The Character Assasination of the Emperor Elagabalus
Elagabalus is one of the most notorious of Rome's 'bad emperors'. Since his assassination by Praetorian Guards at the age of eighteen, Elagabalus's character has been an object of fascination and speculation. Martijn Icks is the author of The Crimes of Elagabalus: The Life and Legacy of Rome's Decadent Boy Emperor, published today, and discusses the varied and colourful ways in which Elagabalus's character has been assasinated.
“That filthiest of all creatures, both two-footed and four-footed.”
Historia Augusta, Anonymous
During the 2008 American presidential campaign, many ominous rumours circulated about Barack Obama. Some of his opponents – conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh foremost among them – questioned whether the Democrat candidate was really an American citizen, speculating that he had been born in Kenya. When Obama produced his birth certificate to end these rumours, sceptics proclaimed it a forgery. Doubts were also raised about the candidate’s religious beliefs. According to Limbaugh, “Obama says he’s a Christian, but where’s the evidence?” Could it be that the Democrat favourite secretly adhered to Islam? Was he, in fact, “imam Obama”? Through these and other character attacks, Obama’s opponents tried to portray him as ‘other’; that is, as a man who fell outside their definition of American society. Being neither a US citizen nor a Christian, he had no business aspiring to the country’s highest office.
Character attacks on politicians and other prominent figures are nothing new. They far pre-date the rise of modern democracies. Like Obama, the Roman emperor Elagabalus (218-222 CE) was heavily criticized by his enemies, who claimed he fell short of every mark of what a Roman emperor should be: “Nor emperor he, nor Antoninus, nor citizen, nor senator, nor man of noble blood, nor Roman”. In contrast to democratically elected leaders, though, Elagabalus was not subjected to these accusations during his lifetime. As his opponents were well aware, openly insulting a living emperor was courting death. Instead, they held back their vitriol until the ruler’s demise, after which they poured it in histories and biographies depicting him in the blackest terms possible. Elagabalus emerges from their hostile writings as “that filthiest of all creatures, both two-footed and four-footed”, outdoing even his notorious predecessors Caligula and Nero in luxury and vice.
To what extent these allegations are true is hard to determine almost eighteen centuries later. Before a civil war brought him to the throne at age fourteen, Elagabalus had been the high priest of Elagabal, the sun god of his hometown Emesa in Syria who was worshipped in the form of a conical black stone. The boy emperor took this stone with him to Rome and proclaimed that not Jupiter, but Elagabal was henceforth the chief deity in the Roman pantheon. Even as emperor, he continued to act as Elagabal’s high priest, performing ritual dances and sacrifices for the sun god. What was worse, he had the nerve to marry the high priestess of the Vestal virgins, Rome’s most revered order of priestesses who had taken a vow of chastity. It is no wonder, then, that the praetorian guard rose in revolt and made a bloody end to Elagabalus’s rule after only four years. His memory was cursed by senatorial decree, his name erased, his statues smashed to pieces.
As far as his opponents were concerned, Elagabalus could not be truly considered a Roman. Although Syria was part of the Roman Empire and Elagabalus’s paternal and maternal families had probably held Roman citizenship for centuries, he was depicted as a foreigner, an outsider. According to the historian Herodian, the emperor’s elaborate dress resembled the garbs of the Phoenicians and the Medes. Even when he first entered the capital, Elagabalus refused to put on a Roman toga because it was made of wool, whereas he preferred Chinese silk. Instead he sent a picture of himself ahead so the Romans could get used to his outlandish appearance. He celebrated the cult of Elagabal with “orgiastic and ecstatic” rites which stood in stark contrast to the stern ceremonies of the Romans, slaughtering hecatombs of cattle and dancing with women to the sounds of flutes and cymbals. As the anonymous author of the Historia Augusta claims, he also wanted his subjects to kneel and kiss his feet in the manner of a Persian king.
Many Roman stereotypes about ‘Oriental’ people were marshalled to add colour to the literary portrait of Elagabalus. Allegedly, it was not only his exotic dress and religion that marked the emperor as a typical Syrian, but also his effeminacy, his hedonism and his love of luxury. According to the historian Cassius Dio, Elagabalus spent his time making wool – a typically ‘feminine’ task – used make-up and pitched his voice to sound like a woman. He took the role of bride in a marriage to a charioteer, a brutish man who regularly beat him up. Because he felt more like a woman than a man, he planned to cut off his genitals, or even to ask his physicians to contrive a vagina in his body by means of an incision. The author of the Historia Augusta makes equally stunning claims about the emperor’s excessively luxurious lifestyle, noting that he had couches made of solid silver, feasted on such exotic dishes as camel-heels, cock-combs and nightingale tongues, fed his dogs on goose-livers and held naval battles in basins of wine.
Then as now, accusations of sexual misconduct were an effective way to attack a leader’s character. The alleged crimes of Elagabalus in this field would make even Silvio Berlusconi blush. If the ancient authors are to be believed, the emperor “lived most licentiously (…) from first to last” and “used his body both for doing and allowing many strange things, which no one could endure to tell or hear of”. He sent out agents to collect men with large mem-bers, prostituted himself in the palace and “invented certain new kinds of vice, even going beyond the perversities used by the debauchees of old”.
The literary images of Elagabalus as a thoroughly depraved, effeminate and spoiled tyrant leave little room for sympathy. Yet we may wonder what purpose they served. Why did Roman historians and biographers – some of whom wrote more than a century after the facts – go to such great lengths to assassinate the character of an emperor who was already dead? Contrary to the character attacks against Obama and other contemporary politicians, there was no direct political gain to be had from the posthumous bashing of Elagabalus. However, through their depictions of past emperors as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, ancient authors set the standard for current and future rulers. Even though the masters of the Roman world had absolute power in life, they did well to remember that the victories they won and the monuments they erected provided no guarantees for their reputation after their death. Ultimately, it was up to the historians and biographers to decide how they would be remembered: as benign princes or monstrous tyrants. ■
To read more about Martijn Icks' book The Crimes of Elagabalus, click here.
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