Elagabalus: The Hated Roman Emperor Who Was Killed And Mutilated!
Elagabalus was a Roman emperor who lived at the beginning of the 3rd century AD. He is often considered as one of Rome’s worst emperors and is routinely placed in the same league as other notorious emperors such as Nero and Caligula. In the present day, Elagabalus is perhaps not as well-known as these “bad emperors.” Nevertheless, there are enough written sources by ancient Roman authors, in particular Cassius Dio, Herodian and the unknown author of the Historia Augusta , for us to paint a vivid picture of Elagabalus, his life, and his (mis)deeds.
The Rise Of Elagabalus And His Mother From Syria
Elagabalus (sometimes referred to as Heliogabalus) was born around 203 AD in Emesa, a city in western Syria known today as Homs. At birth Elagabalus was known as Varius Avitus Bassianus. When he became emperor, he was officially known as Caesar Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus. But this notorious emperor is mostly known as Elagabalus due to the fact that he served as the high priest of the Emesene sun god, Elah-Gabal, in his youth. Elagabalus was able to hold this position as the family of his mother, Julia Soaemias, were hereditary priests of this god.
An ancient marble bust of Elagabalus that is part of the Capitoline Museums collection in Rome. ( © José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro )
It was also through his mother’s family that Elagabalus was connected to the ruling Severan dynasty (ruled 193-235 AD). His maternal grandmother, Julia Maesa, was the elder sister of Julia Domna, the wife of Septimius Severus, the founder of the Severan dynasty. Both Julia Soaemias and Julia Maesa were instrumental in raising Elagabalus to the Roman throne, and in fact, they were the ones who were practically in control of the empire, whilst Elagabalus was mostly occupied with religious matters. Incidentally, Elagabalus’ father was Sextus Varius Marcellus, a Roman aristocrat from Syria. Unlike the two Julias, Marcellus does to seem to play a prominent role in the life of Elagabalus, and he died several years before his son became emperor.
The Severan dynasty, circa 200 AD, showing Septimius Severus with his family: left: wife Julia Domna; lower half: sons Geta and Caracalla. ( © José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro )
The Severan Dynasty Broken And Renewed With Elagabalus
The Severan dynasty was established in 193 AD when Septimius Severus, who hailed from a prominent family in Leptis Magna, a city in modern-day Libya, then part of the Roman province of Africa Proconsularis, emerged victorious from the political unrest now known as the Year of the Five Emperors . When Septimius Severus died in 211 AD he was succeeded by his son Caracalla.
- The Five Good Emperors: Prosperity and Power Before the Final Fall
- Roman Inscription Reveals That The Emperor Took Bribes And Lied
- The Roman Empire’s Crisis of the Third Century
The reign of the second Severan emperor, however, was cut short when he was assassinated in 217 BC. Caracalla’s death marked a brief break in the Severan dynasty, as the next emperor, Macrinus, was not a member of “the” family. Macrinus, who served as a praetorian prefect under Caracalla, orchestrated the emperor’s murder, and seized the throne after his death.
In the meantime, Julia Maesa and her daughters, Julia Soaemias and Julia Mamaea, were sent back to Emesa, where they began to plot against Macrinus. The women began spreading rumors that Elagabalus was actually the illegitimate son of Caracalla, in order to win the support of the troops of the Legio III Gallica, which were stationed at nearby Raphana. Elagabalus was presented to the general Publius Valerius Comazon and his troops and was proclaimed emperor. The new emperor was only 14 years old at that time. Soon, other Roman legions in the east deserted Macrinus to join Elagabalus. Finally, a battle was fought near Antioch between the troops of Macrinus and those of the boy emperor in June 218 AD. Macrinus was defeated, captured, and, subsequently, executed.
In 218 AD Elagabalus and his entourage stopped at Nicomedia a Greek town in present-day Turkey and this is where he “plunged into his mad activities, performing for his native god the fantastic rites in which he had been trained.” (Félix Marie Charles Texier / Public domain )
With Macrinus’ death, the road to Rome was secure, and the Severan dynasty was revived. In 218 AD, Elagabalus and his entourage embarked on the long journey from Emesa to Rome. On the way, he was forced to spend the winter at Nicomedia (a Greek town in present-day Turkey). Here, according to Herodian, Elagabalus “plunged into his mad activities, performing for his native god the fantastic rites in which he had been trained from childhood. He wore the richest clothing , draping himself in purple robes embroidered in gold; to his necklaces and bracelets he added a crown, a tiara glittering with gold and jewels…. Accompanied by flutes and drums, he went about performing, as it appeared, orgiastic service to his god”. According to another source, the Historia Augusta , during his stay at Nicomedia, Elagabalus “living in a depraved manner and indulging in unnatural vice with men”.
Elagabalus’ luxurious clothing and exotic rituals are said to have amused the Roman troops stationed near Emesa. The soldiers are reported to have travelled to his temple to watch Elagabalus perform his priestly duties, and were, apparently, mesmerized by his good looks, his sumptuous clothing and expensive jewelry.
Now that he was their emperor, however, the soldiers were less than impressed, and, according to the Historia Augusta , “soon began to regret that they had conspired against Macrinus to make this man emperor.” Even Elagabalus’ grandmother began to worry about the way the emperor presented himself to his subjects. In Herodian’s account, Julia Maesa is said to have been “greatly disturbed and tried again and again to persuade the youth to wear Roman dress when he entered the city to visit the senate,” fearing that “his appearance, obviously foreign and wholly barbaric, would offend those who saw him.”
The Atrocities Of Elagabalus Caused Outrage In Rome
Elagabalus, however, probably regarded himself first and foremost as the high priest of Elah-Gabal. To him his role as Roman emperor was of secondary importance. In any event, Elagabalus dismissed Julia Maesa’s warnings, and continued behaving and dressing as he pleased. Needless to say, Elagabalus continued to perform his duties as a high priest in Rome, much to the displeasure of the Romans. The ancient authors provide many details about Elagabalus’ atrocities in Rome some of which likely contain more fiction than fact. Take Cassius Dio’s description of the religious rites performed by the emperor (who, in this instance, is referred to as Sardanapalus) as an example:
“I will not describe the barbaric chants which Sardanapalus, together with his mother and grandmother, chanted to Elagabalus, or the secret sacrifices that he offered to him, slaying boys and using charms, in fact actually shutting up alive in the god's temple a lion, a monkey, and a snake, and throwing in among them human genitals, and practicing other unholy rites, while he invariably wore innumerable amulets.”
Another account accusing Elagabalus of practicing human sacrifice as part of his priestly duties is found in the Historia Augusta and reads as follows:
“Elagabalus also sacrificed human victims, and for this purpose he collected from the whole of Italy children of noble birth and beautiful appearance, whose fathers and mothers were alive, intending, I suppose that the sorrow, if suffered by two parents, should be all the greater. Finally, he kept about him every kind of magician and had them perform daily sacrifices, himself urging them on and giving thanks to the gods because he found them to be well-disposed to these men; and all the while he would examine the children's vitals and torture the victims after the manner of his own native rites.”
A third account of the religious rituals performed by Elagabalus is provided by Herodian and appears to be more plausible:
“He erected a huge and magnificent temple to his god and surrounded it with numerous altars. Coming forth early each morning, he sacrificed there hecatombs of bulls and a vast number of sheep…. Elagabalus danced around the altars to music played on every kind of instrument; women from his own country accompanied him in these dances, carrying cymbals and drums as they circled the altars. The entire senate and all the knights stood watching, like spectators at the theater.”
A 4th-century AD Roman (copied from Greek originals) marble statue of Urania the North-African muse of astronomy that Elagabalus “married” to another deity, which caused great outrage in Rome. (Vatican Museums / Public domain )
Apart from Eastern rituals, Elagabalus also introduced foreign gods. Naturally, Elah-Gabal was added to the Roman pantheon, and placed at it head. Herodian claims that the emperor “directed all Roman officials who perform public sacrifices to call upon the new god Elagabalus before all the other gods whom they invoke in their rites.” Elagabalus is alleged to have arranged marriages between Elah-Gabal and other deities, for instance, the North African goddess Urania, an account of which is provided by Herodian:
“he sent for the statue of Urania which the Carthaginians and Libyans especially venerate…. Claiming that he was arranging a marriage of the sun and the moon, Elagabalus sent for the statue and all the gold in the temple and ordered the Carthaginians to provide, in addition, a huge sum of money for the goddess’ dowry. When the statue arrived, he set it up with his god and ordered all men in Rome and throughout Italy to celebrate with lavish feasts and festivals, publicly and privately, in honor of the marriage of the deities.”
Indeed, the Eastern rituals performed by Elagabalus in Rome must have been extremely shocking to the citizens who witnessed them. Although the Romans were known for incorporating foreign deities, Elagabalus’ actions were likely too much for them to stomach. Yet, these were not the only shortcomings which earned him the hatred of the Romans. Apart from introducing foreign practices that were incompatible with Roman mores, Elagabalus had little respect for Roman customs, and broke a number of taboos, most notably those related to sexuality.
Marble fragment from Luna, Italy showing the Vestal Virgins at a banquet. Vestal Virgins could not marry while serving their role but that didn’t stop Elagabalus. (Rabax63 / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
The ancient authors point out, for instance, that Elagabalus was married several times. Cassius Dio claims that Elagabalus first married Cornelia Paula, a Roman noblewoman, but later divorced her because “she had some blemish on her body.” The emperor’s next wife was a Vestal Virgin whom Cassius Dio names as Aquilia Severa. Elagabalus is recorded to have violated her chastity, and therefore married her. This was absolutely unacceptable to the Romans, as the Vestal Virgins were not supposed to be married as long as they were serving as priestesses. Not long after that, however, Elagabalus divorced the former Vestal Virgin, and, according to Herodian, married a woman from Commodus’ family. Cassius Dio, on the other hand, records that the emperor “married a second, a third, a fourth, and still another; after that he returned to Severa.”
Elagabalus is also said to have had male lovers, though this is not unique in the history of Roman emperors. Other emperors, including the “bad” Nero, and the “good” Hadrian, are also known to have had male lovers. Yet, Elagabalus is believed to have gone a step further than any of his predecessors. Cassius Dio alleges that “He carried his lewdness to such a point that he asked the physicians to contrive a woman's vagina in his body by means of an incision, promising them large sums for doing so.” Elagabalus is perhaps most notorious for this desire to have a woman’s vagina, though the story is actually found only in Cassius Dio, and not in the other two ancient sources.
A bust of Julia Mamaea who bribed others to overthrow Elagabalus resulting in his execution and mutilation. This bust is in the Pushkin Museum (Russia) but was copied from a Roman original found in the British Museum collection. (shakko / CC BY 3.0 )
In The End, Elagabalus Met The End He Deserved!
The ancient sources record many of Elagabalus’ other misdeeds, though they are too many to recount here. It is clear, however, that the emperor’s eccentric behavior alienated him from the rest of Rome. Ultimately, in 222 AD, the soldiers of the Praetorian Guard decided to remove the emperor themselves.
Herodian reports that the soldiers were in favor of Elagabalus’ cousin, Alexander, since he seemed to be a more suitable person for the role of emperor, and, more importantly, because of the gold secretly distributed to them by Julia Mamaea. Elagabalus soon learned about this, and plotted to kill Alexander, but his plots were foiled by Julia Maesa. Both Cassius Dio and Herodian record that Elagabalus was ultimately murdered by the Praetorians when he was in their camp. The emperor had gone there with Alexander to try to calm the soldiers, who were angry when they heard what he was trying to do to his cousin. Elagabalus failed in his task, and was executed in the camp, along with his mother, and several of his close collaborators.
The narrative of Elagabalus’ death in the Historia Augusta , unlike the two other sources, focuses on its irony, and is as follows,
“The prophecy had been made to him by some Syrian priests that he would die a violent death. And so, he had prepared cords entwined with purple and scarlet silk, in order that, if need arose, he could put an end to his life by the noose. He had gold swords, too, in readiness, with which to stab himself, should any violence impend. He also had poisons ready, in ceraunites [or belemnite, a kind of squid] and sapphires and emeralds, with which to kill himself if destruction threatened. And he also built a very high tower from which to throw himself down, constructed of boards gilded and jewelled in his own presence, for even his death, he declared, should be costly and marked by luxury, in order that it might be said that no one had ever died in this fashion. But all these preparations availed him nothing, for, as we have said, he was slain by common soldiers.”
Finally, Elagabalus’ corpse was dragged throughout the city to be publicly abused and mutilated, before being thrown into the public sewer that flowed into the Tiber. Thus, the story of Elagabalus, one of Rome’s least favorite emperors, came to an undignified but just end.
Top image: Elagabalus leading a chariot drawn by sixteen white horses. Source: Jean Lombard (26 September 1854 – 17 July 1891) / Public domain
By Wu Mingren
Anon., Historia Augusta: The Life of Elagabalus [Online]
[Magie, D. (trans.), 1924. Historia Augusta: The Life of Elagabalus .]
Cassius Dio, Roman History [Online]
[Cary, E. (trans.), 1914-27. Cassius Dio’s Roman History .]
Herodian, Roman History [Online]
[Echols, E. C. (trans.), 1961. Herodian’s Roman History .]
Available at: http://www.tertullian.org/fathers/herodian_00_intro.htm
Gill, N. S., 2019. Elagabalus Emperor of Rome. [Online]
Available at: https://www.thoughtco.com/elagabalus-emperor-of-rome-111463
Johns, K., 2020. Elagabalus: Emperor of Opposites Explained. [Online]
Available at: https://www.thecollector.com/elagabalus/
Sánchez, J. P., 2019. The short reign of Elagabalus, Rome's hard-partying emperor. [Online]
Available at: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/history/magazine/2016/03-04/elagabalus-rome/
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2020. Elagabalus. [Online]
Available at: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Elagabalus
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000. The Severan Dynasty (193–235 A.D.). [Online]
Available at: https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/seve/hd_seve.htm
UNVR, 2020. Elagabalus. [Online]
Available at: https://www.unrv.com/decline-of-empire/elagabalus-syrian-emperor.php
van Zoonen, L., 2020. Heliogabalus (1). [Online]
Available at: https://www.livius.org/articles/person/heliogabalus/