Elagabalus: The 14-Year-Old Who Became One of Rome’s Most Unpopular Emperors
In 222 AD, the very powerful and influential imperial guard of the Roman emperors carried out a vicious assassination of teenage Roman Emperor Elagabalus. The young emperor, who took the throne at just the age of 14, had made for himself many enemies among the Roman Senate, the military, and even the people of Rome.
Although a lesser-known Roman Emperor, Elagabalus was able to make his very short reign (from 218 to 222 AD) into one of an absolute disaster, engaging in several sexual and religious pervasion that etched his name into the annals history as one of the most despicable Roman emperors of all time.
Who really was Elagabalus? And just how ruthless was his four-year reign as emperor of Rome?
Below, World History Edu takes a detailed look at how this teenage Roman emperor became one of the most disgusting and quite frankly obnoxious rulers of all time?
Where and when was he born?
This future Roman emperor was born around 204 AD at Emesa in Roman’s province in Syria. Elagabalus’ father was Sextus Varius Marcellus, a high-ranking Roman senator and once close ally of Emperor Caracalla.
His mother was Julia Soaemias, a member of the Severan dynasty which also produced emperors such as Septimius Severus and Caracalla. Soaemias was the niece of the Caracalla, Elagabalus’ predecessor.
Meaning of his name
As stated, Elagabalus was the hereditary high priest of the temple of the Syrian sun-god Elagabal in Emesa (present day Homs in western Syria). His nickname “Elagabalus” is actually of Latin origin; it means “God of the Mountain”.
By the era of Elagabalus, the worship of Elagabal had spread beyond Emesa into a number of places in Rome’s eastern provinces. Steadily, the sun god became associated with a Roman sun deity called Sol (Helios in Greek mythology) and its numerous variations, Sol Invictus and Sol Indiges.
As a result of this association, Elagabalus was sometimes called “Heliogabalus” by some ancient writers.
Elagabalus’s Grandmother: Julia Maesa
His maternal grandmother was Julia Maesa. She was married to Roman consul Julius Avitus Alexianus. Her sister was Julia Domna, the second wife of Emperor Septimius Severus. As the sister-in-law of the emperor, Maesa came to wield an enormous amount of influence, especially among the Roman army.
Julia Maesa would go on to be the marternal grandmother of two Roman emperors – Elagabalus and Severus Alexander. The latter, who reignd from 222 to 235, was the son of Julia Avita Mamaea and Marcus Julius Gessius Marcianus.
Hereditary high priest of the Syrian sun-god Elagabal
In his pre-teen years, he served as the hereditary high priest at Elagabalium, the temple of the Syrian sun-god Elagabal. It was as a result of Elagabalus’ strong veneration of Elagabal that as emperor, he went to great lengths to impose the Syrian sun god on Romans.
The chaotic reign of Emperor Macrinus paves way for Elagabalus
His mother Julia Soaemias played an influential role in his ascent to principate (i.e. emperor) in 218 AD. Soaemias connived with some members of the army to orchestrate a revolt against Emperor Macrinus. During his brief reign as emperor (from 217 to 218), Macrinus struggled to deal with a number of political and military conflict in Rome. He had an uphill task of supressing a rebellion led by the governor of Roman province in Syria.
Macrinus also had to contend with the threat of invasions from the Dacians and the Parthians. As his predecessor’s policies (i.e. Caracalla’s) had left the economy in a poor condition, Macrinus struggled to stabilize the socio-economic environment of Rome, and soon unrest broke out. This resulted in him getting strong opposition from some members of the Roman Senate and the army.
Considered weak by some leading Roman politicians, Macrinus spent a lot of his time trying to remove threats to his reign orchestrated by supporters and family members of his predecessor, Caracalla. Chief among his opponents was his own aunt Julia Maesa, whom, along with her two daughters and grandson Elagabulus, he exiled to Emesa in Syria.
In the end, Emperor Macrinus, who was the first emperor not to come from the senatorial class, was removed from power in a carefully orchestrated coup by Julia Maesa and some members of the Roman legion. After a final stand at the Battle of Antioch (in present-day Antakya, Turkey) in June 218, the beleaguered emperor and his praetorian guard were defeated by Maesa’s co-conspirator, a general called Gannys and the rebelling Roman legions. Macrinus was captured and thereafter executed in Cappadocia in central Anatolia, Turkey.
His young son and co-ruler Diadumenianus, who tried to flee to the court of Artabanus IV of Parthia, was also captured at Zeugma (located in modern-day Gaziantep Province, Turkey) and executed.
Maesa’s grandson, 14-year-old Elagabalus, was then proclaimed emperor of Rome. With rumors abound that Elagabalus was the illegitimate of son of Caracalla, the young emperor received the support of the Third Legion Gallica, a very influential legion of the Imperial Roman army led by General Publius Valerius Comazon. That particular Roman legion was favored during the reign of Caracalla.
With Emperor Marcinus and his co-emperor killed, the Senate switched its alliance to the military-backed emperor Elagabalus. The teenager was then proclaimed emperor by the Senate. The lawmakers accepted the claim that Elagabalus was the son and successor of Caracalla, making him Pater Patriae (“Father of the Country) in July 218. He was also named pontifex maximus, which means chief high priest of the College of Pontiffs.
As he was not married at the time, his grandmother Julia Maesa and his mother Julia Soaemias were given the rank of Augustae by the Senate. Those two wielded enormous influence throughout the reign of Elagabalus.
Upon Elagabalus’s ascension to the imperial throne in 218, his cousin deceased Emperor Caracalla, who was rumored to be his illegitimate father, and his grandaunt Julia Domna (i.e. wife of Roman Emperor Septimius Severus and mother Emperors Caracalla and Geta) were defied by the Roman Senate.
Did you know…?
Worried that Rome might be a bit put off by his eastern culture and attire, he had a painting of himself placed in the Senate House. This assertion was according to historian Herodian. Elagabalus then made his way to Rome with a ceremonial entrance, i.e. an adventus.
Reasons why Elagabalus became a very unpopular and hated ruler
Roman emperor Elagabalus did not come to be tagged as one of Rome’s infamous imperial rulers because he was bloodthirsty tyrant. In that department, many Roman emperors preceded him. What Elagabalus was good at was being an obnoxious and incompetent ruler. As a result, his brief reign was rife with many controversies and scandalous behaviors.
Below are some of the major reasons why Elagabalus is seen as one of Rome’s most infamous rulers:
Imprisonment, Exiles, and Executions
According to ancient Roman historian Cassius Dio (c. 155 – c. 235 AD), Elagabalus executed many of his opponents, including Gellius Maximus, the general of the Fourth Legion, and Verus, the general of the Third Legion Gallica. Purges in the Senate and the military were very much a common phenonmenon when a new emperor was given the reins. The fact that Elagabalus rose to the throne following the assassination of his predecessor in plot orchestrated by his grandmother, the young emperor was left with no other choice than to go all out on the supporters of his predecessor, including Fabius agrippinus and Claudius Attalus Paterculianus. The latter was the former governor of Thrace.
Abuse and torture
A self-indulgent ruler, Emperor Elagabalus took great delight in torturing his subjects, especially women. He once chained women to his chariot like horses. He then flogged them as the pulled him around his court.
Another time, he released venomous snakes into the audience of the gladiators and watched as people ran helter skelter trying to save themselves from snake bites.
Getting a dinner invitation from Elagabalus was sometimes tantamount to a death sentence. The emperor was infamous for tying his dinner guest to a water wheel and then watched them slowly and agonizingly take their last breath.
When he was not using his drowning wheel device, he would unleash wild animals, including lions, into a feast.
Roman rulers were known for their eccentricities; however, Elagabalus took his to a whole new level. As he wanted to be perceived to be as a benevolent ruler, he would sometimes toss gold and silver coins from his balcony into the crowd. He would then burst into laughter as the crowd violently fought over the money. In some cases, children and women got trampled in the process.
His thirst for the absolute depravity and the insane knew no bounds. There were rumors that the emperor handed out positions to his male courtiers based on the sizes of their genitalia.
Elagabalus had no regard for Roman religious traditions and political norms
A staunch worshiper of the Syrian sun-god Elagabal, Emperor Elagabalus went to great lengths and imposed the Syrian god on Romans. The ancient Romans were a polytheistic culture, with the sky god Jupiter (Zeus in Greek mythology) sitting atop the pantheon of Roman gods and goddesses. Therefore, it came as an absolute shock when Elagabalus ordered that Elagabal be worshiped as the chief of Roman pantheon. By so doing, he violated all religious norms of the people.
As it was common for Roman emperors to hold the title pontifex maximus, which mean chief high priest of the College of Pontiffs, Elagabalus bestowed upon himself the epithet “highest priest of the unconquered god, the Sun Elgabal, supreme pontiff” – Latin: sacerdos amplissimus dei invicti Soli Elagabali, pontifex maximus.
In his four-year reign, religious norms weren’t the only things he violated; he also completely went against political norms of the time. For example, he appointed his military ally Comazon, who was the chief of praetorian guards, to prefect of Rome three times.
In order to make those changes a bit more acceptable to his people, he made Minerva (Athena in Greek mythology) and Urania (the muse of astronomy) as the consort of Elagabal. The new Capitoline Triad of Rome therefore became Elagabal, Urania and Athena, which replaced Jupiter, Juno (Hera in Greek mythology) and Minerva.
As if those changes were not enough, the emperor also forced his court and Roman senators to take part in religious rites in honor of Elagabal. Going against his orders was a literal death sentence.
He married a Vestal Virgin called Aquilia Severa
In late 220, Elagabalus did the unthinkable and completely frowned upon by the society at the time: He married a Vestal Virgin and caused a huge controversy. He incurred the utmost displeasure from the senatorial elite.
His reason for marrying the Vestal Virgin was that: He believed the marriage was a symbolic of his patron god Elagaba’s marriage to the Roman goddess Vesta (Hestia in Greek mythology). Also, Emperor Elagabalus believed that marrying a Vestal Virgin would allow him to bring forth godlike children.
He would end up divorcing Severa twice, both times on the urging of his grandmother Julia Maesa. In between those divorces, he married an Anatolian Roman noblewoman called Annia Aurelia Faustina.
Although Elagabulus and Severa did not have any children, at least based on the account that we know, the act of marrying a Vestal Virgin was absolutely seen as taboo. This is the reason why scholars and historians like to believe that the emperor forced Severa to marry him.
Who were the Vestal Virgins?
In Roman time, the priestess that served in the temple of Hestia, the Roman goddess of the hearth, all had to be virgins. This was meant to show their absolute devotion to Vesta, who herself was believed to be one of three few virgins in the Roman pantheon [the other two were Minerva and Diana (Artemis equivalent in Greek mythology)].
The young girls that served in temple of Vesta were selected at a very young age, mostly before puberty. The girls were then sent to the priestly college of Vesta, which was supervised by a male priest called the Pontifex maximus, who was usually the Roman emperor.
The Vestal Virgins were bound to the temple of Vesta for a minimum of thirty years. They were sworn to an oath of chastity, vowing to remain celibate for the entirety of their service to the goddess. Any Vestal Virgin that broke her oath of chastity was often handed a death sentence, usually via burning.
The Elagabalium was a temple built in honor of the Syrian sun-god Elagabal. During the reign of Elagabalus, a lavish temple of the god was built on the east face of the Palatine Hill.
In the Elagabalium, the emperor used a black stone, possibly a meteorite, to represent the god. As part of his devotion to Elagabal, he also went as far as circumcising himself and abstained from pork.
Emperor Elagabalus ordered the relocation of a lot of religious relics from the various notable shrines in Rome to the Elagabalium. One such religious relic was the emblem of the Great Mother (i.e. the goddess Cybele). He also moved the fire of Vesta, the Palladium, and the Shields of Salii to the Elagabalium. This decision of his was aimed at making Elagabal appear supreme to the other deities in the Roman pantheon. Basically, he wanted all the Roman gods to be worshipped in association with Elagabal.
He forced his senators to watch him while he performed religious acts in honor of Elagabal during the summer solstice. He placed the stone of Elagabal, which was adorned with numerous ornaments, in his six-horse chariot and paraded it in the streets of Rome. As the chariot had no occupant, the emperor would take the reins and then ran backward in front of the chariot while facing the god.
Other horrible things done by Elagabalus
Roman Emperor Elagabalus has a tarnished reputation in history due to his self-indulgent nature and abuse of power. To some ancient scholars, he ranks up there with the most vicious and cruel rulers of all time.
Below are some more facts about the Roman emperor:
- He was criticized for heavily rewarding his male lovers. One time he even wanted to officially marry a slave-turned-charioteer called Hierocles. He also planned to elevate the male lover to Caesar. Once again, it was his grandmother that intervened and counseled the incorrigible ruler against such an action.
- There also rumors that he was in a romantic relationship with Gannys, and that at some point in time, he thought about making the general Caesar.
- The emperor was seen in his era as an obnoxious ruler because he had a revolving door of male lovers, with the Roman athlete Aurelius Zoticus being one of his most liked.
- Elagabalus sexual pervasion knew no limit; he was alleged to have prostituted himself in the various taverns and brothels of Rome.
- Rumors abound that he even wanted his physician to perform a sex reassignment surgery. That would mean that the emperor, who wore makeup and wigs, could have ended up being the first-known transgender Roman ruler.
- Basically, his sexual orientation and gender identity left a lot of people confused and later irritated, especially the Praetorian Guard.
- His third wife – Annia Aurelia Faustina – was a descendant of Marcus Aurelius. She was the widow of a man, Pomponius Bassus, the emperor executed.
- He was infamous for his affairs with a man called Hierocles, an ex-slave and chariot driver from Caria in western Anatolia. The senatorial elite and the Praetorian Guard came to despise Elagabalus for his decadence.
Discontent and the rise of Severus Alexander
Popular support for the emperor began to shrink due to his religious and political provocations. By 222, his reputation among the senatorial elite and the Praetorian Guard was tarnished irrecoverably.
His grandmother Julia Maesa acted fast as she wanted to get rid of the emperor and his mother. She saw her other grandchildren, children of Julia Avita Mamaea, as ideal candidates for the imperial throne.
Severus Alexander, Elagabalus’s cousin, was seen by Julia Maesa as a very good replacement for Elagabalus. Maesa was able to convince Elagabalus to appoint his Severus as his successor. In June 221, Severus received the title of caesar.
Steadily, jealousy and hatred filled the heart of Elagabalus as he began sensing that the military favored Severus more. The emperor devised plots to eliminate his young cousin. He even tried to convince Roman lawmakers to strip Severus of his titles.
Assassination of Elagabalus
In early 222, Elagabalus spread a rumor that Severus was about to die. This rumor compelled the Praetorian Guard to demand to see the two men. It is said that when Elagabalus arrived, he was shocked to see the soldiers chanting Severus’s name instead of his.
Incensed beyond measure, the emperor ordered the arrest of those who cheered for Severus. It was at this point that the imperial guard attacked Elagabalus and his mother. The two were killed by the very people sworn to protect them.
What happened after the assassination of Elagabalus?
With his assassination carried out with the support of his grandmother Julia Maesa, Elagabalus was succeeded by one of Maesa’s grandchildren, Severus.
Also, following the assassination of Emperor Elagabalus, several purges were carried out, targeting former associates, lovers and other allies of the slain emperor. The slain emperor’s supporters were either executed or exiled. His male lover Hierocles was executed.
The senatorial elite then quickly reversed his religious policies and even sent the stone of Elagabal back to Emesa. Also, the ban on women attending meetings of the Senate was brought back.
Elagabalus’s images and some of his statues were re-carved with the face of his successor, Severus. Born Marcus Aurelius Severus Alexander, Emperor Severus was the last ruler of the Severan dynasty.
Elagabalus: Fast Facts
Born: Sextus Varius Avitus Bassianus
Also known as: Marcus Aurelius Antoninus
Date of birth: c. 204 AD
Place of birth: Emesa, Syria
Died: 212, Rome Italy
Cause of death: Assassination by the Praetorian Guard
Parents: Sextus Varius Marcellus and Julia Soaemias Bassiana
Spouses: Julia Cornelia Paula, Aquilia Severa, Annia Aurelia Faustina, Hierocles (male lover)
Nicknames: Elagabalus or Heliogablus
Successor: Severus Alexander