Varius Avitus Bassianus
Imperator Caesar Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus
16 May 218 – 11 March 222 CE
11 March 222 CE.
Elagabalus was a Roman emperor reigning in the years 218-222 CE. The young ruler quickly gave evidence of his emotional unbalance and cruelty. His reign is considered one of the worst in Roman history; his sick ideas and controversial conduct have survived forever in ancient sources.
Elagabalus was born as Varius Avitus Bassianus around 204 CE in the city of Emesa in Syria. His father was Sextus Varius Marcellus and his mother was Julia Soaemias (daughter of Julia Maesa).
At first, his father belonged to the state of equites, but then he was promoted and became a senator. Grandmother (Julia Maesa), in turn, was the widow of the consul Julius Avitus, sister of Julia Domna and sister-in-law of Emperor Septimius Severus. His mother, in turn, was a cousin of the earlier emperor Caracalla.
The boy came from the family of high priests of the sun god Baal, called “Elah-Gabal” in the Semitic region. This deity was also referred to as Heliobagal or Elagabal. Bassjanus owed his nickname to that Syrian god. From an early age he was the priest of the sun god Baal in his hometown – Emes.
Road to power
In 217 CE, emperor Caracalla was murdered, and was taken over by the prefect of praetorians, Macrinus. Macrinus ordered Maesie, along with her daughters and grandchildren (her husband was already dead) to move to Syrian Emesa (today Hims), her hometown. There was the great sanctuary of the sun god – El Gabal, which the Greeks called Elagabalus. Macrinus thought that while away from the capital, Maesa would not have the opportunity to plot.
Upon arriving in Emesa, Maesa took care that her grandsons Avitus and Alexianus became priests at the El Gabal Temple. Herodian wrote about Avitus:
Bassianus was the chief priest of this god. (Since he was the elder of the boys, the priesthood had been entrusted to him.) He went about in barbarian dress, wearing long-sleeved purple tunics embroidered with gold which hung to his feet; robes similarly decorated with gold and purple covered his legs from hip to toe, and he wore a crown of varicolored precious gems. Bassianus, in the prime of youth, was the handsomest lad of his time. With physical beauty, bloom of youth, and splendor of attire combining to produce the same effect, the youth might well be compared to the handsome statues of Bacchus.
When Bassianus was performing his priestly duties, dancing about the altars in barbarian fashion to the music of flutes, pipes, and every kind of instrument, the natives and the soldiers watched him with more than ordinary curiosity, aware that he belonged to the imperial family. His youthful beauty attracted the eyes of all.
– Herodian, Roman History
Macrinus did not enjoy support everywhere. Bassjanus’s mother and grandmother convinced the troops stationed in the East that he was in fact the son of Caracalla, and Macrinus particularly liked the bedroom and the charms of her daughter Julia Soaemias. After Julia Maesa gave her wealth (she made a huge fortune and position at Severus’ court), the 3rd legion in Raphania (present-day Jordan) on May 16, 218 AD, the army recognized Karakalla’s “son” as a legitimate emperor and moved against the prefect. Valerius Comazon Eutychianus stood at the head of the legion. To strengthen his legitimacy, Elagabalus took the names of Caracalla: Marcus Aurelius Antoninus.
Elagabalus had no idea about command, so in the fight with a competitor to the throne Makrynus he was done by officers. However, he was credited with all the merits on the battlefield. On June 8, forces loyal to Makrynus defeated the Elagabalus army near Antioch. The defeat of Macrinus’s army was determined by his premature escape, when the fate of the battle was still weighing, which caused panic among his soldiers. Shortly afterwards, Macrinus died, killed on his way to Rome. In this situation, the Senate approved the accession to the throne of a new emperor, who took power over the Empire as Elagabalus.
The new ruler was less than 14 years old when he ascended the throne on May 16, 218 CE He was surrounded by people who either controlled him, like his grandmother and mother; influenced his decisions like many politicians; and pleaded for benefits for victories for the throne, like the commanders of legions. The boy’s psyche could not bear this load. Lost, he sought the support of a god he had until recently served. He brought from Emessa the symbolizing Baal black stone and sacrificed before him, killing sheep and cows himself. From Roman notables he demanded participation in these rites, forced senators to carry vessels full of blood and guts of sacrificial animals in processions.
The young emperor quickly gave evidence of his emotional imbalance and cruelty. Despite the opposition of the city’s residents, he introduced the cult of the sun god in Rome. The ruler ordered senators and senior officials to participate in rituals in honor of the oriental deity, which he officially placed before Jupiter Capitoline. Shivering for their lives, the noblemen watched as the emperor dressed in golden robes ritually slaughtered animals and then danced around the black stone. Elagabalus was accompanied by a host of Syrian girls rhythmically striking the drums and dulcimer. Then the most respected citizens of Rome dressed in the robes of Syrian priests carried on their heads golden vessels with the guts of sacrificial animals and incense – such tasks have been the responsibility of slaves until now.
In addition, the young emperor:
[…]he found time to execute many famous and wealthy men who were charged with ridiculing and censuring his way of life. He married one of the noblest of the Roman ladies and proclaimed her Augusta; but he soon divorced her and, after depriving her of the imperial honors, ordered her to return to private life. So that he might seem to be doing something manly, he made love to one of the Vestal Virgins of Rome, priestesses who are bound by sacred vows to be chaste and remain virgin to the end of their lives; taking the maiden away from Vesta and the holy virgins’ quarters, he made her his wife. He sent a letter to the senate asking to be forgiven his impious and adolescent transgression, telling them that he was afflicted with a masculine failing an overwhelming passion for the maiden. He also informed them that the marriage of a priest and a priestess was both proper and sanctioned. But a short time later he divorced this girl and took yet a third wife, a girl who belonged to the family of Commodus.
– Herodian, Roman History
Elagabalus many reluctant leaders and dignitaries were executed, and serious positions in the country were entrusted to his lovers, often of low or foreign origin, who did not have any qualifications, but were characterized by their beauty. Elagabalus’s public homosexual orgies caused shock and mischief even in the city of Rome so accustomed to the extravagance of emperors. As Paweł Fijałkowski writes:
Homosexual practices in themselves were not inferior at that time. The thing is, Elagabalus gave himself to men. This did not raise any objections in the case of a Syrian priest or Greek youth. However, according to Roman law and customs, a Roman citizen, let alone an emperor, should not be a passive person in sexual relations.
– Paweł Fijałkowski, Sexuality, psyche, culture. Homoeroticism in the ancient world
According to Lampridius:
After he had spent the winter in Nicomedia, living in a depraved manner and indulging in unnatural vice with men,a the soldiers soon began to regret that they had conspired against Macrinus to make this man emperor, and they turned their thoughts toward his cousin Alexander, who on the murder of Macrinus had been hailed by the senate as Caesar. For who could tolerate an emperor who indulged in unnatural lusts of every kind, when not even a beast of this sort would be tolerated? And even at Rome he did nothing but send out agents to search for those who had particularly large organs and bring them to the palace in order that he might enjoy their vigour. Moreover, he used to have the story of Paris played in his house, and he himself would take the rôle of Venus, and suddenly drop his clothing to the ground and fall naked on his knees, one hand on his breast, the other before his private parts, his buttocks projecting meanwhile and thrust back in front of his partner in depravity. He would likewise model the expression of his face on that with which Venus is usually painted, and he had his whole body depilated,b deeming it the chief enjoyment of his life to appear fit and worthy to arouse the lusts of the greatest number.
There were more and more rumors that the emperor is mentally unstable, and he confirmed this with his behavior. He was seen riding a chariot drawn around naked young girls in Rome. The emperor had quite a specific sense of humor: he served guests wax, wood or ivory dishes, threw snakes into the crowd, and ordered let in the dining room predatory animals (without fangs and claws).
In addition, the emperor was famous for his transsexual and orgiastic behavior. For example, he wanted to undergo sex reassignment surgery that was impossible at the time. Finally he was visited from this idea, which would certainly end in his death. Elagabalus got a homosexual wedding with a Greek coachman – Hierocles, who could not legally be in force in the empire. An example of his bizarre behavior and preferences is also his response to the welcome of the Zotikus athlete, who was brought to the emperor’s perverse pastimes: “Don’t call me master, I’m a lady.”
Elagabalus and Hierocles
According to the Romans, one of the most repugnant ideas of Emperor Elagabalus was to marry a Greek slave – Hierocles. Officially, their relationship had no legal force, because the ancient Romans did not anticipate the institution of homosexual marriage. Hierokles became the favorite of the emperor when during the games he fell from the chariot in front of the imperial box, and his helmet slipped off his head showing the face of the coachman. The teenage emperor was to delight his beautiful blond hair and he immediately ordered to bring him to the palace, bestowing his favor. The emperor was to say: “I am glad to be called lady, wife, queen of Hierocles.”
Aurelius Zoticus was one of the emperor’s lovers. He came from Smyrna and was brought to Rome on Elagabalus’ orders. Jealous and scared of his position Hierocles by means of a special mixture added to the drink was then deprived of rival potency.
Hierokles became one of the protagonists of numerous excesses and religious and moral scandals that his spouse was supposed to commit, such as opening a brothel in the imperial palace, in which the emperor himself provided services, extremely antique feasts and drunkenness, introducing shocking to conservative elites in Rome Oriental customs and cults.
As Lampridius relates:
He fed his dogs on goose-livers. Among his pets he had lions and leopards, which had been rendered harmless and trained by tamers, and these he would suddenly order during the dessert and the after-dessert to get up on the couches, thereby causing an amusing panic, for none knew that the beastsº were harmless. He sent grapes from Apamea83 to his stables for his horses, and he fed parrots and pheasants to his lions and other wild animals. 3 For ten successive days, moreover, he served wild sows’ udders with the matrices, at the rate of thirty a day, serving, besides, peas with gold-pieces, lentils with onyx, beans with amber, and rice with pearls; and he also sprinkled pearls on fish and truffles in lieu of pepper. In a banqueting-room with a reversible ceiling he once overwhelmed his parasites with violets and other flowers, so that some were actually smothered to death, being unable to crawl out to the top. He flavoured his swimming-pools and bath-tubs with essence of spices or of roses or wormwood. And once he invited the common mob to a drinking-bout, and himself drank with the populace, taking so much that on seeing what he alone consumed, people supposed he had been drinking from one of his swimming-pools. As banquet-favours, he gave eunuchs, or four-horse chariots, or horses with saddles, or mules, or litters, or carriages, or a thousand aurei or a hundred pounds of silver. At his banquets he would also distribute chances inscribed on spoons, the chance of one person reading “ten camels,” of another “ten flies,” of another “ten pounds of gold,” of another “ten pounds of lead,” of another “ten ostriches,” of another “ten hens-eggs,” so that they were chances indeed and men tried their luck. These he also gave at his games, distributing chances for ten bears or ten dormice, ten lettuces or ten pounds of gold. Indeed he was the first to introduce this practice of giving chances, which we still maintain. And the performers too he invited to what really were chances, giving as prizes a dead dog or a pound of beef, or else a hundred aurei, or a hundred pieces of silver, or a hundred coppers, and so on. All this so pleased the populace that after each occasion they rejoiced that he was emperor.
Elagabalusa was also amused by quite frightening entertainment. According to Lampridius:
He used, too, to play jokes on his slaves, even ordering them to bring him a thousand pounds of spiders-webs and offering them a prize; and he collected, it is said, ten thousand pounds, and then remarked that one could realize from that how great a city was Rome. He also used to send to his parasites jars of frogs, scorpions, snakes, and any other such reptiles, as their yearly allowance of provisions, 8 and he would shut up a vast number of flies in jars of this sort and call them tamed bees.
Because the emperor was mainly involved in entertainment and orgies, practical power in the country was exercised by his mother and grandmother. However, his grandmother Julia Maesa was aware of the grandson’s low popularity and was counting on his fall. She convinced him to adopt his cousin Alexander Severus and recognize him as heir to the throne. Soon, however, Elagabalus understood his mistake and realized that his grandmother wanted to deprive him of power and put Alexander on the throne. He decided to change his mind and kill his adopted son. However, as it turned out, Alexander had more support from the population and the army than Elagabalus. The Praetorians rebelled against Elagabalus and killed him and his mother. The immediate cause of the rebellion was to be the imprisonment of this part of the legionaries who enthusiastically welcomed the emperor’s rival – Alexander.
According to historian Cassius Dio, when the emperor realized the impending coup, he locked himself in a chest and ordered her to be taken out of the palace. However, the trunk was revised. Elagabalus and his mother were cut off, and the bodies were undressed, wandered around the city, and finally thrown into the river.
This is how the ancient historian Herodian describes these events:
[…] allowed anyone who wished to roam the earth and to mend [the corpse of the emperor and his mother]; they were dragged around the city for a long time and insulted, and finally thrown into the channel flowing into the Tiber.
– Herodian, Roman History
The soldiers of the imperial temples pierced their innards and murdered them mercilessly, ripping their guts from their stomachs. A rumor quickly spread around the city that the praetorians got to the emperor in the toilet and murdered him there. The body did not seem to want to sink in the river, so the soldiers weighted them with stones.
At the time of his death, the emperor was 18 years old and he died on March 11, 222 CE He was replaced by his cousin Alexander Severus.
Elagabalus was one of the darkest and craziest rulers in Roman history. In addition: “This fornicator of Nero and Commodus led the Roman administration to a state of absolute chaos and ruin”1.
Elagabalus five times got married (four times with women and once with a man):