Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (Elagabalus) (203 - 222 AD)
Emperor: 218 - 222 AD
Only one emperor has managed to surpass Caligula's reputation for deranged behaviour and homicidal debauchery, and that is the man who takes his name from the god he attempted to impose on Rome: Elagabalus. During his four-year rule, Elagabalus' behaviour alternately outraged and delighted the people of Rome, while behind the scenes the Roman empire was competently governed by his mother and grandmother. It was only when these two women fell out that Elagabalus' short but flamboyant reign was brought to an end.
Elagabalus was probably born in early 203 AD. He came by the 'Antonius' in his later name honestly, as his mother Julia Soaemias was the cousin of the emperor Caracalla. For this reason Elagabalus is sometimes called 'the last of the Antonines'. Although his successor was of the same family, the Antonine name was by then so discredited that association with it was abandoned.
Until it became politically expedient to allege that he was the illegitimate son of the emperor Caracalla (assassinated 217) Elagabalus was considered the son of the aristocratic Sextus Varius Marcellus. Since there is evidence that Marcellus was serving as an official in Rome at the time of his son's birth, claims that the child was born in the city of Emesa (modern Homs) in Syria are unlikely.
Sextus Marcellus went on to have a successful career, serving with the emperor Septimius Severus in Britain, and later gaining promotion to senatorial rank. He appears to have died while governor of Numidia around 215. It is assumed that he died in office and his tombstone (CIL 10.6569) was dedicated in Rome by his wife and 'sons' - a dedication which strongly implies that Elagabalus was then the acknowledged son of Marcellus. It also implies that the boy had a brother.
If so, the years between 215 and 218 must have been traumatic for Elagabalus, because when he enters the historical record in his own right in 218, neither father nor brother were still alive. Furthermore we know that after the assassination of the boy's imperial relative Caracalla, his mother Julia Soaemias was sent back to her native Emesa. This was an attempt by the new emperor Macrinus to remove what he rightly considered an influential and rival family from a position of power. Therefore, it is quite possible that it was only in the years just before he became emperor that Elagabalus became a priest of the god El-Gabal at the god's temple in Emesa.
El-Gabal was a sun god and - as was the Semitic tradition of the time - he was worshipped in the form of a black rock. From contemporary descriptions this rock was roughly conical, as large as an executive desk, and (some astronomers have speculated) a meteorite from the Apollo asteroid cluster. We may speculate that the boy's dedication to the god came at a low ebb in his fortunes, and that he attributed his subsequent rise to the god's beneficence. Certainly, even after he became ruler of Rome, Elagabalus appears to have considered himself a priest of El-Gabal first, and emperor second.
In fact the force propelling Elagabalus to the imperial throne was not the divine influence of the sun but the ruthless ambition of his female relatives. Neither Julia Soaemais, his mother, nor Julia Maesa, his grandmother, were prepared to be sidelined from political power. Though the new emperor Macrinus had rusticated the Julias to their home town, he had allowed them to keep their very substantial fortune. The pair promptly used this money to suborn the nearest legion, III Gallica which was based at Raphana. On 16 May 218 this legion declared Elagabalus emperor. Troops sent by Macrinus to crush the revolt instead turned on their commanders and joined the uprising.
Elagabalus was only fourteen years old at this point, and so only nominally in command of his army. Actual decisions were made by a certain Gannys, a member of the household of the Julias, and a favourite of Julia Maesa. Propaganda that declared Elagabalus to be the illegitimate son of Caracalla endeared the boy to the army, which had never whole-heartedly endorsed Macrinus as emperor. That lacklustre support, combined with the poor quality of his generals, led to the defeat of Macrinus at the battle of Antioch in June 218, from which date the reign of Elagabalus is usually said to have begun.
Elagabalus the Emperor
We know very little for certain about Elagabalus while he was emperor. There are two reasons for this. The first is that all palace politics are generally obscure, but when imperial policy is being made by women in an society deeply suspicious of women in politics, these women must necessarily work well behind the scenes. (Though the Julias did force through a decree allowing them to attend meetings of the senate.) Elagabalus himself had little interest in the minutiae of government and had little personal effect on the empire as a whole. In matters of imperial administration 'he was completely under the control of his mother', according to the historian Herodian.
At first it must have seemed to the Julias as fortunate that emperor Elagabalus, with his eccentricities and follies, provided a magnificent distraction from who was actually doing the ruling. However, as time went on Elagabalus became increasingly erratic and harder to control.
The second reason for uncertainty as to what actually went on during the reign of Elagabalus is due to the Roman tradition of political invective. Romans habitually accused their enemies of whatever outrageous behaviour they thought might be credible, regardless of the actual truth. The histories we have of Elagabalus are from the deeply suspect and unreliable Historia Augusta and from the usually solid Cassius Dio. However, Dio personally knew and loathed Elagabalus, and he was later committed to the regime which afterwards deposed and killed him. Therefore it was very much in Dio's personal interest to blacken the name of the former emperor as much as he could. Thus what we know of Elagabalus was written by those with every motive to libel and defame their subject and who had no reason to be concerned with the truth.
We do know that over the four years of Elagabalus' reign the empire as a whole was kept on an even keel. A series of minor revolts flared up after Macrinus was deposed and killed, but these were dealt with swiftly and competently. A hostile historical tradition says that these revolts were caused by dismayed soldiers who had just discovered what their new emperor was actually like. However, it seems more likely that these were opportunistic attempts by usurpers to grab power during troubled times. Perhaps the most unsettling rebellion was by III Gallica - the very unit which had originally supported Elagabalus' rise to power. The leader of the uprising was executed and Elagabalus ordered the unit disbanded.
Once in power Elagabalus - or more probably his mother and grandmother - ordered a purge of Macrinus' supporters. Gannys, the architect of Elagabalus' early victories, was also speedily disposed of once the new regime was in power. The reasons are obscure, and the stated motive; that 'he tried to urge the new emperor to temperance and moderation' is suspect. Possibly Gannys presumed too much on his new power. Those allies who trod more carefully, such as Comazon, the original commander of III Gallica when it had first endorsed Elagabalus, were rewarded with honours and power, much to the resentment of the senate.
The arbitrary nature of some executions may have been been deliberately intended to create an atmosphere of terror among those opposed to the regime. In once case two leading senators were executed, and a message from Elagabalus was sent to the senate saying, 'I have sent you no proof of their conspiracy, as doing so would be pointless. The men are already dead.'
Imperial finances were controlled by depreciating the value of the denarius and by a foreign policy which avoided expensive wars. (According to Dio, this financial restraint was due to the fact that the treasury was empty in any case.) Perhaps for the same reason, apart from a splendid temple for his god on the Palatine, Elagabalus did not embark on any expensive building projects. The magnificent baths started by Caracalla remained unfinished until the time of Elagabalus' successor.
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...
Elagabalus often appears in literature and other creative media as the epitome of a young, amoral aesthete. His life and character have informed, or at least inspired, many famous works of art by Decadents and by contemporary artists.
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.