Who was Emperor Elagabalus and What Did He Do?

Emperor Elagabalus came to the throne at the age of fourteen in a coup staged by his grandmother. He rubbished centuries’ of Roman traditions. He was the head priest of a sun god and tales of excess, decadence, promiscuity and depravity put even Nero and Caligula to shame. Here is the truly astonishing story of the man born Sextus Varius Avitus Bassianus.

History Rulers
3 April 2023

The future Elagabalus, Emperor of Rome, was probably born in the Syrian city of Emesa – modern-day Homs – around 203 or 204 AD.

The penultimate emperor of the Severan dynasty was said by one historian to have ‘abandoned himself to the grossest pleasures with ungoverned fury.’ Another said ‘the name Elagabalus is branded in history above all others because of his unspeakably disgusting life’ and yet another described him as ‘a tragic enigma lost behind centuries of prejudice.’

His biographer Aelius Lampridius started his book by saying ‘The life of Elagabalus, I should never have to put into writing – hoping that nobody should know that he was emperor of Rome.’

This is the scarcely believable tale of Caesar Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus, otherwise known as Emperor Elagabalus and, as you will find out, Heliogabalus.

Sextus Varius Avitus Bassianus - The Early Years

Sextus Varius Avitus Bassianus (Photo: DEA / G. DAGLI ORTI via Getty Images)

He was born to Sextus Varius Marcellus, a Roman aristocrat from Syria, and Julia Soaemias Bassiana, a noblewoman and relative of Caracalla. However it is possible – and it was supposedly publicly admitted – that he was in fact fathered by Caracalla.

Elagabalus, Emperor of Rome

Elagabalus (Photo: Sepia Times via Getty Images)

His ascent to the throne was as bizarre as the rest of this life. His mother Julia Soaemias and grandmother, Julia Maesa, were related to the emperor Caracalla. When Caracalla was murdered on the orders of successor Macrinus, they vowed revenge.

A rumour was carefully and strategically spread that Elagabalus was in fact the illegitimate son of Caracalla, and therefore the rightful heir to the throne. As fate would have it, Macrinus himself was killed at the Battle of Antioch in 218 AD. Thus Elagabalus became emperor at the age of fourteen.

Little is known with real certainty of the politics during his time as emperor. It’s believed that his mother and grandmother effectively ran Rome while Elagabalus ran riot. It’s said that he had little or no interest in the details of government, and he was described as ‘not a tyrant but an incompetent, probably the least able emperor Rome had ever had.’

Rome’s Most Bizarre Ruler?

Heliogabalus dancing around chariot of Sun god (Photo: t: DEA / ICAS94 via Getty Images)

As part of the Syrian nobility, his family held the hereditary rights to the priesthood of the sun god Elagabal, or El-Gabal – from where Emperor Elagabalus got his regnal name. He was also known as Heliogabalus, a hybrid version of the Greek sun god Helios and Elagabalus.

That an emperor would worship an unknown god over Jupiter shocked much of Rome. Suffice it to say this didn’t endear him to the people of Rome, nor those in power.

While it’s a fair assumption that Roman emperor Elagabalus was seen as one of Rome’s most debauched and depraved characters, many of the tales of his excess were written by Cassius Dio, a man who knew Elagabalus and hated him. Cassius Dio’s accounts certainly served to influence the perception of Elagabalus, though – as with much of the history of Rome’s hierarchy during the third century – what was written may not necessarily reflect the whole truth. With few surviving contemporary sources of his life, Elagabalus facts are hard to come by.

Private Life

Vintage engraving of Elagabalus (Photo: duncan1890 via Getty Images)

Among the subjects that raised the most eyebrows in Rome were Elagabalus’ sexuality and gender identity. According to Dio, he was married five times to four women (one woman twice) as well as to two men, a former slave named Hierocles and an athlete named Zoticus. He was also said to have worn makeup and elaborate wigs.

It is reported that he spent hours dancing around a temple dedicated to El-Gabal which made him a laughing stock and an object of scorn and ridicule. He spent frivolously on eccentricities, including solid gold chamber pots. Indeed many of Rome’s landlords would set aside private rooms for him.

As we’ve said, these ‘Elagabalus facts’ may not be facts at all. Some may well be exaggerated in an attempt to smear or embarrass the young ruler. But it was this reputation, along with his often strange acts as emperor, that finally led to his downfall.

The End of Emperor Elagabalus

Severus Alexander (Photo: Pictures from History via Getty Images)

At first, the people of Rome were entertained by his antics but soon they, the army and the Senate had had enough. His grandmother, Julia Maesa, knew his time was up and forced him to name his cousin, Severus Alexander, as his heir. His mother however, continued to stand by her son. Elagabalus tried to cling onto power, attempting to have his heir assassinated, but the army had already switched sides.

The Roman Emperor Elagabalus attempted to escape and hid with his mother but they were quickly found by the Praetorian Guard. They were beheaded and the emperor’s body was unceremoniously dumped into the River Tiber. He was just eighteen when he died.


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