|25th Emperor of the Roman Empire|
Bust of Elagabalus,
from the Capitoline Museums
|Reign||8 June 218 – 11 March 222|
Julia Cornelia Paula
Julia Aquilia Severa
Annia Aurelia Faustina
|Issue||Alexander Severus (adoptive)|
|Father||Sextus Varius Marcellus|
|Mother||Julia Soaemias Bassiana|
11 March 222 (aged 18)
Elagabalus (Latin: Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus; c. 203 – 11 March 222), also known as Heliogabalus, was Roman Emperor from 218 to 222. A member of the Severan Dynasty, he was Syrian, the second son of Julia Soaemias and Sextus Varius Marcellus. In his early youth he served as a priest of the god Elagabal (in Latin, Elagabalus) in the hometown of his mother's family, Emesa. As a private citizen, he was probably named Sextus Varius Avitus Bassianus. Upon becoming emperor he took the name Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus. He was called Elagabalus only after his death.
In 217, the emperor Caracalla was assassinated and replaced by his Praetorian prefect, Marcus Opellius Macrinus. Caracalla's maternal aunt, Julia Maesa, successfully instigated a revolt among the Third Legion to have her eldest grandson (and Caracalla's cousin), Elagabalus, declared emperor in his place. Macrinus was defeated on 8 June 218, at the Battle of Antioch. Elagabalus, barely fourteen years old, became emperor, initiating a reign remembered mainly for sexual scandal and religious controversy.
Later historians suggest Elagabalus showed a disregard for Roman religious traditions and sexual taboos. He replaced the traditional head of the Roman pantheon, Jupiter, with the deity of whom he was high priest, Elagabal. He forced leading members of Rome's government to participate in religious rites celebrating this deity, over which he personally presided. Elagabalus was married as many as five times, lavished favors on male courtiers popularly thought to have been his lovers, employed a prototype of whoopee cushions at dinner parties, and was reported to have prostituted himself in the imperial palace. His behavior estranged the Praetorian Guard, the Senate, and the common people alike.
Amidst growing opposition, Elagabalus, just 18 years old, was assassinated and replaced by his cousin Alexander Severus on 11 March 222, in a plot formulated by his grandmother, Julia Maesa, and carried out by disaffected members of the Praetorian Guard.
Family and priesthood
|Roman imperial dynasties|
|—with Caracalla and Geta||209–211|
|Caracalla and Geta||211–211|
Severan dynasty family tree
Year of the Five Emperors
Crisis of the Third Century
Elagabalus was born around the year 203 to Sextus Varius Marcellus and Julia Soaemias Bassiana. His father was initially a member of the equestrian class, but was later elevated to the rank of senator. His grandmother Julia Maesa was the widow of the consul Gaius Julius Avitus Alexianus, the sister of Julia Domna, and the sister-in-law of the emperor Septimius Severus. He had at least one sibling: an unnamed elder brother. His mother, Julia Soaemias, was a cousin of the Roman emperor Caracalla. Other relatives included his aunt Julia Avita Mamaea and uncle Marcus Julius Gessius Marcianus and among their children, their son Alexander Severus. Elagabalus's family held hereditary rights to the priesthood of the sun god Elagabal, of whom Elagabalus was the high priest at Emesa (modern Homs) in Syria.
The deity Elagabalus was initially venerated at Emesa. This form of the god's name is a Latinized version of the Syrian Ilāh hag-Gabal, which derives from Ilāh (a Semitic word for "god") and gabal (an Aramaic word for "mountain"), resulting in "the God of the Mountain," the Emesene manifestation of the deity. The cult of the deity spread to other parts of the Roman Empire in the 2nd century; a dedication has been found as far away as Woerden (Netherlands). The god was later imported and assimilated with the Roman sun god known as Sol Indiges in republican times and as Sol Invictus during the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE. In Greek the sun god is Helios, hence "Heliogabalus", a variant of "Elagabalus".
Rise to power
When the emperor Macrinus came to power, he suppressed the threat against his reign by the family of his assassinated predecessor, Caracalla, by exiling them—Julia Maesa, her two daughters, and her eldest grandson Elagabalus—to their estate at Emesa in Syria. Almost upon arrival in Syria Maesa began a plot, with her advisor and Elagabalus' tutor Gannys, to overthrow Macrinus and elevate the fourteen-year-old Elagabalus to the imperial throne.
His mother publicly declared that he was the illegitimate son of Caracalla, therefore due the loyalties of Roman soldiers and senators who had sworn allegiance to Caracalla. After Julia Maesa displayed her wealth to the Third Legion at Raphana they swore allegiance to Elagabalus. At sunrise on 16 May 218, Publius Valerius Comazon, commander of the legion, declared him emperor. To strengthen his legitimacy through further propaganda, Elagabalus assumed Caracalla's names, Marcus Aurelius Antoninus.
In response Macrinus dispatched his Praetorian prefect Ulpius Julianus to the region with a contingent of troops he considered strong enough to crush the rebellion. However, this force soon joined the faction of Elagabalus when, during the battle, they turned on their own commanders. The officers were killed and Julianus' head was sent back to the emperor.
Macrinus now sent letters to the Senate denouncing Elagabalus as the False Antoninus and claiming he was insane. Both consuls and other high-ranking members of Rome's leadership condemned Elagabalus, and the Senate subsequently declared war on both Elagabalus and Julia Maesa.
Macrinus and his son, weakened by the desertion of the Second Legion due to bribes and promises circulated by Julia Maesa, were defeated on 8 June 218 at the Battle of Antioch by troops commanded by Gannys. Macrinus fled toward Italy, disguised as a courier, but was later intercepted near Chalcedon and executed in Cappadocia. His son Diadumenianus, sent for safety to the Parthian court, was captured at Zeugma and also put to death.
Elagabalus declared the date of the victory at Antioch to be the beginning of his reign and assumed the imperial titles without prior senatorial approval, which violated tradition but was a common practice among 3rd-century emperors nonetheless. Letters of reconciliation were dispatched to Rome extending amnesty to the Senate and recognizing the laws, while also condemning the administration of Macrinus and his son.
The senators responded by acknowledging Elagabalus as emperor and accepting his claim to be the son of Caracalla. Caracalla and Julia Domna were both deified by the Senate, both Julia Maesa and Julia Soaemias were elevated to the rank of Augustae, and the memory of both Macrinus and Diadumenianus was condemned by the Senate. The former commander of the Third Legion, Comazon, was appointed commander of the Praetorian Guard.
Elagabalus and his entourage spent the winter of 218 in Bithynia at Nicomedia, where the emperor's religious beliefs first presented themselves as a problem. The contemporary historian Cassius Dio suggests that Gannys was in fact killed by the new emperor because he was forcing Elagabalus to live "temperately and prudently." To help Romans adjust to the idea of having an oriental priest as emperor, Julia Maesa had a painting of Elagabalus in priestly robes sent to Rome and hung over a statue of the goddess Victoria in the Senate House. This placed senators in the awkward position of having to make offerings to Elagabalus whenever they made offerings to Victoria.
The legions were dismayed by his behaviour and quickly came to regret having supported his accession. While Elagabalus was still on his way to Rome, brief revolts broke out by the Fourth Legion at the instigation of Gellius Maximus, and by the Third Legion, which itself had been responsible for the elevation of Elagabalus to the throne, under the command of Senator Verus. The rebellion was quickly put down, and the Third Legion disbanded.
When the entourage reached Rome in the autumn of 219, Comazon and other allies of Julia Maesa and Elagabalus were given powerful and lucrative positions, to the outrage of many senators who did not consider them worthy of such privileges. After his tenure as Praetorian prefect, Comazon would serve as the city prefect of Rome three times, and as consul twice. Elagabalus soon devalued the Roman currency. He decreased the silver purity of the denarius from 58% to 46.5% — the actual silver weight dropping from 1.82 grams to 1.41 grams. He also demonetized the antoninianus during this period in Rome.
Elagabalus tried to have his presumed lover, the charioteer Hierocles, declared Caesar, while another alleged lover, the athlete Aurelius Zoticus, was appointed to the non-administrative but influential position of Master of the Chamber, or Cubicularius. His offer of amnesty for the Roman upper class was largely honored, though the jurist Ulpian was exiled.
The relationships between Julia Maesa, Julia Soaemias, and Elagabalus were strong at first. His mother and grandmother became the first women to be allowed into the Senate, and both received senatorial titles: Soaemias the established title of Clarissima, and Maesa the more unorthodox Mater Castrorum et Senatus ("Mother of the army camp and of the Senate"). While Julia Maesa tried to position herself as the power behind the throne and thus the most powerful woman in the world, Elagabalus would prove to be highly independent, set in his ways, and impossible to control.
Since the reign of Septimius Severus, sun worship had increased throughout the Empire. Elagabalus saw this as an opportunity to install Elagabal as the chief deity of the Roman pantheon. The god was renamed Deus Sol Invictus, meaning God the Undefeated Sun, and honored above Jupiter.
As a token of respect for Roman religion, however, Elagabalus joined either Astarte, Minerva, Urania, or some combination of the three to Elagabal as wife. Before constructing a temple in dedication to Elagabal, Elagabalus placed the meteorite of Elagabal next to the throne of Jupiter at the temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus.