1. Roman bust of Antinous with a Greek inscription, AD 130–38, marble, found in Balanea, Syria in 1879. H. 80cm.

Divine boy causes no offence in Oxford

Antinous went from country boy to the firm favourite of the Emperor Hadrian (AD 117–38) to cult figure in just a few years and, since his death in AD 130 (he drowned in the River Nile), he has been commemorated in busts and statues and on coins and medals. Now, he is celebrated at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.

Born in the Roman province of Bithynia (in modern-day Turkey), Antinous was part of the travelling imperial court on tours in the Greek East. He held no official position, but the tragedy of his untimely death and the emperor's grief reverberated across the Roman Empire.

Hadrian founded a city in Middle Egypt in his memory and named it Antinopolis, and authorised a portrait bust from a master court sculptor, an image that has been widely reproduced. Over 30 cities in the Greek East minted coins representing Antinous in a range of heroic and divine forms, and cults, venerating the youth as a hero and a god, sprang up in many other cities across the Roman Empire.

'This is a remarkable set of honours for a person who held no public position whatsoever, neither in his city or in the empire,' the exhibition's curator, Bert Smith, Lincoln Professor of Classical Archaeology at Oxford, tells me. 'The veneration of Antinous is represented today by more than 85 surviving marble statues and busts, for the most part produced in a remarkably short time, between AD 130 and 138.'

One of the most important surviving portraits of Antinous – an inscribed marble bust dated AD 130–38, discovered in Syria in 1879, was recently restored by the Ashmolean's conservators and now forms the exquisite centrepiece of this small exhibition.

'The Antinous bust from Syria is one of the best, most appealing busts of the handsome boy. It is also the only bust to carry an inscription, a votive dedication to Antinous the hero by a Roman citizen resident [Marcus Lucceius Flaccus] in coastal Syria,' explains Smith.

The bust had been sold at Sotheby's New York to a private collector for the record-breaking sum of $23.8 million in 2010.

2. The Ain Sakhri figures, circa 9000 BC, calcite, found near Bethlehem. H. 10.2cm.

During the restoration process at the Ashmolean a plaster cast was made that documents the bust's condition after removal of old restorations. The cast displayed in the exhibition shows the deified youth minus nose, part of upper lip and right shoulder, and, crucially, missing some of the characteristic, precisely carved sinuous curls framing his boyish face.

Other key portraits on show include a cast of a marble bust of a neatly bearded Hadrian (on loan from the Museum of Classical Archaeology in Cambridge) and a marble bust of the popular young prince Germanicus, the chosen successor to the emperor Tiberius, whose empire-wide veneration, which sprang up following his mysterious death in AD 19, is a precursor of the Antinous cult.

These busts, plus coins, medals, a gem and some bronze figurines, made between the 2nd and 18th centuries, explore the image of the boy-turned-hero-and-god with an empire-wide reach – one that has continued far beyond antiquity and into the modern world.

The large number of images of the boy remained widespread well after his death and then became the evidence for various narratives describing Hadrian's passion for Antinous that took hold among and incensed many Christian and other writers from the mid-2nd century AD onwards: '... ancient textual accounts of Antinous that are almost uniformly hostile,' says Smith.

The range and variety of Antinous' reception highlighted in this show form a link to a second free exhibition entitled No offence: Exploring LGBTQ + Histories. Displaying objects from different periods from around the world, this is a British Museum partnership touring exhibition which commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Sexual Offences Act of 1967 that partially decriminalised homosexuality in England and Wales.

First shown in 2017, the exhibition was inspired by a book called A Little Gay History: Desire and Diversity Across the World by Richard Bruce Parkinson, Oxford University's Professor of Egyptology.

Objects displayed range from Ancient Greek erotic pots to a tiny calcite sculpture called the Ain Sakhri Lovers, dating to circa 9000 BC and discovered near Bethlehem – this is the world's earliest known depiction of two people having sex. Since they lack faces and identifiable attributes, and there are no written accounts, there is no way of knowing their gender – which, here, is rather apt.

• No offence: Exploring LGBTQ + Histories is on show until 2 December 2018 and Antinous: Boy made God is on show until 24 February 2019. Both are displayed in Gallery 8 of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford (www.ashmolean.org).
Theresa Thompson