Gods, Girls, and Gender: Elagabalus and the Cultural Politics of the Severan Roman Empire 


Since it’s Pride Month here the US for our LGBTQ+ community, I thought we’d do a little deep dive into the reign of Rome’s queerest ruler (yes, even more than Hadrian…), the 3rd century emperor Elagabalus (c.204-222 CE), formerly mentioned on this blog as a Vestal Virgin-marrying early adopter of the wheelbarrow/unicycle. Held by many traditional historians as possibly the empire’s least competent emperor, it might seem a little backhanded to try and hold Elagabalus up as some kind of queer icon, but as usual, I think the truth of the matter is more complicated than that. Elagabalus and their family represent a fascinating part of the cultural shift in Rome that first began after the fall of the purely Italian Julio-Claudians and would continue until the end of the empire, where Rome became a multicultural kaleidoscope and more often than not, the emperor themselves was an immigrant from the provinces. So I want to look at that interplay in Elagabalus’ short, but wild rule, because it’s this ongoing synthesis of cultures as much as their personal identity that shaped them and in turn, the empire.

Before we begin, as a change from my entry linked above, where I referred to Elagabalus as he/him, I will be using they/them for this post, though I will still generally refer to their title as the male-gendered “emperor,” as that is the way they are referred to most by ancient sources as well as current scholarship. Previously I’d known that they were reported to be, in the typical mold of Roman emperors, sexually omnivorous, but as a result, I hadn’t really paid attention to the particular episodes reported by classical historians like Cassius Dio and Herodian, and glosses like the Historia Augusta, which are specific in ways different from say, the alleged proclivities of Tiberius. We’ll discuss this in more detail further on, but suffice to say that if Elagabalus were given contemporary gender language, the chances of them identifying as a straight or solely gay man are probably small. That said, I am in complete agreement with current historians in the field that we must be careful in projecting our modern understandings of sexuality and gender on ancient people and cultures. Elagabalus is said to have professed to titles that might have indicated they would have preferred she/her, but I’m hesitant to make that decision definitely for them. Singular plurals reflect at the very least their non-binary gender and some of its fluidity through their short life.

[One of the few remaining busts of Elagabalus]

Because it was brutally short, even by ancient standards, and Elagabalus’ youth should be taken into account when ranking them among Rome’s worst emperors. They were recognized as emperor by the Senate at fourteen and they were dead by eighteen, which doesn’t exactly leave a lot of room for political seasoning, let alone necessarily figuring out one’s gender or sexuality. But why would Rome agree to crown such a young person who was not the progeny of the previous emperor? Well, that has to do with Elagabalus’ own family, so we’ll have to rewind a bit and talk about Septimius Severus and founding of the Severan dynasty.

Lucius Septimius Severus (145-211 CE) came to power as the fifth and final ruler of 193 CE, the chaotic so-called “Year of the Five Emperors” that followed the assassination of the last Antonine emperor, Commodus, on New Year’s Eve, 192 CE. The fall of virtually any imperial dynasty throughout Rome’s history would lead to a period of upheaval like this until anyone gained enough support to stay in power long enough to promote an heir. The post-Antonine flux period is shorter than many, but notable for how many ruling candidates they managed to cycle through in a single year. Usually new emperors rose out of the army, since the one lesson anybody learned from the civil wars of the last century BCE was that one couldn’t hope to control Rome without legionary backing. Severus was no exception to this rule, having been born into an eques-ranked family in Leptis Magna in the Roman province of Africa (modern Libya) and rising through the legionary ranks in military service abroad. His highly respected position in the army is how he had the muscle to either oust or outlast his four rivals for the throne. As you can see from his portraiture below, like the lapsed royal house of Mauretania, Severus was from a multi-racial family typical of the North African elites of the period.  His mother was of an at least partially Italian family, but his father is believed to be of a mixed Greek-Punic/Berber (Imazighen) ancestry similar to that of Juba II’s next door in what had been Mauretania. While by the 3rd century emperors born in the provinces were hardly unusual, Severus was possibly the first to be born from a native, non-Italian family.

[The Severan imperial family: Julia Domna, Septimius Severus, and their sons, Geta (L) and Caracalla (R)]

But this isn’t the only connection to Mauretania in Severus’ story, because the remains of its royal family pop up in that of his wife’s, the indomitable Julia Domna (160-217 CE). As we touched on at the end of my Mauretania entry, Julia was a member of the Emesene dynasty of Arab priest-kings serving as sub-client elites in Roman Syria, into whom the Mauretanian princess Drusilla the Younger had married in the early first century CE. While not as politically powerful as they had once been, the Emesenes were still religiously relevant to the local population because they served as the priestly caste for the sun god Ilah al-Jabal (إله الجبل), “God of the Mountain,” the reigning deity of the city of Emesa and the particular iteration of the Semitic god Ba’al in this part of Syria. The god was worshipped in his main temple as a baetyl—a sacred stone that in Ilah al-Jabal’s case was a large, conical black meteorite. Ilah al-Jabal’s cult would spread over the Greek and Roman world, where the god’s Arabic name would first be Hellenized as Elagábalos (Ἐλαγάβαλος) and then Latinized as Elagabalus.

But when Julia Domna’s husband became emperor, it seems that many of the Emesenes relocated to Rome to enjoy the fruits of power in the capital. Among these relatives was the new empress’ sister, Julia Maesa, and her niece, Julia Soaemias Bassiana, along with the latter’s husband and her young son, Sextus Varius Avitus Bassianus. Julia Domna herself would become one of the most powerful Roman empresses in all of imperial history, and would not only wield significant influence during her husband’s reign, but also the reigns of her sons, the emperors Caracalla (188-217 CE) and Geta (189-211 CE). She was somewhat less successful in getting her sons to rule as the co-emperors Severus had intended them to be, as Caracalla famously had the Praetorian Guard murder his brother in her arms at what was supposed to be a truce meeting between them. But she did remain by Caracalla’s side until he was in turn assassinated by a frustrated legionary in 217, which sparked a rebellion that the late emperor’s praetorian praefect, Marcus Opellius Macrinus (165-218 CE), took advantage of and proclaimed himself emperor.

[Julia Maesa]

Julia Domna ended her own life after hearing of Caracalla’s murder, but Macrinus was nervous about any of her Syrian relatives remaining in Rome while he consolidated power, so Julia Maesa et al were exiled back to their estates in Emesa. But Julia Maesa was very much like her sister and wasn’t content with the curtailed privileges of an Emesene royal when she could still be enjoying the imperial lifestyle in Rome. So she immediately began rallying the Emesenes toward getting her fourteen-year-old grandson Bassianus declared emperor. This is less far-fetched than it might initially appear because while some of the military had been personally mad at Caracalla, the army as a whole still respected the Severan dynasty, especially out in the eastern provinces like Syria, and Macrinus, as merely the praetorian praefect, was struggling for legitimacy. Julia Maesa was also taking advantage of a persistent rumor that Bassianus was actually Caracalla’s son, a rumor her daughter had done nothing to dispel while they were in Rome.

Armed with these “proofs,” the Emesenes got the Third Gallica Legion stationed in Roman Syria to declare Bassianus emperor in May of 218, and by June, enough legions had turned to his side that the Senate concurred. The Emesenes’ cause was bolstered by the fact that the Severans had pretty much drained the imperial treasury fighting a series of wars against Parthia, the Berbers of lower Libya, and the Caledonians in Britain. But Macrinus had effectively made himself the one left holding the bag for the debt and the army was mutinous because of defaulted back pay even before the Emesenes started waving a Severan cousin in front of them. After several attempts to defend his reign with the legions still loyal to him, Macrinus was essentially forced to go on the run in Anatolia, but he and his young son, who was serving as his co-emperor, were eventually both caught and executed. Macrinus died having never been able to see Rome as emperor until his severed head was sent to the young Bassianus there. Once the Emesenes made their triumphant return to Rome and Bassianus donned the purple, the young emperor took the same ruling name as Caracalla, Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, but like his cousin in the end, he would be best remembered by his nickname, Elagabalus—the god of his Syrian family.

[The baetyl of Ilah al-Jabal in its temple in Emesa]

This would be in part because while they’d fought tooth and claw to get out of Syria, the Emesenes had no intention of leaving their ancestral god behind this time. Ilah al-Jabal’s sacred baetyl was brought to Rome and Elagabalus had the god declared the chief deity of the Roman pantheon over Jupiter and the emperor themselves as the god’s high priest, as they would have been in Syria. It was alleged that Elagabalus had themselves circumcised for their priestly role and the Senate was forced to attend their ceremonies before the baetyl’s altar. A lavish temple, the Elagabalium, was built on the east face of the Palatine Hill to house the baetyl and many of the sacred symbols of Rome’s other gods, such as the fire of Vesta and Magna Mater’s sacred emblem, so that all worship offered in Rome touched Ilah al-Jabal. The Roman goddess Minerva, along with the Semitic goddess Astarte and the Greek muse Urania were given to Ilah al-Jabal as consorts.

The worship of sun gods in Rome was hardly novel at this point; indeed, Septimius Severus himself had been a strong supporter of Ilah al-Jabal, albeit in a more Roman guise as Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun. What frothed the milk of the Senate was, in a recurring theme of Elagabalus’ reign, the magnitude of the emperor’s actions. Ilah al-Jabal couldn’t be a god in the Roman pantheon, he had to be the god. Elagabalus couldn’t just be Pontifex Maximus, they had to be, to the Romans, a foreign-style priest-king who supplanted all of the rituals the city had been relying on for hundreds of years for strange practices from the east. Most of Elagabalus’ problems with the Senate stem from this religious disagreement, rather than issues with the emperor’s less-traditional sexuality. Even the brouhaha over their (two) marriages to Vestal Virgin Julia Aquilia Severa fall into this chasm between the lived religious experiences of the Senate and their emperor. To the Senate and Roman tradition, violating the chastity of a Vestal was one of the most serious blasphemies, one that had previously required the death of the priestess to mitigate the offense to the goddess. But from Elagabalus’ eastern tradition, priestesses dedicated to the gods were more likely to be sacred spouses of the deity and priesthoods might engage in sacred intercourse among themselves or with the public in sacred prostitution to honor the gods. This clash of cultures meant that the Senate was viewing Aquilia Severa as a pure vessel and Elagabalus was viewing her as a hemet-netjer, a god’s wife, both as the incarnation of deity through the well-established Roman imperial cult and as the high priest of Ilah al-Jabal.

[Julia Aquilia Severa]

Elagabalus was supported in these religious reforms by their mother, Julia Soaemias Bassiana, who was given the title of Augusta during their reign. This is also true for their grandmother, Julia Maesa, and both women would play major roles in the government of the young emperor. The Julias were to become the very first women admitted into the Senate, where they served under the titles of Clarissima for Julia Bassiana (“Brightest”—a common title for imperial women) and Mater Castrorum et Senatus (“Mother of the army camp and of the Senate”) for Julia Maesa. They also presided over a “Women’s Senate” that decided on matters of imperial fashion and protocol. Julia Maesa was clearly the more practical of the two, as both the driver of Elagabalus’ rise and the more consistent in trying to curb the behaviors the establishment in Rome found so generally off-putting in the emperor. She was rightfully wary of overthrowing the Roman pantheon for Ilah al-Jabal, but Elagabalus would grow increasingly deaf to her ideas, which lead her to start positioning her other daughter’s son, Severus Alexander, as a potential dynastic replacement if Elagabalus got too out of hand. But for a while, the emperor could afford to ignore their canny grandma because while the senators grumbled, Elagabalus still had the overwhelming support of the army, who because of their multiethnic makeup by this point in history had plenty of sun worshippers who were happy to see a sun god exalted over Jupiter. No, what would eventually lose Elagabalus the support of the army, via their Praetorian Guard, was not the emperor’s religious radicalism, but their gender fluidity and how it shifted the dynamics of imperial power (yes, after all that lead up we’re actually going to return to the premise I set up way at the beginning).

Cassius Dio tells us Elagabalus was married five times, and four of those marriages were to women. Their first wife was Julia Cornelia Paula, whose mother was a member of the always-influential Cornelii gens and whose father was the respected Severan jurist Julius Paulus. This first marriage has all the marks of being engineered by Julia Maesa—a tie to one of the oldest Roman patrician families and a reward to a a distinguished man who had served Septimius Severus well. But her good planning was not to bear much fruit because within a year of the marriage is when Elagabalus got the idea to marry Julia Aquilia Severa to bolster their status as emperor-god-priest and divorced Cornelia Paula to do so. It would take another year of pressure from their grandmother and the Senate, but in 221, Elagabalus was induced to divorce Aquilia Severa and marry a more suitable empress, Annia Aurelia Faustina, whose father was a Claudii and who had a distant familial relation to the Antonine emperor Marcus Aurelius. But history was to repeat itself in the fourth and final year of Elagabalus’ reign when they divorced Annia Faustina so they could remarry Aquilia Severa. This may have been evidence of affection for the former Vestal, or simply the belief of the emperor that they needed her for a successful “divine marriage.”

[The baetyl transported in a triumphal quadriga with the inscription ”to the Holy Sun God El-Gabal”]

None of these marriages produced any children, nor are there any known natural children born to all of those women the emperor was supposedly wheelbarrowing around the palace according to the Historia Augusta. Now, this could be for any number of reasons, of course, but the ancient historians believed that this was because Elagabalus’ true love was reserved for their unofficial fifth marriage to the Carian charioteer Hierocles. Cassius Dio reports that Elagabalus “delighted” in being called Hierocles’ “mistress, wife, and queen” and supposedly corrected his cubicularius (eunuch chamberlain) Zoticus, with whom the Historia Augusta says the emperor may have also had a relationship with, when he called the emperor “my lord” (“when Zoticus addressed the emperor as ‘my lord,’ Elagabalus responded, ‘Don’t call me lord, I am a lady.’”). In addition to being known to wax and depilate their entire body, and enjoy wearing makeup and wigs, this particular anecdote of Dio’s is concluded by saying that Elagabalus promised vast rewards to any doctor in empire who would be able to perform a successful vaginoplasty on them. This why Elagabalus is often thought to have been not a bisexual cis man, but a bisexual trans woman.

The emperor’s other feminized preferences were shared by many men, heterosexual and homosexual, in the ancient Mediterranean, and could easily be dismissed as the standard salacious gossip often repeated by historians of the era about everyone. But the desire for gender-affirming surgery is so specific that it rings very true to me. It might also explain why Elagabalus’ Praetorian Guard was more threatened by the emperor’s husband Hierocles than their blasphemous Vestal Virgin empress Aquilia Severa. The Guard was likely worried that either Elagabalus would fully transition and name Hierocles as emperor to their empress, or Elagabalus would fully transition and rule as a reigning empress—neither of which the ancient Romans were quite ready for. Julia Maesa could sense the tide turning for the last time and started to scramble to save the family. She convinced Elagabalus to officially name their cousin Severus Alexander as their heir, but the emperor wasn’t fooled completely and they immediately started ordering attempts on Severus Alexander’s life. The Praetorian Guard rioted until Elagabalus brought Alexander to their camp to prove the boy was alive, and when the emperor did, they acclaimed Alexander over Elagabalus. The emperor threatened the disloyal troops with executions, but the Guard moved first and attacked Elagabalus and their mother, who had come with them. They were both killed and decapitated before the Guard stripped their bodies and dragged them through the streets of Rome. Severus Alexander was declared emperor, Hierocles was executed, and Elagabalus’ body was thrown in the Tiber as their name was stricken from the records of the empire by damnatio memoriae and Ilah al-Jabal’s baetyl was packed back off to Emesa.

[A statue of Elagabalus as Hercules, re-faced to be Severus Alexander after Elagabalus’ assassination]

Like his assassinated older cousin, Severus Alexander was only fourteen when he became emperor, but his thirteen-year rule was the longest the empire had experienced in a long time and the craving for stability made historians like Dio and Herodian quick to heap abuse on Elagabalus as a way to curry favor with the dead emperor’s successor. But Elagabalus shares some kinship with other radical reformers like Akhenaten in Egypt, who would largely suffer a similar erasure until the discovery of his son Tutankhamun’s tomb would begin to unravel the sectarian strife around the Amarna period. Not all of the renegade pharaoh’s ideas were necessarily good ones, but the investigation of his religious beliefs and their byproducts, like Amarna’s non-traditional gender-fluid art, have been taken with academic vigor and not mere prurience. Perhaps Elagabalus—religious visionary, transgender pioneer, immigrant teenager—is waiting for a similar renaissance of serious scholarly attention.

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