Of all of Rome’s mad emperors, Elagabalus was perhaps the most bizarre. But he remains oddly under-appreciated, unlike those thespians of Roman excess – Caligula and Nero – who are reviled as much today as they were when alive. Even the forgotten Commodus was resurrected and had his reputation freshly besmirched by Ridley Scott’s Oscar winning Gladiator. But poor Elagabalus, despite a truly disastrous career, and an occasional resurgence in a minor novel or play, has never truly received his just due as a standout weirdo.
The Historia Augusta begins its biography of Elagabalus with the following words:
The life of Elagabalus Antoninus, also called Varius, I should never have put in writing — hoping that it might not be known that he was emperor of the Romans….
Elagabalus distinguished himself in the vital imperial discipline of partying. He devoted himself to mastering the pleasures of the flesh. He was proud of his good looks, which he modeled on those of the goddess Venus, wearing too much makeup, having his entire body depilated, and making it his life’s purpose to ‘arouse the lusts of the greatest number’. He dressed in women’s clothes, wore women’s jewelry and took his slave Hierocles as his husband. To make his marriage believable, he encouraged Hierocles to beat and thrash him, especially when 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.
Elagabalus was a connoisseur of the orgy, of exotic foods and wines, of lions and panthers as pets, and of dogs, whom he fed exclusively on goose liver. When he wasn’t having a good time, Elagabalus worked diligently at his avocation – prostitution. It was in this profession that he arguably did his best work. He painted himself up as a harlot and frequented Rome’s many brothels, where he reveled in servicing their clients. He even worked industriously as a prostitute within the walls of the imperial palace, satisfying any who wanted him, propositioning one and all, including the formidable Praetorian Guard, to his later regret. According to the Historia Augusta, Elagabalus 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 vigor.
Elagabalus was often so dissatisfied with the body he was born to that he offered large sums of money to any physician who could bestow upon him the genitals of a woman. But despite his problems with gender identity, he married and divorced 5 women inside the first 4 years of his reign. As one of his wives he took a vestal virgin, whom he first took the perverse pleasure of violating. And neither marriage nor his love for young men kept Elagabalus from enjoying the company of a multitude of women:
…he never had intercourse with the same woman twice except with his wife, and he opened brothels in his house for his friends, his clients, and his slaves.
Not satisfied with challenging Rome’s notoriously lax morality, Elagabalus worked assiduously at antagonizing the religious beliefs of its citizens. He defiled their shrines, tried to extinguish the eternal flame of the Vestals, and wanted to replace the worship of Rome’s many gods with the monotheistic worship of himself. A Syrian by birth, he was a fanatical devotee of the cult of the Syrian Sun god and revered the cult’s greatest relic, a conical black stone that had fallen from the sky and was probably a meteorite. He was more than once observed in the streets of Rome at night – stark naked and carrying the holy stone in his hands – walking backwards all the way. He kept the company of astrologers, magicians and necromancers, with whom, he indulged in daily sacrifice, including, it was alleged, the torture and murder of children.
Elagabalus excelled in the political arena, making the philosophy of whim the fulcrum for his policies. A born iconoclast, he boldly committed, what was in Romans eyes, the ultimate political outrage:
…he was the only one of all the emperors under whom a woman attended the senate like a man, just as though she belonged to the senatorial order… And never before his time, as I have already said, did a woman come into the Senate-chamber or receive an invitation to take part in the drafting of a decree and express her opinion in the debate…
To the modern eye, Elagabalus was clearly transgender and driven to excess by his position. It is also certain that like most hated Emperors, the accounts of his life were in some part exaggerations and even fiction. But whatever the truth may be, to the conservative Praetorian Guard (and most of Rome, for that matter), Elagabalus was nothing short of appalling. Like many an emperor before and after him, the Guard finally took his neck in their own hands. They found the Emperor cowering in a latrine, murdered him, dragged his body through the streets and as a final ignominy, tried to dispose of it in a sewer. But the sewer proved too small and so, after a final series of humiliations that included being dragged through the Circus, the Emperor’s body found its final resting place at the bottom of the Tiber. And so in 221 A.D. did end the scandalous reign of Elagabalus, only four short years after it had begun. The deceased Emperor was 18 years old. The hormones flooding his Venus inspired body had not helped.
You can read the Historia Augusta’s colorful Life of Elagabalus here: