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 of 3rd to 5th magnitude, which we now know as Eta, Theta (the brightest at magnitude 3.2), Delta, Iota, Kappa, and Lambda Aquilae. These six stars can be seen, for example, on Albrecht Dürer’s star chart of 1515. In 1784 the English amateur astronomer Edward Pigott (1753–1825) discovered that Eta Aquilae is variable; we now know that it is one of the brightest examples of the type of variable known as a Cepheid. On Bode’s Uranographia (above) it can be found in the right shoulder of Antinous, labelled ‘variabilis’.

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 its stars were eventually remerged with Aquila.

Johann Bayer imagined Antinous grasped in the claws of Aquila, as did Bode. On other charts, though, Antinous seems to be free-flying, as befits a young god. Hevelius equipped him with a bow and arrow, perhaps symbolizing his participation in Hadrian’s hunt of the man-eating Marousian Lion in Libya. Because of his position beneath Aquila, Antinous has sometimes been confused with Ganymede, another celestial catamite, who was carried off by an eagle for Zeus, but he is actually represented by Aquarius.

© 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.

Antinous on Bode's Uranographia