Saturday, 2 April 2016


Elagabalus (reigned 218-222) is perhaps the most bizarre of all the Roman Emperors. He was just fourteen when he took the throne after a brief civil war. His success was organized by his maternal grandmother, Julia Maesa, the sister-in-law of the earlier Emperor Septimius Severus (reigned 193-211; the only emperor in a period of half a century to die in his bed). Julia's family were Syrians, and from his late father, Varius Avitus Bassianus, the boy inherited the hereditary priesthood of El Gabal, the Syrian sun god, at Emesa: hence the name by which he is usually known.
   The young Emperor's dedication to his god was such that he brought the sun-god's symbol, a black phallic-shaped meteorite, to Rome, to be housed in a vast new temple on the Palatine hill. The stone was carried into the city on a richly decorated chariot, with Elagabalus ahead of it, walking backward to face the god. The senators were obliged to stand and watch. 
   Elagabalus was married at least three times during his brief reign, including once to a Vestal Virgin, but he showed little interest in any of his wives. He seems to have been entirely homosexual. He is described as flouncing about in women's clothes and makeup, and his most elaborately celebrated marriage was as "bride" to the charioteer Hierocles. He headed an expensive court, with exotic banquets, where he enjoyed playing practical jokes on the senators.
   After four years of this, his grandmother decided things had gone too far, and she arranged that Elagabalus should be murdered by the Praetorian Guards. His body was thrown in the Tiber, and he was replaced as Emperor by his 14-year-old cousin Alexander Severus (another of Julia Maesa's grandsons), who was more sober in his habits. Alexander reigned till 235, before he in his turn was murdered by the soldiers. The sacred black stone of El Gabal was returned to its home in Emesa, where its worship continued undiminished after its brief sojourn in Rome.

Edward Gibbon, in his "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire", was at his most magisterial on the subject of Elagabalus (whom he called "Heliogabalus", after the Roman sun-god):- "The grave senators confessed with a sigh that, after having long experienced the stern tyranny of their own countrymen, Rome was at length humbled beneath the effeminate luxury of Oriental despotism"; and again:- "The corrupt and opulent nobles of Rome gratified every vice that could be collected from the mighty conflux of nations and manners. Secure of impunity, careless of censure, they lived without restraint in the patient and humble society of their slaves and parasites. The emperor, in his turn, viewing every rank of his subjects with the same contemptuous indifference, asserted without control his sovereign privilege of lust and luxury". How about that for rolling eighteenth century prose? (It has been said that "Gibbon's description of the vices of Elagabalus beats a hasty retreat behind a decent veil of Latin footnotes"!)

I first learnt about Elagabalus in an entertaining historical novel called "Family Favourites" by Alfred Duggan. This is probably out of print, but it should be possible to find it.

Footnote: Elagabalus's official name as Emperor was Marcus Aurelius Antoninus. It was put about that his real father was Septimius Severus's son Caracalla (reigned 211-217), who had been popular with the soldiers.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this Peter. I must confess that I would never have known of this emperor's existence had he not been namechecked (as Heliogabalus) in Sir Arthur Sullivan's I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General:

    I quote in elegiacs all the crimes of Heliogabalus,
    In conics I can floor peculiarities parabolous.