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 204. 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.