After his victory over Macrinus at Immae on 8 June 218, Elagabalus stayed in Antiochia for months. He had to promise his soldiers 2.000 sesterces each to prevent them from sacking the city and it took him some time before his authority in the East had been firmly established. He then proceeded to Bithynia and stayed there all winter. It was not until July of 219 that the boy-emperor reached Rome. Before he reached the Eternal City, there had already been attempts at revolution against his rule. Verus was a former centurion who had become commander of Legio III Gallica, while Gellius Maximus was the son of a physician and served in Legio IV Scythica as an officer (ὑποστράτηγος). Both were senators, both tried to overthrow Elagabalus and both failed and were executed. Others would be more successful later on.
Julia Maesa, the emperor’s grandmother, was overjoyed that she could live in the imperial palace on the Palatine Hill again. She and her daughter Julia Soaemias, the boy’s mother, made Elagabalus marry a girl named Julia Cornelia Paula, who was from a noble Roman family. She was given the title of Augusta. Elagabalus could now start an imperial dynasty and begin to rule the Roman Empire from the capital, with the aid of Maesa and Soaemias of course, as he was still only 15 years old. And although Elagabalus left behind an atrocious reputation and must be ranked among the least popular Roman emperors ever, it must also be said that the Empire was largely at peace during his reign and that the provinces were not affected by the troubles in Rome itself.
A monster on the throne?
Elagabalus’ debauchery, decadence, gluttony and sexual excesses are recorded in great detail in our sources, even in the more reliable ones. The emperor divorced Paula in 220 and traded her in for Julia Aquila Severa, who was a Vestal virgin. Her marriage to the emperor, definitely sexual in nature, caused an outrage and by right she should have been buried alive for not keeping her vows of chastity. Elagabalus, on the other hand, should have been castrated, scourged and executed. But since he was the emperor, this did not happen. Elagabalus would later (probably in 221) marry Annia Aurelia Faustina, and then – according to Cassius Dio – a few other women, before returning to Severa.
But Elagabalus also liked to prostitute himself as a whore. He “married” a man named Hierocles, a Carian slave and charioteer, who called him his wife, mistress and queen. During this “marriage”, he also committed adultery with other men and then had his “husband” beat him to pulp. Cassius Dio even tells the incredible tale that Elagabalus paid his doctors handsome sums to provide him with a vagina, apparently by making an incision between his legs (perhaps the story, quite likely made up, was inspired by the fact that Elagabalus, as a Syrian, did have his penis circumcised). The Historia Augusta – naturally – contains many more scandalous accusations against the young emperor. For instance, it adds that:
“He made a public bath in the imperial palace and at the same time threw open the bath of Plautinus to the populace, that by this means he might get a supply of men with unusually large organs. He also took care to have the whole city and the wharves searched for onobeli as those were called who seemed particularly lusty.”
It is not difficult to imagine what kind of “unusually large organs” the emperor was looking for, especially if you consider that onobeli are basically men who have penises the size of a donkey’s. But the question is: is this all true? Even the Historia Augusta gives us a hint to the contrary when, near the end of Elagabalus’ biography, it writes that “these and some other things which surpass credence, I believe to have been fabricated by those who wished to vilify Elagabalus in order to curry favour with Alexander [his cousin and – eventually – successor].” So yes, the exclusively silk-clad emperor may have been extravagant, he may have been gay or bisexual and he may been an effeminate young man who removed all his body hair, but a lot of the evil stories about him may be grossly exaggerated or simply gossip, made up by his enemies after his death.
Religious reforms and nepotism
Still, the Romans may have had valid reasons for hating their emperor. Elagabalus was a priest of Elagabal, the Syrian sun god, and brought his god with him to Rome. Normally, this would not have been a problem. The Romans were generally tolerant with regard to other religions and in the extensive Roman pantheon, there would surely have been room for another deity. Furthermore, the Romans had plenty of experience with importing gods from abroad. For instance, during the Second Punic War, they had brought the cult of Magna Mater (or Cybele) from Phrygia to Rome. The problem was not that the emperor worshipped a foreign god, but that he wanted others to worship this god as well.
If we are to believe our sources, Elagabalus tried to initiate some sort of religious revolution in Rome. He not only introduced the cult of the Syrian sun god Elagabal to the city, but tried to place his god at the top of the divine hierarchy, making him the supreme god of the Romans, replacing Jupiter Optimus Maximus. Even before he reached the Eternal City in July of 219, Elagabalus had made unpopular decisions pertaining to religion. Herodianus writes that:
“he had a full-length portrait painted, showing him performing his priestly duties in public. His native god also appeared in the painting; the emperor was depicted sacrificing to him under favorable auspices. Elagabalus sent this picture to Rome to be hung in the center of the senate house, high above the statue of Victory [the goddess Victoria] before which each senator burns frankincense and pours a libation of wine upon entering the chamber. He 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.”
So the foreign god Elagabal was literally high above the native goddess Victoria, and this, combined with the fact that magistrates were to call upon the foreign god first, was the first attempt to place Elagabal at the top of the divine order. The emperor built a temple for his god in the city, most likely on the Palatine Hill. Again, normally this would not have been a problem. But it seems the emperor wanted this temple to become the centre of all Roman religious activity. As Cassius Dio wrote:
“The offence consisted, not in his introducing a foreign god into Rome or in his exalting him in very strange ways, but in his placing him even before Jupiter himself and causing himself to be voted his priest, also in his circumcising himself and abstaining from swine’s flesh, on the ground that his devotion would thereby be purer.”
The writers of the Historia Augusta were probably exaggerating when they wrote that:
“In fact, it was his desire to abolish not only the religious ceremonies of the Romans but also those of the whole world, his one wish being that the god Elagabalus should be worshipped everywhere.”
“he asserted that all gods were merely the servants of his god, calling some its chamberlains, others its slaves, and others its attendants for divers purposes.”
But it seems undeniable that the emperor’s religious reforms struck a nerve and that he himself was seen as a zealot, a proselytist and a religious fanatic. And not just by the Romans. The emperor seems to have ignored and even insulted the rites and customs of other peoples as well. For instance, while he himself abstained from eating pork, he served ostriches during his copious banquets and forced Jews to eat them as well, which their religion prohibited (Leviticus 11:16; Deuteronomy 14:15). He also destroyed some tombs on the Vatican Hill so that he could drive his chariot there, drawn by four elephants.
To sum up, according to the Historia Augusta, Elagabalus:
“established Elagabalus as a god on the Palatine Hill close to the imperial palace; and he built him a temple, to which he desired to transfer the emblem of the Great Mother [Magna Mater/Cybele], the fire of Vesta, the Palladium [the wooden statue of Pallas Athena, kept in the Temple of Vesta], the shields [ancilia] of the Salii [the priests of Mars Gradivus], and all that the Romans held sacred, purposing that no god might be worshipped at Rome save only Elagabalus. He declared, furthermore, that the religions of the Jews and the Samaritans and the rites of the Christians must also be transferred to this place, in order that the priesthood of Elagabalus might include the mysteries of every form of worship.”
Our sources tell us of how the emperor searched for a wife for Elagabal. After rejecting a marriage to the Palladium (i.e. Pallas Athena or Minerva), he chose Urania, a Punic moon goddess also known as Tanit, in her stead. He brought her statue from Carthage to Rome and thus arranged a marriage between the sun and the moon, forcing the citizens of Rome to rejoice and celebrate. Even if we reject the probably spurious accusations – which we find not only in the Historia Augusta, but also in Dio’s work – that Elagablus was guilty of human sacrifice, it is clear that Elagabalus was too eccentric for the Romans. Our sources also make abundantly clear that nepotism was rife during his reign. Awards and many of the highest offices – magistracies, governorships and military positions – were sold or granted to dancers, actors, mimes, charioteers and barbers. Something clearly had to be done.
- Cassius Dio, Epitome of Book 80;
- Herodianus, The Roman Histories V.5-6;
- Historia Augusta, Elagabalus 1-3, 6, 8, 23.
- Adrian Goldsworthy, The Fall of the West, p. 79-81;
- Timothy Venning, A Chronology of the Roman Empire, p. 582-583.
Updated 1 January 2023.