Antinous (pronounced ‘anti-no-us’) was the boy lover of the Roman Emperor Hadrian and hence is a real character, not a mythological one, although the story reads like fiction. Antinous was born c. AD 110 in the town of Bythinium (also called Claudiopolis), near present-day Bolu in north-western Turkey. At that time this area was a Roman province, and Hadrian is thought to have met Antinous during an official visit. Hadrian, the first openly gay Roman Emperor, was smitten by the boy and groomed him to become his constant companion.

Hadrian’s happiness did not last long, though. While on a trip up the Nile in AD 130, Antinous drowned near the present-day town of Mallawi in Egypt. Supposedly an oracle had predicted that the Emperor would be saved from danger by the sacrifice of the object he most loved, and Antinous realized that this description applied to him.

Whether the drowning was accident, suicide, or even ritual sacrifice, Hadrian was heartbroken by it. He founded a city called Antinoöpolis near the site of the drowning, declared Antinous a god, and commemorated him in the sky from stars south of Aquila, the Eagle, that had not previously been considered part of any constellation.

Antinous was mentioned as a sub-division of Aquila in Ptolemy’s Almagest, although it is not included among the canonical 48 Greek figures. Ptolemy worked at Alexandria at the mouth of the Nile and he compiled the Almagest about 20 years after the famous drowning so he would have known the story; indeed, he might have had a hand in creating the constellation, possibly at Hadrian’s request. According to Ptolemy, Antinous consisted of six stars, which we now know as Eta, Theta, Delta, Iota, Kappa, and Lambda Aquilae.

The constellation’s first known depiction was in 1536 on a celestial globe by the German mathematician and cartographer Caspar Vopel (1511–61); it was shown again in 1551 on a globe by Gerardus Mercator. Tycho Brahe listed it as a separate constellation in his star catalogue of 1602 and it remained widely accepted into the 19th century, when it was eventually remerged with Aquila.

Antinous was depicted being carried in the claws of Aquila. Hence he has sometimes been confused with Ganymede, another celestial catamite, who was carried off by an eagle for Zeus.

© Ian Ridpath. All rights reserved

Antinous carried in the claws of Aquila the Eagle, seen on Chart IX of the Uranographia of Johann Bode (1801). Here, the eagle is shown in a rather awkward perspective, from above. However, Ptolemy’s description in the Almagest makes it clear that the eagle should be imagined as though seen from below, which is how the classically correct John Flamsteed showed it on his Atlas Coelestis, although without the burden of Antinous.