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Elagabalus - Roman Emperor: 218-222 A.D.

Buy certified authentic Elagabalus - Roman Emperor: 218-222 A.D..also known as Heliogabalus or Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, was a Roman Emperor of the Severan dynasty who reigned from 218 to 222.

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 Elagabalus (pronounced El-uh-GAB-uh--lus, c. 203 – March 11, 222), also known as Heliogabalus or Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, was a Roman Emperor of the Severan dynasty who reigned from 218 to 222. Born Varius Avitus Bassianus, he was Syrian on his mother's side, the son of Julia Soaemias and Sextus Varius Marcellus, and in his early youth he served as a priest of the god El-Gabal at his hometown, Emesa. Upon becoming emperor he took the name Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus, and was called Elagabalus only a long time after his death.

In 217, the emperor Caracallaa was murdered 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, Elagabalus, declared as emperor in his place. Macrinus was defeated on June 8, 218, at the Battle of Antioch, upon which Elagabalus, barely fourteen years old, ascended to the imperial power and began a reign that was marred by infamous controversies, to put it mildly.

Jupiter, head of the Roman pantheon, with a new god, Deus Sol Invictus, and forced leading members of Rome's government to participate in religious rites celebrating this deity, which he personally led.

Amidst growing opposition, Elagabalus, only 18 years old, was assassinated and replaced by his cousin Alexander Severus Praetorian Guard. Elagabalus developed a reputation among his contemporaries for eccentricity, decadence, and zealotry which was likely exaggerated by his successors and political rivals. This propaganda was passed on and, as a result, he was one of the most reviled Roman emperors to early historians. For example, Edward Gibbon wrote that Elagabalus "abandoned himself to the grossest pleasures and ungoverned fury." "The name Elagabalus is branded in history above all others" because of his "unspeakably disgusting life," wrote B.G. Niebuhr.

Family and priesthood

Roman imperial dynasties
Severan dynasty
 
Chronology
Septimius Severus 193198
-with Caracalla 198209
-with Caracalla and Geta 209211
Caracalla and Geta 211211
Caracalla 211217
Interlude: Macrinus 217218
Elagabalus 218222
Alexander Severus 222235
Dynasty
Severan dynasty family tree
Category:Severan dynasty
 
Succession
Preceded by
Year of the Five Emperors
Followed by
Crisis of the Third Century

Elagabalus was born around the year 203 to Sextus Varius Marcellus and Julia Soaemias Bassiana. His father was initially a member of the equestrian class, but was later elevated to the rank of senator. His grandmother Julia Maesa was the widow of the Consul Gaius Julius Avitus Alexianus, the sister of Julia Domna, and the sister-in-law of the emperor Septimius Severus. He had at least one sibling: an unnamed elder brother. His mother, Julia Soaemias, was a cousin of the Roman emperor Caracalla. Other relatives included his aunt Julia Avita Mamaea and uncle Marcus Julius Gessius Marcianus and among their children, their son Alexander Severus. Elagabalus's family held hereditary rights to the priesthood of the sun god Elagabal, of whom Elagabalus was the high priest at Emesa (modern Homs) in Syria.

The deity Elagabalus was initially venerated at Emesa. This form of the god's name is a Latinized version of the Syrian Ilāh hag-Gabal, which derives from Ilāh ("god") and gabal ("mountain" (compare Hebrew: גבל bul and Arabic: جبل jabal)), resulting in "the God of the Mountain" the Emesene manifestation of the deity. The cult of the deity spread to other parts of the Roman Empire in the 2nd century; a dedication has been found as far away as Woerden (Netherlands). The god was later imported and assimilated with the Roman sun god known as Sol Indiges in republican times and as Sol Invictus during the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE. In Greek the sun god is Helios, hence "Heliogabalus", a variant of "Elagabalus".

Rise to power

A Roman denarius depicting Elagabalus. The reverse reads Fides Exercitus, or The loyalty of the army, depicting the Roman goddess Fides between two Roman armystandards. Many coins issued during Elagabalus' reign bear the inscriptions Fides Exercitus or Fides Militum, emphasising the loyalty of the army as the basis of imperial power.

When the emperor Macrinus came to power, Elagabalus' mother suppressed the threat against his reign by the family of his assassinated predecessor, Caracalla, by exiling them—Julia Maesa, her two daughters, and her eldest grandson Elagabalus—to their estate at Emesa in Syria. Almost upon arrival in Syria she began a plot, with her advisor and Elagabalus' tutor Gannys, to overthrow Macrinus and elevate the fourteen-year-old Elagabalus to the imperial throne.

His mother publicly declared that he was the illegitimate son of Caracalla, therefore due the loyalties of Roman soldiers and senators who had sworn allegiance to Caracalla. After Julia Maesa displayed her wealth to the Third Legion at Raphanathey swore allegiance to Elagabalus. At sunrise on 16 May 218, Publius Valerius Comazon Eutychianus, commander of the legion, declared him emperor. To strengthen his legitimacy through further propaganda, Elagabalus assumed Caracalla's names, Marcus Aurelius Antoninus.

In response Macrinus dispatched his Praetorian prefect Ulpius Julianus to the region with a contingent of troops he considered strong enough to crush the rebellion. However, this force soon joined the faction of Elagabalus when, during the battle, they turned on their own commanders. The officers were killed and Julianus' head was sent back to the emperor.

Macrinus now sent letters to the Senate denouncing Elagabalus as the False Antoninus and claiming he was insane. Both consuls and other high-ranking members of Rome's leadership condemned Elagabalus, and the Senate subsequently declared war on both Elagabalus and Julia Maesa.

Macrinus and his son, weakened by the desertion of the Second Legion due to bribes and promises circulated by Julia Maesa, were defeated on 8 June 218 at the Battle of Antioch by troops commanded by Gannys. Macrinus fled toward Italy, disguised as a courier, but was later intercepted near Chalcedon and executed in Cappadocia. His son Diadumenianus, sent for safety to the Parthian court, was captured at Zeugma and also put to death.

Elagabalus declared the date of the victory at Antioch to be the beginning of his reign and assumed the imperial titles without prior senatorial approval, which violated tradition but was a common practice among 3rd-century emperors nonetheless. Letters of reconciliation were dispatched to Rome extending amnesty to the Senate and recognizing the laws, while also condemning the administration of Macrinus and his son.

The senators responded by acknowledging Elagabalus as emperor and accepting his claim to be the son of Caracalla. Caracalla and Julia Domna were both deified by the Senate, both Julia Maesa and Julia Soaemias were elevated to the rank of Augustae, and the memory of both Macrinus and Diadumenianus was condemned by the Senate. The former commander of the Third Legion, Comazon, was appointed commander of the Praetorian Guard.

Emperor (218–222)

A denarius commissioned by Elagabalus, bearing his likeness

Elagabalus and his entourage spent the winter of 218 in Bithynia at Nicomedia, where the emperor's religious beliefs first presented themselves as a problem. The contemporary historian Cassius Dio suggests that Gannys was in fact killed by the new emperor because he was forcing Elagabalus to live "temperately and prudently." To help Romans adjust to the idea of having an oriental priest as emperor, Julia Maesa had a painting of Elagabalus in priestly robes sent to Rome and hung over a statue of the goddess Victoria in the Senate House. This placed senators in the awkward position of having to make offerings to Elagabalus whenever they made offerings to Victoria.

The legions were dismayed by his behaviour and quickly came to regret having supported his accession. While Elagabalus was still on his way to Rome, brief revolts broke out by the Fourth Legion at the instigation of Gellius Maximus, and by the Third Legion, which itself had been responsible for the elevation of Elagabalus to the throne, under the command of Senator Verus The rebellion was quickly put down, and the Third Legion disbanded.

When the entourage reached Rome in the autumn of 219, Comazon and other allies of Julia Maesa and Elagabalus were given powerful and lucrative positions, to the outrage of many senators who did not consider them worthy of such privileges. After his tenure as Praetorian prefect, Comazon would serve as the city prefect of Rome three times, and as consul twice. Elagabalus soon devalued the Roman currency. He decreased the silver purity of the denariusfrom 58% to 46.5% — the actual silver weight dropping from 1.82 grams to 1.41 grams. He also demonetized the antoninianus during this period in Rome.

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 His offer of amnesty for the Roman upper class was largely honored, though the jurist Ulpian was exiled.

The relationships between Julia Maesa, Julia Soaemias, and Elagabalus were strong at first. His mother and grandmother became the first women to be allowed into the Senate, and both received senatorial titles: Soaemias the established title ofClarissima, and Maesa the more unorthodox Mater Castrorum et Senatus ("Mother of the army camp and of the Senate"). While Julia Maesa tried to position herself as the power behind the throne and thus the most powerful woman in the world, Elagabalus would prove to be highly independent, set in his ways, and impossible to control.

Religious controversy

A Roman aureus depicting Elagabalus. The reverse readsSanct Deo Soli Elagabal (To the Holy Sun God Elagabal), and depicts a four-horse, gold chariot carrying the holy stone of theEmesa temple.

Since the reign of Septimius Severus, sun worship had increased throughout the Empire. Elagabalus saw this as an opportunity to install Elagabal as the chief deity of the Roman pantheon. The god was renamed Deus Sol Invictus, meaning God the Undefeated Sun, and honored above Jupiter.

As a token of respect for Roman religion, however, Elagabalus joined either Astarte, Minerva, Urania, or some combination of the three to Elagabal as wife. Before constructing a temple in dedication to Elagabal, Elagabalus placed the meteorite of Elagabal next to the throne of Jupiter at the temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus.

He caused further discontent when he himself married the Vestal Virgin Aquilia Severa, claiming the marriage would produce "godlike children". This was a flagrant breach of Roman law and tradition, which held that any Vestal found to have engaged in sexual intercourse was to be buried alive.

A lavish temple called the Elagabalium was built on the east face of the Palatine Hill to house Elagabal, who was represented by a black conical meteorite from Emesa. Herodian wrote "this stone is worshipped as though it were sent from heaven; on it there are some small projecting pieces and markings that are pointed out, which the people would like to believe are a rough picture of the sun, because this is how they see them".

In order to become the high priest of his new religion, Elagabalus had himself circumcised. He forced senators to watch while he danced around the altar of Deus Sol Invictus to the accompaniment of drums and cymbals. Each summer solstice he held a festival dedicated to the god, which became popular with the masses because of the free food distributed on such occasions. During this festival, Elagabalus placed the Emesa stone on a chariotadorned with gold and jewels, which he paraded through the city:

A six horse chariot carried the divinity, the horses huge and flawlessly white, with expensive gold fittings and rich ornaments. No one held the reins, and no one rode in the chariot; the vehicle was escorted as if the god himself were the charioteer. Elagabalus ran backward in front of the chariot, facing the god and holding the horses' reins. He made the whole journey in this reverse fashion, looking up into the face of his god.

The most sacred relics from the Roman religion were transferred from their respective shrines to the Elagabalium, including the emblem of the Great Mother, the fire of Vesta, the Shields of the Salii and the Palladium, so that no other god could be worshipped except in company with Elagabal.

Sex/gender controversy

Roman denarius depicting Aquilia Severa, the second wife of Elagabalus. The marriage caused a public outrage because Aquilia was a Vestal Virgin, sworn by Roman law to celibacy for 30 years.

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;[36] 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 prostitutinghimself in taverns, brothels, and even in the imperial palace:

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.

Fall from power

By 221 Elagabalus' eccentricities, particularly his relationship with Hierocles, increasingly provoked the soldiers of the Praetorian Guard. When Elagabalus' grandmother Julia Maesa perceived that popular support for the emperor was waning, she decided that he and his mother, who had encouraged his religious practices, had to be replaced. As alternatives, she turned to her other daughter, Julia Avita Mamaea, and her daughter's son, the thirteen-year-old Severus Alexander.

Prevailing on Elagabalus, she arranged that he appoint his cousin Alexander as his heir and be given the title of Caesar. Alexander shared the consulship with the emperor that year. However, Elagabalus reconsidered this arrangement when he began to suspect that the Praetorian Guard preferred his cousin above himself.

Following the failure of various attempts on Alexander's life, Elagabalus stripped his cousin of his titles, revoked his consulship, and circulated the news that Alexander was near death, in order to see how the Praetorians would react. A riot ensued, and the guard demanded to see Elagabalus and Alexander in the Praetorian camp.

Assassination

The emperor complied and on 11 March 222 he publicly presented his cousin along with his own mother, Julia Soaemias. On their arrival the soldiers started cheering Alexander while ignoring Elagabalus, who ordered the summary arrest and execution of anyone who had taken part in this display of insubordination. In response, members of the Praetorian Guard attacked Elagabalus and his mother:

So he made an attempt to flee, and would have got away somewhere by being placed in a chest, had he not been discovered and slain, at the age of 18. His mother, who embraced him and clung tightly to him, perished with him; their heads were cut off and their bodies, after being stripped naked, were first dragged all over the city, then the mother's body was cast aside somewhere or other while his was thrown into the [Tiber].

Following his assassination, many associates of Elagabalus were killed or deposed, including Hierocles and Comazon. His religious edicts were reversed and the stone of Elagabal was sent back to Emesa. Women were again barred from attending meetings of the Senate. The practice of damnatio memoriae—erasing from the public record a disgraced personage formerly of note—was systematically applied in his case.

Sources

Augustan History

The source of many of these stories of Elagabalus's depravity is the Augustan History (Historia Augusta), which includes controversial claims. The Historia Augusta was most likely written toward the end of the 4th century during the reign of emperor Theodosius I. The life of Elagabalus as described in the Augustan History is of uncertain historical merit. Sections 13 to 17, relating to the fall of Elagabalus, are less controversial among historians.

Cassius Dio

Sources often considered more credible than the Augustan History include the contemporary historians Cassius Dio and Herodian. Cassius Dio lived from the second half of the 2nd century until sometime after 229. Born into a patrician family, he spent the greater part of his life in public service. He was a senator under emperor Commodus and governor of Smyrna after the death of Septimius Severus. Afterwards he served as suffect consul around 205, and as proconsul in Africa and Pannonia.

Alexander Severus held him in high esteem and made him his consul again. His Roman History spans nearly a millennium, from the arrival of Aeneas in Italy until the year 229. As a contemporary of Elagabalus, Cassius Dio's account of his reign is generally considered more reliable than theAugustan History, although by his own admission Dio spent the greater part of the relevant period outside of Rome and had to rely on second-hand accounts.

Furthermore, the political climate in the aftermath of Elagabalus' reign, as well as Dio's own position within the government of Alexander, likely influenced the truth of this part of his history for the worse. Dio regularly refers to Elagabalus as Sardanapalus, partly to distinguish him from his divine namesake, but chiefly to do his part in maintaining the damnatio memoriae enforced after the emperor's death and to associate him with another autocrat notorious for a debauched life.

Herodian

Medal of Elagabalus, Louvre Museum.

Another contemporary of Elagabalus was Herodian, who was a minor Roman civil servant who lived from c. 170 until 240. His work, History of the Roman Empire since Marcus Aurelius, commonly abbreviated as Roman History, is an eyewitness account of the reign of Commodus until the beginning of the reign of Gordian III. His work largely overlaps with Dio's own Roman History, but both texts seem to be independently consistent with each other.

Although Herodian is not deemed as reliable as Cassius Dio, his lack of literary and scholarly pretensions make him less biased than senatorial historians. Herodian is considered the most important source for the religious reforms which took place during the reign of Elagabalus, which have been confirmed by numismatic and archaeological evidence.

Edward Gibbon and other, later historians

For readers of the modern age, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon (1737–94) further cemented the scandalous reputation of Elagabalus. Gibbon not only accepted and expressed outrage at the allegations of the ancient historians, but might have added some details of his own; he is the first historian known to state that Gannys was a eunuch, for example. Gibbon wrote:

To confound the order of the season and climate, to sport with the passions and prejudices of his subjects, and to subvert every law of nature and decency, were in the number of his most delicious amusements. A long train of concubines, and a rapid succession of wives, among whom was a vestal virgin, ravished by force from her sacred asylum, were insufficient to satisfy the impotence of his passions. The master of the Roman world affected to copy the manners and dress of the female sex, preferring the distaff to the sceptre, and dishonored the principal dignities of the empire by distributing them among his numerous lovers; one of whom was publicly invested with the title and authority of the emperor's, or, as he more properly styled himself, the empress's husband. It may seem probable, the vices and follies of Elagabalus have been adorned by fancy, and blackened by prejudice. Yet, confining ourselves to the public scenes displayed before the Roman people, and attested by grave and contemporary historians, their inexpressible infamy surpasses that of any other age or country.
Two hundred years after the age of Pliny, the use of pure, or even of mixed silks, was confined to the female sex, till the opulent citizens of Rome and the provinces were insensibly familiarized with the example of Elagabalus, the first who, by this effeminate habit, had sullied the dignity of an emperor and a man.

Some recent historians argue for a more favorable picture of his life and reign. Martijn Icks in Images of Elagabalus (2008; republished as The Crimes of Elagabalus in 2012) doubts the reliability of the ancient sources and argues that it was the emperor's unorthodox religious policies that alienated the power elite of Rome, to the point that his grandmother saw fit to eliminate him and replace him with his cousin. Leonardo de Arrizabalaga y Prado, in The Emperor Elagabalus: Fact of Fiction? (2008), is also critical of the ancient historians and speculates that neither religion nor sexuality played a role in the fall of the young emperor, who was simply the loser in a power struggle within the imperial family; the loyalty of the Praetorian Guards was up for sale, and Julia Maesa had the resources to outmaneuver and outbribe her grandson. According to this version, once Elagabalus, his mother, and his immediate circle had been murdered, a wholesale propaganda war against his memory resulted in a vicious caricature which has persisted to the present, repeated and often embellished by later historians displaying their own prejudices against effeminacy and other vices which Elagabalus had come to epitomize.

Legacy

Elagabalus on a wall painting at castle Forchtenstein

Due to the ancient tradition about him, Elagabalus became something of an (anti-)hero in the Decadent movement of the late 19th century. He often appears in literature and other creative media as the epitome of a young, amoral aesthete. His life and character have informed or at least inspired many famous works of art, by Decadents, even by contemporary artists. The most notable of these works include:

Poems, Novels, and Biographies

  • Joris-Karl Huysmans's' À rebours (1884), one of the literary touchstones of the Decadent movement, describes in chapter 2 the ingenuity behind a banquet designed by Des Esseintes, the protagonist, consisting solely of black foodstuffs, intended as a kind of perverse memorial to his lost virility. The episode is partly inspired by the highly artificial, monochromatic feasts that Elagabalus is said to have contrived (Historia Augusta, Life of Elagabalus, chapter 18).
  • L'Agonie (Agony) (1888), the best known novel by the French writer Jean Lombard, featuring Elagabulus as the protagonist
  • In 1903 Georges Duviquet published what purports to be a faithful biography of the emperor: Héliogabale: Raconté par les historians Grecs et Latins, [avec] dix-huit gravures d'après les monuments original.
  • The previous pair of works inspired the Dutch writer Louis Couperus to produce his novel De Berg van Licht (The Mountain of Light) (1905), which presents Elagabalus in a sympathetic light.
  • Algabal (1892–1919), a collection of poems by the German poet Stefan George
  • The Sun God (1904), a novel by the English writer Arthur Westcott
  • The Amazing Emperor Heliogabalus (1911), a biography by the Oxford don John Stuart Hay
  • Héliogabale ou l'Anarchiste couronné (Heliogabalus or The Anarchist Crowned) (1934) by Antonin Artaud, combining essay, biography, and fiction
  • Family Favourites (1960), a novel by the Anglo-Argentine writer Alfred Duggan in which Heliogabalus is seen through the eyes of a faithful Gaulish bodyguard and depicted as a gentle and charming aesthete, personally lovable but lacking political skills.
  • Child of the Sun (1966), a novel by Lance Horner and Kyle Onstott, better known for writing the novel that inspired the movie Mandingo
  • Super-Eliogabalo (1969), a novel by the Italian writer Alberto Arbasino
  • Boy Caesar (2004), a novel by the English writer Jeremy Reed
  • Roman Dusk (2008), a novel in the vampire Count Saint-Germain series by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro

Plays

Paintings

Music

Dance

Film

Vocabulary

  • The Spanish word heliogábalo means "a person overwhelmed by gluttony".

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