History has its share of powerful men who flouted tradition. Elagabalus went further than most.
Throughout its 500 year history, the Roman Empire in the West had over 100 emperors. They ranged in ability from masters of statecraft like Augustus, to military titans like Aurelian, to walking disasters like Caligula.
For some the emperorship was a birth right, for others it was a prize seized by force during bitter civil wars.
Some emperors reigned for decades, some for only days.
But one thing that this disparate collection of rulers obviously and necessarily had in common, at least in Roman eyes, was that they were all male.
But what happens when we look back at these emperors with twenty-first century eyes, and twenty-first century notions about the flexibility and complexity of gender? Does that seemingly unassailable assumption still hold true?
From 193 to 235 AD the Empire was ruled by the Severan dynasty. However, in 217 the dynasty was briefly interrupted by a usurper by the name of Macrinus, who came to power after the emperor Caracalla was murdered by one his own soldiers.
The problem faced by the Severans in dealing with this crisis was that they had run out of direct male descendants of the original Severan emperor, Septimius Severus, to put forward as the legitimate opposition to Macrinus.
Their rather ingenious solution, concocted by Septimius Severus’s sister-in-law, Julia Maesa, was to start a rumour that her grandson Elagabalus, a young pagan priest from Syria, was in fact the product of an affair between her daughter Julia Soaemias and the late Caracalla.
The ploy worked. Sections of the army, already unhappy with Macrinus’s leadership, rallied around this newly grafted branch of the family tree, and Macrinus was defeated in battle and then hunted down and killed before he had even set foot in Rome.
So it was that the teenaged Elagabalus suddenly found himself to be, at least nominally, the ruler of an empire which at that time stretched from the borders of Scotland to modern day Iraq.
In reality, all that was probably expected of him was that he would make a respectable, well-behaved figurehead through which the political ambitions of other members of his family, notably his grandmother, could be realised.
However, Elagabalus soon proved himself to be spectacularly incapable of meeting this minimum requirement.
One of his first acts upon arriving in Rome was to promote his own rather obscure god Elagabal, from whom he derived his name, to the top of the Roman pantheon, displacing the mighty Jupiter.
Elagabalus eschewed the Roman toga in favour of the long, flowing robes he had worn in Syria, and the rituals by which he worshipped his god seemed to involve a great deal more dancing than was thought to be appropriate for an emperor.
He also wore makeup. The historian Herodian describes him, with some dismay, as appearing in public “with eyes painted and cheeks rouged.”
But, from the perspective of Rome’s conservative elite, things were about to get very much worse.
The Emperor quickly made his preference for male sexual partners clear by openly taking on a whole array of them.
Cassius Dio, who lived during the time of the Severans and wrote a first-hand account of the lives of the emperors, describes how Elagabalus had a chamber built in the palace itself from which he enacted his fantasy of being a female prostitute, “standing all the time naked at the door of it, as the harlots do, and shaking the curtain, which was fastened by gold rings, the while in a soft and melting voice he solicited the passers-by.”
Specially selected persons were then sent along to him to procure his services.
He is said to have offered an enormous sum to any surgeon who could equip him with female genitalia.
As well as the accounts given by Dio and Herodian, we also have the Augustan History which devotes nineteen whole chapters to salacious stories of the Emperor’s depravity and inventive cruelty. However this is generally recognised as being by far the least reliable of the few available sources for this period, and some of the tales are distinctly improbable (in one of them Elagabalus is alleged to have suffocated guests at a party by having the entire room filled with flowers.)
But even if we discount the Augustan History altogether, the picture that emerges is still one of a ruler at odds with almost every Roman notion of propriety.
Not only did Elagabalus associate with men and women from the lower orders – prostitutes, actors and charioteers, he actually began promoting them to administrative positions.
He had several prominent citizens executed simply for criticising or ridiculing him.
At one point he formed a relationship with a charioteer by the name of Hierocles, whom he insisted be referred to as “the Empress’s husband.”
But not only did Elagabalus cheat on his husband, he seemed to delight in being caught in the act and to be proud of the black eyes and bruises that resulted from his possessive partner’s beatings.
The most powerful empire in the western hemisphere was being ruled by a submissive, sadomasochistic slut.
One particular anecdote from Dio, involving an encounter between Elagabalus and an athlete by the name of Zoticus, shows how determined the Empress seemed to be to make all of this as flagrant as possible.
Zoticus was famed throughout Rome not just for his athletic prowess, but also for how well-endowed he allegedly was.
Elagabalus had him brought to the palace at the head of a great procession. Upon being presented to the Emperor, the athlete called out the standard salutation –
“My Lord Emperor, hail!”, to which he received the huskily intoned reply –
“Call me not Lord, for I am a Lady.”
The two of them then retired to share a bath together.
Unsurprisingly, his grandmother began to grow increasingly concerned at the extent to which Elagabalus was alienating not just the senate, but also the true power base of the empire – the army. She persuaded him to adopt another one of her grandsons, his much more mild-mannered and presentable younger cousin Alexander, as his heir.
Having first made himself deeply unpopular, Elagabalus had now made himself completely disposable.
He clearly realised his mistake, but in the end Elagabalus turned out to lack even that most vital component of an emperor’s skill set – the ability to successfully dispose of one’s rivals.
In the aftermath of one of his many failed schemes against Alexander, both Elagabalus and his mother were attacked and killed by a mob of enraged soldiers.
Their bodies were beheaded before being dragged around the city and then thrown into the Tiber, a fate normally reserved for traitors.
His memory was later damned by the senate, meaning that, officially, he had never existed.
But what should our own verdict be on him? Does Elagabalus deserve to be more widely or favourably remembered today?
One could perhaps single out as admirable his determination to be as open as possible about his sexuality and about his own perceptions of his gender.
But what of his equal determination to enforce his own religion, or his habit of having his critics murdered, or his attempts to dispose of the young Alexander?
A couple of years ago I wrote a piece entitled The Strength of Submission, in which I explored my own issues with conventional gender roles and sexuality.
Personally, I like just knowing that there were people like Elagabalus around. I like stumbling across them in corners of history where they were not expected, regardless of whether or not a case can be made for them having lived inspirational lives.
Perhaps overall, the kindest thing that can be said for Elagabalus is that there is a sense in which he was not an especially bad emperor.
Elagabalus was just one example of a particular type of emperor who came to power for reasons other than proven ability and experience.
The reigns of Caligula and Nero provide the most famous examples of the eccentricities and atrocities that often characterised the rules of such men, although my own favourite is the less renowned Commodus who, in the last years of his megalomaniacal reign, developed a penchant for having things renamed after himself, including the city of Rome, the senate, the entire army and every single month of the year. He was eventually strangled in the bath by an assassin hired by his own advisers.
Fundamentally, Elagabalus’s trajectory as emperor was determined less by his gender and sexuality than by the fact that he was a spoilt teenager who had suddenly found himself to be in possession of absolute power.
Like Caligula, Nero and Commodus he paid the inevitable price for being no good at a job which he should clearly have never been given.
In this respect at least, there was a certain tragic normality to his reign, and any history that finds a more prominent place for the Empress should perhaps also find a place for that fact.
Photo: wikipedia.org (Public Domain)