because of the emperor’s favor, but what are we to make of the wealth and corruption of the early church leaders who, from the time of Constantine, enjoyed imperial material favors. Both in terms of possible lack of sincerity (that is, ulterior motives–like advancing Greco-Roman identity in Egypt), and in terms of instigating a cult through material favors, Hadrian is not all that different from Constantine and the other Christian Roman emperors–except that, having “cried like a woman” when he lost his lover, he must have been very sincere in his love of Antinous. Even the Christian History Institute admits in Controversial Constantine about the–to this day, sainted–emperor:
… The second letter informed the bishop of Carthage that funds would soon reach him for distribution to “certain specific ministers of the lawful and most holy catholic religion,” and also assured him of protection against elements disruptive to the catholic church …
Constantine’s religion is from first to last that of an autocratic ruler of an empire secured by military might—and still overwhelmingly pagan.
One of the reasons for Antinous’ cultic success had to do with the intense syncretism, which is based on being abducted into the Osirian mythical cycle–according to which there was a perpetual war between the green god of vegetation who brought life to the Nile and the red desert god Set–and based also on the foundational document of his cult, the Obelisk, which says:
All Gods and Goddesses
Give Him the Breath of Eternal Life
That He might breathe
As One Who Is Eternally Young!
One of my initial assertions in this article was that Antinous represented a real and legitimate threat and competition to early Christianity. I realize that this may be unthinkable to some people today, but one piece of archaeology remains to be considered here. This relief from the Man-God’s holy city demonstrates the extent to which the highly-syncretistic cult in Antinoopolis wove both Dionysian elements (the grapes on his left hand, and keep in mind that Dionysus was believed to have been resurrected like Osiris and Jesus) as well as Christian elements (the cross on his right hand) into itself. Here, we see the youthful Antinous (identifiable by his typical hairstyle) holding both symbols. It seems like, for some time, the versatile Antinous was also being interpreted as a Christ figure. In fact, all the resurrected Men-God were considered Savior figures who secured afterlife benefits for their followers who were initiated into their mysteries.
Antinous as a Unit of Value
Hadrian used Antinous to promote Pan-Hellenistic values and to unite his empire. It seems to me that in the cult of the last Greco-Roman God, the spiritual and the carnal coexisted in harmony and a unique sex-affirming humanist and hellenistic spirituality flourished during the last decades of the pre-Christian era. Unfortunately, the Antinous cult also copied the salvific and other-worldly theme in whose context he emerged and got mixed into grave amounts of unrestrained superstition.
The value of Antinous is not just aesthetic, and in terms of historical curiosity. Clearly, the events that led to Antinous’ deification will never happen again. It’s impossible to imagine Presidents Putin or Obama–while married to their respective wives–inviting people to worship their dead gay lover from a faraway province of their empires who died and was deified by local shamans, and even founding a city in his memory … and being taken seriously by thousands of faithful for centuries. Antinous comes from the last period of history when these things were possible, and is recent enough that he might be a good case study–like Mormonism and the cargo cults–to understand how new gods and new cults come to be. It’s not difficult to imagine how the cults of beautiful Adonis, Attis, or royal Osiris (who was believed to be a Pharaoh from the very first Egyptian dynasty) came into existence, if we take Hadrian’s yearning and love story into account.
I learned about Antinous while reading the novel American Gods, by the amazing fantasy author Neil Gaiman, which is now being turned into a series that will air next year. I later read Royston Lambert’s 1984 account of his life titled Beloved and God: The Story of Hadrian and Antinous. The cult has a modern following of (mostly) Queer polytheists, and Antinoopolis is described as “the Gay Jerusalem” in the Ecclesia Antinoi website, with the mystery and fertility cult aspects sometimes taking a second seat to modern LGBT identity politics.
As for an Epicurean assessment of Antinous: his deification did not fit Epicurean theology, and it seems like Lucian made passing jokes about the Antinous cult. In fact, I think Antinous might have a place within LGBT and secular humanist discourse as a kind of parody religion similar to the Pastafarian tradition–one that says something about the nature of belief, of power, and of religious privilege, not to mention about the ironies of history.
However, unlike the Spaghetti Monster and because he’s rooted in history, the cult of this risen Man-God has a much more fascinating story and posed a threat so serious to early Christianity, that numerous Church Fathers had to write apologetics against it, and some–like Origen–even considered him to have real spiritual power. It’s extremely rare to find a Christian apologist humbling himself in this manner before a Pagan god: only by understanding Antinous as a legitimately feared rival cult, can we explain how he extracted a testimony of his supposed godlike power from a Church Father.