Antinous was a Bithynian youth and the favorite of the Roman Emperor Hadrian. Little is known about his early years, nor is it certain whether he was born free or a slave. We do know, however, that he was considered to possess extraordinary "beauty of form"1 and, joining the emperor's entourage, became Hadrian's beloved companion.
In 130 A.D., Antinous accompanied Hadrian on a trip to Egypt. They celebrated the festival of the Nile and commemorated the death of the god Osiris, who is said to have drowned in the river, on October 24th. Coincidentally and tragically, Antinous too was drowned in the Nile on this day.2 The circumstances surrounding his death remain a mystery. Accident, suicide and murder were all suspected as the cause of his drowning, while another hypothesis states that a "mystic rite required the sacrifice of life on the emperor's behalf."3 Antinous may have voluntarily offered himself as the victim of this religious oblation, or perhaps it was Hadrian who persuaded his lover to die in his place.
Hadrian, in his grief, declared Antinous' deification and ordered innumerable statues of the youth to be set up around the empire. The city of Antinoopolis was founded in his name, and coins and medals were cast with his effigy. In Egypt he became associated with god Osiris and was additionally linked to, and represented as, Dionysus. "The countless images set up in Antinous' memory form a very visible and highly influential part of Hadrian's legacy."4 Hadrian surrounded himself with the image of Antinous in his villa at Tivoli, where numerous marble likenesses have been found.
It is presumed that after Antinous' death, an official sculptural portrait was commissioned.5 The artist remains anonymous, as do most sculptors of that period, but the statue, which combined the quality of a classical god with individual facial features, became the paragon of classical beauty and perfection of form by which centuries of future sculpture would be measured. "[Antionous'] features influenced contemporary sculpture so strongly, that many works have been called Antinous from their resemblance to him, though there is no direct intention to represent him on the part of the sculptor. "6
Though some sculptures had been removed in the 16th century, the Villa was excavated in earnest from 1769-1771 by Gavin Hamilton, a Scottish painter, antiques dealer and archaeologist. Hamilton supplied some of England and Italy's most prestigious collectors with works from Hadrian's Villa, including Charles Towneley and the Borghese family.7 The present bust is an early 19th century version after an original of comparable size found at Hadrian's Villa and now in the Prado Museum, Madrid (figure 1). Another, smaller, version of the Prado original is the 18th century "Ecouen Antinous," which is now in the Louvre, Paris.
1. Combe, Taylor. A description of the collection of ancient marbles in the British Museum: with engravings 11. London: Nicol [u.a.], 1861. 2. Opper, Thorsten. Hadrian: Empire and Conflict. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2008. 174. 3. Gardner, Ernest Arthur. A Handbook of Greek Sculpture. London: Macmillan, 1897. 519. 4. Opper, 168. 5. Opper, 181. 6. Gardner, 519. 7. Dyson, Stephen L. In Pursuit of Ancient Pasts: A History of Classical Archaeology in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006. 9.