He was a boy who wanted nothing more than to be a girl and Elagabalus, the transgender Emperor, was to be the Queen of Rome.
In AD 217, the notoriously brutal and rapacious Emperor Caracalla became the victim of an assassination plot when he was murdered by his bodyguard as he urinated up against a wall. He had not rewarded the Praetorian Guard sufficiently to guarantee their loyalty and had paid the price. He was replaced as Emperor by their Prefect Marcus Opellius Macrinus but outside of the 6,000 strong Praetorian Guard he elicited little support.
Aware of this he was quick to banish the remaining members of the Imperial Family from Rome but this did little to reduce or diminish the desire on the part of some to see him removed also. Vengeance is a powerful motivation and the murdered Caracalla’s aunt Julia Maesa used her immense wealth to bribe the Legions into supporting the claim of her 14 year old grandson Elagabalus and conspiring with his tutor, the eunuch Gannys, they persuaded Publius Valerius Comazon, the Commander of the Third Legion, to openly declare in his favour.
The conspiracy quickly spread and when Macrinus sent troops to quell the rebellion they promptly defected. Learning of this a furious Macrinus gathered his army and led them East to confront the rebels in person but his troops could not be relied upon and were greatly attracted by the rewards on offer should they refuse to fight.
In the ensuing Battle of Antioch, Macrinus’s army simply melted away and he was killed trying to flee the rout.
His death was particularly satisfying for Julia Maesa as he had earlier executed her sister.
On 9 June AD 218, the day after Macrinus’s death, Elagabalus was declared Emperor.
Elagabalus, whose real name was Varius Ativus Bassianus, was Phoenician by birth and had been raised in the Syrian city of Emesa. Despite having had little experience of Rome he was a member of the Severan Clan and therefore of Royal blood. He was also, as a result, the hereditary High Priest of the cult of the Sun God El Gabal, or Baal, from whom he took the name Elagabalus.
His reign as Emperor got off to a bad start when he imposed his new religion on the people of Rome. He called it Deus Sol Invictus and he ordered that its worship replace that of the Roman Supreme God Jupiter. The people were in uproar, to offend a God as powerful as Jupiter was tantamount to bringing a curse upon the city, but when at the festival to celebrate the new God he handed out free food and wine the people’s sense of outrage cooled. The same could not be said of the Roman Elite however, and their resentment was only made greater when he removed all Rome’s Holy Relics from their shrines and housed them instead in his newly-built Elagabalum where the Black Stone of El Gabal was so positioned that only the one religion could be seen and worshipped.
The new young Emperor had already caused outrage by marrying the Vestal Virgin Aquila Severa. This had broken all taboos for a Vestal Virgin was expected to remain chaste for at least thirty and then receive permission to relinquish her vows. The Vestal Virgins were a sacred institution and to violate it was a heinous act. If a Vestal broke her vows and committed a sexual act then the punishment was that she be buried alive; if a man had sex with a Vestal then he was to be whipped to death.
Seemingly Elagabalus was untroubled by such details.
During his short life the young Emperor was to marry five times but he had little sexual interest in women, he just appeared to enjoy the ceremony. The true love of his life was a blond slave and charioteer named Hierocles whom he would refer to as his husband, and he would like to be addressed as – “the mistress, the wife, or the Queen of Hierocles.”
He made no attempt to disguise his homosexuality and the more he flaunted it the greater the offence it caused.
After a while he came to enjoy his flagrant disregard of public morals and his subsequent behaviour became ever more outrageous, at one time even marrying an athlete named Zoticus in a great public ceremony where he took the role of the bride.
It was as if he deliberately set out to provoke those who disapproved of his behaviour, and he would become angry whenever he was reproved for wearing too much makeup.
The historian Cassius Dio wrote of him at this time:
“He would paint his eyes, epilate his hair, and wear wigs before prostituting himself in taverns and brothels”. He went on, “Finally, he set aside a room in the Palace and there committed his indecencies, always standing nude at the door of the room like harlots do, and shaking the curtain which hung from gold rings, while in a soft and melting voice he solicited passers-by.”
He also had a masochistic streak and liked to play a game where he would be caught having sex by a boyfriend who would then whip him for his adultery. Indeed, it was often remarked upon just how bruised his body would be. He also enjoyed killing and torture and delighted in finding new ways of doing so. It was said how he would peel the skin from victims and then rub salt into the wounds, or have prisoners placed in a cage to be eaten alive by wild animals.
He was always very sensitive to his femininity and hated to be addressed in the masculine. Those who refused to subscribe to this view of him as the Queen of Rome ran the serious risk of execution. He also offered a fortune to any doctor who could provide him with female genitalia but with the proviso that if they failed to do so they too would face torture and death.
Publius Valerius Comazon, who had effectively been running the Empire from his position as Consul whilst Elagabalus indulged his fantasies, desperately tried to get the young Emperor to moderate his behaviour but having failed to do so he soon lost all respect, and wanted rid of him. Likewise, so did many others.
The Legions offended by his behaviour were in tumult, the Praetorian Guard despite the riches he had lavished on them had turned against him, and even his grandmother Julia Maesa, who had been pivotal in making him Emperor in the first place now changed her mind.
Worried that the Praetorian Guard might take matters into their own hands she now looked to her other grandson, the thirteen year old Alexander Severus, and she persuaded Elagabalus to shower him with honours and make him a Consul, even though he was still only a boy, and name him as his designated successor.
Elagabalus was too naive to see through what Julia Maesa had in mind but his mother, Julia Soaemias wasn’t.
She had been the power behind the throne and had been responsible for implementing the religious changes, and it was on her advice that Elagabalus now stripped his cousin Severus of all his honours and revoked his consulship.
Learning that the Praetorian Guard favoured his cousin over himself he decided to test the water and he had the rumour spread that Severus had been injured in a fall and was close to death.
It was to be a catastrophic error of judgement.
Most people thought that if Severus had been hurt then it must have been Elagababus who was responsible, and they reacted angrily. Riots began to break out in the city and Elagabalus ordered the Praetorian Guard to restore order but they refused. Instead they demanded that he and his mother, along with Severus (to prove that he was still alive) present themselves, before them.
This Elagabalus was disinclined to do but he had little choice.
On 11 March AD 22, Elagabalus and Julia Soaemias arrived at the Praetorian Guard barracks where they received a frosty reception but when the young Severus was produced he was cheered and applauded. A furious Elagabalus demanded that those who had cheered Severus be arrested at once. Instead they turned on their Emperor and Elagabalus and his mother were forced to flee in panic.
The terrified pair, often holding hands, where pursued through the streets of Rome. They did not get far. Chased into a public lavatory Julia Soaemias held her son in a tight embrace.
Physically parted Elagabalus could be heard repeatedly screaming:
“Let my mother be, leave her alone.”
There was to be no mercy as both were run through and decapitated, their bodies stripped naked and dragged through the streets of Rome before being tossed unceremoniously into the River Tiber.
In an orgy of violence those close to Elagabalus were also hunted down and killed including Hierocles, Zoticus, and Comazon.
Elagabalus was not unique in the history of Rome for his cruelty and outrageous sexual behaviour, but he is unique for being the Empires only self-declared Queen.