For LGBTQIA+ history month, recent Ancient History graduate Ollie Burns explores the life of one individual who may confuse what we know about gender non-conformity in the ancient world.
*Although the histories written in antiquity refer to Elagabalus unanimously as ‘he/him’, examination of these sources suggest very strongly that the emperor did not identify as a male, and so for the purpose of this article I have used the pronouns ‘they/them’.
Elagabalus is not an emperor whose name is particularly well-known outside of academic circles, yet their reign and life is one of the most fascinating cases from Rome’s Imperial period. Elagabalus was born Sextus Varius Avitus Bassianus in 204 AD, most likely in the Roman province of Syria. Their father was an equestrian, who would later be admitted into the Roman Senate, and their mother, Julia Soaemias, was the cousin of Emperor Caracalla (r. 198 – 217). As part of the Syrian nobility, Elagabalus’ family held hereditary rights to the priesthood of the sun god Elagabal, whom Elagabalus served as high priest. This is where the name ‘Elagabalus’ derives. After the assassination of Caracalla in 217, the Praetorian Prefect Macrinus took imperial power, so as relatives of Caracalla, Elagabalus and their family were exiled. However Macrinus’ reign was highly unstable, and by 218 he had been executed. Consequently, Elgabalus was elevated to the Imperial throne at just 14 years old, and the Senate accepted that they be recognised as Caracalla’s son, boosting the legitimacy of their rule.
Elagabalus’ reign was short and controversial. They installed Elagabal as the new head of the Roman pantheon, displacing Jupiter. The idea of a foreign god being worshipped ahead of Jupiter was shocking to much of the Roman population. They took this even further when they ordered the removal of Rome’s most sacred relics (such as The Fire of Vesta) and had them placed at the Elagabalium, an enormous temple dedicated to Elagabal built on the Palatine Hill. This essentially made it impossible for Romans to worship any god without also honouring Elagabal. Further religious controversy was stirred up when Elagabalus married Aquilia Severa, a Vestal Virgin; Roman law very strictly stated that all Vestal’s had to remain chaste, and any found to have engaged in sexual intercourse were liable to be buried alive, so to many, this marriage was unacceptable. This brings us on to the subject of Elagabalus’ sexuality and gender identity.
Based on the sources we have, it is difficult to ascertain Elagabalus’ sexual orientation for certain; it is reported by Cassius Dio that Elagabalus married five times, and that they had numerous extra-marital sexual encounters with other women. The following is a passage from Book 80 of Dio’s Roman History:
‘He married many women, and had intercourse with even more without any legal sanction; yet it was not that he had any need of them himself, but simply that he wanted to imitate their actions when he should lie with his lovers and wanted to get accomplices in his wantonness by associating with them indiscriminately. He used his body both for doing and allowing many strange things, which no one could endure to tell or hear of; but his most conspicuous acts, which it would be impossible to conceal, were the following. He would go to the taverns by night, wearing a wig, and there ply the trade of a female huckster. He frequented the notorious brothels, drove out the prostitutes, and played the prostitute himself. Finally, he set aside a room in the palace and there committed his indecencies, always standing nude at the door of the room, as the harlots do, and shaking the curtain which hung from gold rings, while in a soft and melting voice he solicited the passers-by.’
This particular extract suggests that while Elagabalus married and indeed had sex with women, this was only so that they could learn how women acted, in order to replicate this with male partners, which would imply that they were homosexual. In terms of gender identity, Elagabalus’ habit of playing a female prostitute to solicit men shows a rejection of traditional Roman male identity, wherein men (especially those of rank) were seen as weak and effeminate if they allowed themselves to be penetrated by other men. 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. In one particular anecdote, Dio wrote that Elagabalus asked one of the Praetorian Prefects what the most painful method of removing their male genitals would be, and offered the man money to do it. It is because of reportings such as these that Elagabalus is believed by some modern historians to have been transgender, as it seems clear that they preferred being seen as a woman, and even sought to physically become one, however the extent to which Dio’s writings can be trusted is also a cause for debate. Dio wrote most of his Roman History after Elagabalus was already dead and disgraced, and it is common in Roman histories to see unpopular emperors slandered and have aspects of their reign negatively exaggerated to fit the current regime’s status quo. To that end, Elagabalus is referred to as ‘A tragic enigma lost behind centuries of prejudice’ by historian Warwick Ball.
Elagabalus’s religious policies and general eccentricities severely alienated the Praetorian Guard. Fearing a coup, Elagabalus’ grandmother arranged for her other grandson and Elagabalus’ cousin, Severus Alexander to take imperial power in 222. The Praetorian Guard murdered Elagabalus and their mother, decapitated their bodies, and threw them in the River Tiber. Elagabalus was just 18.
For more, see Book 80 of Cassius Dio’s Roman History, Martijn Icks’ The Crimes of Elagabalus: The Life and Legacy of Rome’s Decadent Boy Emperor, and Andrew Scott’s Emperor’s and Usurpers: A Historical Commentary on Cassius Dio’s Roman History.
Thanks to Ollie Burns!