Elagabalus: Emperor of Opposites Explained

For four brief years, the Roman world was turned upside down Elagabalus, the emperor of opposites. Emperor and Usurper, Priest and Performer, Roman and Syrian, Masculine and Feminine.

May 4, 2020By Kieren Johns, PhD Classics & Ancient History
Portrait of Emperor Elgabalus with the Roses of Heliogabalus
Portrait of Emperor Elagabalus

Few emperors enjoy and endure quite as diverse a legacy as Elagabalus, who ruled from AD 218 to 222. Cut down along with his mother by mutinous Praetorian guards in the imperial capital at the age of 18, the emperor quickly became the subject of gossip and vitriol. From tales of oriental decadence including smothering banquet quests to death beneath a cascade of rose petals and sexual perversity and religious eccentricities, the truth of this young emperor is frequently veiled by scandal. 


Emperor Elagabalus – A Dynastic Deception

Emperor Caracalla as a Youth
Portrait of the Emperor Caracalla as a Youth, AD 196-204, via State Hermitage Museum


The story of Elagabalus’ rise begins with a lie. His grandmother, Julia Maesa, had previously enjoyed a life of imperial luxury. Her sister, Julia Domna, had been the wife of one emperor, Septimius Severus, and mother of another, Caracalla. Confined to their native city of Emesa in Syria after the murder of Emperor Caracalla in AD 217, Maesa began to scheme. She had two daughters named  Julia Soaemias and Julia Mammaea. Both daughters had sons, and Maesa began to spread rumors pertaining to their parentage. In particular, she asserted that Julia Soaemias’ son Elagabalus was actually the offspring of an adulterous affair between her daughter and the former emperor, Caracalla. The boy reputedly bore a striking resemblance to the former emperor as a young man. Generous bribes certainly helped the soldiers stationed at Emesa believe that this Syrian youth was actually the son and rightful heir to the empire.


Priest and Prince

Coin of Uranius Antoninus
Coin of Uranius Antoninus with reverse depiction of the god Elagabal, British Museum, ca. AD 253


While Julia Maesa was busy buying the loyalty of the Roman soldiers and creating spurious family trees, Elagabalus was engaged in his priestly duties. He, like others in his family before him, was the chief priest of the main god in Emesa: Elagabal. Unlike other deities of the Classical world, Elagabal had no human form. Rather than a personified figure, this Phoenician sun-god was worshipped in the form of a large, conical black stone, also known as a baetyl.  The Roman soldiers at Emesa allegedly delighted in watching the eccentric but harmless priestly duties of the handsome young man.

When the rumors spread by Julia took hold, and the soldiers in Syria proclaimed Elagabalus as the true emperor, war was inevitable. Macrinus, the man who had usurped Caracalla just a year before in 217, was defeated by the Elagbalian forces at the battle of Antioch. According to the historian Cassius Dio, Elagabalus actually led his supporters from the front, cutting an almost divine, dashing vision at the fore of the battle. Alongside his role as priest, the young man had demonstrated himself to be a worthy imperial prince.


Elagabalus’s Arrival in Rome

The Curia Julia
The Curia Julia as seen from the Roman Forum, Rome


Victorious, Elagabalus embarked upon the long journey to Rome from Syria. Wintering at Nicomedia in the winter of AD 218, he shocked the populaces of the empire he encountered by performing the traditional rites associated with the worship of Elagabal, and appearing dressed in ornate luxurious clothing including – according to Herodian – opulent purple robes and a bejewelled tiara. Electing to not heed the warnings of his grandmother and her concerns that his appearance may shock and alienate the Romans upon his arrival, the young emperor instead ordered a full portrait of himself performing his priestly duties. This was sent ahead of the imperial entourage to be displayed at Rome, in the Curia (the Senate House), above the statue of Victory located there. The relationship between the new emperor and Rome’s traditional powerbases was off to a rocky start.

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Early Warnings… 

A silver denarius of Elagabalus
Silver denarius of Elagabalus, 218-222 CE

That Elagabalus’ reign was to be beset by troubles was evident from its earliest days. The emperor, now officially known as Marcus Aurelius Antoninus – a name change designed to confirm his dubious heritage and dynastic legitimacy – was compelled to combat several revolts within the first year of his reign. The young emperor’s decision to kill Gannys, an adviser who had been central to his initial accession, was a poor decision. Angered by the licentious behavior and religious oddities of the emperor, several legions revolted, including the Fourth Legion in Syria, led by Gellius Maximus. The world was already, Dio suggests, beginning to turn on its head.

Things wouldn’t improve upon Elagabalus’ arrival in Rome either. In AD 219 he oversaw the devaluation of the Roman currency, with a reduction in the silver levels of the denarius, the standard Roman silver coin.


A New Religious Order

Heliogabalus, High Priest of the Sun, Simeon Solomon, 1866


As the chief priest of the god Elagabal, the new emperor oversaw a complete restricting of the Roman religious hierarchy. Although new forms of worship typically found space within the pluralistic pantheon of Roman religion – provided they accommodated worship of the emperor, which Judaism and Christianity did not – Elagabalus’ religious politics caused social and political tensions to rise. 

This change is most obvious in the new titles the emperor took for himself. Alongside the traditional office of Pontifex Maximus (‘Chief Priest’), the new emperor also became Sacerdos amplissimus dei invicti Solis Elagabali (‘the most sacred priest of the invincible sun god Elagabalus’). The new god was to be housed in two temples built in the imperial capital. One colossal structure was built on the Palatine Hill (the foundations of which are still visible today on the Vigna Barberini) and a second one, according to Herodian, on the outskirts.


Unhappy Marriages

The Roses of Heliogabalus
The Roses of Heliogabalus, Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1888


To help ingratiate himself within Roman society, the Emperor Elagabalus arranged for his marriage to one Cornelia Paula in January AD 220. The wedding was celebrated with, according to Dio, festivities on an unimaginably grand scale.  However, the intemperate youth – still only around 14 at this time – quickly divorced his bride. He quickly married a second, a third, and even a fourth time. All these wives though, he divorced, finally returning to his second wife, Aquilia Severa. This was most scandalous, as Aquila was actually a Vestal Virgin, a sacred priestess of Rome’s goddess of the hearth and home. This marriage was an offence at one of Rome’s most sacred laws.

Alongside this sacrilegious human marriage, the emperor also allegedly sought to integrate his god into Roman society through marriage. Accordingly, he arranged for the Syrian sun god to be wed to some of the most significant deities of the ancient world, including the Carthaginian goddess Urania!


Tales of Excess and Extremes

Heliogabalus and the Wise Women
Heliogabalus and the Wise Women, Raphael Sadeler I (after Joos van Winghe), 1589


Alongside reordering Rome’s religious order, Elagabalus also allegedly oversaw various other attempts – frequently masked behind tales of debauched sexual liberality and ostentatious, oriental excess – to turn the world upside down. Roman political traditions and the administration of the empire were reputedly of little consideration of the young emperor. His contempt for the Senate for instance is recorded by the Historia Augusta, which also describes the affront of Elagabalus in not only allowing his grandmother to attend senate meetings, but his establishment of a women’s senate, a senaculum, on the Quirinal Hill

His contemporaries also found evidence for this world upside was found in Elagabalus’ sexuality. Not only did the emperor allegedly hire members of his court based on the preposterous size of their genitals, most famously Aurelius Zoticus, but alongside his failed marriages he also took a string of lovers of both genders. These included his favourite Hierocles, whom he paraded as his ‘husband’!


A Note On Sources

Gold Aureus of Elagabalus with reverse depiction of the stone god’s horse drawn entry into Rome, Antioch, AD 218-222
Gold Aureus of Elagabalus with reverse depiction of the stone god’s horse drawn entry into Rome, Antioch, AD 218-222


Making sense of the Elagabalian Empire, the Roman world upside down, is made all the more difficult by the obvious hostility and questionable validity of the sources. The main narrative sources are the senatorial historian Cassius Dio, Herodian, a low-level bureaucrat from Asia Minor in the mid-3rd century, and the much more problematic Historia Augusta, an anonymous collections of pseudo-biographies now believed to have been written in the late 4th century. 

A variety of issues underpin the use of these sources in the accurate reconstruction of the events and realities of Elagabalus’ reign. Blustering rhetoric from an offended member of the outraged third-century senate mingled may have contributed to Dio’s deprecating depiction of Elagabalus’ alleged effeminacy. Meanwhile, the imperial caricature crafted by the Historia Augusta was designed predominately to entertain an educated 4th-century audience. As ever, the situation is not hopeless. Inscriptions, coins, and archaeological remains help fill in the blanks and question the rhetoric surrounding Elagabalus.


Downfall of the Emperor

Statue of Elagabalus as Hercules
Statue of Elagabalus as Hercules (Face re-carved to Alexander Severus), Museo Archaeologico Nazionale di Napoli


Regardless of the bluster and bias of the sources, the truth remained that Elagabalus was not a popular emperor. His grandmother, Julia Maesa, who had done so much to facilitate Elagabalus’ accession, was growing increasingly dismayed at how the populace of the imperial capital were beginning to turn against the young emperor. Most worryingly, he appears to have lost the support of the soldiers, who were disgusted at the femininity of their emperor. Maesa once again turned king-maker, and began making plans to have her other grandson, Alexander, recognized as Elagabalus’ heir. Even this however, the emperor turned into a farce. He declared before the senate that Alexander, his cousin, was actually his son and heir; they were actually almost the same age! The emperor however, reportedly made several attempts to murder his “son” to protect his authority.

It was too little too late. The soldiers in Rome rebelled, proclaiming their support for the boy Alexander. It was a death sentence for Elagabalus. He was struck down in the Praetorian camp, held tightly by his mother Julia Soaemias, who perished too. The memory of Elagabalus and his mother was condemned, a practice known to modernity as damnatio memoriae. Their corpses were mutilated and cast into the sewers of the city. In the immediate aftermath, the empire was cleansed of traces of Elagabalus: his states were torn down, his inscriptions erased, and the god Elagabal was sent back to Syria.



Portrait bust of Elagabalus
Portrait bust of Elagabalus, Musei Capitolini, Rome


Elagabalus was consigned to be remembered by history as one of the worst Roman emperors. Alongside other notorious imperial monsters, such as Caligula, Nero, and Commodus, Elagabalus came to symbolize the corruption of power. The reign of Alexander Severus was characterized by a concerted effort to re-right the Roman world. The traditional gods were restored to prominence, with Jupiter once more at the summit. In the world of politics, the Senate was once more welcomed back into the fold, and a period of relative stability endured for the 13 years of his reign.

Although the poor reputation of Elagabalus would endure for centuries after his death, with even Niccolò Machiavelli drawing on his as poor model of imitation in The Prince, the emperor’s reputation as a depraved tyrant was not to prove indefinite. In the late 19th century’s Decadent movement, Elagabalus’ excesses – manifest as his orientalism, ennui, and androgyny – saw him championed. This rehabilitation continued in the second half of the 20th century, where increasing interest in sexual politics has seen the figure of Elagabalus rise again, celebrated for his alleged liberal attitudes to sexuality and gender. Ultimately, the search for Elagabalus, the emperor of opposites, goes on.

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By Kieren JohnsPhD Classics & Ancient HistoryKieren is a UK-based independent researcher with a PhD in Classics and Ancient History. His thesis explore the representation of imperial status during the reigns of the Severan emperors. He is passionate about sharing his interest in the ancient world. He is currently writing his first book.