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Painting of two people fencing, one man is dressed as a woman

A look at diverse forms of love and desire through works in the Royal Collection

Antinous first century

RCIN 1298

Lower Orangery/Mantegnas, Hampton Court Palace

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Described as a ‘youth, fair of face,’ Antinous was the lover and companion of the Roman emperor Hadrian. Hadrian regularly toured the Roman Empire, and probably first encountered Antinous during a visit to Bithynia in 123 AD. Hadrian installed Antinous in the Imperial Court, providing him with education and status. Though Hadrian was married, his relationship with Antinous was in keeping with Hellenic conventions that saw older men free to pursue consensual relationships with teenage men.

Antinous accompanied Hadrian on hunting trips, tours of the Roman Empire and to ceremonial events. It was on an imperial tour of Egypt that tragedy befell Antinous; he drowned in the Nile. On hearing of the death of his lover, Hadrian ‘wept’ and threw himself into projects commemorating Antinous’s life. He named a constellation after him, made him into a god and founded the city of Antinoopolis, close to the site of his lover’s death. Hadrian also commissioned coins, statues and portraits in Antinous’s likeness.

The manner in which Antinous has been represented in this statue implicitly ties him to Hadrian. The sphinx motif that surmounts his ‘Attic’ helmet is copied from a depiction of Hadrian, and it has been suggested that the warrior style of the bust corresponds to a sculptural tradition introduced by the emperor.

Artworks representing Antinous can be found throughout the ancient world – his image became an archetype of youthful beauty.