The Syrian Elagabalus (204-222) was the most bizarre Emperor of Rome. He was the high priest of a phallic-oriented cult, and also a transvestite and a masochist, who even toyed with the idea of castration. Even in Rome, his indulgence in all kinds of sexual excessess became notorious.

Elagabalus was a nephew of the mentally unstable Emperor Caracalla (188-217). When Elagabalus was 14 years old, his grandmother Julia Maesa, his mother Julia Soaemias, and her lover succeeded by bribing and plotting in gaining the throne of the Roman Empire for him. After the execution of his mother's lover, Elagabalus left the Imperial government in the hands of his grandmother.

Originally Elagabalus was called Varius Avitus Bassianus. He became known as Elagabalus, because he was the high priest of the deity El-Gabal, possibly the Syrian sun god Baal. It was a phallic-oriented cult; the sun god was worshipped in the form of a great, black meteorite and two colossal phalli flanked the entrance of the temple in Emesa. When Elagabalus became Emperor, he made the crazy attempt to introduce this Syrian cult to Rome. He had a new temple built on Rome's Palatine Hill and had El-Gabal's black relic transported to the new temple in a chariot decorated with gold and precious stones. In addition, Elagabalus conceived the idea of marrying his god to a goddess, either the Semitic goddess Astarte or the Sabine goddess Minerva. In 220, he broke into the secret sanctuary of Vesta and raped Aquilia Severa, a chaste Vestal Virgin. Although Roman law held that any Vestal who had had sexual intercourse should be buried alive, Elagabalus married her, expressing a hope for 'god-like children'. He divorced her soon afterwards, but took her back in 222.

As a priest, Elagabalus did sacrifice; he slaughtered multitudes of cattle and sheep, laid them on the altars and drenched them with the finest wines. Afterwards he danced around the altar to the sound of cymbals, flutes and drums, fascinating those who saw him. He wore very costly, silken clothes embroidered with gold. He detested Greek and Roman clothes, because they were made of wool, a cheap material. Preferring finery, he also liked to dress like a woman. He used to paint his eyes and rouge his cheeks and was depilated all over his body. Elagabalus even conceived the idea of castrating himself, but to consecrate his priesthood he confined himself to circumcision only. He was not only a transvestite, but also a bisexual and, although the Romans were accustomed to Emperors who associated with young boys as a sideline to their heterosexual activities, Elagabalus' indulgence in his sexual escapades has earned him everlasting notoriety. According to Cassius Dio, a contemporary, Elagabalus was often thrashed by his lovers, and bore the marks on his body. He added that Elagabalus "frequented the notorious brothels, drove out to the prostitutes and played the prostitute himself" and that he "set aside a room in the palace and there committed his indecencies, always standing nude at the door of the room as the harlots do" and "in a soft and melting voice he solicited the passers by". Elagabalus created a public bath inside the palace, so that he could collect paramours with remarkable phallic endowments. Even more infuriating to the people of Rome was the appointment of his lowborn lovers to the highest offices. With a fair Carian slave, Hierocles, Elagabalus even went through a form of marriage. In addition, Elagabalus had a long train of female concubines and a rapid succession of wives, including Julia Cornelia Paula, the Vestal Virgin Aquilia Severa and Annia Faustina, a relative of the notorious Emperor Commodus (161-192).

His position as both a high priest and Emperor of the Roman Empire inflated Elagabalus' sense of self-importance and induced his megalomaniacal tendencies. He was preoccupied with fantasies of finery and power. He even attempted to become the embodiment of either his male deity or its female counterpart. He was an immature, self-centred exhibitionist requiring constant admiration and attention. He expected absolute service without taking any responsibilities towards his subjects. His rapid succession of lovers and wives indicate that he was incapable of having a meaningful personal relationship, although his behavior can also be seen as youthful experimenting. Criticism infuriated him and he responded to it with imprisonment and execution. These symptoms indicate that Elagabalus might be diagnosed as a person with a narcissistic personality disorder.

Elagabalus' way of life came to infuriate the army more and more. His grandmother, worried by his indiscretions and affronts to the people of Rome, persuaded Elagabalus to adopt his cousin Alexander (208-235) and to invest the youth with the title of Caesar. Thus Elagabalus' divine occupations "would no longer be interrupted by the care of the earth". Near the end of 221, Elagabalus turned against the amiable Alexander and in March 222 a revolt broke out. Alexander was declared Emperor. Elagabalus, nearly 18 years old, was killed in the latrine, where he had taken refuge. His detested mother was slain too. Their bodies were dragged on hooks through the city and thrown into the Tiber. Some of Elagabalus' favourites were slaughtered by tearing out their vitals, while others were pierced up the anus, "so that their death fitted their lives". El-Gabal's black relic was sent back to Emesa.

Copyright 1996-2008 by J.N.W. Bos. All rights reserved.

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