Tyrants of the world: Elagabalus


The Roman Emperor Septimius Severus, who took over from the executed Emperor Didius Julianus in AD 193 (who had bought the imperial diadem from the Praetorian Guard two months earlier after they murdered Emperor Pertinax for not paying them off, who had taken over three months earlier after the assassination of Emperor Commodus – AD 193 was an eventful year) was a strict but capable ruler who would reign in Rome for 15 relatively peaceful years. Severus’ blood successors were a bit of a mixed bag, however. And in the bag of the Severan dynasty, none were quite as rotten as his grandson Elagabalus.1

Unlike fellow libertine Roman emperors Caligula and Nero, Elagabalus’ is not a household name, but his debaucheries and cruelties were as great as theirs. Elagabalus – who was officially named Varius Avitus Bassianus before his ascension and Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus after – was only 14 when he took the purple in AD 218, but he already had a scandalous sexual appetite and a tendency to act on impulse.  The decadence of the new boy emperor apparently got on the nerves of the Third Legion, the very legion that had proclaimed him emperor and escorted him from Syria to Rome. Elagabalus had to put down a revolt in the Third before he even arrived at his new seat of power.

The Senate initially might have been content with the young Antoninus, but they soon came to loathe him.  The new emperor place his favorites and lovers in positions of political power and removed, disgraced, and even had killed respected officeholders.  Elagabalus, according to the contemporary histories, brought back the bad old days of the emperors Caligula and Commodus and the unpredictable bouts of violence that came along with them.  Tales of his reign involve the usual orgies, tortures, and gratuitous murders as well as some special eccentricities.  The Historia Augusta recounts that the young emperor invited his elite guests to dinner, where they were sometimes served pieces of marble in the shape of food or with tablecloths that had pictures of food on them while he was served actual food.  When they did actually get to eat at dinner and later fell asleep at the palace, the emperor enjoyed letting tame lions and tigers into their chambers and surprising them when they awoke (his guests didn’t know the animals were tame.  Hilarious!  A few of them reportedly died from heart attacks.)   The most memorable recorded incident in Elagabalus’ career involved him dumping a massive number of rose petals from a collapsible ceiling on his guests until they died from suffocation.  This one might not have actually happened, but it’s a fun story, isn’t it?

Candy Crush is a stupid game, but at least it never got anyone killed like its ancient predecessor Rose Petal Crush.
The Roses of Heliogabalus by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1888).

Plenty of other emperors before Elagabalus had been callous, violent, or decadent and had lasted for quite a long time on the throne before being murdered or forced into suicide.  The certifiably insane Commodus lasted for a turbulent 12 years, and the not insane but domineering Domitian managed 15 years before getting himself killed by disgruntled guards.  Elagabalus’ violence and decadence were special, however.  The boy had grown up in the Syrian city of Emesa as the priest of the sun god El-Gabal, and he clearly held this position in great regard, raising El-Gabal to the position of chief god as Emperor and openly disrespecting Roman customs.  He even forcibly married a Vestal Virgin, one of the chaste priestesses of the goddess Vesta, violating both her chastity and a sacred Roman rite that had been in place for several centuries.  (Then he divorced her when he grew tired of her, of course.)

Elagabalus’ dedication to the Syrian cult of El-Gabal (from whom he receives his unofficial name) and his clear contempt for Roman culture likely made him seem to the Romans a lot more like an Asian tyrant than a Roman emperor.  The difference between the two is key: in the early 3rd century, the emperors still (sort of, kind of) upheld the Principate and the fiction of “emperor as first citizen” that first emperor Augustus had established.2  Elagabalus had no interest in maintaining this tradition and openly ruled as an unabashed tyrant.  This might have been acceptable if he’d been a little more mindful of his actions and if he hadn’t spent money like an ancient Roman Nicolas Cage.  Sadly for Elagabalus, and happily for Rome, however, his terrible emperorship would get him killed.  By AD 222, Elagabalus’ influential grandmother Julia Maesa had had enough of her grandson’s nonsense. She convinced the Emperor to adopt his younger cousin, Severus Alexander, as his heir. The serious and thoughtful Alexander seemed to the Praetorian Guard potentially a far better emperor than his embarrassing and unpredictable cousin.  Soon enough, Elagabalus began to suspect that his loyal bodyguards preferred Alexander to him and that his grandmother had not intended for Alexander to be his eventual heir, but his immediate successor.

Julia Maesa was one of the most powerful women in the history of ancient Rome.

In a meeting at the Praetorian camp involving the Emperor, his cousin Alexander, and the Guard, Elagabalus attempted to clamp down on Alexander’s rising popularity by demanding that all those men who had cheered Alexander at that meeting be arrested and executed.  This backfired badly.  The Praetorians lost their temper at this command and attacked Elagabalus.  The Augustus tried to flee from the camp but was caught and slain along with his mother. His corpse was dragged through Rome and thrown into the Tiber River, a popular dumping ground for hated emperors.  Alexander, also still a teenager, was then made Emperor with the backing of Julia Maesa.

Elagabalus is an interesting figure.  As with many of the emperors, the historians’ accounts say much about the historians themselves and their own views on social propriety.  The Historia Augusta claims that Elagabalus demanded that his mother be allowed to openly attend proceedings at the Senate and to take part in the drafting of laws – the only time a woman had been allowed to do so.  The Historia further states that “the first measure enacted after the death of Antoninus Elagabalus provided that no woman should ever enter the Senate, and that whoever should cause a woman to enter, his life should be declared doomed and forfeited to the kingdom of the dead [emphasis mine].”  Certain matriarchs, such as Julia Maesa and Livia, wife of Augustus, were able to wield their influence and held great power in Roman politics, but they also outwardly observed the traditional Roman view of the woman as not belonging in the public sphere.

The ancient historians also take great issue with Elagabalus’ very public sexual escapades, and more specifically with his sexual identity.  Contemporary accounts claim that Elagabalus “wished to wear a jewelled diadem in order that his beauty might be increased and his face look more like a woman’s” and that he plucked his facial hair for the same purpose.  It also names a prominent charioteer, Hierocles, who was both Elagabalus’ slave and lover.  Ancient Romans didn’t think about homosexual relations in the same way as we do today, and they didn’t really have a problem with men boning other men – the important thing to the Romans was whether you were in the dominant position or the submissive.  And according to the highly disapproving contemporary historian Cassius Dio, Elagabalus declared himself the wife of Hierocles, making it pretty clear who wore the toga in that relationship.  Although it’s not possible to verify with certainty, it seems from the record that Elagabalus had an extremely fluid gender and/or sexual identity (he also had sex with many women and had up to five successive wives.)

Despite his interesting sexual/gender issues, though, it’s obvious that Elagabalus was a poor administrator and a wanton ruler who managed to lose the support of both the army and the Praetorian Guard a mere four years after taking power.  In the end, Elagabalus is just another example of why giving a teenager absolute power is a really bad idea.

1 Also referred to as Heliogabalus, and officially referred to during his reign as the Emperor Antoninus.

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