Antinous was the male lover of the Roman Emperor Hadrian (AD 76-138). Celebrated throughout history for his good looks, Antinous has subsequently become a symbol of same sex love. This superbly carved marble bust combines the allure of the biographical portrait with an idealised classical representation of male beauty in the form of Antinous. Its remarkable presence is only enhanced by the tragic story of the Hadrian’s intense love for his favourite who mysteriously drowned in the Nile in AD 130, plunging the Emperor into prolonged mourning.
In the Roman world the concept of homosexuality was different to how it is understood today. Same sex love found its precedent in Greek culture, in which relations between a younger and older man were seen as a valuable experience, almost a rite of passage. Such relationships had strict parameters however, with the older man assuming the role of the erastes (active partner) and the younger man the eromenos (passive partner). Upon reaching adulthood, the relationship would cease and any diversion from the norm was taboo.
In Rome, there was no clear distinction between heterosexual and homosexual love. The crucial point was that the Roman man must be dominant. The relationship between Hadrian and Antinous, the Grecian youth from the city of Bythinion-Claudiopolis in modern Turkey, must be viewed within this context. Relatively little is known about Antinous’ life, aside from the fact that Hadrian toured Asia Minor in AD 123 and may have been introduced to the youth at that time. Antinous was in Hadrian’s retinue by AD 130 and is recorded in a poem by the Alexandrian Greek Pankrates who describes the Emperor’s vanquishing of the Marousian Lion in the Libyan desert.
Shortly after this event, Antinous tragically drowned in the Nile in mysterious circumstances. Many theories have surrounded his death, including forced suicide by jealous courtiers and ritual sacrifice, though Hadrian maintained it was an accident. Whatever the explanation behind his death, at 19 Antinous was becoming a man, and so his relationship with the Emperor was untenable. The effect of Antinous’ death was profound, Hadrian established a city in Egypt, Antinoopolis, in honour of the youth, and even encouraged his veneration as a god.
The present bust compares closely with another, of comparable dimensions, in the Louvre (inv. no. MA 1086), catalogued as French, 18th century. The superbly carved and drilled hair in the present marble, with voluminous projecting curls, is particularly close to the Louvre bust. The comparison substantiates a dating to the 18th-century. The Louvre bust is believed to have been carved after a Roman marble in the Prado (inv. no. E00060). The model follows a type, of which the exemplar is arguably the statue of Antinous found at Delphi (Delphi Museum inv. no. 1718); the majority of the Roman marbles are believed to date to circa AD 130-132. The present rare bust of Antinous is in excellent condition, with a beautifully carved and polished surface.