For many centuries, Greece and Rome dominated the Mediterranean world. By the beginning of the Common Era, the spreading Roman Empire had assimilated the old Alexandrine territories, and with them, the tastes and values of the homoerotic Greek culture. That culture shaped the sensibilities of the Empire until the ascendancy of the Christian church. The complex relationship between Greece and Rome is mirrored in the intense love relationship between the Emperor Hadrian and Antinous, which reached its climax when the Emperor deified Antinous following the youth's death in the year 130.
Born in Bythnion around the year 105 of the Common Era, Antinous was a beautiful adolescent when he first caught the eye of the Emperor of the western world. Hadrian was already in his late forties by the time the two met; their sexual chemistry appears to have been mutual, eclectic, and immediate. Antinous became Hadrian's favorite, sharing the Emperor's bed and his life. For a period of a little less than a decade, the two were inseparable, much to the disgrace of Hadrian's legal wife, the childless and spiteful sabina. Imperial art and literature of the times show the men in a variety of guises and activities, particularly hunting: a sport the two enjoyed immensely.
In the course of their relationship, Antinous matured from a beautiful youth into an intelligent and well-muscled young man. the Greeks referred to the visible maturation of a youth (the growth of his beard and body hair) as "clouds hiding the sun." It was shortly after the Emperor's young lover had reached this stage of his development, and just after his hair had been cut short in the style favored by the mature men of the period, that Antinous drowned mysteriously in the Nile river during and Imperial visit to the province of Egypt.
Egyptian custom decreed that all drowning victims in the Nile automatically assumed a type of minor divinity, and so Antinous was proclaimed a God. Within a year, Hadrian returned to Rome, where he officially proclaimed Antinous as a Roman God. While still deeply mourning the loss of his beloved, the Emperor realized the political significance of the Greek youth's death, and from the tragedy forged a unifying cult of worship in the previously divided Greek city-states. Hadrian and Antinous together built a unified Greek nation, a feat which the warring city-states themselves had never achieved. Despite other great accomplishments as Emperor, Hadrian spent the last eight years of his life mourning Antinous.
To commemorate their great love, Hadrian worked relentlessly to build monuments and institutions to his beloved. The Emperor found the Greek-Egyptian city Antinooplois on the banks of the Nile near where Antinous died; commissioned nearly two thousand likenesses, carved from various stone materials; erected temples and altars to the new young God all over Asia Minor; established schools, gymnasiums, panhellenic games and contests in His name. Official Roman coins were struck in all parts of the Empire except Rome to commemorate the beautiful young man. (One of many distinctions relating to Antinous is that, of all the citizens of the Roman Empire, His is the only non-Imperial image ever to have been struck on coins of the realm.) Medallions bearing Antinous' image were issued and quickly became religious icons.
The early Christians, struggling at that time to win converts to their new religion, were dismayed and enraged at the deification of Antinous, whose worship in many cities of the Empire eclipsed the cult of the dead Jesus. Records and artifacts show that for centuries the likeness of Antinous was worn as a talisman against evil, kept as a bust in homes and businesses, and worshipped publicly throughout the Mediterranean world. It was not until the ascendancy of Christianity, three hundred years later, that the worship of Antinous was extinguished through vigorous and systematic persecution by the Church.
Today, rows of broken and scavenged marble columns in a desert waste mark the site where the city of Antinoopolis once bustled alongside the Nile; the magnificent busts of Antinous went long ago, cooked for fuel in the coke ovens. There remain now fewer than two hundred friezes, busts, statues and reliefs carved in the image of Hadrian's beloved; many of those still in existence are hoarded out of sight within the Vatican.
Many thanks to Noorvik, of Magick Circle Incense and Noorvik Design for the above information, quoted directly (with permission) from the brochure for their incense honoring Antinous. (Magick Circle Incense is long defunct, alas.)