|204, Emesa, Syria or Rome, Italy
|11/12 March 222 (aged 18), Rome, Italy
|Julia Cornelia Paula
Annia Aurelia Faustina
|Severus Alexander (adoptive)
|Sextus Varius Marcellus
|Julia Soaemias Bassiana
If you are interested in learning about one of the most controversial and scandalous Roman emperors, you might want to read this blog post about Elagabalus. Elagabalus was a young and eccentric ruler who reigned from 218 to 222 CE, and who shocked the Roman world with his religious zeal and sexual exploits. In this post, I will give you a brief biography of Elagabalus, and explain why he is considered as one of the worst emperors in Roman history.
Elagabalus was born around 203 CE in Emesa, Syria, under the name of Varius Avitus Bassianus. He was a descendant of the Severan dynasty, which had ruled Rome since 193 CE. His grandmother, Julia Maesa, was the sister of Julia Domna, the wife of Emperor Septimius Severus and mother of Emperors Caracalla and Geta. His mother, Julia Soaemias, was a priestess of the sun god Elagabal, who was worshipped in Emesa under the form of a black stone.
When Caracalla was assassinated in 217 CE by his Praetorian prefect Macrinus, who became emperor, Julia Maesa plotted to overthrow him and restore her family to power. She spread the rumor that her grandson, Bassianus, was actually the illegitimate son of Caracalla, and thus had a claim to the throne. She also bribed some soldiers to support her cause. In 218 CE, Bassianus was proclaimed emperor by his troops in Syria, and took the name of Marcus Aurelius Antoninus. He marched against Macrinus, who was defeated and killed at the Battle of Antioch.
The new emperor, however, soon revealed his true devotion to his god Elagabal, whom he considered as the supreme deity of the Roman pantheon. He changed his name to Elagabalus, after his god, and brought the sacred stone from Emesa to Rome. He built a magnificent temple for Elagabal on the Palatine Hill, and tried to impose his cult on all Romans. He also performed the rituals of his religion himself, wearing priestly robes and offering sacrifices. He even married a Vestal Virgin, Aquilia Severa, claiming that it was a sacred union that would produce divine offspring.
Elagabalus was not only notorious for his religious fanaticism, but also for his sexual excesses. He married four women in total, but also had numerous male lovers, some of whom he bestowed with high honors and titles. He was reported to have cross-dressed, prostituted himself, and even sought to transform himself into a woman by surgery. He also indulged in lavish banquets, orgies, and games that often involved cruelty and humiliation.
His behavior alienated many segments of Roman society: the Senate, the army, the traditional priesthoods, and the common people. His grandmother Julia Maesa realized that he was endangering the stability of the empire and the security of her family. She decided to replace him with his cousin and adopted son Severus Alexander, who was more moderate and acceptable to the Romans. In 222 CE, Elagabalus tried to eliminate his rival, but failed. The Praetorian Guard rebelled against him and killed him and his mother in their palace. Their bodies were dragged through the streets and thrown into the Tiber River.
Elagabalus was one of the most hated and despised Roman emperors. His memory was condemned by the Senate and later historians. He was portrayed as a degenerate, a pervert, a tyrant, and a madman. His reign was seen as a dark and shameful episode in Roman history. However, some modern scholars have tried to reassess his image and offer alternative interpretations of his actions. They have suggested that he was not insane or evil, but rather a misguided and misunderstood youth who tried to innovate and reform Roman religion and culture.
What do you think of Elagabalus? Do you agree with his ancient or modern critics? Do you find him fascinating or repulsive? Let me know your thoughts in the comments section below!