Navigation – Plan du site

AccueilNuméros6VariaThe Breast of Antinous. The Male ...


The Breast of Antinous. The Male Body as Erotic Object in Hellenistic Image and Text

La poitrine d’Antinoos. Le corps masculin comme objet érotique dans l’iconographie et la littérature hellénistiques
Il seno di Antinoo. Il maschio corpo come oggetto erotico in immagine e testo in èta ellenistica
Benjamin Acosta-Hughes


L'objet de cet article est la brève période de la beauté du jeune mâle avant qu’il ne devienne un homme en pleine maturité. Pour que cet état perdure au-delà de ce bref délai imparti par la nature, quelque chose (généralement la mort) doit se produire qui préserve la beauté de l'adolescent à ce moment particulier. Antinoüs, l’amant d'Hadrien, est un cas emblématique, car sa mort précoce par noyade fait que son souvenir (ainsi que son culte qui s’est répandu ultérieurement) reste celui d'un adolescent idéalisé. La poésie brève et des passages poétiques brefs sont, à mon sens, le moyen artistique idéal pour de telles représentations : de même que ce moment de perfection est bref, de même la poésie qui le condense est souvent brève et contenue dans un cadre descriptif autonome.

Haut de page


For Jay Reed

Texte intégral

  • 1 Athanasius, Contra Gentes 9. 39-48: Καὶ ὁ νῦν Ἀδριανοῦ τοῦ Ῥωμαίων βασιλέως παιδικὸς Ἀντίνοος, ὃν κ (...)
  • 2 See R. Lambert, Beloved and God: The Story of Hadrian and Antinous, New York, 1984: p. 8-10.
  • 3 E.g. M. McDonald, Eromenos, Naples [Florida], 2011.

1When I was invited to contribute a talk for this volume, I somewhat impetuously offered to write on Antinous, the Bithynian youth beloved of the emperor Hadrian, whose image, a sorrowful, rather thick-lipped ephebic beauty of markedly over-morphed pectoral muscles, has survived in an array of busts (figs 1-6), statues and medallions that testify to the youth’s popularity following his early death. Temples to Antinous were founded throughout the empire, to the undisguised disgust of early Christian authors (e.g. St. Athanasius, Contra Gentes).1 The images, which evoked reactions of fear and loathing among many (though not all) Victorian critics,2 are now an admired group of icons of gay culture, ranging from decoration of scholarly (and not so scholarly books) to the décor of gay saunas, just as the story of Antinous and Hadrian has become a fairly widely worked narrative in, especially, gay historical fiction, following on Marguerite Yourcenar’s 1963 classic Les mémoires d’Hadrien.3 The topic, I thought, took me rather far from my usual scholarly haunts of early Alexandrian poetry, but, as it turns out, it rather brings together several threads of my own work in ways I could not have foreseen, and for that I am indeed grateful.

  • 4 PMilVogl I 20 (1937) col. 3.7-18 νύ̣μ[φ]αι Κρ[όκον | ἀπέκτειναν, Ὕλαν ἥρ̣π̣α[σαν | Νύμφαι, Κυπάρισσ (...)
  • 5 Tondo from the Arch of Constantine of Hadrian and Antinous boar-hunting.

2Antinous drowned in the Nile in late October of 130 A.D, as the emperor and his entourage sailed upon the river to celebrate the festival of the Nile (the 22nd of October) and the death of Osiris two days later. Hadrian’s own laconic comment, ‘He fell into the Nile’, has left its own long series of speculations. A contemporary prose passage, apparently authored by someone from Hadrian’s immediate circle, fortunately preserved on a fragment of papyrus, PMilVogl I 204 compares Antinous to Narcissus and to Hylas, who both met watery ends that prevented them from crossing the threshold from adolescence to adulthood. This threshold Antinous appears to have already crossed, as an image celebrating a lion hunt with the emperor immediately prior to Antinous’ death appears to testify:5 he had now passed the conventional age of an eromenos: his death prevented his evolution to adult manhood from continuing further. The obelisk that Hadrian set up for him on Monte Pincio in Rome, now before the church of Santissima Trinità dei Monti, is a testimony to the emperor’s devotion (it includes an epitaph for Antinous), and memorializes both the demise of the brief, ephebic phase of male development as well as a somewhat different, Hellenistic ‘take’ on celebrating male beauty. These two features, the ‘brief’ summer of male beauty, and the Hellenistic gaze thereon, are the topics of the pages that follow.

1. The aetatis breve ver

3I turn first to a group of poems, poems that might be labeled ‘epyllia’, of the Hellenistic period, and, taking that term a little broadly, begin with Catullus. Catullus 63 is for many reasons an unusual poem, in its meter, its subject matter (the goddess Cybele and her attendant Atthis), the images it would evoke for a Roman audience, among them the foreign priests or Galloi with their rattles, and the poem’s complex shift of gender. In this context, however, I want to consider this Catullan poem as an example of an alternate subject area of epyllion, the poetic ‘genre’, for lack of a better term, that can most ideally treat that fleeting moment of transition of young male erotic beauty, the brief period of the ephebe’s desirability prior to manhood. This is the period Ovid thus encapsulates in his treatment of Orpheus (Met. 10. 83-85):

ille etiam Thracum populis fuit auctor amorem
in teneros transferre mares citraque iuventam
aetatis breve ver et primos carpere flores.

He was first of the Thracians to transfer his love to gentle males before their youth, and to pluck the brief spring and first flowers of their boyhood.

4Or to cite the Hellenistic poet Phanocles in the first extant lines of his Ἔρωτες ἢ Καλοί (a poem of which we wish we had more knowledge in this context):

ἐκ θυμοῦ Κάλαϊν στέρξε Βορηϊάδην,
πολλάκι δὲ σκιερφοῖσιν ἐν ἄλσεσιν ἕζετ’ ἀείδων
ὃν πόθον, οὐδ’ ἦν θυμὸς ἐν ἡσυχίῃ,
ἀλλ’ αἰεί μιν ἄγρυπνοι ὐπὸ ψυχῇ μελεδῶναι
ἔτρυχον, θαλερὸν δερκομένον Κάλαίν.

Or how the son of Oeagrus, Thracian Orpheus, loved Boreas’ son Calaïs with his whole heart, and often sat singing of his longing in shaded groves, nor was his heart at rest, but ever sleepless cares wore away at him, as he looked upon Calaïs in youthful bloom.

5Ephebic beauty is, as scores of epigrams in the twelfth book of the Greek Anthology attest, of very short duration: it is a liminal state between boyhood and manhood, a period that can both be perceived as a stage in and of itself, and also a passage from one stage to another. Its liminality, or transitory nature, is inherent and absolute. The preservation of ephebic beauty is a contradiction in itself: only death, as in the case of Hyacinthus or Troilus, or some truly extraordinary event (Ganymede’s ascension to Heaven, Hylas’ transition from his earthly form to whatever he becomes under water) can effect this. Otherwise the transition from boyhood to manhood is inevitable, and the one stage of physical desirability and youthful dependence cannot endure. The issue arises about the surface of Plato’s erotic works: the relationship of erastes to eromenos is necessarily a transitory one. The παιδικά does not remain the παιδικά.

6In his lament for his past (Cat. 63.58-67), Attis details this liminal period in terms that are particularly revealing:

  • 6 Schwabe suggested iuvenis for the mulier of line 63, but mulier would reflect Attis’ present state, (...)

egone a mea remota haec ferar in nemora domo?
patria, bonis, amicis, genitoribus abero?
abero foro, palaestra, stadio et gymniasiis?
miser a miser, querendum est etiam atque etiam, anime.
quod enim genus figuraest, ego non quod obierim?
ego mulier,6 ego adolescens, ego ephebus, ego puer,
ego gymnasi fui flos, ego eram decus olei:
mihi ianuae frequenetes, mihi limina tepida,
mihi floridis corollis redimita domus erat.
linquendum ubi esset orto mihi Sole cubiculum.

Shall I go far from my home into the woods? Am I to be absent from my fatherland, my possessions, my friends, my parents? Am I to be absent from the forum, the wrestling-school, the stadium, the gymnasia? Alas, woe is me, again and again must I lament. For what type, what shape is there, that I have not gone through? I have been a woman, an adolescent, an ephebe, a boy. I have been the flower of the gymnasium, I was the glory of the oil-bottle. My doors were crowded, my thresholds were warm, my houses was adorned with flowery garlands, when I left my bed at sunrise.

7This world of Hellenistic youth is now lost to Atthis, his crazed flight across the sea and his own act of violence to his body has severed him from the ordered world of an adolescent youth (patria, boni, amici, genitores) and from the erotic male world of homosocial athleticism and study: forum palaestra, studium, gymnasii. Rather the one-time object of erotic graze and comastic desire is now set apart as ‘other’, as a notha mulier, as a crazed devotee of Cybele living in the forests. The poem is one of transition from ‘normal’ to ‘freak’, from civilized to uncivilized, and, clearly, from what is identified as ‘Greek’ to what is ‘foreign’.

8Attis’ act of self-mutilation prevents him from becoming a man: his act, committed Veneris nimio odio (line 17) prevents him from making the transition from adolescent to adult male: the result is that he becomes a notha mulier (the hijra of modern-day India come to mind as a contemporary parallel). He does not however remain an adolescent. That is not an option: a transition of some kind away from the physical ambiguity of the adolescent male, and the desirability of adolescent males for older men, has to happen. The ver breve cannot endure.

  • 7 There continues to be scholarly debate on this point, and there are some excellent treatments of th (...)
  • 8 Acosta-Hughes B., « Riconfigurare il mito: Eracle ad Alessandria », in G. Cerri - A.-T Cozzoli - M. (...)

9Theocritus’ Idyll 13, the Hylas, is another poem that portrays the ver breve of adolescent male desirability, and another poem where the transition from adolescent male to adult male is prevented, in this case through drowning. Apollonius’ narrative of this episode at the end of the first book of the Argonautica is devoid of any explicit homoeroticism: the attraction of the single nymph in Apollonius is but one of several examples of the female erotic gaze drawn to a beautiful man, a theme which culminates in Medea’s catching sight of Jason in Argonautica 3, and a theme to which I will shortly return.7 Theocritus’ Idyll 13, on which I have written more extensively elsewhere,8 portrays the epic thug/hero Heracles in the unusual role of Platonic erastes, with Hylas in the role of erotic object of desire and, as Platonic eromenos, beneficiary of Heracles’ adult training: I cite the opening of the poem:

Οὐχ ἁμῖν τὸν Ἔρωτα μόνοις ἔτεχ', ὡς ἐδοκεῦμες,
Νικία, ᾧτινι τοῦτο θεῶν ποκα τέκνον ἔγεντο·
οὐχ ἁμῖν τὰ καλὰ πράτοις καλὰ φαίνεται ἦμεν,
οἳ θνατοὶ πελόμεσθα, τὸ δ' αὔριον οὐκ ἐσορῶμες·
ἀλλὰ καὶ Ἀμφιτρύωνος ὁ χαλκεοκάρδιος υἱός,5
ὃς τὸν λῖν ὑπέμεινε τὸν ἄγριον, ἤρατο παιδός,
τοῦ χαρίεντος Ὕλα, τοῦ τὰν πλοκαμῖδα φορεῦντος,
καί νιν πάντ' ἐδίδασκε, πατὴρ ὡσεὶ φίλον υἱόν,
ὅσσα μαθὼν ἀγαθὸς καὶ ἀοίδιμος αὐτὸς ἔγεντο·
χωρὶς δ' οὐδέποκ' ἦς, οὔτ' εἰ μέσον ἆμαρ ὄροιτο,10
οὔθ' ὁπόχ' ἁ λεύκιππος ἀνατρέχοι ἐς Διὸς Ἀώς.

Not for us, as we thought, Nicias, did that god beget Eros, whichever god’s child he was. Nor for us first did beauty appear beautiful, we who are mortals and will not look on the morrow. But even the bronze-hearted son of Amphitryon, who once endured the savage lion, he loved a boy, graceful Hylas, the one who bore a lock, and taught him everything, as a father does his own son, that learning these things he might be good and well thought of. Never was he apart, nor if he looked on midday, nor when Dawn of white horses turned back to the house of Zeus.

  • 9 Note the enigmatic χὠ Δάφνις ἔβα ῥόον at line 140 of that poem, Thyrsis’ song concludes with an ima (...)
  • 10 Theocritus Id. 7 makes a very important point of comparison here, as argued with particular clarity (...)

10Hylas accompanies Heracles on the heroic voyage of the Argo, but his original embarkation is the limit of his heroism. Drawn into a pool of water by three nymphs, Hylas is left underwater in a surreal state of transition from death to immortality. At lines 53-4 he weeps upon the laps of the three nymphs, (Νύμφαι μὲν σφετέροις ἐπὶ γούνασι κοῦρον ἔχοισαι | δακρυόεντ' ἀγανοῖσι παρεψύχοντ' ἐπέεσσιν, ‘the nymphs held the boy upon their knees, and tried to soothe him with gentle words as he wept’), and at the end of the poem (line 72) is numbered among the immortals. Not unlike Daphnis in Idyll 1, whose existence as bucolic beauty is preserved, upon Aphrodite’s failure to raise the dying youth, through his aquafaction,9 Hylas is preserved, through his watery transition, as forever young.10 As in young men of Cavafy’s πρὶν τοὺς ἀλλάξει ὁ Χρόνος, ‘Before Time changed them’, or the haunting image of Wilde’s The Portrait of Dorian Gray, these are figures frozen forever in their brief spring, the ἄκρον ἄωτον of youth.

  • 11 M. Fantuzzi, Achilles in Love, Oxford, 2012.
  • 12 For an excellent discussion of both the cult and its literary representation see J. Reed, Bion of S (...)

11In his recent fascinating study Achilles in Love,11 Marco Fantuzzi has suggested that ephebic love was deemed an unsuitable topic for hexameter epic: the softness of ephebic love would be too strong a disjunction for the figure who, even when ‘at rest’, sings of the κλέα ἀνδρῶν. I think Fantuzzi is right, but I would approach the issue from a slightly different angle: the transitory nature of ephebic beauty. Either this beauty is frozen in time by death (Adonis being the obvious example, and Bion’s Epitaphios the exemplary poem,12 Antinous would fit this mold, his memory being that of his ephebic stage), some sort of anomalous transition to another state (so Atthis in Catullus 63, Daphnis in Theocritus Idyll 1, and again Antinous, who becomes a god), or the youth will necessarily become a man and transition to another life. Here a case like Apollo and Admetus comes to mind, a story encapsulated in Callimachus’ Hymn 2 (to Apollo):

Φοῖβον καὶ Νόμιον κικλήσκομεν ἐξέτι κείνου,
ἐξότ’ ἐπ’ Ἀμφρυσσῷ ζευγίτιδας ἔτρεφεν ἵππους
ἠιθέου ὑπ’ ἔρωτι κεκαυμένος Ἀδμήτοιο.
ῥεῖά κε βουβόσιον τελέθοι πλέον, οὐδέ κεν αἶγες50
δεύοιντο βρεφέων ἐπιμηλάδες, ᾗσιν Ἀπόλλων
βοσκομένῃσ’ ὀφθαλμὸν ἐπήγαγεν· οὐδ’ ἀγάλακτες
οἴιες οὐδ’ ἄκυθοι, πᾶσαι δέ κεν εἶεν ὕπαρνοι,
ἡ δέ κε μουνοτόκος διδυμητόκος αἶψα γένοιτο.

Phoebus we also call ‘Nomios’ from the time when, by the Amphryssus, he tended the yoked mares, burning with passion for the youth Admetus. Effortlessly would the herd increase and the nanny goats would not fail to become protectors of their young, if Apollo cast his eyes upon them while they were grazing. The ewes would not lack milk, nor were they barren, but all would have lambs beneath them. And whoever was the mother of one offspring would soon produce twins.

12Apollo Nomios is linked in Pindar’s ninth Pythian Ode with Aristeus and Libya: the love for Admetus is however earlier unattested, nor is it taken up elsewhere. But the question this passage brings to mind is, what poetic genre would have best figured this brief episode (a year’s voluntary servitude, here in a Callimachean passage that surprisingly seems to echo Theocritus Idyll 1). Again what we often call ‘epyllion’ would seem the logical answer: the setting for the shorter heroic episode (here the Hecale comes to mind as a parallel), the briefer form whose narrative can allow for transition from one state to another or the permanent ‘freezing’ at one state. There are some parallels in other poetic forms, and here Horace Odes 2.5 comes particularly to mind; I cite the last three stanzas:

iam te sequetur: currit enim ferox
aetas et illi quos tibi dempserit
dponet annos; iam proterva
fronte petet Lalage maritum,
dilecta, quantum non Pholoe fugax,
non Chloris albo sic umero nitens
ut pura nocturno renidet
luna mari Cnidiusve Gyges,
quem si puellarum insereres choro,
mire sagacis falleret hospites
discrimen obscurum solutis
crinibus ambiguoque voltu.

Soon she’ll pursue you: for cruel time will add to her those years it has taken from you: soon Lalage with her impudent glance will seek a husband, loved as never was shy Pholoe, nor Chloris of the gleaming shoulder, as gleams a pure moon on the midnight sea, or Cnidian Gyges, whom, were you to put him in chorus of girls, would trick clever visitors, such a hard choice, when his hair is down and with his face that could be either one.

13Among the more fascinating publications of recent years has been the full text, in Nicholas Frankel’s 2011 Harvard University Press edition of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, the manuscript that was first submitted by the author in early 1890.

14The novel opens with a number of searing comments from Lord Henry Wotton to the ephebic, and as it will turn out, oddly ageless Dorian Gray.

‘Because you have now the most marvelous youth, and youth is the one thing worth having’.
‘I don’t feel that, Lord Henry.’
‘No, you don’t feel it now. Someday, when you are old and wrinkled and ugly, when thought has seared your forehead with its lines, and passion branded your lips with its hideous fires, you will feel it, you will feel it terribly. Now, wherever you go, you charm the world. Will it always be so?’

15and not long thereafter:

‘Yes, Mr. Gray, the gods have been good to you. But what the gods give they quickly take away. You have only a few years in which to really live. When your youth goes, your beauty will go with it, and then you will suddenly discover that there are no triumphs left for you, or have to content yourself with those mean triumphs that the memory of your past will make more bitter than defeats. Every month as it wanes brings you nearer to something dreadful. Time is jealous of you, and wars against your lilies and your roses. You will become sallow, and hollow-cheeked, and dull-eyed. You will suffer horribly.’

16At the time I first embarked upon this paper there were hyacinths fallen around my neighborhood: the flower that, on blooming, quickly becomes too heavy with bloom and collapses. The fall of the hyacinth, captured in the mythological narrative of the youth Apollo fells with a discus, narrated in the tenth book of Ovid’s Metamorphoses (10. 162-219), might serve as an appropriate conclusion to this first section of this paper. The flower has, it is true, but a brief spring.

2. Of Male Beauty and Celestial Bodies

17Archaic and Classical Greek literature (and art) do not lack for celebration of the male form, but there is a development in a new direction in the Hellenistic period, one that particularly arises from the gaze upon male beauty, and what the gaze perceives. Space constrains my survey, which should, but cannot, include erotic epigram, so I will limit myself to three authors, and a fairly discrete number of passages. I begin, perhaps through personal bias, with Callimachus.

18Callimachus’ Acontius and Cydippe occupied a large section of the third book of his Aetia, and came to be much admired among Roman poets: indeed the image of the young Acontius inscribing elegiac lines for Cydippe on the trees makes him something of the figurative, but also literal, model for authors of Latin love elegy. One of the remarkable features of this poem, from what we can deduce from the surviving fragments and a much later, considerably less gifted prose re-write, is that the narrative centers not on the female protagonist, but rather on the male one: indeed Ovid’s innovation in his take on Callimachus’ narrative, Heroides 20 and 21, was in giving Cydippe a voice. In the opening fragment of Callimachus’ treatment (fr. 67 Pf.), the two are termed two ‘stars’ of the islands, καλοὶ νησάων ἀστέρες ἀμφότεροι, line 8, in a gesture to both the poem’s astronomic aspects (which seem to be many) and also the Ptolemies’ Nesiotic interests. Cydippe is initially described in terms that evoke some of Sappho’s imagery. Acontius though moves from being the object of erotic attention of older men to the author of a rather long, solitary lament, to the poet’s addressee, and finally, in a rather ingenious move, to become himself the aition of the poet’s narrative (fr. 75.75-7 Pf.):

ξυγκραθέντ’ αὐταῖς ὀξὺν ἔρωτα σέθεν
πρέσβυς ἐτητυμίῃ μεμελημένος, ἔ̣ν̣θεν̣ ὁ π̣α̣[ι]δ̣ός
μῦθος ἐς ἡμετέρην ἔδραμε Καλλιόπην.

He (sc. Xenomedes) mixed in with them (sc. the Chian cities) your love, the old man was mindful of the truth, whence the boy’s story ran to my Calliope.

19Also compared to a celestial body is the glowing breast of Delphis in Theocritus’ second Idyll. Simaetha’s initial view of the object of her erotic desire occurs in a somewhat conventional way, as we know it in New Comedy and the Greek Novel: there is a religious festival, here in honor of Artemis. But the signal difference is not that he sees her, but that she sees him (lines 76-83):

ἤδη δ’ εὖσα μέσαν κατ’ ἀμαξιτόν, ᾇ τὰ Λύκωνος,
εἶδον Δέλφιν ὁμοῦ τε καὶ Εὐδάμιππον ἰόντας·
τοῖς δ’ ἦς ξανθοτέρα μὲν ἑλιχρύσοιο γενειάς,
στήθεα δὲ στίλβοντα πολὺ πλέον ἢ τύ, Σελάνα,
ὡς ἀπὸ γυμνασίοιο καλὸν πόνον ἄρτι λιπόντων.

φράζεό μευ τὸν ἔρωθ’ ὅθεν ἵκετο, πότνα Σελάνα.
χὠς ἴδον, ὣς ἐμάνην, ὥς μοι πυρὶ θυμὸς ἰάφθη
δειλαίας, τὸ δὲ κάλλος ἐτάκετο.

Already midway along the road near Lycon’s I saw Delphis coming with Eudamippus, their chins more golden than helichryse, their breasts gleamed far more than you, Selene, as they had just left the gymnasium’s noble toil. Consider whence came my love, Lady Selene. When I saw him I went mad, how my soul was burned, by fire, poor me. My beauty melted away.

20There then follows Simaetha’s somewhat bowdlerized version of Sappho’s ‘he seems to me like the gods’, an Alexandrian ‘re-take’ on which I have written at length elsewhere. What I would like to highlight in this context rather is the male form as object of beauty, of light playing off the male body, the comparison with the moon (thus implicating the moon, Simaetha’s addressee in prayer, into the narrative context), and the effect of this vision on the viewer.

21Similarly compared to a celestial body is Apollonius’ Hylas (fig. 7) at the end of the first book of the Argonautica: again the gaze on male beauty is a female one (this is Arg. 1.1229-39):

ἡ δὲ νέον κρήνης ἀνεδύετο καλλινάοιο
νύμφη ἐφυδατίη. τὸν δὲ σχεδὸν εἰσενόησεν
κάλλεϊ καὶ γλυκερῇσιν ἐρευθόμενον χαρίτεσσιν,
πρὸς γάρ οἱ διχόμηνις ἀπ’ αἰθέρος αὐγάζουσα
βάλλε σεληναίη· τῆς δὲ φρένας ἐπτοίησεν
Κύπρις, ἀμηχανίῃ δὲ μόλις συναγείρατο θυμόν.
αὐτὰρ ὅγ’ ὡς τὰ πρῶτα ῥόῳ ἔνι κάλπιν ἔρεισε
λέχρις ἐπιχριμφθείς, περὶ δ’ ἄσπετον ἔβραχεν ὕδωρ
χαλκὸν ἐς ἠχήεντα φορεύμενον, αὐτίκα δ’ ἥγε
λαιὸν μὲν καθύπερθεν ἐπ' αὐχένος ἄνθετο πῆχυν,
κύσσαι ἐπιθύουσα τέρεν στόμα, δεξιτερῇ δὲ
ἀγκῶν’ ἔσπασε χειρί· μέσῃ δ’ ἐνὶ κάββαλε δίνῃ.

The water nymph was just rising from the fair-flowing spring. She noticed him close by, ruddy with beauty and sweet graces, for the full moon was casting its rays upon him from the sky. Cypris cast her wits aflutter, and in helplessness she could barely control her heart. As he first lay aslant the stream, and cast his vessel in it, and the abundant water was poured into the resounding bronze, he raised her left arm over his neck, longing to kiss his soft mouth, and with her right hand she drew on his elbow, and into the swirling water he fell.

22The nymphs celebrating Artemis, chaste goddess of maidenhood, is an image of long and complex tradition, and one that the poet will famously evoke later in the poem, of Medea on her way to meet Jason surrounded by her attendants. Nor is a certain amount of Sappho’s imagery here surprising: Apollonius, as his contemporary poets, is much given to evoking the 7th cent. Aeolic poet in language and theme. What is unusual here is that the erotic gaze belongs to a female figure, and the echoes of Sappho (especially the blushing red of the boy and the uncontrolled mind of the nymph) are divided among both figures. The moon, a constant in many Hellenistic imitations of Sappho, here is light that enables the nymph to better gaze upon the male object of her desire.

23The erotic figure par excellence in this poem is Jason: if his heroic stature is occasionally overcome by hesitation or the derision of one of his fellow Argonauts, his beauty and its effects on others are constant. And accompanying this beauty, and its effect on the female gaze, are a series of celestial images. As he sets out to meet Hypsipyle, arrayed in the fantastic cloak of multiple mythological scenes given him by Athena, the emanation of his erotic effect is felt as he passes by cloistered promised brides (Arg. 1. 774-81), and he is compared to Hesperus, the evening star. When he later comes to meet Medea at the temple of Hecate, his beauty is that of Sirius, the baneful dog-star of late Summer: he comes to her like the star (3. 960-61), beautiful to behold, but the source of erotic suffering (κάματον δὲ δυσίμερον). Jason recalls not Hector, but Paris, the warrior of the bed-room (as Hector slights him in Iliad 6), to the point of having gifts of fantastic bedding with him, the very cloth upon which Dionysus lay with Ariadne, still redolent of their love-making (Arg. 4. 421-34). Though Medea is in some ways the most heroic figure in the second part of the Argonautica, we learn nothing of her appearance, though much about the workings of her mind: Jason’s mind we never enter, he is rather an object, the object of an erotic and longing gaze.

24The similes of Jason to Hesperus and Sirius are very famous, and the subjects of a long and detailed scholarship. But I would like to turn here to a different simile, one that is truly remarkable, and one less discussed. When Jason finally obtains the golden fleece, again through Medea’s heroic agency (it is she who puts the guardian serpent to sleep), he ‘decks himself out’ (as it were) in one of Apollonius’ most extraordinary similes, and one that in heroic epic is truly remarkable (this is Arg. 4. 167-82):

ὡς δὲ σεληναίης διχομήνιδα παρθένος αἴγλην
ὑψόθεν ἐξανέχουσαν ὑπωρόφιον θαλάμοιο
λεπταλέῳ ἑανῷ ὑποΐσχεται, ἐν δέ οἱ ἦτορ
χαίρει δερκομένης καλὸν σέλας· ὧς τότ’ Ἰήσων170
γηθόσυνος μέγα κῶας ἑαῖς ἀναείρετο χερσίν,
καί οἱ ἐπὶ ξανθῇσι παρηίσιν ἠδὲ μετώπῳ
μαρμαρυγῇ ληνέων φλογὶ εἴκελον ἷζεν ἔρευθος.
ὅσση δὲ ῥινὸς βοὸς ἤνιος ἢ ἐλάφοιο
γίγνεται, ἥν τ’ ἀγρωσταὶ ἀχαιινέην καλέουσιν,175
τόσσον ἔην πάντη χρύσεον ἐφύπερθεν ἄωτον
βεβρίθει λήνεσσιν ἐπηρεφές· ἤλιθα δὲ χθών
αἰὲν ὑποπρὸ ποδῶν ἀμαρύσσετο νισσομένοιο.
ἤιε δ’ ἄλλοτε μὲν λαιῷ ἐπιειμένος ὤμῳ
αὐχένος ἐξ ὑπάτοιο ποδηνεκές, ἄλλοτε δ’ αὖτε180
εἴλει ἀφασσόμενος· περὶ γὰρ δίεν ὄφρα ἑ μή τις
ἀνδρῶν ἠὲ θεῶν νοσφίσσεται ἀντιβολήσας.

And as a young girl catches the beam of a full moon shining from above her high beamed room upon her delicate gown, and in her heart she rejoices as she catches sight of its lovely shimmering, so then did Jason joyfully hold up the great fleece in his hands, and upon his shining cheeks and forehead there settled a blush like flame upon marble stone. As large as a young ox or dear, which hunters call the achaiines, was the fleece, all golden and heavily covered with flocks of wool. The ground before his feet sparkled as he walks. Now he went letting the fleece fall over his left shoulder from the top of his neck to his feet, now rather he rolled it as his hand went over it. For he feared greatly that some man of god would approach him and take it from him.

25It is truly not easy to think of what might be a model for this one. Certainly one might say that Achilles’ comparison at the opening of Iliad 16 of the weeping Patroclus to a little girl opened the door to cross-gender similes, but surely nothing quite like this, which borders on high camp (imagine the fleece as, e.g., fur stole or feather boa). While the heroic Medea pacifies the horrific monster, Jason prances in the moonlight, his beauty implicitly likened to that of a young virgin: here the red on white, a standard feature later of beautiful dead young men (Adonis in Bion’s Epitaphios, a host of dead ephebic heroes in Latin epic come to mind), is doing double service: Jason is both an ephebic figure, and also in the role of a girl. The moon, Medea’s companion throughout the narrative of her nights troubled by erotic visions, and the scornful celestial body that watches over Medea’s night-time flight from home and family, here reappears in a comparison that likens Jason’s radiance to that of a young girl’s dress, and frames an epic hero in a setting of sensuality and almost decadence: Achilles takes pleasure in his new shield, Jason in a fur coat.


26Admiration for the male in Archaic epic is of a rather different kind: the Homeric hero is ‘big in his bigness’, even his form is that of a martial god: more the rugby player, as it were. And similarly the idealized male of Aristophanes’ Wasps is a hard, athletic figure: in this case the wrestler or perhaps the gymnast. But in the Hellenistic period, there begins to be a place for a softer, more sensual side of the male: the gaze is drawn to something fuller, slightly slacker, a figure as much in a state of repose as in action. And this development finds a long history in Western Art, of which Botticelli’s Venus and Mars (fig. 8) might serve as a particularly interesting example: our gaze is drawn, with hers, upon the inert, slackened beauty of the sleeping god. It is in this context that Antinous (fig. 1), with his rather petulant lips and excessively full chest, is at home.

Iconographic material:​wiki/​Antinous#/​media/​File:Antinous_%28Museo_del_Prado_E-60%29_01.jpg
fig. 1: bust of Antinous, Madrid, Prado museum, inv. n° E60​wiki/​File:Delphi_Antinous.jpg
fig. 2 Antinous of Delphi; Delphi archaeological museum​2015/​03/​17/​echmoun-and-antinous-2015/​
fig. 3: Antinous-Dionysus, Leptis Magna Therms​wiki/​File:Antinous_bust_02.JPG
fig. 4: bust of Patras Antinous, National archaeological museum of Athens​wiki/​Antinous#/​media/​File:Antinous_Pio-Clementino_Inv256_n3.jpg
fig. 5: Antinous-Bacchus of Vatican, Museo Pio Clementino, inv. 256​wiki/​File:Bust_Antinoos_Antikensammlung_Berlin_Sk364.jpg
fig. 6: Antinous Polignac; Altes Museum, Berlin: Antikensammlung Sk364​wiki/​File:Hylas_by_H.W._Bissen,_1846_-_Ny_Carlsberg_Glyptotek_-_Copenhagen_-_DSC09524.JPG
fig. 7: Hylas by H.W. Bissen, 1846; Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen

Haut de page


1 Athanasius, Contra Gentes 9. 39-48: Καὶ ὁ νῦν Ἀδριανοῦ τοῦ Ῥωμαίων βασιλέως παιδικὸς Ἀντίνοος, ὃν καίπερ εἰδότες ἄνθρωπον, καὶ ἄνθρωπον οὐ σεμνόν, ἀλλ' ἀσελγείας ἔμπλεων, διὰ φόβον τοῦ προστάξαντος σέβουσιν. Ἐπιδημήσας γὰρ Ἀδριανὸς τῇ χώρᾳ τῶν Αἰγυπτίων, τελευτήσαντα τὸν τῆς ἡδονῆς αὐτοῦ ὑπηρέτην Ἀντίνοον ἐκέλευσε θρησκεύεσθαι, αὐτὸς μὲν καὶ μετὰ θάνατον ἐρῶν τοῦ παιδός, ἔλεγχον δὲ ὅμως καθ' ἑαυτοῦ, καὶ γνώρισμα κατὰ πάσης εἰδωλολατρείας παρέχων, ὅτι οὐκ ἄλλως ἐφευρέθη παρὰ τοῖς ἀνθρώποις αὕτη ἢ δι' ἐπιθυμίαν τῶν πλασαμένων, καθὼς καὶ ἡ σοφία τοῦ Θεοῦ προμαρτύρεται λέγουσα· <Ἀρχὴ πορνείας ἐπίνοια εἰδώλων>.

2 See R. Lambert, Beloved and God: The Story of Hadrian and Antinous, New York, 1984: p. 8-10.

3 E.g. M. McDonald, Eromenos, Naples [Florida], 2011.

4 PMilVogl I 20 (1937) col. 3.7-18 νύ̣μ[φ]αι Κρ[όκον | ἀπέκτειναν, Ὕλαν ἥρ̣π̣α[σαν | Νύμφαι, Κυπάρισσος κατ[ὰ πε|τρῶν ἔρειψε ἑ[αυ]τόν, Δ[άφνην | φεύγουσαν ὐπεδέξατο γῆ· Ν[άρ|κισσος ὑπερηφανείαι ἐρ[. . . ..] | ἑαυτὸν ὡς ἄλλον ἀπώλεσ[εν· ἓν | δὲ μόνον τὸ τοῦ Ἀντινόου [ἄνθος, | πάντων ἥδ[ι]ον διαφέρον . . . (“Nymphs killed Hylas, Cyparissus cast himself down from the rocks, the earth received Daphne in her flight. Narcissus in arrogance [. . . .] killed himself as though another. Alone the one bloom of Antinous, sweeter than all others…”.

5 Tondo from the Arch of Constantine of Hadrian and Antinous boar-hunting.

6 Schwabe suggested iuvenis for the mulier of line 63, but mulier would reflect Attis’ present state, and also seems to recall line 27 notha mulier.

7 There continues to be scholarly debate on this point, and there are some excellent treatments of the passage that do argue for both a homerotic reading of Apollonius’ narrative (Arg. 1.1207-72) and for Apollonius’ introduction of homoerotic love into epic. Cf. in particular M. Di Marco, « Il proemio dell’Ila: Teocrito, Apollonio e l’ἔρως παιδικός », Eikasmos 6, 1995, p. 121-39. Di Marco’s study is an excellent one, though I am not convinced by the conclusion. I would argue that the erotic attention of the Theocritus poem (a beautiful boy as viewed by men, including the figures of the proem, Theocritus and Nicias) is transferred in Apollonius onto the single nymph gazing upon the desirable Hylas (in Theocritus the nymphs are plural, more fantastical and not individualized). I would argue that Apollonius has varied the homerotic gaze of Id. 7 to enhance the female gaze in this passage of the Argonautica: female viewers impressed by male beauty is an ongoing leitmotiv of the poem (and here Apollonius can be said to introduce something novel into epic). The older argument that Heracles’ rage on discovering the loss of Hylas qua squire would be unsuitable for an epic context is anachronistic.

8 Acosta-Hughes B., « Riconfigurare il mito: Eracle ad Alessandria », in G. Cerri - A.-T Cozzoli - M. Giuseppetti (eds.), Tradizioni mitiche locali nell’epica greca, Roma 2012, p. 221-35; « Miniaturizing the Huge: Hercules on a Small Scale (Theocritus Idylls 13 and 24) », in M. Baumbach - S. Bär (eds.), Brill’s Companion to Greek and Latin Epyllion and its Reception, Leiden 2012, p. 245-257.

9 Note the enigmatic χὠ Δάφνις ἔβα ῥόον at line 140 of that poem, Thyrsis’ song concludes with an image of the youth beloved by otherworldly females (here Muses and Nymphs) in a passage at once metapoetic and also strikingly parallel to the end of Hylas.

10 Theocritus Id. 7 makes a very important point of comparison here, as argued with particular clarity by e.g. G. Serrao, Problemi di poesia alessandrina I. Studi su Teocrito, Roma, 1971.

11 M. Fantuzzi, Achilles in Love, Oxford, 2012.

12 For an excellent discussion of both the cult and its literary representation see J. Reed, Bion of Smyrna. The Fragments and the Adonis, Cambridge, 1997, p. 15-25.

Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence électronique

Benjamin Acosta-Hughes, « The Breast of Antinous. The Male Body as Erotic Object in Hellenistic Image and Text »Aitia [En ligne], 6 | 2016, mis en ligne le 22 juin 2016, consulté le 17 juin 2024. URL : ; DOI :

Haut de page


Benjamin Acosta-Hughes

Articles du même auteur

Haut de page

Droits d’auteur


Le texte seul est utilisable sous licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.

Haut de page
Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search