The Crimes of Elagabalus: The Life and Legacy of Rome's Decadent Boy Emperor

Judith Weingarten on whether a teenage ruler's antics were as depraved as we've been told

November 10, 2011

This is a serious, stimulating study of Elagabalus (also known as Heliogabalus), who should be ranked with the likes of Nero and Caligula in the Roman notoriety stakes. From his fevered worship of an exotic Syrian sun-god (Elagabal, from whom he got his nickname), to presiding over child sacrifices and his insatiable sexual appetites, Elagabalus is a dream to write about. As Martijn Icks says: "Even if only a fraction of these tales is true, Elagabalus must have been one of the most intriguing and unusual characters ever to sit on the Roman throne."

But is even a fraction true? Except for his devotion to Elagabal, almost certainly not. Of course, that is no reason not to retell the stories of his sexual depravity, orgiastic rituals, male and female lovers - we know two boyfriends by name, one of whom he "married", along with a trio of female spouses that included a Vestal Virgin - and the fact that he wore make-up, dressed in female clothes and prostituted himself. The sources are insistent: in just four short years (AD218-222), Elagabalus turned Roman virtues upside down. He was 14 years old when he became emperor and 18 when the Praetorians murdered him and threw his body, along with that of his mother, into the sewers.

Elagabalus claimed to be Emperor Severus' grandson and the bastard son of Caracalla, who had been assassinated a year earlier, presumably by the usurper Macrinus. The boy was pushed forward as a legitimate scion of the Severan dynasty by his grandmother, the ultra-wealthy Julia Maesa (sister of Severus' wife, the recently deceased Empress Julia Domna). More Julias are at hand: Julia Soaemias, Elagabalus' mother, and Julia Mammaea, her sister and the mother of the boy who replaced Elagabalus in AD222. Icks has little time for the Gang of Julias, although literary sources are unanimous that Maesa was the real power behind the throne, and it seems certain that she was supported, first in rebellion and then in the rule of her grandsons, by senators of Libyan and Syrian origin, all Severan appointees.

It is highly unlikely that decisions made in the name of Elagabalus were actually taken by the boy. If there is one thing he did do personally (presumably besides sex), it was the worship of his Syrian sun-god. He had been the god's high priest in Syria and the cult moved with him to Rome. In AD220, the Senate voted him the title "Most magnificent priest of the invincible sun-god Elagabal", which took precedence over the time-honoured "Pontifex Maximus" (the priestly title claimed by emperors from Augustus onwards), just as the new god replaced Jupiter as head of the Roman pantheon. The emperor's role in this new religion led to gross misunderstandings and ultimately to his downfall.

Instead of representing the best of "Roman values", the emperor was an "Oriental". He wore the garb of a Syrian priest, a long-sleeved tunic down to his feet that was easily confused with female dress; and he made up his face and danced around the altar to the sound of cymbals and drums. As he was circumcised, gossips claimed that he wished to castrate himself, in further proof of Oriental effeminacy. Indeed, the list of un-Roman offences ascribed to the ruler nicknamed "the Assyrian" is almost endless. On a practical level, too, the demands of his god left him no time for state affairs. Before long, Maesa put her other grandson, Alexander Severus, into the breach. The Praetorians did the rest.

The second half of the book takes us on a tour of Elagabalus' reception through the ages. Needless to say, a sex-mad evil Oriental tyrant did not get a good press, whether dressed up by German academics ("The late revenge of the Semites on Greco-Roman culture, whose chains it had silently worn for centuries") or French psychiatrists ("As the victim of a neuropathia dominated by a quasi-unconscious exhibitionism, he would probably have ended in dementia"). But for the Decadent movement, as Icks recounts, the worm turned and Elagabalus would become an alluring androgyne and an artist: "For artist he had been! The greatest of his time and many others, without doubt."

In the 21st century, he's a strong but gentle gay guy, a Michael Jackson-like pop star, or, in the words of graphic novelist Neil Gaiman, "Heliogabolus [sic] was just a weird kid with a thing about animals and big dicks."

The Crimes of Elagabalus: The Life and Legacy of Rome's Decadent Boy Emperor

By Martijn Icks

I. B. Tauris, 288pp, £22.50

ISBN 9781848853621

Published 15 September 2011

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