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  • Sculpting Antinous
  • Bryan E. Burns (bio)

A recent exhibition at the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds crowned Anti-nous “the face of the Antique,” prompting the London Times reviewer to compare the Roman era’s “pouter extraordinaire” with the commercial appeal of Calvin Klein models and David Beckham (Irving 2006). Indeed, Antinous appears to have been a popular, adaptable model, surviving in 100 portrait statues, recognizable even in the guise of a dozen deities. Yet the Leeds exhibit wisely pulled back from an extreme close-up and focused not just on Antinous as a commodity, but also on the consumption of his image and the crucial participation of an active viewer in constructing an icon (Vout 2006). Despite his haughty reputation, an apparent satisfaction with his own famous face, and the suspicion that he took his own life, the story of Antinous is never that of the youth in isolation. Rather, Hadrian’s deification of his beloved companion created new opportunities for interaction, as a proliferation of statues attracted countless admirers who were able to reimagine Antinous, both living and sculpted. Biographers, poets, and playwrights have all taken the opportunity to sculpt Antinous anew, inventing novel accounts of how the statues were made, how well they capture the essence of the deceased, and how they provide new companionship to each viewer. The icon of Antinous is ever available for new relationships, at least with those who find that “the marble in which you are immortalised speaks for itself” (De Unger 1950, 105).

Antinous is a complicated character, whose legacy as a historical person is enriched, if not overwhelmed, by his status as a god. His fame derives from his intimacy with the emperor Hadrian, who reigned from 117 to 138 c.e. The emperor encountered an adolescent Antinous in Bithynia, along the Black Sea’s southern coast, during extended travels in the eastern Mediterranean. The sexual nature of their relationship is described only obliquely in ancient texts, but Hadrian’s devotion to the younger man took manifest form after the latter’s death by drowning in the Nile in the year 130. The third-century historian Cassius Dio gives a [End Page 121] typical account, with competing explanations of Antinous’s death and of Hadrian’s motivation for extraordinary acts of commemoration, including the founding of the city of Antinoopolis:


[H]e honored Antinous, either because of his love for him or because the youth had voluntarily undertaken to die (it being necessary that a life should be surrendered freely for the accomplishment of the ends Hadrian had in view), by building a city on the spot where he had suffered his fate and naming it after him; and he also set up statues, or rather sacred images of him, practically all over the world. Finally, he declared that he had seen a star which he took to be that of Antinous, and gladly leant an ear to the fictitious tales woven by his associates to the effect that the star had really come into being from the spirit of Antinous and had then appeared for the first time.

(Cary 1914, 445–7)

Dio’s text—with its equivocation between Hadrian’s emotions and obligations as the motivating force, between what he said and really felt—reflects an interplay between fact and fiction that will continue to mark the tales of Antinous. Though there is a clear linkage between Antinous’s death and the production of statues, Dio’s ambiguity extends to the status of the sculptures, as likenesses ( ) of the deceased and also as objects of worship ( ). Because they were the focus of a new cult, the statues became a touchstone for the scorn that early Christian fathers brought against the figure of Antinous, but as we shall see, they were also essential to later writers’ praise of his beauty and attempts to understand his character.1

Sarah Waters (1995) has shown that fantasies about Antinous became especially vivid in the late nineteenth century, when he surpassed the mythical Ganymede as the most prevalent classicizing icon of male beauty, and as a central figure for developing gay identities. The physical [End Page 122] beauty of...


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pp. 121-142
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