Elagabalus AD 218-222 Silver Antoninianus
Rome mint AD 221
Obv: IMP ANTONINVS AVG - Radiate bust right, draped
Rev: IOVI CONSERVATORI - Jupiter standing left, holding
thunderbolt and reversed spear, at his feet to the
left, an eagle,
and behind him on the right, one Legionary standard
RIC IVii, 91b, page 34 - Cohen 68
Elagabalus, also known as Heliogabalus (Latin: Marcus Aurelius Antoninus
Augustus; c. 203 – March 11, 222), was Roman emperor from 218 to 222.
A member of the Severan dynasty, he was Syrian, the second son of Julia
Soaemias and Sextus Varius Marcellus. In his early youth he served
as a priest of the god Elagabal in the hometown of his mother's family,
Emesa. As a private citizen, he was probably named Sextus Varius
Avitus Bassianus. Upon becoming emperor he took the name Marcus Aurelius
Antoninus Augustus. He was called Elagabalus only after his death.
In 217, the emperor Caracalla was assassinated and replaced by his Praetorian
prefect, Marcus Opellius Macrinus. Caracalla's maternal aunt, Julia
Maesa, successfully instigated a revolt among the Legio III Gallica to
have her eldest grandson (and Caracalla's cousin), Elagabalus, declared
emperor in his place. Macrinus was defeated on 8 June 218 at the
Battle of Antioch. Elagabalus, barely 14 years old, became emperor,
initiating a reign remembered mainly for sex scandals and religious controversy.
Later historians suggest Elagabalus showed a disregard for Roman religious
traditions and sexual taboos. He replaced the traditional head of
the Roman pantheon, Jupiter, with the deity of whom he was high priest,
Elagabalus. He forced leading members of Rome's government to participate
in religious rites celebrating this deity, over which he personally presided.
Elagabalus was supposedly "married" as many as five times, lavished favours
on male courtiers popularly thought to have been his lovers, and was reported
to have prostituted himself in the imperial palace. His behavior
estranged the Praetorian Guard, the Senate, and the common people alike.
Amidst growing opposition, Elagabalus, just 18 years old, was assassinated
and replaced by his cousin Severus Alexander on 11 March 222, in a plot
formulated by his grandmother, Julia Maesa, and carried out by disaffected
members of the Praetorian Guard.
Elagabalus developed a reputation among his contemporaries for extreme
eccentricity, decadence, and zealotry. This tradition has persisted,
and with writers of the early modern age he suffers one of the worst reputations
among Roman emperors. Edward Gibbon, for example, wrote that Elagabalus
"abandoned himself to the grossest pleasures and ungoverned fury".
According to Barthold Georg Niebuhr, "The name Elagabalus is branded in
history above all others" because of his "unspeakably disgusting life".
Family and priesthood:
Elagabalus was born around the year 203 to Sextus Varius Marcellus and
Julia Soaemias Bassiana. His father was initially a member of the
Equites class, but was later elevated to the rank of senator. His
grandmother, Julia Maesa, was the widow of the consul Julius Avitus, the
sister of Julia Domna, and the sister-in-law of the emperor Septimius Severus.
He had at least one sibling: an unnamed elder brother. His mother,
Julia Soaemias, was a cousin of the Roman emperor Caracalla. His
other relatives included his aunt Julia Avita Mamaea and uncle Marcus Julius
Gessius Marcianus and among their children, their son Severus Alexander.
Elagabalus's family held hereditary rights to the priesthood of the sun
god Elagabal, of whom Elagabalus was the high priest at Emesa (modern Homs)
in Roman Syria.
The deity Elagabalus was initially venerated at Emesa. This form
of the god's name is a Latinized version of the Syrian Il?h hag-Gabal,
which derives from Il?h (a Semitic word for "god") and gabal (an Aramaic
word for "mountain"), resulting in "the God of the Mountain," the Emesene
manifestation of the deity. The cult of the deity spread to other
parts of the Roman Empire in the 2nd century; a dedication has been found
as far away as Woerden (Netherlands), near the Roman limes. The god
was later imported and assimilated with the Roman sun god known as Sol
Indiges in republican times and as Sol Invictus during the second and third
centuries CE. In Greek the sun god is Helios, hence "Heliogabalus",
a hybrid conjunction of "Helios" and "Elagabalus".
Rise to power:
When the emperor Macrinus came to power, he suppressed the threat against
his reign from the family of his assassinated predecessor, Caracalla, by
exiling them—Julia Maesa, her two daughters, and her eldest grandson Elagabalus—to
their estate at Emesa in Syria. Almost upon arrival in Syria, Maesa
began a plot with her advisor and Elagabalus' tutor Gannys, to overthrow
Macrinus and elevate the fourteen-year-old Elagabalus to the imperial throne.
His mother publicly declared that he was the illegitimate son of Caracalla,
therefore due the loyalties of Roman soldiers and senators who had sworn
allegiance to Caracalla. After Julia Maesa displayed her wealth to
the Third Legion at Raphana they swore allegiance to Elagabalus.
At sunrise on 16 May 218, Publius Valerius Comazon, commander of the legion,
declared him emperor. To strengthen his legitimacy through further
propaganda, Elagabalus assumed Caracalla's names, Marcus Aurelius Antoninus.
In response Macrinus dispatched his Praetorian prefect Ulpius Julianus
to the region with a contingent of troops he considered strong enough to
crush the rebellion. However, this force soon joined the faction
of Elagabalus when, during the battle, they turned on their own commanders.
The officers were killed and Julianus' head was sent back to the emperor.
Macrinus now sent letters to the Senate denouncing Elagabalus as the False
Antoninus and claiming he was insane. Both consuls and other high-ranking
members of Rome's leadership condemned Elagabalus, and the Senate subsequently
declared war on both Elagabalus and Julia Maesa.
Macrinus and his son, weakened by the desertion of the Second Legion due
to bribes and promises circulated by Julia Maesa, were defeated on 8 June
218 at the Battle of Antioch by troops commanded by Gannys. Macrinus
fled toward Italy, disguised as a courier, but was later intercepted near
Chalcedon and executed in Cappadocia. His son Diadumenianus, sent
for safety to the Parthian court, was captured at Zeugma and also put to
Elagabalus declared the date of the victory at Antioch to be the beginning
of his reign and assumed the imperial titles without prior senatorial approval,
which violated tradition but was a common practice among 3rd-century emperors
nonetheless. Letters of reconciliation were dispatched to Rome extending
amnesty to the Senate and recognizing the laws, while also condemning the
administration of Macrinus and his son.
The senators responded by acknowledging Elagabalus as emperor and accepting
his claim to be the son of Caracalla. Caracalla and Julia Domna were
both deified by the Senate, both Julia Maesa and Julia Soaemias were elevated
to the rank of Augustae, and the memory of both Macrinus and Diadumenianus
was condemned by the Senate. The former commander of the Third Legion,
Comazon, was appointed commander of the Praetorian Guard.
Elagabalus and his entourage spent the winter of 218 in Bithynia at Nicomedia,
where the emperor's religious beliefs first presented themselves as a problem.
The contemporary historian Cassius Dio suggests that Gannys was in fact
killed by the new emperor because he was forcing Elagabalus to live "temperately
and prudently". To help Romans adjust to the idea of having an oriental
priest as emperor, Julia Maesa had a painting of Elagabalus in priestly
robes sent to Rome and hung over a statue of the goddess Victoria in the
Senate House. This placed senators in the awkward position of having
to make offerings to Elagabalus whenever they made offerings to Victoria.
The legions were dismayed by his behaviour and quickly came to regret having
supported his accession. While Elagabalus was still on his way to
Rome, brief revolts broke out by the Fourth Legion at the instigation of
Gellius Maximus, and by the Third Legion, which itself had been responsible
for the elevation of Elagabalus to the throne, under the command of Senator
Verus. The rebellion was quickly put down, and the Third Legion disbanded.
When the entourage reached Rome in the autumn of 219, Comazon and other
allies of Julia Maesa and Elagabalus were given powerful and lucrative
positions, to the consternation of many senators who did not consider them
worthy of such privileges. After his tenure as Praetorian prefect,
Comazon would serve as the city prefect of Rome three times, and as consul
twice. Elagabalus soon devalued the Roman currency. He decreased
the silver purity of the denarius from 58% to 46.5% — the actual silver
weight dropping from 1.82 grams to 1.41 grams. He also demonetized
the antoninianus during this period in Rome.
Elagabalus tried to have his presumed lover, the charioteer Hierocles,
declared Caesar, while another alleged lover, the athlete Aurelius Zoticus,
was appointed to the non-administrative but influential position of Master
of the Chamber, or Cubicularius. His offer of amnesty for the Roman
upper class was largely honoured, though the jurist Ulpian was exiled.
The relationships between Julia Maesa, Julia Soaemias and Elagabalus, were
strong at first. His mother and grandmother became the first women
to be allowed into the Senate, and both received senatorial titles: Soaemias
the established title of Clarissima, and Maesa the more unorthodox Mater
Castrorum et Senatus ("Mother of the army camp and of the Senate").
They held the title of Augusta as well, indicating that they may have been
the power behind the throne. Indeed, they held much influence over
the young emperor throughout his reign, and can be found on many coins
and inscriptions - a rare honor for Roman women.
Since the reign of Septimius Severus, sun worship had increased throughout
the Empire. Elagabalus saw this as an opportunity to install Elagabal
as the chief deity of the Roman pantheon. The god was renamed Deus
Sol Invictus, meaning God the Undefeated Sun, and honored above Jupiter.
As a token of respect for Roman religion, however, Elagabalus joined either
Astarte, Minerva, Urania, or some combination of the three to Elagabal
as wife. A union between Elagabal and a traditional goddess would
have served to strengthen ties between the new religion and the imperial
cult. In fact, there may have been an effort to introduce Elagabal,
Urania, and Athena as the new triad of Rome - replacing that of Jupiter,
Juno, and Minerva.
He stirred further discontent when he himself married the Vestal Virgin
Aquilia Severa, claiming the marriage would produce "godlike children".
This was a flagrant breach of Roman law and tradition, which held that
any Vestal found to have engaged in sexual intercourse was to be buried
A lavish temple called the Elagabalium was built on the east face of the
Palatine Hill to house Elagabal, who was represented by a black conical
meteorite from Emesa. Herodian wrote "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".
In order to become the high priest of his new religion, Elagabalus had
himself circumcised. He forced senators to watch while he danced
around the altar of Deus Sol Invictus to the accompaniment of drums and
cymbals. Each summer solstice he held a festival dedicated to the
god, which became popular with the masses because of the free food distributed
on such occasions. During this festival, Elagabalus placed the Emesa
stone on a chariot adorned with gold and jewels, which he paraded through
A six horse chariot carried the
divinity, the horses huge and flawlessly white, with expensive gold fittings
and rich ornaments. No one held the reins, and no one rode in the
chariot; the vehicle was escorted as if the god himself were the charioteer.
Elagabalus ran backward in front of the chariot, facing the god and holding
the horses' reins. He made the whole journey in this reverse fashion,
looking up into the face of his god.
The most sacred relics from the Roman religion were transferred from their
respective shrines to the Elagabalium, including the emblem of the Great
Mother, the fire of Vesta, the Shields of the Salii and the Palladium,
so that no other god could be worshipped except in concert with Elagabal.
The question of Elagabalus' sexual orientation is confused, owing to salacious
and unreliable sources. Elagabalus married and divorced five women,
three of whom are known. His first wife was Julia Cornelia Paula;
the second was the Vestal Virgin Julia Aquilia Severa.
Within a year, he abandoned her and married Annia Aurelia Faustina, a descendant
of Marcus Aurelius and the widow of a man he had recently had executed.
He had returned to his second wife Severa by the end of the year.
According to Cassius Dio, his most stable relationship seems to have been
with his chariot driver, a blond slave from Caria named Hierocles, whom
he referred to as his husband.
The Augustan History claims that he also married a man named Zoticus, an
athlete from Smyrna, in a public ceremony at Rome. Cassius Dio reported
that Elagabalus would paint his eyes, epilate his hair and wear wigs before
prostituting himself in taverns, brothels, and even in the imperial palace:
Finally, he set aside a room in
the palace and there committed his indecencies, always standing nude at
the door of the room, as the harlots do, and shaking the curtain which
hung from gold rings, while in a soft and melting voice he solicited the
passers-by. There were, of course, men who had been specially instructed
to play their part. For, as in other matters, so in this business,
too, he had numerous agents who sought out those who could best please
him by their foulness. He would collect money from his patrons and
give himself airs over his gains; he would also dispute with his associates
in this shameful occupation, claiming that he had more lovers than they
and took in more money.
Herodian commented that Elagabalus enhanced his natural good looks by the
regular application of cosmetics. He was described as having been
"delighted to be called the mistress, the wife, the queen of Hierocles"
and was reported to have offered vast sums of money to any physician who
could equip him with female genitalia. Elagabalus has been characterized
by some modern writers as transgender, perhaps transsexual.
Fall from power:
By 221 Elagabalus' eccentricities, particularly his relationship with Hierocles,
increasingly provoked the soldiers of the Praetorian Guard. When
Elagabalus' grandmother Julia Maesa perceived that popular support for
the emperor was waning, she decided that he and his mother, who had encouraged
his religious practices, had to be replaced. As alternatives, she
turned to her other daughter, Julia Avita Mamaea, and her daughter's son,
the thirteen-year-old Severus Alexander.
Prevailing on Elagabalus, she arranged that he appoint his cousin Alexander
as his heir and that the boy be given the title of Caesar. Alexander
shared the consulship with the emperor that year. However, Elagabalus
reconsidered this arrangement when he began to suspect that the Praetorian
Guard preferred his cousin over himself.
Following the failure of various attempts on Alexander's life, Elagabalus
stripped his cousin of his titles, revoked his consulship, and circulated
the news that Alexander was near death, in order to see how the Praetorians
would react. A riot ensued, and the guard demanded to see Elagabalus
and Alexander in the Praetorian camp.
The emperor complied and on 11 March 222 he publicly presented his cousin
along with his own mother, Julia Soaemias. On their arrival the soldiers
started cheering Alexander while ignoring Elagabalus, who ordered the summary
arrest and execution of anyone who had taken part in this display of insubordination.
In response, members of the Praetorian Guard attacked Elagabalus and his
So he made an attempt to flee, and
would have got away somewhere by being placed in a chest, had he not been
discovered and slain, at the age of 18. His mother, who embraced
him and clung tightly to him, perished with him; their heads were cut off
and their bodies, after being stripped naked, were first dragged all over
the city, then the mother's body was cast aside somewhere or other while
his was thrown into the [Tiber].
Following his assassination, many associates of Elagabalus were killed
or deposed, including his lover Hierocles. His religious edicts were
reversed and the stone of Elagabal was sent back to Emesa. Women
were again barred from attending meetings of the Senate. The practice
of damnatio memoriae—erasing from the public record a disgraced personage
formerly of note—was systematically applied in his case.
The source of many of these stories of Elagabalus's depravity is the Augustan
History (Historia Augusta), which includes controversial claims.
The Historia Augusta was most likely written toward the end of the 4th
century during the reign of emperor Theodosius I. The life of Elagabalus
as described in the Augustan History is of uncertain historical merit.
Sections 13 to 17, relating to the fall of Elagabalus, are less controversial
Sources often considered more credible than the Augustan History include
the historians of the time, Cassius Dio and Herodian. Cassius Dio
lived from the second half of the 2nd century until sometime after 229.
Born into a patrician family, he spent the greater part of his life in
public service. He was a senator under emperor Commodus and governor
of Smyrna after the death of Septimius Severus. Afterwards he served
as suffect consul around 205, and as proconsul in Africa and Pannonia.
Severus Alexander held him in high esteem and made him his consul again.
His Roman History spans nearly a millennium, from the arrival of Aeneas
in Italy until the year 229. As a contemporary of Elagabalus, Cassius
Dio's account of his reign is generally considered more reliable than the
Augustan History, although by his own admission Dio spent the greater part
of the relevant period outside of Rome and had to rely on second-hand accounts.
Furthermore, the political climate in the aftermath of Elagabalus' reign,
as well as Dio's own position within the government of Alexander, likely
influenced the truth of this part of his history for the worse. Dio
regularly refers to Elagabalus as Sardanapalus, partly to distinguish him
from his divine namesake, but chiefly to do his part in maintaining the
damnatio memoriae and to associate him with another autocrat notorious
for a dissolute life.
Another contemporary of Elagabalus' was Herodian, a minor Roman civil servant
who lived from c. 170 until 240. His work, History of the Roman Empire
since Marcus Aurelius, commonly abbreviated as Roman History, is an eyewitness
account of the reign of Commodus until the beginning of the reign of Gordian
III. His work largely overlaps with Dio's own Roman History, but
both texts seem to be independently consistent with each other.
Although Herodian is not deemed as reliable as Cassius Dio, his lack of
literary and scholarly pretensions make him less biased than senatorial
historians. Herodian is considered the most important source for
the religious reforms which took place during the reign of Elagabalus,
which have been confirmed by numismatic and archaeological evidence.
Edward Gibbon and later historians:
For readers of the modern age, The History of the Decline and Fall of the
Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon (1737–94) further cemented the scandalous
reputation of Elagabalus. Gibbon not only accepted and expressed
outrage at the allegations of the ancient historians, but he might have
added some details of his own; he is the first historian known to state
that Gannys was a eunuch, for example. Gibbon wrote:
To confound the order of the season
and climate, to sport with the passions and prejudices of his subjects,
and to subvert every law of nature and decency, were in the number of his
most delicious amusements. A long train of concubines, and a rapid
succession of wives, among whom was a vestal virgin, ravished by force
from her sacred asylum, were insufficient to satisfy the impotence of his
passions. The master of the Roman world affected to copy the manners
and dress of the female sex, preferring the distaff to the sceptre, and
dishonored the principal dignities of the empire by distributing them among
his numerous lovers; one of whom was publicly invested with the title and
authority of the emperor's, or, as he more properly styled himself, the
empress's husband. It may seem probable, the vices and follies of
Elagabalus have been adorned by fancy, and blackened by prejudice.
Yet, confining ourselves to the public scenes displayed before the Roman
people, and attested by grave and contemporary historians, their inexpressible
infamy surpasses that of any other age or country.
Two hundred years after the age
of Pliny, the use of pure, or even of mixed silks, was confined to the
female sex, till the opulent citizens of Rome and the provinces were insensibly
familiarized with the example of Elagabalus, the first who, by this effeminate
habit, had sullied the dignity of an emperor and a man.
Some recent historians argue for a more favourable picture of the emperor's
life and reign. For example, Martijn Icks, in Images of Elagabalus
(2008; republished as The Crimes of Elagabalus in 2012), doubts the reliability
of the ancient sources and argues that it was the emperor's unorthodox
religious policies that alienated the power elite of Rome, to the point
that his grandmother saw fit to eliminate him and replace him with his
cousin. Leonardo de Arrizabalaga y Prado, in The Emperor Elagabalus:
Fact or Fiction? (2008), is also critical of the ancient historians and
speculates that neither religion nor sexuality played a role in the fall
of the young emperor, who was simply the loser in a power struggle within
the imperial family; the loyalty of the Praetorian Guards was up for sale,
and Julia Maesa had the resources to outmaneuver and outbribe her grandson.
According to this version, once Elagabalus, his mother, and his immediate
circle had been murdered, a wholesale propaganda war against his memory
resulted in a vicious caricature which has persisted to the present, repeated
and often embellished by later historians displaying their own prejudices
against effeminacy and other vices which Elagabalus had come to epitomize.
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