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Antinous, a favourite companion of the Emperor Hadrian, was a human who became a god after he died.
This is the head and torso of a colossal statue of Antinous (111-130 C.E.), who was famous for his good looks. He was a favourite of the Emperor Hadrian. Antinous’ extravagant head gear is hard to ignore. On top of his curly locks he wears an ivy wreath, which links him to the god Dionysus, the Greek god of wine. The pine cone attached to this is a modern restoration; the original may have been a lotus flower, calling to mind the Egyptian god Osiris, who was associated with the afterlife.
This statue presenting Antinous as a god is significant because it shows us how three cultural superpowers in the ancient world (Egypt, Greece and Rome) could interact and share religious ideas. It also challenges us to think about the distinction between humans and gods in the Roman world.
Associating Antinous with Dionysus, and possibly Osiris as well, is a form of a process known as syncretism: literally this means ‘growing together’ and is used by scholars of Roman religion when two gods are ‘blended’ together.
The Emperor Hadrian, who ruled from 117-138 CE and is best remembered for Hadrian’s Wall and his love of Greek culture, probably commissioned this statue. Antinous was a favourite companion of his, who died in a mysterious accident on the river Nile. After his death, the distraught Hadrian had Antinous deified and set up a cult to worship him, which spread throughout the Roman Empire.
Associating Antinous with Dionysus, and possibly Osiris as well, is a form of a process known as syncretism: literally this means ‘growing together’ and is used by scholars of Roman religion when two gods are ‘blended’ together. Sulis Minerva, a goddess worshipped at Bath (Roman name: Aquae Sulis), is a famous example of this process, a combination of the local Celtic goddess Sulis with the Roman goddess Minerva.
Antinous was a human who became a god after he died, as many Roman emperors did. Myths about Hercules, for example, also imagine him to have transitioned from being a human to a god.
This sculpture of Antinous also captures how multicultural the Roman empire was, as elements of Greek and Egyptian religion are used to depict what is significant about this new Roman god.
Are there links to current religious practices or a modern equivalent?
Statues are often made of famous people to celebrate them during or after their life. Antinous was a form of celebrity, famous because he was associated with the Emperor but not because of his own achievements or power.
This statue presenting Antinous as a god is significant because it shows how three cultural superpowers in the ancient world could interact and share religious ideas. It also challenges us to think about the distinction between humans and gods in the Roman world. The idea that humans could become divine as the result of a decision made by humans is often challenging for us: it is hard not to be sceptical and dismiss this as ‘politics’ or ‘sycophancy’. But was it more than that? Some scholars, for example, argue that talking about a human in divine language is a way of talking about that human’s power. The Emperor Hadrian commissioned many statues of Antinous and it is interesting to compare how this one differs from earlier versions, which focused on Antinous’ good looks and sultry pout. The size of this statute alone, (the head and torso are over a metre high), tell us something about the difference between Antinous as a human and as a god.
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