20 April 2015

Mad Monarchs: Elegabalus

When you think of mad monarchs and Ancient Rome, names like Caligula or Nero probably come to mind. Several emperors were eccentric, and a few were truly odd, but none quite match the short and bizarre reign of Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus, known to history as Elegabalus. But was this boy-emperor really mad, or one of the most misunderstood figures ever to sit on the Roman throne?

Elegabalus was born Varius Avitus Bassianus in what is now Syria. His family were priests of the sun god El-Gabal, from which Elegabalus took his nickname. He became high priest while still a child, an elevation that played a major role in his identity. Elegabalus' mother Julia was a cousin of Emperor Caracalla; when Caracalla was assassinated in 217, his successor Macrinus exiled the royal family back to Syria, where it only took them a year to plot Macrinus' overthrow. Julia then thrust her son into the spotlight, claiming he was Caracalla's illegitimate son and therefore heir. (The fact that she would push her child onto a throne stained with the blood of two predecessors says a lot about Elegabalus' upbringing.) Macrinus told the Senate the boy was insane, but with the army’s support Elegabalus was given the regal name Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus and proclaimed emperor at the age of 14.

His career was doomed from the start. He brought his Syrian entourage to Rome and placed them in positions of power, alienating the Roman elite. He had no intention of giving up his priesthood – instead, he built a temple to El-Gabal on the Palatine and filled it with statues of Roman gods pilfered from their own temples. He forced Senators to take part in these rituals, and commanded Christians and Jews to relocate their worship services to El-Gabal's temple; he then tried to merge his god with the Roman sun god Sol Invictus, elevate him above Jupiter, and marry him to Minerva. Rome was appalled.

But if his religious behavior caused outrage, his sexual proclivities were an even greater scandal. While Roman sexuality was more fluid than many realize, men were expected to conform to an ideal of masculinity, an ideal which Elegabalus flouted at every opportunity. He forced the Senate to watch him dance in women's clothing, performing sexual rites with El-Gabal's priests. He married a Vestal Virgin -- in itself an unthinkable taboo -- but his true love was a male slave named Hierocles whom Elegabalus proclaimed to be his husband. Roman writers claimed he married Hierocles in a public ceremony and referred to himself as "the wife and queen of Hierocles". In any Roman man such behavior would be shocking, but in the emperor it was intolerable. Stories of his worst crimes were most likely embellished; one described an orgy where participants smothered to death under a mountain of rose petals, while Cassius Dio claimed the young emperor set up a brothel in the palace where he prostituted himself to hand-picked "customers". Rumors spread of human sacrifice and sado-masochistic atrocities – such tales were overkill, though, as the emperor's public behavior was enough to ensure a short reign.

Elegabalus was emperor for four years. In 222, when his grandmother realized his downfall was imminent, she threw him to the wolves and hatched a plot to assassinate him, replacing him with his equally inexperienced but much more malleable cousin. Elegabalus and his mother tried to flee back to Syria, but they were captured and murdered, their mutilated bodies put on display before being thrown into the Tiber. Elegabalus was just 18 years old.

The story of Elegabalus embodies the unbridled debauchery historians blamed for Rome's decline. But was he actually insane, or too different and uncontrollable to tolerate? Here is a teenager who grew up in extreme privilege, venerated from childhood, manipulated by his mother, used as a pawn and thrust into a role for which he was neither prepared nor suitable. He was certainly a terrible ruler – he did nothing but spend money and alienate government, army, and populace alike. Add in religious fanaticism and sexual nonconformity, and you have one of the most disastrous emperors in Roman history. But was there more to it than that? Some today think Elegabalus was actually transgender; his legendary offer to give half the Empire to any doctor who could give him female genitalia certainly supports that theory. Being trans, of course, is in no way a mental illness, but in the Roman world it would have been considered so. It’s hard enough being a trans teenager in 2015; being one in Ancient Rome could certainly have exacerbated any other emotional struggles (and in those circumstances, there were probably quite a few). Was Elegabalus an unhinged religious extremist, a spoiled brat unraveling in depravity? Or was she a lonely girl starving for love, desperate to make her life match her identity? No matter the answer, Elegabalus is one of the most tragic of all the Roman emperors, whose tumultuous personality made for a legacy as one of the worst of the mad monarchs of Rome.

Heather Domin is the author of the Valerian's Legion series, set in Augustan Rome, and Allegiance, set in 1922 Dublin. She has been an Unusual Historicals contributor since 2011.