The four short years of Elagabalus’s rule have generated nearly two millennia of sustained attention, from salacious rumor to scholarly analysis to novels that cast him as a gay hero avant la lettre. Here, Martijn Icks succeeds in distinguishing the reality of the emperor’s brief life from the myth that clouds itand in tracing the meaning of the myth itself to the present day.
In 219 ce, when the fourteen-year-old Syrian arrived in Rome to assume the throne, he brought with him a conical black stone, which he declared was the earthly form of the sun god El-Gabal, who gave Elagabalus his name and lifelong office as high priest. Shoving Jupiter aside, the new emperor did the unthinkable, installing El-Gabal at the head of the Roman pantheon and marrying a vestal virgin. Whether for these offenses, his neglect of the empire, or weariness from watching the emperor dance at the elaborate daily sacrifices, the imperial guards murdered Elagabalus and put El-Gabal in a packing crate.
Sifting through later accounts of the emperor’s outrageous behavior, Icks finds the invented Elagabalus as compelling as the historical figure. In literature, art, and music from the fifteenth century on, Elagabalus appears in many guises, from evil tyrant to anarchist rebel, from mystical androgyne to modern gay teenager, from decadent sensualist to pop star. These many reincarnations reveal as much about the ages that produced them, Icks shows, as they do about the bad-boy emperor himself.
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About the Author
Martijn Icks is Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Heidelberg.
Read an Excerpt
From Chapter Six: The Decadent Emperor
The stronger focus on the ‘Orient’ and ‘Oriental’ cultures in nineteenth century scholarship does not necessarily imply more appreciation of these cultures. In the climate of growing anti-Semitism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many scholars – particularly in Germany – described the peoples and cultures of the ancient Near East in openly hostile and derogatory terms. According to Johann Schiller, who published his Geschichte der römischen Kaiserzeit in 1883, Elagabalus’s ‘Oriental’ upbringing made him ‘spiritually insignificant, without any value, a resigned enemy of every serious activity’. As Gibbon had done more than a century earlier, Schiller condemned Elagabalus as the worst ruler in the history of the Roman Empire. In his own words,
Never was the emperorship held in such contempt as under this unripe, mad boy […] The emperor played the role of Oriental despot with diadem, also outwardly at court, and desired to be worshipped. What has been handed over from Elagabalus’s activity only stains the pages of history, and his reign is verily a witches’ Sabbath of fornication, excesses and luxury.
In his work Abhandlungen zur römischen Religion, published in 1909, Alfred von Domaszewski branded not just the reign of Elagabalus, but the entire period of Severan rule ‘the late revenge of the Semites on Greco–Roman culture, whose chains it had silently worn for centuries’. In describing this supposed culture clash, he made it clear on whose side he stood. Like Schiller, Von Domaszewski identified himself with the ‘Western’ values of Greece and Rome, which he saw as corrupted by ‘Oriental’ influences. As he comments with a profound sense of drama, ‘It is therefore the night of barbarism which covers the Graeco–Roman world since Septimius Severus.’
In La Religion à Rome sous les Sévères (1886), the French historian Jean Réville likewise imagines ‘East’ and ‘West’ as two diametrically opposed cultures, continually striving for dominance. His hostility towards the ‘East’ is often phrased in biblical terms. For instance, he remarks about Elagabalus,
There was actually nothing Roman nor Occidental in the person of Elagabalus, or in that of his mother, Soaemias. In them, the old spirit of Canaan, against which the prophets of Israel have risen with such vigor, affirmed itself once again in a supreme exuberance before disappearing from history.
A bit further, Réville speaks about the ‘Syrian spirit’, which he characterizes as ‘frivolous and light, burning with passion but listless to effort, keen on novelties but superficial, sly and subtle but without solidity’. Not surprisingly, he regards Elagabalus’s rise to the Roman throne as a disastrous defeat for the ‘Western’ world: ‘This time, the triumph of the East was complete.’ For the next years, Rome would experience all the turpitudes of an ‘Oriental’ court: extravagant vice; eunuchs and harems; disordered luxury; the dominant influence of women and boudoir favorites; and, last but not least, ‘the complete absence of preoccupation with the public good and the egoistic concentration of all government activity on the well-being of the sovereign’. In other words, Elagabalus was a bad emperor because he was (and behaved like) an ‘Oriental’.
What People are Saying About This
This is not a routine imperial biography, but a much wider study of the nature of religious belief, culture, and ethnicity in the Roman Empire, on the staging of the emperor's image and the subsequent response throughout the Empire. In this accessible and lively study, Icks sheds new light on the dissemination of classical culture and the reception of Rome in later periods by following the evolving figure of Elagabalus in opera, drama and fiction through the centuries.
Brian Campbell, Queen's University, Belfast