Ancient Rome’s Short-Lived Teen Emperor: Practical Joker, Drag Queen, Transgender? : The History Reader

Posted on June 29, 2021

by Steven Saylor

Psssst! Have you ever heard about Elagabalus? They are saying he invented the world’s first whoopee cushion. No, actually! I’m fairly positive I heard Mary Beard say that. 

In addition they say he was as homosexual as America’s Subsequent Drag Famous person, and as loopy as a loon. He was such a phallomaniac he combed the entire empire to find the person with the most important you-know-what. However he married for love—one other man, in fact, a charioteer. However wait, additionally they say he married a Vestal virgin. How would that even work?

His reign was temporary. The Romans had sufficient of him briefly order, or at the very least the Praetorian Guards did, and Elagabalus got here to a really nasty finish, alongside together with his charioteer husband and his power-mad mother.

Chances are you’ll marvel: how in Hades did a Roman emperor get a reputation like Elagabalus, anyway?

In truth, in his personal lifetime, he was by no means known as Elagabalus; that was the title of the solar god he imported to Rome from his native province of Syria. It was hostile Roman historians of a later technology who caught him with that title, making him out to sound as overseas, outlandish, and downright unusual as doable. Those self same historic historians, sucking as much as his successors, went wild making up “details” concerning the teen emperor, cranking out an orgy of salacious gossip, malicious slander, and pretend information that no fashionable historian takes significantly.

However gossip has a manner of sticking in individuals’s heads—the wilder the higher. And so, all these centuries later, textbooks nonetheless name him “Elagabalus,” and respected historians on TV, with a nod and a wink, repeat the identical slanders and nonsense.

I first encountered Elagabalus once I was a youngster myself, rising up in a small city in Texas (assume Final Image Present). One way or the other I received my sweaty fingers on a paperback novel known as Baby of the Solar, a ebook so trashy it took two authors to jot down it (Kyle Onstott and Lance Horner). I may inform it should be a homosexual novel due to the Frank Frazetta art work on the quilt, through which three scantily-clad muscle males completely overshadow the gratuitous feminine. The authors skipped the weirder elements of the Elagabalus legend (like smothering a roomful of dinner visitors with a deluge of rose petals, a scene immortalized in paint by Alma-Tadema). They targeting the attractive elements, in graphic element, and performed up the romance. The teenager emperor finds real love with the hunky charioteer, however alas, they nonetheless meet a horrible destiny.

Baby of the Solar made an enormous impression on me, in the way in which novels do when the reader is an impressionable and extremely imaginative teenager. I suspected even then that sometime I would write my very own fictional model of Elagabalus.

In faculty, I studied Roman historical past, and paid particularly shut consideration to what fashionable historians needed to say about Elagabalus. Clearly, the traditional sources have been to not be trusted. Nonetheless, within the 1700s, Edward Gibbon in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire had a jolly time denouncing the disgusting immorality and decadence of the teenager emperor. Elagabalophiles of the 20th century took the alternative tack, casting him as a queer martyr, embracing his reputed homosexuality—or maybe transgender id, since one supply claims the teenager emperor desired and even tried an ancient-world gender-reassignment process.

Regardless of the scanty details about him and the briefness of his reign (June A.D. 218 to March A.D. 222, lower than 4 years), Elagabalus has amassed a substantial Nachleben. That’s a German phrase historians use to explain the cultural afterlife of a historic individual and the transmutation of factuality into delusion through poetry, opera, theater, portray, novels, and so on. A lot of that is detailed in a high quality ebook by Martijn Icks, revealed in England as Pictures of Elagabalus however within the U.S. pruriently entitled The Crimes of Elagabalus: The Life and Legacy of Rome’s Decadent Boy Emperor.

In truth, what can really, verifiably be recognized about Elagabalus? A couple of years in the past, a Cambridge-education Spaniard named Leonardo de Arrizabalaga y Prado (one other mouthful!) revealed a really exceptional ebook titled The Emperor Elagabalus: Truth or Fiction?, through which he devised a system for evaluating the credibility of each morsel of details about the teenager emperor. Underneath de Arrizabalaga y Prado’s eager and ruthless gaze, the story of Elagabalus is uncovered as nothing greater than smoke and mirrors.

The Emperor Elagabalus: Truth or Fiction? was not properly obtained by the Classical institution. The response just about boiled all the way down to: “If you happen to’re going to be that nit-picking, then we’ll must admit that almost all of what we name ‘historical past’ is basically fiction to start out with, and the place will that depart us?” Out of a job, presumably.

However humanity can not reside on epistemology alone; we want tales. Even Arrizabalaga y Prado is claimed to be engaged on a novel about Elagabalus, although I can’t think about what scraps of fabric are left on his workshop flooring that could possibly be stitched into something as capacious as a novel.

As I mentioned earlier, from the second I completed my (first) studying of Baby of the Solar all these a few years in the past, I’ve had an itch to jot down my very own model of Elagabalus. The chance eventually arrived with Dominus, my newest novel. Dominus completes the trilogy begun by Roma and Empire, a household saga that spans the historical past of Rome from prehistoric buying and selling publish to the reign of Constantine the Nice. Constantine was the Roman emperor who rejected the outdated faith and embraced Christianity. He additionally spurned town of Rome and moved the actual seat of energy to a brand new capital named after himself, Constantinople.

Like Constantine, Elagabalus was a non secular revolutionary. He tried to completely reorganize the state faith, elevating his Syrian solar god to the highest spot, even above Jupiter. Maybe he was forward of his time. Not like Constantine, he failed, spectacularly and briefly order. His spiritual radicalism, greater than something to do together with his private life, could have been the true “crime” that led to his grotesque finish.

Nonetheless, when the daddy and son of my fictional dynasty in Dominus are summoned to the imperial palace and meet Elagabalus within the flesh, they get the shock of their lives. Writing that scene was a responsible pleasure for the writer, as a result of after they step into the room, and method the teenager emperor…

However I’ll say no extra, as a result of maybe you’d like to put fingers on Dominus and browse that scene your self.

Oh, and his actual title, by the way in which, was Varius Avitus Bassianus. That’s one other mouthful.

Credit score: Louis LaSalle

Steven Saylor is the writer of the lengthy working Roma Sub Rosa collection that includes Gordianus the Finder, in addition to the New York Instances bestselling novel, Roma and its follow-up, Empire. He has appeared as an on-air knowledgeable on Roman historical past and life on The Historical past Channel. Saylor was born in Texas and graduated with excessive honors from The College of Texas at Austin, the place he studied historical past and classics. He divides his time between Berkeley, California, and Austin, Texas.

Tags: Historical Historical past, Dominus, Elagabalus, Roman Historical past, Rome, Steven Saylor

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