Roman Gilded Bronze Balsamarium of Antinous
2nd Century A.D.
W: 13 cm
H: 32 cm with handle
The child whom Hadrian made a god.
Latin literature teems with allusions to the unbridled sexual mores of the emperors. But in the case of Hadrian, it is not a matter of gossip peddled by more or less informed people. It was the person himself who revealed and proclaimed his extramarital and homosexual affair to the face of the world, forcing posterity to remember it.
In the year 130, the Emperor Hadrian, who had just put down the rebellion in Judea, stayed in Egypt, a country that fascinated him. And, like the “inimitable” couple of Antoine and Cleopatra, almost two centuries earlier, he decided to go up the Nile in great pageantry. He is accompanied by his favourite, Antinous.
Antinous is a Greek, originally from Bithynia, in Asia Minor (now Turkey). He was noticed by Hadrian during an inspection tour that he was making in the province in 123. The meeting seems to have taken place during a hunting party. Struck by the beauty of the young boy, the emperor immediately fell in love with him. And he took him into his service.
But back to the river cruise. The imperial squadron has reached the city of Hermopolis where, on October 22, the traditional Nile festival opens, commemorating the death of Osiris. However, on the 24th, Antinous drowned in the river. Accident ? This is the official thesis, supported by Hadrian himself in memoirs perhaps written by the emperor and now lost. But rumors circulated, which spoke of a suicide. Antinous would have served as a sacrificial victim to conform to an astrological prediction, according to which the death of the boy would assure his master and lover the extension of his life (Hadrian was then 54 years old and he died of illness eight years later). The only certainty: Antinous had passed the age of seduction which, according to the canons of Greek pederasty, corresponds to the first beard. Would Hadrian have wanted to get rid of a companion that had become cumbersome? With a personality like the Emperor, anything is possible. Didn’t his contemporaries consider him changeable, complex, multifaceted? Extremely gifted, Hadrian was driven by an insatiable curiosity, especially for the occult sciences. Witness this sibylline oracle, who announces his advent: Very intelligent and cultured, Hadrian was also selfish, jealous, sometimes cruel. And it is no coincidence that he passionately loved hunting wild animals, serving as an outlet for his violence. However, guilty or innocent, Hadrian granted Antinous the highest honors. Only days after his death, he laid the foundations of a city that will bear his name: Antinoopolis. Its location, on the opposite shore from Hermopolis, will remind future generations of the spot where the boy drowned. In addition, the deceased is raised to the rank of god: a temple will be dedicated to him in the new city. It will include an obelisk, with inscriptions in hieroglyphics listing the homage due to the new god (this obelisk is today in Rome, on the Pincio).
Acquired from a European private collection, 2006
CHAMAY, J., L’Enfant Dont Hadrien Fit Un Dieu, Art Passions, Vol.18, 2009