Roman Emperor Elagabalus Assigned Transgender By A British Museum
The third-century AD ruler, Elagabalus, has been declared transgender by a British Museum, which is set to relabel its display to accommodate the change. The decision has been taken by the North Hertfordshire Museum to refer to Emperor Elagabalus with female pronouns, using "she" and "her", to be “sensitive to their preferences”. According to classical texts, Emperor Elagabalus is said to have once declared, "call me not Lord, for I am a Lady." But some experts think the evidence is flawed, and the historic writing regarding Elagabalus was part of a political smear campaign.
Character Assassination or Ancient Queerness?
The pronoun choice is rooted in the historical account provided by Cassius Dio, a Roman chronicler. Dio's writings describe Elagabalus as being "termed wife, mistress, and queen," recounting an instance where the emperor allegedly told a lover, "Call me not Lord, for I am a Lady," and even purportedly requested the creation of female genitalia. An there are plenty such references, but some historians believe that these accounts are simply attempts at character assassination of the emperor, reports The Telegraph.
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Cassius Dio served under the emperor Severus Alexander, who ascended to power following the assassination of Elagabalus. Some historians argue that Dio's accounts of Elagabalus's behavior may have been influenced by political motivations or a desire to justify the controversial assassination. The characterization of Elagabalus as deviant or unconventional in Dio's writings may be part of a broader narrative intended to legitimize the actions taken against the ruler.
Keith Hoskins, UK Liberal Democrat councilor and executive member for arts at the Lib Dem and Labor coalition-run North Hertfordshire Council explained, “We try to be sensitive to identifying pronouns for people in the past, as we are for people in the present. It is only polite and respectful. We know that Elagabalus identified as a woman and was explicit about which pronouns to use, which shows that pronouns are not a new thing.”
The museum's decision to use female pronouns in its display is reflective of a contemporary understanding of gender identity and inclusivity while acknowledging the complexities and potential biases present in historical accounts, reports The Daily Mail.
“The Romans didn't have our idea of "trans" as a category, but they used accusations of sexual behavior "as a woman" as one of the worst insults against men,” added Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, a Cambridge classics professor, quoted by the The Telegraph report. He added that due to Elagabalus being Syrian and not Roman, “there’s racial prejudice going on there too”.
Emperor Elagabalus: Boy Prince, Wicked Tyrant, Cruel Ruler
The boy Emperor Elagabalus, ascended to power through the political maneuvers of his grandmother, Julia Maesa. He quickly gained infamy for his monstrous reputation as a ruler. Comparable to well-known tyrants such as Caligula and Nero, Elagabalus is remembered for his extreme acts of wickedness and vice.
“Elagabalus was also known to have married a man, the charioteer and former slave Hierocles, and they loved being referred to as Hierocles’ wife or mistress. The emperor is also reported to have frequently worn wigs and makeup, preferred to be called ‘domina’ (lady) over ‘dominus’ (lord), and even offered vast sums of money to any physician who could give them a vagina”, according to a published interview by the University of Birmingham in 2021.
Among the many dark anecdotes reported from his rule, one particularly gruesome incident involved lashing several guests to a water-wheel during a feast, slowly drowning them as horrified onlookers witnessed the macabre spectacle. In another sadistic episode, Elagabalus released dozens of leopards and lions among his guests after a meal, creating a scene of chaos and terror.
Elagabalus's penchant for cruelty extended to public events as well. He is reported to have unleashed poisonous snakes among the crowds attending gladiatorial games, resulting in widespread death and injury. Another display of brutality involved throwing gold and silver from a high tower, goading a mob of citizens to scramble for the riches, leading to many fatalities in the ensuing chaos, reports The Art Newspaper.
‘The Roses of Heliogabalus’, 1888. Elagabalus played pranks on his dinner guests, which involved covering dinner attendees with a shower of rose petals released from the ceiling. (Public Domain)
The emperor's extravagant lifestyle was marked by opulence, as he adorned himself in precious silks and draped himself with gems. Notably, Elagabalus harbored aspirations of forming a new Roman senate composed entirely of women.
His ascent to the throne was orchestrated by his grandmother, Julia Maesa, following the death of her nephew Caracalla. Caracalla, who had ruled for eight years, was assassinated by an army commander. Determined to maintain familial control over the Roman Empire, Julia turned to her 14-year-old grandson, Elagabalus, who had been raised in the remote Syrian town of Emesa, far from the center of imperial power.
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Professor Christian Laes, a classicist at the University of Manchester, concluded that all ancient accounts of the emperor’s life must be taken with a pinch of salt, owing to disdain over his (their) origins. This was exacerbated by the fact that all transgressors of sexual norms at these times in history were punished by aristocratic and senatorial disdain.
Top image: Roman Emperor Elagabalus bust, with a modern photo realistic reconstruction of his likeness based on this. Source: Left, © José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro/CC BY-SA 4.0 ; Right, Daniel Voshart/ CC BY-NC-SA 4.0
By Sahir Pandey
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