He married a Vestal Virgin, took male lovers and sought out anyone who could provide him with a vagina
Imagine a Roman emperor who replaced the Roman pantheon's chief deity who claimed that marrying a vestal virgin would produce god-like children and who wore makeup and wigs to a brothel.
Such an emperor would be the stuff of legends or be widely exaggerated, right? Well, all of these things happened under the name of one man — Elagabalus.
Coming to power at the tender age of fourteen, he ruled for four years before being assassinated. But during that time, he lived an incredibly colourful life.
Rise to Power
Elagabalus was born in 204 to a prominent Arab family that was closely related to the Severan dynasty. Growing up in Emesa, Syria, his family held hereditary rights to the priesthood of the sun god Elagabal which Elagabalus inherited.
From an early age, he was the high priest and lived a fairly ordinary, albeit privileged, life. However, unbeknownst to him was the fact that his family had been scheming to put him on the throne. They had been exiled by the new emperor, Macrinus so that they wouldn’t pose a threat to his power, but Elagabalalus’s grandmother, Julia Maesa, was having none of it.
She spread rumours about how her grandson was the illegitimate son of former emperor Caracalla. Using her influence to win over several Roman generals, she managed to succeed in creating a revolt.
Without even lifting a finger himself, both the legions and the senate accepted him, and the fourteen-year-old Elagabalus was elevated to the most powerful position in Rome.
But this was when his eccentric side started to appear. Was it because he thought everyone supported him? Because of his youth or something else?
He Spat on Roman Traditions
To become emperor, Elagabalus had to make the long and arduous trek from Syria to Rome. Along the way, he and his entourage quelled rebellions and executed a few people. All normal activities, but when he got to Rome, things seemed to take a turn for the worst.
Roman historian Dio stated that Elagabalus wanted to marry a charioteer named Hierocles and declare him Ceasar, co-emperor. Previously, he wanted to marry his tutor, Gannys, and somehow, a third man was involved as well; the athlete Aurelius Zoticos.
Unfortunately for the latter, a political soap drama ensued where Hierocles, becoming jealous, had him drugged and exiled from the court. It probably didn’t help that Zoticos was reportedly unable to perform for the emperor anyway.
Elagabalus clearly had a fondness for men, but this wasn’t the only thing that angered contemporary Romans. He was incredibly close to his mother and grandmother, whom he personally invited to the senate for meetings. Roman women were barred from attending the Senate, yet Elagabalus honoured them with senatorial titles, including Mater Castrorum et Senatus. (Mother of the army camp and of the Senate)
After ascending to the throne, he made yet another insult. Since he was still the high priest, he decreed that the sun god Elagabal would become the chief deity of the Roman pantheon.
But Elagabal was a foreign god. To replace Jupiter and for an emperor to become a high priest was a huge slap in the face for ordinary Romans.
And he didn’t stop there with the religious scandals. He married a Vestal Virgin, but not just anyone; he married Aquilla Severa, Vesta’s high priestess. Roman tradition held that any Vestal Virgin found to have engaged in sexual intercourse should be buried alive, so for a Roman emperor to marry one was a blatant violation.
You’d think such a man would try to cover these crimes through lavish parties and hosting games, right? Well, to prove his piety, Elagabalus supposedly had himself circumcised and swore to abstain from… swine.
His grandmother, realising that she had made a terrible mistake, schemed again to have him removed from power, but this didn’t stop Elagabalus from pursuing ever more eccentric pursuits.
Elagabalus’s Pursuits of Intimacy and Excess
Elagabalus was a man of extreme excess. He would host summer banquets with different colours and obsessed over luxuries like silver urns with lewd designs.
‘one day a green banquet, another day an iridescent one, and next in order a blue one, varying them continually every day of the summer’
He refused to swim in pools unless they were perfumed with saffron, insisted that all of his cushions were stuffed with rabbit fur or partridge feathers and would strew flowers wherever he walked so that his feet would remain soft.
He commissioned couches made of pure silver, ate exotic animal parts thinking it would make him immune to the plague and kept lions and leopards as pets. They were even fed goose liver and trained to become harmless, much to the surprise of his dinner guests.
Countless other stories of how he wore cloaks made of gold and how he lavished his shoes with jewels tell us the story of a man who was incredibly vain and self-centred.
To fund all of these extravagant expenses, Elagabalus debased the currency and caused a monetary crisis. He squandered significant sums from the treasury to fund his lifestyle, something that he didn’t have to live long enough to deal with.
It’s hard to believe everything that was written about Elagabalus. He wasn’t exactly popular, and there were claims that he had married five times. Oh, and he had numerous male lovers during that time too.
The historian Dio specifically calls Elagaban out as the submissive because he ‘delighted in being called Hierocles’s mistress, wife and queen.’
One of the reasons for this was that Elagabalus was proud of his good looks and tried to model himself of the goddess Venus. He wore women’s clothing and jewellery and even asked Hierocles to beat him when he was caught in the act of infidelity.
‘For he wished to have the reputation of committing adultery, so that in this respect, too, he might imitate the most lewd women; and he would often allow himself to be caught in the very act, in consequence of which he used to be violently upbraided by his “husband” and beaten, so that he had black eyes.’
His relationship with Hierocles infuriated the legions, and he was one of the first to be killed after the emperor was assassinated. But this wasn’t the emperor’s only secret.
He reportedly wore makeup and wigs, preferred to be called a lady and frequented brothels and taverns where he would act as a prostitute. He even tried to seduce members of the Praetorian Guard and would ‘send out agents to search for those who had particularly large organs and bring them to the palace in order that he might enjoy their vigour.’
In fact, some writers view him as an early transgender figure because he offered vast sums to any physician who could provide him with a vagina. Of course, he never had this wish fulfilled, and we don’t know if he ever would because eventually, the Romans had enough.
When Elabagalus was persuaded by his family to name his cousin as heir, he ordered his execution, viewing him as a threat. Then, on 13 March, 222 AD, after the Praetorian Guard refused to obey, they turned on their 18-year-old emperor.
‘…they fell upon Elagabalus himself and slew him in a latrine in which he had taken refuge. Then his body was dragged through the streets, and the soldiers further insulted it by thrusting it into a sewer. But since the sewer chanced to be too small to admit the corpse, they attached a weight to it to keep it from floating, and hurled it … into the Tiber’
Elagabalus was clearly transgender, willing to push the boundaries of Roman morality and tradition as far as he could. His position as emperor drove him to excess, and he became one of the most hated figures in Roman society.
It’s no surprise then that a lot of what we hear are exaggerated accounts. But no one can deny that his actions had gone too far. When he was assassinated, the Senate condemned his memory. His religious changes were reversed, statues and paintings were defamed, and the Roman citizens celebrated, longing to return to their old ways.
It’s for the appalling accounts, written long after his death, that historian Warwick Bell referred to Elagabalus as ‘A tragic enigma lost behind centuries of prejudice’.