Antinous, Exhibition

Exhibition: ‘Antinous: Boy made God’ at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford (UK)

Antinous has attracted renewed fascination since the High Renaissance. In the early 1500s, several portraits of the ‘boy-favourite’ were known in Rome, and numerous works of art were modelled on him. A clear example of the appeal of Antinous from this time may be seen in Lorenzetto’s statue of Jonah in the Chuch of Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome. The head of the famous Farnese Antinous seems to have provided the model for the statue of the biblical prophet, which was designed by none other than Raphael, one of the most famous artists of his time. The statue became one of the earliest post-classical visual representations of Antinous.


By the 1700s, the beautiful Bithynian had transformed from a scandalous decadent pagan into an archetype of classical male beauty and Romantic ideal. In the eighteenth century, young aristocrats who made the ‘Grand Tour’ of Italy to collect antiquities were eager to acquire ancient sculptures or casts of Antinous. In the second half of the nineteenth century, as sexual models changed, Antinous became associated with homosexuality. They served as an icon for male homoeroticism to Victorian England writers such as Oscar Wilde. In Marguerite Yourcenar’s Mémoires d’Hadrien (1951), the love relationship between Antinous and Hadrian is one of the main themes of the book.

Sing to me of that odorous green eve when crouching by the marge
You heard from Adrian’s gilded barge the laughter of Antinous
And lapped the stream and fed your drouth and watched with hot and hungry stare
The ivory body of that rare young slave with his pomegranate mouth!
Oscar Wilde, The Sphinx – 1989: 542

Today, Antinous remains a historical icon for the LGBTQ community and even an object of worship for some, as the many cult sites on the internet attest. A turning point was perhaps when Thorsten Opper, the curator of the spectacular Hadrian: Empire and Conflict exhibition staged at the British Museum in 2008, declared “Hadrian was gay” but said, “What was unusual in Hadrian’s attitude towards Antinous was how he publicly deified him”.

In 2017, Hadrian and Antinous took centre stage as the British Museum and other institutions marked the 50th anniversary of decriminalising male homosexuality in Britain. In an exhibition called Desire Love Identity: exploring LGBTQ histories, the British Museum explored the ways same-sex desire, love and gender diversity have been expressed culturally throughout history and across cultures, displaying objects from different periods around the world. It also encouraged visitors to go on a trail through the museum to find other objects with LBGTQ stories.

Naturally, the trail led to the busts of Hadrian and Antinous on display in Room 70. Among the other objects on display was a coin depicting Antinous issued after his death to please the grieving Emperor. The project was inspired by the 2013 book A Little Gay History by Richard Parkinson, a former curator in the British Museum’s Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan. The book brings to light a collection of art objects from the British Museum that illustrates same-sex desire, many of which had previously been censored or concealed from historians.

In 2018, the British Museum developed a touring version of the LGBTQ exhibition. It visited the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford from 25 September to 2 December 2018 with a show titled No Offence: Exploring LGBTQ+ HistoriesAccompanying it in the Gallery 8 space at the museum was a second exhibition, Antinous: Boy Made God, focusing on the spread of Antinous’s image and his empire-wide cult as a god. It ran until 24 February 2019.

During an imperial tour of Egypt in AD 130, Antinous drowned in the Nile. Hadrian’s grief was so intense that the Emperor decreed his worship as a new god and established a city on the Nile, Antinoupolis. Hadrian publicly commemorated Antinous in statues across the Roman Empire, an almost unparalleled public memorial to a lost love. An authorised portrait of Antinous from a master court sculptor was soon commissioned to be widely reproduced and disseminated across the Empire. Statues of Antinous dressed as Apollo, Dionysus, Osiris, and other divine figures were found as far afield as Greece, Turkey, Egypt, Syria, and Libya. They are evidence of the widespread cult dedicated to him.

The Ashmolean show centred on one of the most important surviving portraits of Antinous, a unique, inscribed bust discovered near Banyias (ancient Balanea) in Syria in 1879. On loan from a private collection, the bust was recently conserved by Ashmolean’s conservators, and a magnificent new plaster cast was made for display in the Museum (the Ashmolean Museum has a collection of around 900 plaster casts).

The Bust of Antinous, with a Greek inscription, was discovered in Balanea, Syria, in 1879. Private collection.

The bust, carved from Thasian marble, is unique in being the only known Classical representation of Antinous, apart from coins, to be identified by an inscription. It is a Greek dedication to (the) hero Antinous, Marcus Lucceius Flaccus (dedicated this)’, who may have been a member of the local elite at Balanea and whose family had acquired Roman citizenship.

The inscribed dedication in Greek on the moulded foot of the bust of Antinous from Syria.

The bust was found in pieces and was later -wrongly- repaired (nose, upper lip and right shoulder). It was sold at auction in 2010 when the old restorations were removed. The bust sold for a staggering $23.8 million at Sotheby’s New York to a private collector. In 2011, the bust was studied and conserved in the Ashmolean Museum. A new restoration was done, and a plaster cast was later made that documents the bust’s condition after removing the old repairs.

The marble bust was 3D-scanned, from which a version was laser-cut in a modern synthetic polythene material. It was made during the restoration process and documented the exact condition of the marble bust after removing the old repairs and before new restorations were made in 2011.

The head of the bust from Syria was worked in a careful version of the official Antinous portrait model. Soon after he died in AD 130, an authorised portrait of the boy was created at Hadrian’s court by a master sculptor, and this image was widely reproduced around the Empire. It provided the model for Antinous’s image on a wide array of objects (busts, statues, reliefs, coins, gems, medallions, oil lamps, and even bowls). More than 85 statues of Antinous still survive (see here), more than any other ancient figure apart from Augustus and Hadrian himself (C. Vout 2006). Writing in the 3rd century AD, Cassius Dio claims these were “practically all over the world”.

An analysis of the find spots shows that the highest number of marble sculptures came from sacred sites that existed in Italy and Greece, as well as in Syria, Asia Minor and North Africa. However, almost half of the surviving works have no provenance (R.R.R. Smith 2018).

An exhibition panel showing the distribution of Antinous’s portraits and coins across the Empire.

Casts of other key portraits of Antinous accompanied the exquisite Syrian bust. Among them were the Townley Antinous with Dionysian ivy wreath, the Ludovisi-Chicago bust, the exceptional Braschi Antinous from Praeneste, the imposing Antinous-Osiris from Hadrian’s Villa, and the Albani relief showing Antinous as Vertumnus.

Cast of the statue of Antinous as the Egyptian god Osiris.

Most of Antinous’s poses on busts and statues are familiar: he gazes down, and his head is turned toward his raised left shoulder. The most characteristic feature of Antinous is his long, curly hair. Antinous has thick, beautifully unkempt locks which cascade down the back of his neck. This common hairstyle is known as the Antinous lock scheme (Caroline Vout, 2005).

Plaster cast of the upper part of the Brachi Antinous from Praesneste (now in the Vatican Museum).

Antinous is represented as Vertumnus, the god of seasons, on the famous Albani relief, supposedly unearthed at Hadrian’s Villa in 1735. He is draped in a cloak and holds a flower wreath in his raised left hand. Thanks to the enthusiasm of the art historian Winckelmann, the Albani relief became one of the most celebrated Roman sculptures. Plaster casts of it were widely produced, which helped spread its fame further. This relief has become known as the ‘Albani Antinous’ because it was acquired by Cardinal Albani. It is still in the Villa Albani in Rome.

Plaster cast of the Albani relief of Antinous, which was supposedly discovered at Hadrian’s Villa in Tivoli in 1735.

The show also displayed a plaster cast of the Ludovisi Antinous that combines casts of two pieces of the same sculpture but from different collections. The bust part was in the collection of the Ludovisi family before the end of the 18th century and is now displayed in the Museo Nazionale Romano, Palazzo Altemps in Rome. The face was purchased in the 19th century and entered the Art Institute of Chicago’s collection in 1922. In 2005, on a trip to Rome, W. Raymond Johnson, an Egyptologist at the University of Chicago, suggested the theory that the Chicago’s fragment was originally part of the bust Palazzo Altemps bust. Johnson noticed that the Ludovisi bust and the Chicago’s head shared the same unusual diagonal break visible along the face’s left side, which led him to believe that these two pieces originally belonged to a single sculpture.

Plaster reconstruction using casts of the right side of the head in Chicago and Ludovisi bust in Rome.

A cast of the head was later made, and it was shipped to Rome. Digital scans were taken from both fragments; the two pieces were 3-D printed and joined with modelling clay. As the head fitted perfectly into the bust, the two parts were recognised as belonging to the same bust, and a plaster cast was made to re-create the appearance of the original bust of Antinous. This discovery became the focus of two exhibitions, the first at the Art Institute of Chicago (opened on 2 April 2016) and the second at the Palazzo Altemps in Rome (opened on 15 September 2016). You can read more about these exhibitions here.

Other portraits on show included a cast of the Capitoline ‘Antinous’ (now thought to be a Roman copy of a Greek statue of the god Hermes), a cast of a marble bust of Hadrian and an antique bust of the popular young prince Germanicus, the chosen successor to the emperor Tiberius. Following his mysterious death in AD 19, Germanicus was voted extraordinary honours. More than 40 surviving marble portraits attest to his empire-wide veneration, similar to Antinous’s a century later.

Some Antinous coins show the widespread public veneration in the cities of the Greek East. Over 30 provincial cities minted coins in honour of Antinous, associating the young with various deities (Dionysus, Hermes, Attis). These came mainly from the coastal region of western and northern Asia Minor. No commemorative coins showing Antinous were produced in the West. The sophist Antonius Polemon (AD 88-145), whom Hadrian knew personally, was responsible for issuing an impressive number of coins and medallions bearing Antinous’s image. These medallions, with ANTINOOC HPΩC as the obverse legend, were minted at Smyrna in Ionia. Other coins on display came from Nicomedia, the capital of the Roman province of Bithynia, Antinous’s homeland.

Antinous medallions of Smyrna (present-day Izmir in Turkey).
Obverse: ANTINOOC HΡΩC, bare head left
Reverse: ΠOΛEMΩN ANEΘHKE CMYΡNAIOIC, bull standing right.

Other displays included a lovely gem carved by Edward Burch in the late 1700s with a bust of Antinous wearing a chlamys and holding a spear over his shoulder. It is based on a Roman black-stone jewel intaglio, formerly in the Marlborough Collection. The letters ANTI remain of what was once a legend. According to John Boardman, the Marlborough Antinous is “generally regarded as one of the finest portrait gems from antiquity”. It is now conserved in a private collection in Monaco.

Left: The original Marlborough Antinous. Photo: The Beauty Archive (C. Wagner).
Right: The 18th-century Carnelian copy, signed by Edward Burch.

Finally, three bronze statuettes dating to the 17th and 18th centuries attest to the popularity of Antinous with artists, collectors and connoisseurs of the time. Some of the most famous of his portraits were copied and reproduced in marble, bronze, and various sizes. Among these was an 18th-century copy of the ‘Capitoline Antinous’, a marble statue excavated at Hadrian’s Villa and once believed to have been a portrait of the youth. Such bronzes were popular souvenirs for wealthy travellers on the eighteenth-century Grand Tour.

A 120-page catalogue was published to accompany the exhibition. Written by Professor R.R.R. Smith, a British classicist, archaeologist, and academic from the University of Oxford, the book’s narrative highlights the range and variety of Antinous’ reception. It shows how the fascination and reach of his image went well beyond antiquity into the modern world. It also asks whether the number and rage of Antinous’ portraits were simply the results of a personal relationship with the Emperor or whether the cult of this boy had different roots and another significance.

In his conclusion, Professor R.R.R. Smith argues that the cult of Antinous developed independently of his relationship with the Emperor. “Antinous’s veneration seems to have been largely an independent phenomenon. Hadrian provided vital impulses in founding Antinoopolis and making the authorised Antinous portrait. The cult spread mostly through local initiatives and probably through the boy god’s ability to answer worshippers’ needs. The Marcus Lucceius Flaccus, who dedicated the bust he had ordered from Thasos at coastal Balanea in Syria, joined a widespread cult from which he hoped not for imperial favour but for fulfilment from the hero Antinous.”

Catalogue of the exhibition.

Sources & references:

  • Smith, R.R.R. 2018. Antinous: Boy Made God. Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.
  • Vout, Caroline. 2007. Power and Eroticism in Imperial Rome. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Vout, Caroline. 2005. “Antinous, Archaeology, History.” The Journal of Roman Studies 95:80–96.
  • Lambert, Royston. 1984. Beloved and God: The Story of Hadrian and Antinous. London: George Wiedenfeld & Nicolson.


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