Elagabalus Emperor of Rome

Avitus, the Future Emperor

Elagabalus at the Capitoline Museums
Elagabalus at the Capitoline Museums.

Giovanni Dall'Orto/Creative Commons

Caesar Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus aka Emperor Elagabulus

Dates: Born - c. 203/204; Reigned - May 15,218 - March 11, 222.

Name: Birth - Varius Avitus Bassianus; Imperial - Caesar Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus

Family: Parents - Sextus Varius Marcellus and Julia Soaemias Bassiana; Cousin and successor - Alexander Severus

Ancient Sources on Elagabalus: Cassius Dio, Herodian, and Historia Augusta.

Elagabalus Ranked Among the Very Worst Emperors

"At the same time, he will learn of the Romans' discernment, in that these last [Augustus, Trajan, Vespasian, Hadrian, Pius, Titus and Marcus] ruled long and died by natural deaths, whereas the former [Caligula, Nero, Vitellius and Elagabalus] were murdered, dragged through the streets, officially called tyrants, and no man wishes to mention even their names."
Aelius Lampridius' The Life of Antoninus Heliogabalus
"The life of Elagabalus Antoninus, also called Varius, I should never have put in writing - hoping that it might not be known that he was emperor of the Romans -, were it not that before him this same imperial office had had a Caligula, a Nero, and a Vitellius."

Elagabalus' Predecessor Caracalla's Mixed Evaluation

An emperor with mixed reviews, Elagabalus' cousin Caracalla (April 4, 188 - April 8, 217) ruled for only 5 years. During this time he caused the murder of his co-ruler, his brother Geta, and his supporters, raised the pay for soldiers, waged campaigns in the East where Macrinius was to have him assassinated, and implemented the (Constitutio Antoniniana 'Antonine Constitution'). The Antonine Constitution was named for Caracalla, whose imperial name was Marcus Aurelius Severus Antoninus Augustus. It extended Roman citizenship throughout the Roman Empire.

Macrinus Easily Rises to the Imperial Purple

Caracalla had appointed Macrinius to the influential position of praetorian prefect. Because of this lofty position, three days after Caracalla's murder, Macrinius, a man without senatorial rank, was powerful enough to compel the troops to proclaim him emperor.

Less competent as military leader and emperor than his predecessor, Macrinius suffered losses in the East and wound up making settlements with the Parthians, Armenians, and the Dacians. Defeats and Macrinius' introduction of a two-tiered pay for soldiers made him unpopular with the soldiers.

Enduring Ambitions of Caracalla's Mother

Caracalla's mother had been Julia Domna of Emesa, Syria, second wife of the emperor Septimius Severus. She had conceived the idea of propelling her great-nephew to the throne, but ill health prevented her involvement. The grandson of her sister Julia Maesa (who shared the family ambitious streak) was Varius Avitus Bassianus who would soon be known as Elagabalus.

Sensationalist Biographers of Elagabalus

Sir Ronald Syme calls one of the biographies of the time, Aelius Lampridius' The Life of Antoninus Heliogabalus, a "farago of cheap pornography."* One of the contentions made by Lampridius is that Julia Symiamira (Soaemias), Julia Maesa's daughter, had made no secret of her liaison with Caracalla. In the year 218, Varius Avitus Bassianus was performing the hereditary family function of high priest of the sun god whose worship was popular with the troops. A family resemblance to Caracalla probably led them to believe Varius Avitus Bassianus (Elagabalus) the illegitimate son of the more popular emperor Caracalla.

"The artful Maesa saw and cherished their rising partiality, and readily sacrificing her daughter's reputation to the fortune of her grandson, she insinuated that Bassianus was the natural son of their murdered sovereign. The sums distributed by her emissaries with a lavish hand silenced every objection, and the profusion sufficiently proved the affinity, or at least the resemblance, of Bassianus with the great original."
Edward Gibbon "Follies of Elagabalus"

Elagabalus Becomes Emperor at 14

One of the legions near their family hometown proclaimed Elagabalus emperor, naming him Marcus Aurelius Antoninus on May 15, 218. Other legions joined the cause. Meanwhile, still other troops rallied to defend Macrinius. On June 8 (see DIR Macrinus) Elagabalus' faction won in battle. The new emperor was only 14-years-old.

Elagabalus Discussion in the Forum

*I don't remember the source of that Syme quote. It is referred to on The Toynbee Convector.

Origin of the Name Elagabalus

As emperor, Varius Avitus became known by the Latinized version of the name of his Syrian god El-Gabal. Elagabalus also established El-Gabal as the principal god of the Roman Empire.

Elagabalus Alienated the the Roman Senators

He further alienated Rome by taking honors and powers upon himself before they had been awarded him -- including substituting his name for that of Macrinius as consul.

In both the message to the senate and the letter to the people he styled himself emperor and Caesar, the son of Antoninus, the grandson of Severus, Pius, Felix, Augustus, proconsul, and holder of the tribunician power, assuming these titles before they had been voted, and he used, not the name of Avitus, but that of his pretended father, . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . the notebooks of the soldiers . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . for Macrinus' . . . . . . . Caesar . . . . . . . . . to the Pretorians and to the Alban legionaries who were in Italy he wrote . . . . . and that he was consul and high priest (?) . . . and the . . . . . . Marius Censorinus . . leadership . . read . . . of Macrinus . . . . . . . himself, as if not sufficiently by his own voice able to make public . . . . the letters of Sardanapalus to be read . . . by (?) Claudius Pollio, whom he had enrolled among the ex-consuls, and commanded that it anyone resisted him, he should call on the soldiers for assistance; Dio Cassius LXXX

Sexual Charges

Herodian, Dio Cassius, Aelius Lampridius and Gibbon have written about Elagabalus' femininity, bisexuality, transvestism, and forcing a vestal virgin to break vows that were so solemn any virgin found to have violated them was buried alive. He appears to have worked as a prostitute and may have sought the original transgendering operation. If so, he didn't succeed. When he tried to become a gallus, he was convinced to undergo circumcision, instead. To us the difference is immense, but to Roman men, both were humiliating.

Evaluating Elagabalus

Although Elagabalus killed many of his political enemies, especially supporters of Macrinius, he wasn't a sadist who tortured and put an inordinate number of people to death. He was:

  1. an attractive, hormonally-charged teen with absolute power,
  2. the high priest of an exotic god and
  3. a Roman emperor from Syria who imposed his eastern customs on Rome.

Rome Needed a Universal Religion

J.B. Bury believes that with the universal citizenship grant of Caracalla, a universal religion was necessary.

"With all his unashamed enthusiasm, Elagabalus was not the man to establish a religion; he had not the qualities of a Constantine or yet of a Julian; and his enterprise would perhaps have met with little success even if his authority had not been annulled by his idiosyncrasies. The Invincible Sun, if he was to be worshipped as a sun of righteousness, was not happily recommended by the acts of his Invincible Priest."
J.B. Bury

Assassination of Elagabalus

Ultimately, like most of the emperors of the period, Elagabalus and his mother were killed by his soldiers, after less than four years in power. DIR says his body was dumped in the Tiber and his memory was erased (Damnatio memoriae). He was 17. His first cousin Alexander Severus, also from Emesa, Syria, succeeded him.

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Gill, N.S. "Elagabalus Emperor of Rome." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, thoughtco.com/elagabalus-emperor-of-rome-111463. Gill, N.S. (2020, August 26). Elagabalus Emperor of Rome. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/elagabalus-emperor-of-rome-111463 Gill, N.S. "Elagabalus Emperor of Rome." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/elagabalus-emperor-of-rome-111463 (accessed March 22, 2023).