Childhood & Early Life
Elagabalus is considered to have been born in 204 AD in Emesa, Syria. His father Sextus Varius Marcellus was a politician who belonged to an aristocratic family in Syria, while his mother Julia Soaemias Bassiana was a cousin of the Roman Emperor Caracalla. His given name was Varius Avitus Bassianus.
Bassianus was a descendant of the Severan dynasty, which held a great influence over Rome during the last part of the second century and the beginning of the third century. His grandmother Julia Maesa was the sister-in-law of the Roman Emperor, Septimius Severus.
His mother came from a family of high priests of the Syrian sun god, Baal, who was worshipped in Emesa as Elah-Gabal. Making use of this tradition, he too became the high priest of Elah-Gabal.
After the assassination of Roman Emperor Caracalla in 217 AD, his praetorian prefect Macrinus became the new ruler. Macrinus wanted to send Caracalla’s mother Julia Domna in exile, but she chose to starve to death instead of leaving the city.
Julia Maesa, the sister of Julia Domna, swore to avenge the deaths of her relatives. Together with her daughter Julia Soaemis, she hatched a plan to put her family back on the throne. She plotted and bribed people; in addition to spreading the rumor that Bassianus was the illegitimate son of Caracalla.
Julia Maesa’s plan became successful when 14 years old Elagabalus became Rome’s new emperor on 16 May 218 through a proclamation by centurion Publius Valerius Comazon. To give substance to the rumor that he was indeed Caracalla’s son, he took the name of Marcus Aurelius Antoninus.
Macrinus sent his troops to crush the rebellion, but his forces joined the rival faction and killed their own commanding officers. Macrinus then appealed to the senate, saying Elagabalus was mad and a “False Antoninus”.
Once the Eastern Armies of Rome deserted Macrinus, he could not continue the fight. On June 8, 218, at the battle of Antioch, Macrinus and his son were defeated by Gannys, a eunuch who was a tutor to Elagabalus. The father-son duo was captured and killed, vacating the throne for Julia Maesa’s grandson.
Gannys could not see Elagabalus ascend the throne because his proximity to the new emperor seemed like a threat to Julia Maesa and her daughter. Therefore, they got him killed to keep power in their hands. According to some historians, Gannys was killed by the new emperor himself who was enraged at the former for advising him to exert temperance.
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Elagabalus spent the winter in Nicomedia with his mother and grandmother before proceeding to Rome. Julia Maesa sent a portrait of Elagabalus, dressed in a priestly robe, to the Senate for it to be hung over the statue of the goddess Victoria, so that the senators could get used to having a priest as an emperor.
This became a problem for the senators because whenever they made an offering to the goddess, they were also bowing before the emperor. Thus even before he reached Rome, the new emperor had already antagonized some of his subjects.
Elagabalus reached Rome in the Autumn of 219. He showed utter disregard for the customs and traditions of Rome. He made the Elah-Gabal the chief deity of Rome, which meant that the sun god had to be given precedence over Jupiter.
He insisted that Romans adopt his religion and built a temple in Rome’s Palatine Hill named Elagabalium. The black relic which represented the God Baal was transported from Syria to Rome in a grand chariot.
Elagabalus continued to conduct his duties as the high priest to the deity. Animals like cows and sheep were sacrificed and according to some accounts, even human sacrifices were common. The sacrificial blood was mixed with the best wine and given as offering.
It soon became clear that the teenage emperor was an unfit ruler. He left the day-to-day running of his empire to his mother and grandmother who were given the titles of Augusta. They were allowed to attend the Senate sessions, making them the most powerful women in the world.
He took many controversial decisions like devaluing the Roman currency by demonetizing the Antoninus coin and reducing the purity of the silver coin denarius from 58% to 46.5%. People who had hoped for stability after the upheaval of the previous two reigns soon lost hope.
The reign of Elagabalus was also rife with scandals. He divorced his wife and took one of the sacred virgins, Aquilia Severa, from the ‘House of the Vestal Virgins’ of Rome, as his second wife. This was sacrilegious, as any virgin breaking her vows was supposed to be buried alive.
The emperor led a life of excesses. He would wear only Chinese silk, swim only in pools infused with saffron and rest on cushions stuffed with rabbit furs and partridge feathers. In a stunning display of extravagance, he once had ships floating on wine at the ‘Circus Maximus’ to represent naval battles in “wine-dark seas”.
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He took pleasure in throwing gifts to people during his banquets, which was not so much out of the goodness of his heart, but merely to see them scramble for gold coins or food that he had thrown. It is said that once his dinner guests almost suffocated under a relentless shower of flower petals.
Elagabalus is considered to have been transsexual, according to many historians. He apparently liked to be called empress instead of emperor. He also took lovers from both sexes. It is said that he sought out physicians who could make him a woman.
Although he was married three times, his most steady lover was a chariot driver named Hierocles. The eccentric emperor would beautify himself with cosmetics, make-up and wigs, and liked to be called Hierocles’s mistress, wife and queen.
Elagabalus is considered to be one of the most vulgar emperors in history who led a life full of sexual debauchery. He once gathered all the prostitutes of his kingdom and appeared in front of them dressed as a heavy-bosomed woman. He went on to give them instructions in sexual practices and egged them on with the lure of expensive prizes.
He opened up the imperial baths to the public so that he could watch people naked. The people of Rome were shocked and infuriated by his behavior.
He was once told by a Syrian fortune teller that he would die young, and it would be a violent death. The Emperor wanted to commit suicide, making an elaborate plan, which included building a bejeweled tall tower so that he could jump from it. He also collected daggers and stashed poison as part of his suicide preparation.
By 221, frequent rebellions were breaking out in the Roman Army. Realizing how unpopular Elagabalus was, his grandmother asked him to adopt his 12 years old cousin Alexander as successor. This was her ploy to get rid of Elagabalus and his mother.
Alexander became popular among the Romans, which threatened the emperor. He tried to get him killed, but the news leaked out and a military rebellion started.
Elagabalus was stabbed to death by the Roman soldiers while his grandmother Julia Maesa looked on. His mother held on to her son and was also killed. The bodies of the 18-year-old emperor and his mother were dragged through the streets of Rome before being thrown into River Tiber.
Family & Personal Life
Elagabalus was married thrice — to Julia Cornelia Paula, Julia Aquila Severa and Annia Aurelia Faustina. According to some records, he also married an athlete named Zoticus in a public ceremony.
It was his grandmother who advised him to divorce Aquilia Severa and marry Annia Faustina, a descendant of Marcus Aurelius, for political advantage.
He was assassinated on March 11, 222; and is now remembered as one of the worst rulers of all times.