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Marcus Aurelius Antoninus – Elagabalus

Elagabalus the Emperor

Caesar: May AD 218 - July 222 (b. Sept AD 203 - d. 222)

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.

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Did you know?

The four short years of Elagabalus’s rule have generated nearly two millennia of sustained attention, from salacious rumor to scholarly analysis to novels.


Elagabalus the Emperor - Related Topic: Roman Syria


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