The obelisk of Antinous – the text written upon it

Among the actions of Hadrian after the suspicious death of his “favourite” Antinous was the construction of an Egyptian-style obelisk in Rome, which still stands.  Each of the four faces has a text upon it in hieroglyphics.  It was constructed in Rome, where someone who knew how to write the ancient language wrote the text.

The first two faces read as follows.  I’ve made this from the rather splendid French translation of Jean-Claude Grenier, “L’Osiris Antinoos”, CENIM 1, Montpellier, 2008, which I found online here, and which comes with some very learned notes.  There are some dreadfully unreliable English versions online, I find.

Face 1 (South-facing)

Words said by the Osiris Antinous, [justified], “Come to the master of life.”  The blessed one who is in the afterlife and who lies in this sacred place which is found inside the gardens of the domain of the Prince in Rome.  He is known for becoming a god in the “abatons”[1] of Egypt, and shrines have been built for him (where) he is worshipped as a god by the prophets and priests of Upper and Lower Egypt and (by) the inhabitants of Egypt also.  A city is named after him; to it belongs a population of Greeks and sons of Horus and children of Seth, resident in the cities of Egypt; they have come from their cities, and valuable lands have been given to them, to enrich their lives greatly.  There is a temple there of this god – his name is “Osiris Antinous, justified” – built from fair white stone.  Sphinxes stand on its perimeter, and statues, numerous columns like those once made by the ancients, and also like those made by the Greeks.  All the gods and all the godesses give him there the breath of life, and he breathes in of it, having rediscovered his youth.

Face 2 (west-facing)

Next to an image of Antinous is a damaged inscription, which now reads only, “Words spoken by the Osiris Anti[nous]…”

Facing him is Thoth, with the legend, “Words spoken by Thoth, twice great, Lord of Khemenou (Hermopolis): ‘I make your heart alive for you every day.'”

The blessed, the Osiris Antinous, justified!  He has become an ephebe with a beautiful face that makes the eyes rejoice, a strength […] and an intrepid heart like (man) with strong arms.  He received god’s decree of the time of his death.  All the rites of the “Hours of Osiris” were renewed for him, and all the operations of his mummification in secret, then his bandages were put on, and the whole earth was (then) in a just distress, fed by disagreements.[2]  Nothing of the kind was done for those of ancient times until today like (what was done for) his altars, temples, and titles, and, because he breathes in the breath of life, his glory grows in the hearts of men.  The one who is the Lord of Hermopolis, the master of the divine words, Thoth, regenerates his ba like […] in their time.  By night and day, at any and every instant, the love that he inspires is in the hearts of his faithful, the respect that he inspires [is in…] of all […] and the praise which he excites is widespread among the men who venerate him.  His rightful place is in the Court of the Justified and of the Perfect Lights which are in the following of Osiris within the sacred world of the Master of Eternity; and a triumph has been accorded to him; they (the justified &c) have established his renown on the earth and their heart delights in him.  (When) he goes to any place that he wishes, the doorkeepers of the Afterlife say to him “Praise be to you!”  They pull back the bolts and open the doors before him, and (this) every day for millions and millions of years (for) [this will be] the duration of his existence […] ? […]

That’s quite a series of statements about someone who had no known quality to deserve such praise, other than being the “favourite” of an emperor.

It is a pity that the meaning of the text is as uncertain as it is.  It is not certain, I learn, that the tomb of Antinous was in Rome, rather than in Antinoupolis.  It all depends on how you read the text.

The obelisk of Antinous on the Pincian Hill in Rome.  By Carole Raddato.
The obelisk of Antinous on the Pincian Hill in Rome. By Carole Raddato.
  1. [1]The shrines of Osiris in Egypt, each preserving a relic of the god.
  2. [2]This is Grenier’s reading of the glyphs; but apparently there is wide disagreement as to how they should be read.

The “Chronicle of Alexandria” – a will o’ the wisp?

Reading Jomard’s description of Antinoe, among the authors he lists a “Chronique d’Alexandrie” as an ancient work.  His reference is only “Chronic. Alexandrin. p.598″, which is less than helpful.  But what on earth is this work?

A google search reveals little for “Chronicle of Alexandria”.  But the French version took me to this link which read:

Chronique d’Alexandrie, compilation d’auteurs grecs faite sous l’empereur Héraclius, au règne duquel elle s’arrête. Le manuscrit, découvert en Sicile vers le milieu du XVIe siècle, portait en tête le nom de Pierre d’Alexandrie. Il a été imprimé en 1615 par les soins du jésuite Raderus.

I.e. “Chronicle of Alexandria”, compilation of Greek authors made under the emperor Heraclius, in whose reign it stops.  The manuscript, discovered in Sicily around the middle of the 16th century, bears at the head the name of Peter of Alexandria.  It was printed in 1615 by the efforts of the Jesuit Raderus.

That doesn’t ring any bells at all either.

Searching for “Peter of Alexandria” led me down a false trail.  It seems that there was an otherwise unknown 10th century Middle Byzantine author of this name.  I am indebted to Warren Treadgold, The Middle Byzantine Historians, (2013), p.123, for information about him (I have omitted all but the first footnote).  Although he is not our man, let us by all means learn more:

Among authentic histories, around 900 an otherwise unknown Peter of Alexandria wrote a short chronicle entitled Brief Survey of the Times from Adam to the Present.6 It concludes with the reign of Leo VI, but, after recording the corulers and lengths of reigns of previous emperors, it fails to mention either Leo’s son Constantine VII or the length of Leo’s reign. Peter seems therefore to have composed his Brief Survey between Leo’s accession, in 886, and Constantine’s coronation, in 908. In his title Peter describes himself as “Christian and orthodox, of Alexandria,” without mentioning his profession or any rank in the Church or bureaucracy. He was a Chalcedonian iconophile, because he calls Michael III and Theodora orthodox. Yet if Peter had been writing for the few Greek readers in Alexandria’s small and isolated Melkite community, he would scarcely have needed to describe himself as “of Alexandria” and would probably have written in Arabic and concentrated on Egypt. Especially because he seems to have been well informed about Byzantine history up to 886, Peter was probably a young man who left his home for Constantinople to seek his fortune by writing history, just as George Syncellus had come from Palestine and Theognostus the Grammarian had probably come from Sicily. Whether Peter was rewarded for his work in some way we cannot say.

Peter’s text fills thirty-one and a half pages in our sole remaining manuscript. More than half, about sixteen pages, deals with the time of the Book of Genesis, of which about six and a half pages list the peoples descended from the three sons of Noah. Peter covers the rest of the time up to Augustus in about seven pages, the Roman empire up to Diocletian in about three and a half pages, and the Byzantine empire from Constantine I to Leo VI in about five pages. Consisting largely of tables, the Brief Survey differs somewhat from other Greek histories that survive today. Besides the Bible, Peter cites Aristobulus of Cassandria, Josephus, Julius Africanus, Eusebius of Caesarea, Socrates of Constantinople, and Evagrius; but, as often happens in Byzantine chronicles, these citations may be borrowed, and in the case of the long-lost works of Aristobulus and Africanus they doubtless are. Here Peter, like George Syncellus and George the Monk, seems to have made direct or indirect use of the lost chronicle of Panodorus of Alexandria, because Peter adopts Panodorus’ date of 5493 B.C. for the Creation instead of the more common date of Annianus. Although Peter appears not to have used the chronicles of George Syncellus and Theophanes, he does seem to have used Nicephorus’ Concise Chronography, probably in one of its later versions.

Peter consulted at least one more source, however, apart from contemporaries he met at Constantinople. Unlike other known Greek chroniclers, he records not just how many years each emperor reigned but how many times each one assumed the consulship. Like Peter’s lengths of imperial reigns, his numbers of imperial consulships are often wrong but not so inaccurate that he could simply have made them up. Since the “Paschal Chronicle” records consuls’ names, it could have been used to compute the numbers of the emperors’ consulships until its original ending date of 630; but it seems not to have been Peter’s source, because its errors differ from his. Peter appears to be our only source for the numbers of imperial consulships from 630 to 886, which he presumably took from official records, since he would hardly have risked the scorn of informed contemporaries by making needless fabrications. Perhaps he became interested in the consulship when Leo VI abolished it, sometime before 899. Though a minor work, Peter’s Brief Survey preserves unique evidence for imperial consulships, and probably some unique material from the lost chronicle of Panodorus, apparently still to be found at Constantinople in Peter’s time.

6. See Hunger, Hochsprachliche profane Literatur I, p. 360, Kazhdan et al., ODB III, p. 1638, Samodurova, “Хроника” (with the Greek text), and PmbZ I, Prolegomena, pp. 26–27.

Sadly “Samodurova” does not seem to be accessible, so I don’t know how any of us can read this work.  Anyway, it did not seem to be our source.

In the end, I searched instead for the editor, “Raderus”.  This proved to be Matthaus Rader.  When I looked at works by him in the OCLC, I found this:

Chronicon Alexandrinum idemque astronomicum et ecclesiasticum : (vulgò Siculum seu Fasti Siculi)

Author: Chronicon Paschale; Georgius, Pisida.; Matthaus Rader

Publisher: Monachii. : Ex formis Annæ Bergiæ viduæ., M. DC. XV. [1615]

In other words … the “Chronicon Alexandrinum” of 1615 is actually the work generally known today as the Chronicon Paschale!

Rader’s edition of 1615 can be found here.  And, on p.598 of the Greek text of the Chronicle, with facing Latin, we find:

Olympiad 225

Ind. III.  Hadrian for the 5th time, Severus for the 2nd and Augurinus were consuls.

Ind. IV. Hadrian for the 5th time, Abiola and Pansa were consuls.

When these were consuls, Hadrian travelled in Egypt and founded Antinoe of the Thebaid on 3rd day before the Kalends of November.


Did Antinous pull Zeus from Olympus? Did Hadrian pave the way for Christ?

The emperor Hadrian made the curious decision to deify his deceased favourite, Antinous, and to build temples and a city in his memory.

It’s worth reflecting a little Hadrian’s absurd-seeming action of deifying his bum-boy.  It’s too easy to dismiss this action as merely the product of grief.  To do so makes  a good story, but politicians are very capable of exploiting grief.  Men like Hadrian, who have obtained supreme power by virtue of their own ability, do nothing without a reason.

Let’s be realistic.  Is it really possible that Hadrian himself  supposed that a boy, whom he picked up while on tour, and whose pleas and tears and cries of pain he ignored for his pleasure, was any sort of deity whatsoever?  Can anyone else in Rome have thought so either?  Surely every ordinary Roman must have smirked or scowled at the very thought, precisely as they would have laughed at the emperor deifying a mistress. It’s either a joke or an impiety.  So … why did the wise, intelligent emperor – and Hadrian was both these things – do this?

If we leave aside the picture of an oriental despot enacting his whims – for Hadrian’s rule was not that absolute – then we have to ask what practical effect the measure had.  The most obvious effect is that it subordinates the gods to the emperor.  A god is nothing, if Antinous is a god.  What matters is the emperor.  Indeed we already see this attitude in Martial’s flattery of Domitian.  There can be no sensible criticism of an emperor as impious, if piety is whatever the emperor says it is.  I wonder, in fact, whether this action is related to some kind of now lost criticism of Hadrian as impious for not spending more of his time in Rome?

If the gods are the creatures of the emperor, then this is a measurable step towards despotism, towards the late empire.  It’s impossible to imagine Augustus doing this.

We must also ask what the effect was, on Roman social capital. The effect, obviously, is to degrade Roman self-image.  Romanitas and pietas and virtus are all diminished by the act of deifying Antinous.

Finally we have to ask what the effect in the long term was.  If a god is just a man – even a vile one – whom a ruler has marked out for distinction, then what becomes of Olympian Zeus and his band of allies?  Are they too just men, “deified” by men of the past?  It must be a natural inference that they are.  So … are there any real gods at all?  And, if there are, mustn’t they be something quite other than the regular pagan pantheon, which is populated at the whim of a man?  Something like the Sun, which no ruler can affect?  Something like the God of the Hebrews, who is universal?

It’s impossible to say.  It is a strange act by a clever man.  Maybe it really did lay open the way for the Christians.


The lost city of Antinoupolis in Egypt, as seen by Napoleon’s expedition

The emperor Hadrian founded (or refounded) a city in Egypt which he called Antinoupolis or Antinoe, in memory of his favourite Antinous.  The city was of considerable extent, and existed into the Islamic period.

The ruins were destroyed in the 19th century for building materials to erect a sugar factory.  However they were still visible as late as 1798, and the Napoleonic Description de l’Egypte (list of volumes here) contains plans and drawings which are, frankly, rather impressive.

Book 14 (1809), Volume IV – Planches : Antiquités, online at Heidelberg, gives us the pictures and plans.  Planches 53-61 are the images from Antinoupolis.  Here is a view of the site:

The ruins of Antinoupolis. Description de l'Egypte.
The ruins of Antinoupolis. Description de l’Egypte.

And here is the plan of the city, albeit at low resolution.  Note the Hippodrome at the top, and the Nile and the modern village at the bottom.

Antinoupolis.  Plan of the city ruins.
Antinoupolis. Plan of the city ruins.

I recommend downloading the PDF from Heidelberg – you can zoom into the pictures and see incredible details.

There are still ruins at Antinoupolis, of course.  A Pharonic temple of Ramasses II still stands, sort of.  Modern excavators have been at work.  But I think we must all mourn the loss of the magnificent colonnades still visible to Napoleon’s men.