I THINK I'm becoming a god," said the Roman emperor Vespasian as he lay dying and, though the remark is typical of his rough soldier's humor, he was quite right. All Roman emperors, from Augustus on, (except for those who, like Nero, had outraged public opinion unforgivably) were regularly deified after their death, by a formal decree of the Senate. But in 130 A.D. the same honor was conferred, not by the senate but by the Emperor Hadrian, on a handsome young Greek named Antinous who had been drowned in the Nile.

He had been, for some years, the emperor's intimate companion, favorite and, there is no reason to doubt, lover. But this elevation of a private individual to divine status was without precedent. It was unique also in its effect: the god Antinous, unlike the official divinities of the emperors, evoked a passionate response, especially in the Greek- speaking half of the empire. The worship of Antinous spread wide and fast. "Ninety-four altars to him as a god have so far been found in Asia Minor, at least seventy-six cities there celebrated his personal cult and twenty-five of them took his name." The strength of his appeal, as a man cut off in the prime of his youthful beauty only to emerge from death as a god, can be measured by the angry reaction of the early Christian Fathers and apologists; over the course of the next few centuries, Jerome, Tertullian, Prudentius, Clement and Athanasius thunder against the "new god Antinous" and the scandal (from their point of view) of his relationship with Hadrian.

They all, however, admit his beauty, something still evident from the hundred or more sculptured portraits which have survived from antiquity to adorn musems from Leningrad to Madrid. It was Antinous, as Royston Lambert puts it in this learned but skillfully written book, "who inspired the final great creation of classical art." One only needs to look at these portraits to know why Hadrian, the devoted admirer of Hellenic culture and opulent benefactor of the Greek world, saw in Antinous a living image of the classical Greek ideal -- the ephebe, the beardless, athletic adolescent.

HADRIAN's relationship with him was a phenomenon familiar to and approved by the Greek culture of the eastern Roman empire: the classic Athenian pattern, idealized in Plato, of love between an older man, the erastes, the lover, and a younger eromenos, the beloved. The lover was the patron, guide and teacher of the eromenos and there was nothing dishonorable in the younger man's position. However, the physical relationship was expected to end when he reached maturity; prolongation of the passive role after the beard began to grow was regarded as perverse.

It was as lover and beloved that Hadrian and Antinous left Rome in 128 A.D. for the emperor's triumphant tour of Greece and the Middle East, where in return for his generous grants to the cities (especially to Athens) he was saluted as a god, as Olympian Zeus, and even had altars and temples consecrated to his worship under that title. Only in Egypt, which he reached in August 130 A.D., was the joyous atmosphere clouded. For the second successive year the Nile had failed to reach the customary flood level which irrigated the fields; there was a scarcity of grain and a third such year would spell diaster. The imperial party, cruising upstream in a flotilla, saw, instead of plains covered by water, the riverside towns standing on their raised foundations but surrounded by dry soil. And in the last week of October, at a point midway between Heliopolis and Thebes, the body of Antinous was recovered from the receding flood waters of the Nile. The manner of his death and the reason for it were subjects for speculation and controversy at the time; they still are.

Hadrian, according to a later historian, Cassius Dio, who could read the emperor's memoirs (now lost), says simply that Antinous "fell into the Nile"; Dio adds what he calls "the truth" -- that he was "sacrificed." Later he speaks of Antinous' death as "voluntary -- for Hadrian's purposes needed a life given freely." What those purposes were we are not told and the more gruesome ancient theory -- that he needed a human corpse on which to practice divination by inspection of the entrails -- clearly stems from the fact that Antinous' body was, in fact, disemboweled -- by the Egyptian specialists who embalmed it.

Lambert weighs all the evidence and accepts the idea of voluntary sacrifice. The time of death, he points out, coincides with the commemoration of the death of Osiris, the traditional time for sacrifices in the river; "the long and active traditon of sacicing a young person, distinguished by birth and beauty, to the Nile around October 22nd was well-known." A third failure of the crops in Egypt would cause famine not only there but also in Rome and the Greek cities which depended on outside supplies. Antinous may have given his life to save the emperor from the dangerous consequences of such a failure but, Lambert suggests, he also may have had personal reasons: "There were forces which pushed as well as those which pulled him into the river." The "inevitable advance of age" meant that his "days as the imperial favorite were numbered if not already over" and the fall from such an elevation may have been something he found unacceptable.

This is as speculative as all the explanations advanced but more convincing than most. It goes far towards making sense of Hadrian's astonishing reaction to his death, his determination to establish Antinous as an immortal god, to restore him to life; of his foundation, at the site of the drowning, of the city of Antinoopolis where as late as 1798 a French visitor counted over 2,000 standing columns, over a thousand of which had been crowned by a bust of Antinous; it also explains why the aging emperor spent his last days in that section of his great villa of Tivoli called Canopis, which was a sort of little Egypt, complete with canal, temple and statues of the boy he had loved, the god whom he had created.