Elagabalus: the cross-dressing religious fanatic who became emperor of Rome

Statue of Elagabalus
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The Roman Empire was no stranger to eccentric emperors, with rulers such as Nero and Caligula infamous for their bizarre actions and despotic reigns.


However, Elagabalus stands out even among these notorious figures for his unique blend of religious fervor, gender-fluidity, and love for spectacle.


His reign was a whirlwind of controversy, which often overshadowed his attempts at religious reform and other political maneuvers. 

Early life and rise to power

Elagabalus was born as Varius Avitus Bassianus in 203 AD in the city of Emesa (present-day Homs, Syria). His family held prominent positions in Rome, particularly through his grandmother, Julia Maesa, and her sister, Julia Domna, who was the wife of Emperor Septimius Severus.


This connection to the imperial family would later play a crucial role in Elagabalus' ascension to the throne. 


Growing up in Emesa, Elagabalus was exposed to the worship of the sun god Elagabal, which was the primary deity in his hometown.


This religious upbringing would deeply influence his later life and reign.


His family, recognizing the opportunity to seize power, began to pave the way for the young Elagabalus' rise to prominence. 


Following the assassination of Emperor Caracalla in 217 AD, the unpopular Macrinus took the throne. Julia Maesa, Elagabalus' grandmother, saw this as an opportunity to restore her family's influence in Rome.


She devised a plan, spreading rumors that Elagabalus was the illegitimate son of Caracalla, thus making him a potential heir to the throne. These rumors resonated with the Roman legions, who were discontent with Macrinus' rule. 


In 218 AD, at the age of 14, Elagabalus was declared emperor by the Roman legions stationed in the eastern provinces. With the support of his family and the military, he marched on Rome to claim the throne.


Macrinus attempted to suppress the rebellion but was defeated in the Battle of Antioch. Following his victory, Elagabalus was officially recognized as the emperor of Rome. 

Religious fanaticism

Elagabalus' intense devotion to the sun god Elagabal played a significant role in shaping his reign. As a member of the priestly class in his hometown, Elagabalus had been immersed in the god's worship from a young age.


Upon becoming emperor, he sought to introduce the worship of Elagabal to Rome and make it a central part of the Roman religious landscape. 


Elagabalus brought the sacred black stone, which was believed to represent the sun god, from Emesa to Rome. He built a lavish temple, the Elagabalium, on the Palatine Hill to house the stone and serve as the center of the new cult. He appointed himself as the high priest of the cult, often dressing in elaborate priestly garb and performing rituals in public. 

Pagan Roman priest
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In his pursuit of religious reform, Elagabalus attempted to merge traditional Roman deities with the worship of Elagabal. He declared the sun god as the supreme deity of the Roman pantheon, outranking even Jupiter.


Furthermore, he tried to combine the worship of other Roman gods and goddesses with the cult of Elagabal, a move that was met with resistance from the Roman religious establishment and traditionalists.


Elagabalus even sought to marry the goddess Vesta's personification through a symbolic union with a Vestal Virgin, a violation of Roman religious customs that caused significant outrage. 

Eccentricities and scandals

One of the emperor's most notable eccentricities was his penchant for cross-dressing. He frequently wore women's clothing, makeup, and wigs, which was seen as highly scandalous and inappropriate for a Roman emperor.


This behavior extended to his daily life, as he was known to engage in elaborate beauty rituals and surround himself with female attendants who assisted him in maintaining his appearance. 


The emperor's eccentricities extended to his personal life as well. He was rumored to have engaged in numerous affairs and relationships, regardless of social status or gender. His behavior led to allegations of sexual impropriety and fueled further scandal surrounding his reign. 


Elagabalus' disregard for Roman social norms and traditions made him the subject of intense scrutiny and criticism from both the Roman elite and the general populace. 

Elagabalus' complex love life

Elagabalus' love life was as complex and controversial as his reign, marked by multiple marriages, numerous affairs, and a fluid approach to gender identity. His personal relationships often fueled scandal and further contributed to his already notorious reputation. 


During his short reign, Elagabalus was married at least three times, and possibly even four. His first wife was Julia Paula, a noblewoman whom he married shortly after becoming emperor. This marriage was short-lived, as Elagabalus divorced her within a year to marry his second wife, Aquilia Severa, a Vestal Virgin.


This union was particularly scandalous, as Vestal Virgins were sworn to celibacy and marrying one was considered sacrilege. Elagabalus claimed the marriage was intended to produce divine offspring, but the union was met with outrage, and he eventually annulled the marriage.


He later married Annia Faustina, a descendant of the Antonine dynasty, in a bid to strengthen his political position, but this marriage too was short-lived.

In addition to his marriages, Elagabalus was rumored to have engaged in numerous affairs with both men and women, regardless of their social status. His relationships were a source of gossip and scandal, further undermining his image as a Roman emperor.


Some accounts suggest that Elagabalus may have been attracted to both men and women, although it is difficult to definitively determine his sexual orientation given the limited and often biased historical sources available. 


Elagabalus' gender identity was also a subject of fascination and controversy. His penchant for cross-dressing, wearing makeup, and adopting feminine mannerisms challenged traditional Roman ideas about masculinity and the expected behavior of an emperor.

Roman man wearing makeup
© History Skills

Political instability

Elagabalus' reign was marked by political instability, with power struggles and assassination plots further exacerbating the already chaotic atmosphere of his rule. The young emperor's inexperience, controversial actions, and tumultuous personal life made him a target for discontented factions within the Roman Empire. 


From the beginning of his reign, Elagabalus was heavily influenced by his family, particularly his grandmother Julia Maesa and his mother Julia Soaemias. They played a significant role in his rise to power and continued to exert control over the emperor's decisions throughout his rule.


This led to accusations that Elagabalus was merely a puppet, manipulated by his ambitious family members who sought to advance their own interests. 

Statue of young Roman man
Source: https://pixabay.com/photos/statue-stone-young-boy-head-face-3425271/

The emperor's religious reforms and extravagant lifestyle also created tensions within the Roman political sphere. This dissatisfaction with Elagabalus' rule led to factions within the Senate and the military seeking to undermine his authority and plot his removal from power. 


As political instability increased, assassination plots against Elagabalus began to emerge. Members of the Senate and the Praetorian Guard, the elite military force responsible for protecting the emperor, were among those involved in conspiracies to overthrow him.


The discontent within the empire was fueled not only by Elagabalus' controversial actions but also by external threats and economic difficulties facing Rome at the time. 

Downfall and assassination

In 222 AD, after just four years as emperor, the discontent with Elagabalus reached its breaking point.  


Julia Maesa, Elagabalus' influential grandmother, sensed the growing danger to her family's position and decided to take action. She convinced Elagabalus to adopt his cousin, the thirteen-year-old Alexander Severus, as his heir.


This was a strategic move, as Alexander was seen as a more acceptable and traditional choice for the role of emperor. With this decision, Julia Maesa hoped to appease the discontented factions within the empire and secure her family's power. 


However, the plan backfired. The Praetorian Guard saw Alexander's adoption as an opportunity to rid themselves of the increasingly unpopular Elagabalus. They declared their loyalty to Alexander and staged a coup against the reigning emperor.


In March 222 AD, Elagabalus and his mother, Julia Soaemias, were captured and executed by the Praetorian Guard. Their bodies were unceremoniously dragged through the streets of Rome and thrown into the Tiber River, a brutal end to a chaotic reign. 


Following Elagabalus' assassination, Alexander Severus was proclaimed emperor, and the brief but tumultuous reign of Elagabalus came to an end. 

Was Elagabalus simply misunderstood or truly mad?

The legacy of Elagabalus is a subject of ongoing debate among historians and scholars. Was he a misunderstood visionary, a mere puppet controlled by his ambitious family, or a mad ruler who reveled in chaos?


While some aspects of his reign can be seen as the result of youthful inexperience or manipulation by his relatives, other elements suggest a more complex and enigmatic figure. 


Some historians argue that Elagabalus' religious reforms and attempts to introduce the worship of the sun god Elagabal to Rome were driven by a genuine spiritual vision. They contend that his passion for his faith was sincere, and his efforts to bring about religious change were bold and innovative.


Additionally, Elagabalus' fluid approach to gender identity and his willingness to defy Roman social norms can be seen as progressive and ahead of his time. 

Another perspective is that Elagabalus was a puppet manipulated by his grandmother, Julia Maesa, and his mother, Julia Soaemias. They orchestrated his rise to power and used him to further their own ambitions. In this view, Elagabalus' actions were heavily influenced by his family, and his controversial reign was a result of their machinations. 


Yet another interpretation of Elagabalus' legacy is that he was a truly mad ruler who reveled in chaos and eccentricity. His extravagant lifestyle, bizarre behavior, and seemingly self-destructive actions suggest a ruler who lacked the necessary judgment and maturity to govern the Roman Empire.


This view posits that his reign was a period of chaos and instability largely due to his own actions and personality. 


The truth about Elagabalus' legacy likely lies somewhere in between these perspectives, as his character and reign were a complex mix of factors. While it is difficult to definitively determine his true motivations and nature, his reign remains a fascinating and controversial chapter in Roman history.