19 February 2019

Antinous ... why did he have to be killed?

There is a minute ... tiny ... but interesting exhibition in Ashmole about Antinous, ending in a few days' time, at the end of this very week. And it is accompanied by a stylish and intelligent little book by Professor 'Bert' Smith (Antinous boy made god ).

[Those who know zilch about Antinous should either google him now or not bother any further with this blogpost.]

Briefly, Dr Smith's curatorial thesis is that, apart from founding Antinoopolis and providing an 'offical' image of Antinous, Hadrian did little to promote Antinous' cult. It spread in the same sort of way, and for the same sorts of reasons, as the cults of other neoi theoi (or heroes) in the early centuries AD. As such, it was in competition with other cults, such as Christianity. Unlike Christianity (but like the cult of, for example, Isis) it was deliberately syncretistic. Antinous could be identified with Dionysus or Silvanus, or with Osiris, the Egyptian and Ptolemaic god of Resurrection (vide infra). (At a time when the Catholic world has been shaken by apparently syncretistic errors from the pen of the Roman Pontiff himself, it is perhaps useful to remind ourselves how the Christians of the first four centuries defined themselves very sharply over against their syncretistic environment.)

I think I buy the exhibition's thesis. But I have my own theory about the mysterious death of Antinous, drowned in the River Nile.

I believe Hadrian had him killed.

Why? Because he had reached just the age when, in the Emperor's eyes, his ephebic beauty was finished. Hadrian, I suggest, wished to 'preserve' him permanently as he had been. It was a matter of ensuring that He shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old; age shall not weary him nor the years condemn ...

Most of the exhibits in this little exhibition show Antinous looking demurely down: an indication of sexual modesty. In fashionable upper-class Hellenistic paederastic culture, bold promiscuous boys were rather disapproved of. But Antinous had now reached the age at which he would naturally ... er ... graduate from being an eromenos to being an erastes. Hadrian, I believe, thought it much more artistic, decorous, and culturally tactful to render him immortal and immutable by drowning him, than to have a grown-up Antinous busily bedding all the lads and/or lasses at court.

Have I any evidence? Well, I do think I just may have. Antinous was drowned in the Nile on 24 October 130 ... the same day of the year on which Osiris, according to his cult followers, was ... drowned in the Nile!

Roughly a 1 in 365 chance of that being coincidental ...

As his villa at Tivoli makes clear, Hadrian was, through and through, an aesthete. And a thinking aesthete. But was he a sentimentally engaged paiderastes?


Only this week, news comes through of a spectacular 'new' Pompeian painting of Narcissus (to be added to the more than 50 Fourth Style paintings of this subject already known from the same town). This particular myth appears to have been homoerotically framed in pre-Ovidian poetry (vide Conon apud Photium), but was mostly heterosexualised (through the addition of Echo) by Ovid. I sometimes wonder whether paiderasteia really came naturally to most Romans, although they did their conscientious best in their imitatio of Greek originals and models to get themselves into the mood for it. Conon's motif of the spurned lover Ameinas, who killed himself outside the door of his beloved Narcissus, was utilised in another place (XIV 698sqq., Iphis and Anaxarete) by Ovid, but (again) heterosexualised; and lightened with a characteristically Ovidian dash of sick and aloof slapstick.


I suspect that, even for Hadrian, Epheberasteia may have been more in the mind and in the library and in the pinakotheke than in the groin. But who am I to judge?


Grant Milburn said...

Antinous ... why did he have to be killed?

Because he was an arrogant and obnoxious danger to Odysseus, Penelope and Telemachus. Oh wait….(googles)...

Well, what do you know- there was a real Antinous! I learn so much from this blog. It fills in so many gaps in my knowledge.

Ambrose said...

What an attuned, speculative mind you have, Father, for all sorts of interesting and peculiar things.

√Čamonn said...

I didn't google but looked at Seyffert instead. His account is rather less... ummm... sensational than Fr Hunwicke's. Although, not as much fun, perhaps.

David McConkey said...

Father, if you will excuse a small exhibition of pedantry, I believe that you may have erred in your quotation from Laurence Binyon, who wrote 'They shall grow not old' rather than '...not grow old.'

Unknown said...

Not long ago I read that the temple in which Antonious was drowned was one dedicated to a god of virility and that Hadrian had the boy's replacement on hand.