Morning name: Elagabalus

(Warning: significant (homo)sexual content, though in generally decorous language.)

Yesterday morning’s name: a sexually scandalous Roman emperor who led a short but eventful life.

The summary bio from Wikipedia:

Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus (c. 203 – March 11, 222), commonly known as Elagabalus … or 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 favours on male courtiers popularly thought to have been his lovers, 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.

Roles in sex. In his relationships with men, Elagabalus seems to have been strictly a femme bottom, taking the receptive — the “woman’s” — role in anal intercourse, adopting feminine mannerisms, and referring to his male lovers as his husbands. He is also reported to have been flagrantly and publicly promiscuous with men. All of this would have been wildly, shockingly, transgressive. Imagine the seductive fellow in this photo (sent to me by Chris Ambidge, who titled it “Come Hither”), but not so hunkily masculine (still, he’s offering himself, inviting men in):


Further detail from the Wikipedia article:

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.

Elagabalus’ sexual orientation and gender identity are the subject of much debate. Elagabalus married and divorced five women, three of whom are known. His first wife was Julia Cornelia Paula; the second was the Vestal Virgin Julia Aquilia Severa.

Within a year, he abandoned her and married Annia Aurelia Faustina, a descendant of Marcus Aurelius and the widow of a man recently executed by Elagabalus. He had returned to his second wife Severa by the end of the year. According to Cassius Dio, his most stable relationship seems to have been with his chariot driver, a blond slave from Caria named Hierocles, whom he referred to as his husband.

The Augustan History claims that he also married a man named Zoticus, an athlete from Smyrna, in a public ceremony at Rome. Cassius Dio reported that Elagabalus would paint his eyes, epilate his hair and wear wigs before prostituting himself in taverns, brothels, and even in the imperial palace:

[from Cassius Dio] Finally, 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 shaking the curtain which hung from gold rings, while in a soft and melting voice he solicited the passers-by. There were, of course, men who had been specially instructed to play their part. For, as in other matters, so in this business, too, he had numerous agents who sought out those who could best please him by their foulness. He would collect money from his patrons and give himself airs over his gains; he would also dispute with his associates in this shameful occupation, claiming that he had more lovers than they and took in more money.

Herodian commented that Elagabalus enhanced his natural good looks by the regular application of cosmetics. He was described as having been “delighted to be called the mistress, the wife, the queen of Hierocles” and was reported to have offered vast sums of money to any physician who could equip him with female genitalia. Elagabalus has been characterized by some modern writers as transgender, perhaps transsexual.

Elagabalus and Hierocles, Edward II and Piers Gaveston — though Hierocles was a slave and Gaveston a nobleman, giving Elagabalus an extra bit of transgression for taking a social subordinate as his husband. I’ve found no details on how Elagabalus was assassinated, but Derek Jarman’s Edward II has the king die by being impaled on a red-hot poker, mirroring his sexual role as a bottom.

Elagabalus is the subject of what is probably Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s most famous painting:


The Roses of Heliogabalus is an 1888 painting by the Anglo-Dutch artist Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema. It is currently owned by the Spanish billionaire businessman and art collector Juan Antonio Pérez Simón.

It shows a group of Roman diners at a banquet, being swamped by drifts of pink rose petals falling from a false ceiling above. The Roman emperor Elagabalus reclines on a platform behind them, wearing a golden robe and a tiara, watching the spectacle with other garlanded guests. A woman plays the double pipes beside a marble pillar in the background, wearing the leopard skin of a maenad, with a bronze statue of Dionysus, based on the Ludovisi Dionysus, in front of a view of distant hills.

The painting depicts a (probably invented) episode in the life of the Roman emperor Elagabalus, also known as Heliogabalus, (204–222), taken from the Augustan History. Although the Latin refers to “violets and other flowers”, Alma-Tadema depicts Elagabalus smothering his unsuspecting guests with rose petals released from a false ceiling. (Wikipedia link)

On Alma-Tadema, from Wikipedia:

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, OM, RA (… born Lourens Alma Tadema … 8 January 1836 – 25 June 1912) was a Frisian painter of special British denizenship [a legal status available at the time].

Born in Dronrijp, the Netherlands, and trained at the Royal Academy of Antwerp, Belgium, he settled in England in 1870 and spent the rest of his life there. A classical-subject painter, he became famous for his depictions of the luxury and decadence of the Roman Empire, with languorous figures set in fabulous marbled interiors or against a backdrop of dazzling blue Mediterranean Sea and sky.

Though admired during his lifetime for his draftsmanship and depictions of Classical antiquity, his work fell into disrepute after his death [as being meticulous kitsch], and only since the 1960s has it been re-evaluated for its importance within nineteenth-century English art.

You might not have suspected this from his work, but by all accounts Alma-Tadema was a rotund “wine, women, and song” kind of guy.

One Response to “Morning name: Elagabalus”

  1. Bob Richmond Says:

    The German poet Stefan George (1868-1933), gay and very out in fin-de-siècle Munich, idolized Heliogabalus, altering his name to Algabal. I don’t know why Stefan George isn’t more widely recognized as a pioneering gay poet today, though the fact that his poetry defies translation (at least for me) probably doesn’t help.

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