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Elagabalus : Bringing the Syrian sun god to Rome

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The Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus, later named Elagabalus of Heliogabalus, was barely fourteen years old when he became emperor (AD 218-222). He was succeeded by his cousin Alexander Severus only four years later. He was Syrian on his mother's side and was a part of the Severan dynasty.

 

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This decadent and bizarre boy-emperor brought with him to the city of Rome the Syrian cult of Elagabal. Elagabalus, named after the deity, was the high priest of this cult. The cult of Elagabal was originally from Emesa (modern Homs), Syria.

 

As explained from Wikipedia, his name has an interesting derivation:

The name is the Latinized form of the Syrian Ilah hag-Gabal, which derives from Ilah ("god") and gabal ("mountain"),... resulting in "the God of the Mountain" the Emesene manifestation of the deity.

Interestingly enough, although the cult of Elagabal might be the cult of "the God of the Mountain," there are no large mountains near Emesa, Syria.

 

While reading Martijn Icks' The Crimes of Elagabalus: The Life and Legacy of Rome's Decadent Boy Emperor, I came upon this interesting passage:

 

Mountain gods were worshipped mainly in Anatolia and the northern parts of Syria, in some cases up until imperial times. They were of a powerful, celestial nature, and were often likened to Zeus / Jupiter. From well before the period of Greek civilization, many mountain gods were symbolized by an eagle. The god of Mount Argaios, which features on coins from [Cappadoccia] is sometimes depicted as a stone or mountain with an eagle on top. Several Emesene coins depict Elagabal in a similar manner. Others show a big conical stone and eagle in a temple.

This reminds me of a previous post in the past on the significance of Mount Argaeus:

http://www.unrv.com/forum/topic/11560-mount-argaeus-on-coins/

 

A black conical stone played a prominent role with this cult (from Wikipedia):

 

A temple called the Elagabalium was built on the east face of the Palatine Hill, to house the holy stone of the Emesa temple, a black conical meteorite.

 

Herodian writes of that stone:

 

This stone is worshipped as though it were sent from heaven; on it there are some small projecting pieces and markings that are pointed out, which the people would like to believe are a rough picture of the sun, because this is how they see them.

post-3665-0-92346900-1348976547_thumb.png

Hexastyle temple containing the conical stone of Elagabal (ornamented with a facing eagle) on a later bronze coin by potential Roman usurper Uranius from Emesa.***

 

Icks describes how this God of the Mountain later developed into a Syrian sun god.

 

A large stone seems like an appropriate home for a mountain god. However, both Dio and Herodian make it clear that Elagabal, at least by the third century CE, was a sun god. Herodian records that some small projecting pieces and markings on the stone were believed to be a rough picture of the sun. The stone itself was said to have fallen from heaven. Perhaps it was believed to come from the sun. When Elagabalus brought Elagabal to Rome, the deity was exclusively represented as a sun god.. Several of Elagabalus's coins bear the legend SANCT(O) DEO SOLI ELAGABAL(O) and the emperor styled himself sacerdos amplissimus dei invicti Solis Elagabali.

post-3665-0-73725200-1348976529_thumb.png

Roman aureus depicting Elagabalus. The reverse reads SANCT DEO SOLI ELAGABAL (Holy Sun God Elagabal), and depicts a four-horse chariot [the quadriga is a traditional Roman image] shaded by four umbrellas carrying the sacred stone of Emesa.

 

Here are other examples of similar coins from Wildwinds.com:

 

http://www.wildwinds.com/coins/sear5/s7545.t.html

 

The introduction of the foreign cult of Elagabal was probably not popular among most of the elite in traditional Roman society. Elagabalus flouted Roman law and tradition by elevating the cult of Elagalabus in the Roman pantheon and by marrying a vestal virgin.

 

With Elagalabus's assassination in AD 222, the cult of Elagabal lost its patronage in Rome and the religious transformations were quickly reversed. The black stone of Elagabal was returned to Emesa.

 

Numismatic evidence sheds light on this turbulent and confusing period of Roman history.

 

 

guy also known as gaius

 

***For more information on Uranius, the potential usurper from Emesa, read this previous post:

 

http://www.unrv.com/forum/topic/14589-uranius-antoninus-little-known-usurper/

 

 

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Edited by guy
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Great post G. I absolutely love this small numismatic excursions :)

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Yup, its really great to see this kind of posts from guy

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Syrian religions, and there were all sorts of little and often weird cults, were something of a fashion in Rome. Noticeably however it was one thing for someone to take part in exotic rites, quite another to have the Roman head of state do likewise and even worse, do it openly in defiance of tradition. But then, the young lad was not doing what the elite of Rome thought he should be. By going off on a tangent, he was almost certain to meet a sticky end. Had he not been so obsessed and committed, and had he done more to please the elite diplomatically, all might have been different. There were two kinds of Caesar that didn't last long - those who tried without support, and those who didn't even bother to try.

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