From sex scandals to religious controversy: Rome's forgotten emperor Heliogabalus
Condemned for numerous sex scandals, religious controversies and eccentric behaviour, Heliogabalus’s (sometimes called Elagabalus) reign of under four years was brief, but eventful. Harry Sidebottom explores the life and legacy of the little-known emperor – and why he is sometimes celebrated as an example of an ancient transgender person
On a mild spring night, 15 May AD 218, a small and unimpressive party slipped out of the Syrian city of Emesa (modern-day Homs) and headed for the camp of the Legio III Gallica, the Third Gallic Legion. Taking the lead was Julia Maesa, followed by her two daughters, two grandsons, a few slaves and local town councillors, and a handful of soldiers. Despite the size of her group, she had an ambitious mission: to over throw the emperor, Macrinus, and replace him with her 14-year-old grandson, Heliogabalus.
Helio… who? Throughout his life, Heliogabalus had many names. Born as Sextus (or maybe Caius) Varius Avitus Bassianus, he became known as Elagabalus in honour of the god his family worshipped, and when he did come to the throne thanks to his grandmother he adopted the name Marcus Aurelius Antoninus. He then acquired more nicknames than any other Roman emperor.
Yet whatever name he goes by, few people have heard of him or his brief reign, and those who have tend to rank him as one of Rome’s least able rulers. Heliogabalus has been unjustly forgotten. His story acts as a prism onto many of the most important themes of the empire: religion, gender and sexuality, ethnicity and racism, and the role and personality of the emperor. It is also a compelling vehicle with which to explore trends in modern thinking about ancient history.
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That night in AD 218, Maesa’s revolt had three things in its favour. Firstly, she was the aunt of the previous emperor, Caracalla. Secondly, while Caracalla had been adored by the troops, his successor – and the man implicated in his murder – Macrinus was deeply unpopular. Maesa made sure to claim that Heliogabalus was Caracalla’s illegitimate son.
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Lastly, geography was on her side: the imperial field army in the east was scattered in winter quarters. That was enough for Maesa to secure the support of the Third Gallic Legion. At dawn the next day, they declared for Heliogabalus. The Praetorian prefect Julianus hastily gathered a force against this threat, but the men deserted their commander, followed by the Legio II Parthica (Second Parthian Legion) shortly after.
Macrinus, with the main body of the Praetorian Guard, remained at Antioch, some 60 miles away. The rebels had to move fast to prevent reinforcements from reaching the emperor. On 8 June, the forces of Heliogabalus won the decisive battle near the village of Immae, 24 miles from Antioch. Macrinus lost his nerve and fled, while his army acclaimed his victor. Against the odds, Maesa had succeeded; Heliogabalus was emperor.
That is when everything went wrong. The next four years were among the strangest the Roman empire ever witnessed. The contemporary historian Cassius Dion claimed it was as if the world had been turned upside down.
If Maesa had hoped for a biddable puppet ruler in her teenage grandson, she was to be severely disappointed. Once on the throne, Heliogabalus largely ignored the army that had put him there, and far from conciliating the senatorial elite he had prominent senators executed on trumped-up charges. He preferred the company of charioteers, and his regime promoted several men of lower class to high office. In fact, it was claimed that he initially considered appointing as his heir his old tutor, who he subsequently murdered with his own hand, then a chariot driver – both of whom were ex-slaves.
Heliogabalus married four times, at least, and perhaps as many as seven. One of his wives was a Vestal Virgin. With each divorce, he alienated another noble family. And his sex life caused outrage among all sectors of society. Quite apart from bedding numerous married women, the emperor flaunted his enjoyment of having a ‘passive’ role in sex with men. In mainstream Roman thinking, a man having sex with another man was acceptable, but providing that they were the ‘active’ partner. To be penetrated was to be permanently emasculated.
Further still, rumours swirled that Heliogabalus had married a male charioteer; or that he worked as a prostitute; and that he inquired about the possibility of sexual reassignment. For that reason, he has been referred to as Rome’s transgender emperor.
But in Roman eyes, such rumours and claims were enough for Heliogabalus to be seen as eccentric and depraved. Even worse than his sexuality was his religion. From his family’s home of Emesa, he brought to Rome his ancestral god Elagabal, a sun god manifested as a large black stone. Ceremonies were self-consciously eastern, perhaps Syrian or Phoenician.
Usually, the Romans were open to the inclusion of a new god, but not in this case. Heliogabalus styled himself as Most High Priest of the Invincible Sun God Elagabal and forced the elite to participate in what they regarded as barbaric rituals, presided over by the emperor wearing “oriental” costume. He also constructed two temples to the god in Rome: one in the suburbs, but the other on the Palatine, the heart of the city.
It was in full view of the temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus, the former head of the Roman pantheon before the sun god was imposed. Heliogabalus decreed that all magistrates taking an oath had to invoke Elagabal before all other gods. To many Romans, this constituted an existential threat to the empire. They believed that the health and safety of Rome depended on the Pax deorum – the peace, or pact, with the gods – whereby if they did right by the gods, the gods would do right by them. Deposing Jupiter with an alien deity threatened Rome’s very existence.
Taking the wolf by the ears
The question now presents itself about whether all these stories revolving around Heliogabalus are verifiable. Many scholars dismiss them as no more than topoi, literary commonplaces applied to emperors as part of a posthumous condemnation of their reputation and legacy. But the claims made against Heliogabalus are unique compared to the usual accusations of incest or fighting as a gladiator. No other emperor was said to have desired a physician to give him a vagina, or to have prostituted themselves. If they were topoi, perhaps they were chosen for their appositeness, their plausibility.
The role of the emperor required skill and cunning. Tiberius reportedly described it as like holding a wolf by the ears. They had to win over four key constituencies – the senate, the army, the urban population of Rome (the plebs), and the familia Caesaris (imperial staff) – all of whom wanted different things. In an emperor, the senate sought a dignified fellow senator, a first among equals. The army desired a fellow soldier, someone who marched with them and sat on the ground to eat with them.
The plebs wanted a man of the people: one who shared their pleasures and who would be a welcoming and fatherly presence in public, such as at the games. As for the familia Caesaris, they looked for a hierarchic figurehead, who would remain distant from other groups and hedged round with court ceremonial devised by themselves. Heliogabalus satisfied none of these four groups.
Following years of extravagant misrule, his grandmother Julia Maesa had grown worried. If the emperor was overthrown, the best that she could hope for was exile – something she had experienced before – but more likely was that she would be killed. Much like she had in AD 218, she needed to act decisively. On 26 June AD 221, on Maesa’s persuasion, Heliogabalus adopted her other grandson, his cousin Alexander, as his heir.
No sooner was the adoption done, and Alexander granted the title of Caesar, that Heliogabalus regretted the move. He attempted to remove his teenage heir from public life; when that failed, he ordered that he be assassinated. While Maesa managed to broker a form of public reconciliation, the embattled emperor continued to manoeuvre against Alexander and announced that he hoped to have a natural son of his own. That led to nothing.
On 13 March AD 222, the Praetorian Guard requested the presence of both Heliogabalus and Alexander in their camp. The latter was received by cheers from the soldiers, while the emperor entered to hostile silence. The next morning, after a night fuming in the camp shrine, he ordered the arrest of the ringleaders of this act of insubordination. Initially, he was obeyed. But when the guardsmen moved to release their comrades, Heliogabalus realised the extent of the danger he was in.
He attempted to escape the camp by being smuggled out in a chest. The Praetorian Guard quickly discovered their hidden emperor, who was then hauled out and killed. His mother, who clung on to Heliogabalus, was similarly butchered. His short-lived reign was over. Maesa watched as the corpses of her daughter and grandson, who she had put on the throne, were stripped naked, beheaded and dragged through the streets with iron hooks. Heliogabalus’s closest associated were hunted down. With Alexander proclaimed emperor, Maesa finally had what she wanted: a young docile emperor through whom she could rule.
As for Heliogabalus, he had a difficult afterlife. His memory was officially condemned and after the fall of Rome in the west he was totally forgotten. It was only with the rediscovery of classical texts during the Renaissance that he re-emerged, but as one of the most depraved tyrants of the Roman empire. Yet in the late-19th century, the image of Heliogabalus was somewhat rehabilitated when the Decadent movement in Europe claimed him as one of their own: a sensual hedonist who despised bourgeois morality.
This was the intellectual background to the famous painting by the Dutch artist Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, The Roses of Heliogabalus (1888). On those rare occasions where the forgotten emperor can be glimpsed in modern culture, it is always through the prism of this painting, where Heliogabalus watches at a banquet as guests are showered with rose petals. But even Heliogabalus deserves more than that.
Harry Sidebottom is a tutor in ancient history and lecturer at the University of Oxford. Among his fiction and non-fiction works is The Mad Emperor: Heliogabalus and the Decadence of Rome (Oneworld, 2022)
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