Elagabalus or Heliogabalus, (c. 203-March 11, 222), born Varius Avitus Bassus and also known as Varius Avitus Bassianus Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, was a Roman emperor of the Severan dynasty who reigned from 218-222. Elagabalus was and is one of the most controversial Roman emperors. During his reign he showed a disregard for Roman religious traditions and sexual taboos. Elagabalus supplanted Jupiter as the head of the Roman pantheon in favor of a new god, Deus Sol Invictus, a Latinized name for a manifestation of the Semitic deity Ēl. Elagabalus forced leading members of Rome's government to participate in religious rite celebrating Sol invictus which he personally led.
He also took a Vestal Virgin as one of a succession of wives and openly flaunted that his sexual interest in men was more than the pastime of previous emperors.
Elagabalus developed a reputation among his contemporaries for eccentricity, decadence, and zealotry which was likely exaggerated by his successors. This black propaganda was passed on and as such he was one of the most reviled Roman emperors to early Christian historians and later became a hero to the Decadent movement of the late 19th century.
Elagabalus was the son of Sextus Varius Marcellus and Julia Soaemias Bassiana. His father was initially a member of the equites class but was later elevated to the rank of senator. His grandmother Julia Maesa was the widow of the Consul Julius Avitus , the sister of Julia Domna, and the wife of Emperor Septimius Severus. Julia Soaemias was a cousin of Caracalla. Other relatives included his aunt Julia Avita Mamaea and uncle Gessius Marcianus and their son Severus Alexander. Elagabalus' family held hereditary rights to the priesthood of the sun god El-Gabal, of whom Elagabalus was the high priest at Emesa (modern Homs) in Syria.
Rise to power
When the Emperor Macrinus came to power he exiled Julia Maesa, her two daughters, and her eldest grandson, Elagabalus, to her estate at Emesa in Syria. She began a plot, with her eunuch advisor and Elagabalus' tutor Gannys , to overthrow Macrinus almost upon arrival in Syria. She decided to elevate the fourteen year old Elagabalus as emperor. Elagabalus and his mother readily complied and announced, falsely, that he was the illegitimate son of Caracalla. After Julia Maesa displayed her wealth to the Legio III Gallica at Raphaneae they swore allegiance to Elagabalus. At sunrise on May 16, 218 Publius Valerius Comazon declared him emperor. He assumed Caracalla's names, Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, to strengthen his legitimacy through further propaganda.
Macrinus sent letters to the Senate denouncing Elagabalus as the False Antoninus and claiming he was insane. Both consuls and other high ranking members of Rome's leadership, including a Praetorian, condemned him, and the Senate subsequently declared war on both Elagabalus and Julia Maesa. Macrinus and his son, weakened by the desertion of the Legio II Parthica due to bribes and promises circulated by Julia Maesa, were defeated on June 8, 218 near Antioch by troops commanded by Gannys. Macrinus fled toward Italy disguised as a courier. He was captured near Chalcedon and later executed in Cappadocia. His son Diadumenianus, sent for safety to the Parthian court, was captured at Zeugma and put to death.
Elagabalus declared the date of the victory at Antioch to be the beginning of his reign and assumed the imperial titles without prior Senatorial approval, violating 2nd century common practice. Letters of reconciliation were dispatched to Rome extending amnesty to the Senate and recognizing the laws. He also condemned his predecessor in the letters:
He undertook to disparage my age, when he himself had appointed his five-year-old son [emperor].
The Senators responded by acknowledging him as emperor and accepting his claim to be the son of Caracalla. Caracalla and Julia Domna were both deified by the Senate, both Julia Maesa and Julia Soaemias where elevated to the rank or Augustae, and the memory of Macrinus and Diadumenianus was condemned and vilified by the Senate.
Elagabalus and his entourage spent the winter of 218 in Bithynia at Nicomedia. It was at Nicomedia that Elagabalus' religious beliefs first manifested as a problem. The local Romans citizens were disturbed by his practices and Gannys was killed while trying to suppress the ensuing riots. To help Romans adjust to the idea of having an oriental priest as emperor, Julia Maesa had a painting of Elagabalus in priestly robes sent to Rome and hung over a statue of the goddess Victoria in the Senate House. This placed Senators in the awkward position of having to make offerings to Elagabalus whenever they made offerings to Victoria.
Elagabalus was delayed in Asia Minor while a brief revolt by the Legio III Gallica and the Legio IV Scythica under the leadership of the senator Verus was crushed. When the entourage reached Rome in the Fall of 219, Comazon and other allies of Julia Maesa and Elagabalus were given powerful and lucrative positions, much to the outrage of many senators who did not consider them to be respectable. Comazon would serve as the city prefect of Rome three times and as consul twice. An official whose name solely survives as ...atus was moved though various positions including Suffect consul. Elagabalus tried to have his presumed lover Hierocles declared Caesar, while another alleged lover, Zoitcus , was appointed to the non-administrative but influential position of Cubicularius . His offer of amnesty for the Roman leadership was largely honored, though the jurist Ulpian was exiled.
The relationships between Julia Maesa, Julia Soaemias, and Elagabalus were strong, at first. His mother and grandmother became the first women to be allowed into the Senate, and both received Senatorial titles: Soaemias the established title of Clarissima and Maesa the more unorthodoxed Mater Castrorum et Senatus. While Julia Maesa tried to position herself as the power behind the throne and subsequently the most powerful woman in the world, Elagabalus would prove to be highly independent, set in his ways, and impossible to control.
Since the reign of Septimus Severus sun worship had increased throughout the Empire. Elagabalus saw this as an opportunity to set up his god, El-Gabal, as the chief deity of the Roman Pantheon. El-Gabal, renamed Deus Sol Invictus or God the Invincible Sun, was placed over even Jupiter. As a sign of the union between the two religions, Elagabalus gave either Astarte, Minerva, Urania, or some combination of the three, to El-Gabal as a wife. Moreover, he himself married the Vestal Virgin Aquilia Severa , provoking great outrage; he said he would have "god-like children" from the marriage. A temple to house El-Gabal, a black conical meteorite, was built in Rome on the east face of the Palatine Hill and its foundations remain today. To become the high priest of El-Gabal, Elagabalus had himself circumcised. Herodian writes that Elagabalus forced senators to watch while he danced around the altar of El-Gabal to the sound of drums and cymbals and that each summer solstice became a great festival to El-Gabal popular with the masses because of it widely distributed food. During this festival, Elagabalus placed El-Gabal:
in chariot adorned with gold and jewels and brought him out from the city to the suburbs. A six horse chariot carried the divinity, the horses huge and flawlessly white, with expensive gold fittings and rich ornaments. No one held the reins, and no one rode in the chariot; the vehicle was escorted as if the god himself were the charioteer. Elagabalus ran backward in front of the chariot, facing the god and holding the horses reins. He made the whole journey in this reverse fashion, looking up into the face of his god.
Elagabalus' sexual tastes are the source of much controversy and debate. Elagabalus married and divorced five women, three of whom are known. His first wife was Julia Cornelia Paula , the second was the Vestal Virgin Aquilia Severa , and another was Annia Faustina from the house of Marcus Aurelius. He later returned to Severa but according to a contemporary senator and historian, Cassius Dio, his most stable relationship seems to have been with his chariot driver, a blond slave from Caria named Hierocles, whom he referred to as his husband. Dio also wrote that Elagabalus used to:
stand nude at the door of his room in the palace, as harlots do, and shake the curtain which hung from gold rings, while in a soft melting voice he solicited passers by.
Herodian comments that Elagabalus hampered his natural good looks by wearing too much make up. Elagabalus has also often been characterized by modern writers as transgender, most likely transsexual.
He is described as having been "delighted to be called the mistress, the wife, the Queen of Hierocles" and is said to have offered half the Roman Empire to the physician who could equip him with female genitalia. (H. Benjamin - "The Transsexual Phenomenon" ).
Fall from power
Elagabalus' eccentricities, especially his habit of forcing others to participate in his religious practices, weighed heavily on Julia Maesa's mind and she decided he and his mother, Julia Soaemias, who had encourage his religious practices, had to be replaced. She turned to her other daughter Julia Avita Mamaea and her son, the thirteen year old Severus Alexander, as alternatives. Maesa and Mamaea convinced Elagabalus to appoint Alexander as his heir. When he changed his mind later and ordered Alexander executed, Maesa and Mamaea bribed the Praetorian Guard before his orders could be carried out. Elagabalus and Julia Soaemias were murdered on March 11, 222; their bodies were dragged through the streets of Rome, the Cloaca Maxima, and ultimately thrown into the Tiber River.
Biased historical sources
After his death, Elagabalus' religious edicts were reversed and El-Gabal was returned to Emesa. Women were barred from ever attending meetings of the Senate, and a policy of damnatio memoriae — condemning a person by erasing him or her from recorded existence — was instituted.
A black propaganda campaign against Elagabalus, traditionally attributed to Julia Avitus Mamaea, was also instituted. Many denigrating and false stories were circulated about him and his eccentricities may have been exaggerated. The most famous among these, immortalized in the 19th century painting, The Roses of Heliogabalus, is that he smothered guests at a dinner to death with a mass of sweet-smelling rose petals dropped from above. As to his acts of cruelty, some scholars point to the account of the Christian historian Sextus Julius Africanus, whose request that Elagabalus rebuild his hometown of Emmaus (Nicopolis) was granted. It is also worth noting that the Senate granted him the rare honor Pater Patriae and that he ruled longer than many of his predecessors, though his enemy and direct predecessor Macrinus also received the Pater Patriae and his successor Severus Alexander ruled longer.
The source of many of these stories of Elagabalus' debauchery is the Historia Augusta, which scholarly consensus now feels to be unreliable in its details. Although based on kernels of truth, the claim he was transgender or transsexual also highly dubious. Many of his contemporaries felt that he only desired men; this factor has traditionally been cited as the cause of his downfall. Sources more credible sources than the Historia Augusta, such as Dio and Herodian suggest that he was at least passively homosexual, but to what extent, if any, is unknowable today. His zealous religious fervor seems to have been widely accepted and is not the subject of much debate today.
Due to theses stories, Heliogabalus became something of a hero to the Decadent movement in the late nineteenth century. He appears in many paintings and poems as the epitome of an amoral aesthete. Various famous works were inspired by the life and character of Heliogabalus and they include:
- The painting The Roses of Heliogabalus (1888), by the Anglo-Dutch academician Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema.
- A collection of poems by the German poet Stefan George which he entitled Algabal (1892-1919).
- The painting Heliogabalus, High Priest of the Sun (1886), by the English decadent Simeon Solomon , once a close friend of Algernon Charles Swinburne.
- The novel L'Agonie (Agony) (1889), by the French writer Jean Lombard .
- The novel De Berg van Licht (The Mountain of Light) (1905), by the Dutch writer Louis Couperus.
- The novel The Sun God (1904), by the English writer Arthur Westcott .
- A biography, The Amazing Emperor Heliogabalus (1911), by the Oxford don John Stuart Hay .
- The play Héliogabale ou l'Anarchiste couronné (Heliogabalus, or the Crowned Anarchist) (1934), by the French surrealist Antonin Artaud.
- The novel Family Favourites (1960), by the Anglo-Argentine writer Alfred Duggan .
- The novel Child of the Sun (1966), by Lance Horner and Kyle Onstott , who were more famous for writing the novel behind the movie Mandingo.
- An orchestral work, Heliogabalus Imperator (Emperor Heliogabalus) (1972), by the German composer Hans Werner Henze (1926- ).
- There is also a French experimental rock band called Héliogabale.
- The band Devil Doll made a CD called Eliogabalus, which refers to Heliogabalus.
- The global musician Momus (aka Nick Currie) recorded a song about Heliogabalus on his 2001 album Folktronic .
- The 24 hour comic Being an Account of the Life and Death of the Emperor Heliogabulus by Neil Gaiman
Origin of his name
The name Elagabalus is a Latin form of the name of the Semitic god El-Gabal. The name originally referred to the patron deity of the emperor's birthplace, Emesa. El refers to the chief Semitic deity, while Gabal (compare with the Hebrew gevul and Arabic jebel) is his manifestation as the sun. High priest in antiquity were identified with the god they served, thus the creation of the name Elagabalus. The name Heliogabalus, is in fact a confusion of the original Semitic name with the Greek word helios (sun).
- Michael Grant, The Roman Emperors, Barnes & Noble, 1997, hardback, pages 126-130, ISBN 0-76070-091-5
- Catholic Encyclopedia at newadvent.org Retrieved March 26, 2005.
- Jerry Fielden, Antoninus Elagabalus and his relationship with the Senate, jerryfielden.com, 2000, Retrieved March 26, 2005
- Scriptores Historiae, Historia Augusta
Dio Cassius, Roman History, Book 79
Herodian, Book 5
Online Translations of the Historia Augusta's account of Elagabalus
Last updated: 10-29-2005 02:13:46