Caesar: May AD 218 - July 222 (b. Sept AD 203 - d. 222)
With the empire at peace and as economically stable as it could be given the third century macro-economic situation, the populace were free to sit back and take in the antics of their new emperor. These antics can be loosely put into two groups: the emperor's unconventional religious beliefs and his unconventional sexuality.
Contemporary Romans believed that the Syrians were naturally effeminate, and according to later historians, Elagabalus took this to an extreme. He allegedly offered huge sums of money to any doctor who could successfully make him a functional female, and failing in this ambition, he wore woman's clothing and make-up. He was also, with difficulty, prevented from castrating himself, and eventually settled for mauling his penis - a deliberate distortion of the practice of circumcision which was common in the east, but not in Rome.
It remains for the individual to decide whether Elagabalus did indeed dress as a female prostitute and publicly solicit customers, whether palace officials were really hired and fired according to the size of their genitals and whether Elagabalus did go through a form of marriage to become the 'wife' of his charioteer Heirocles, who thereafter regularly beat him up for infidelity.
While Dio admits that Elagabalus had many heterosexual relationships, he snidely comments that the emperor indulged in these merely to learn how better to play the part of a woman for his beloved Heirocles. Allegedly, Elagabalus wished to make his lover a consul of Rome, and this led to his first serious clash with his grandmother, who was well aware of how the soldiers and general public would respond to such a move.
With religion, Elgabalus was undoubtedly sincere in his worship of his god; the worship of whom Elagabalus proselytized with unusual fervour. A picture of the emperor in his priestly robes was set above the statue of Victory in the senate, and the Emesa stone was brought with great ceremony to Rome. Although worship of the sun as Sol Invictus was already well-established in Rome, and becoming more popular as faith in the traditional deities began to wane, worship of El-Gabal was later portrayed as the imposition of a foreign belief on the Romans. Later writers tried to make the actual rites appear as outrageous as possible.
"I will not describe the barbaric chants which Sardanapalus [Elagabalus], his mother and grandmother, offered to El-Gabal. Nor shall I describe the sacrifices offered in secret, involving the use of charms and the murder of boys. In the god's temple were actually a captive lion, monkey, and snake. He would throw in among them human genitalia, and practise other unholy ceremonies." Cassius Dio History 79.11.1
Elagabalus allegedly tried to arrange a 'divine marriage' between Minerva and El-Gabal, but was forced by public outrage to substitute the less-well known moon goddess Urania as his divinity's spouse. The emperor was more successful - but no less outrageous - in the earthly sphere, where he attempted to combine his religion with classical Roman belief by marrying Aquilia Severa, claiming that the union of a Vestal Virgin and a priest of El-Gabal would produce 'divine children'.
Overall, apart from his marriage to Heirocles, Elagabalus was married five times. He drew particular approbation for his marriage to Aurelia Faustina. Elagabalus apparently tired of his Vestal Virgin within a year and divorced her. His next wife, Faustina, was attractive as a descendant of Marcus Aurelius. She was also married; an impediment Elagabalus quickly removed by making the woman a widow.
The Roman people had at first been rather keen on Elagabalus. 'All classes were filled with enthusiasm', says Herodian. This enthusiasm was largely based on the fact that the new emperor was not Macrinus, but also because - even if the spurious claim of Caracalla's parenthood was disallowed - Elagabalus was certainly of the Severan family by his maternal line.
The bizarre behaviour exhibited by Elagabalus dismayed the senate, but the people were originally entertained by his antics. On the other hand, the army had hoped for more soldierly qualities in their leader. After all, they had deposed Macrinus in part for making a peace treaty with the Parthians, and it was rapidly apparent that hostilities would not be resumed by Elagabalus, one of the least warlike of all emperors. As his reign went on, it became clear that Elagabalus was not going to settle down but was in fact becoming increasingly unstable. Thereafter, the initial affection of the people cooled rapidly.
Julia Maesa noted the unease of the populace, the disgust of the army and the hostility of the senate and realized that if the regime was to survive, Elagabalus would have to go. She accordingly began to push for the promotion of another grandson, Alexander. and forced Elagabalus to adopt him as Caesar - that is, as the imperial heir. This led to an open breach between Julia Maesa and Julia Soaemias, a feud which resulted in a dysfunctional administration as civic functionaries were forced to pick a side.
Correctly suspecting that the army, and especially the Praetorians favoured Alexander over himself, Elagabalus revoked Alexander's titles and attempted to have his rival assassinated. (Which attempt appears to have been foiled by the watchful Julia Maesa) This led to the Guard demanding to see that Alexander was still alive. On 11 March 222, Elagabalus agreed to these demands and presented his cousin and himself at the Praetorian camp. The emperor was outraged by the warmth with which the soldiers welcomed Alexander and ordered the execution of the most enthusiastic guards. This proved the last straw for the already alienated soldiery and they fell on both Elagabalus and his mother, lynching and then beheading the pair.
There followed a systematic purge of Elagabalus' supporters, and also all records of the emperor's existence. Few images of Elagabalus survive (though one bust which has done so shows the emperor with a remarkably unfeminine set of sideburns). Among the first decrees of the senate after Elgabalus' death was the repeal of the law allowing women - in this case Julia Maesa - to attend meetings. The stone of El-Gabal was returned to Emesa. There it may well remain beneath the temple which has since become a church, and is now, with changing times, a mosque.
Did you know...?
The four short years of Elagabalus’ rule have generated nearly two millennia of sustained attention, from salacious rumor to scholarly analysis to novels.