Born Varius Avitus Bassianus in 204 CE in Syria, the little boy had impressive connections. His parents were Sextus Varius Marcellus, a former senator under Emperor Caracalla, and Julia Soaemis, a niece of Septimus Severus’s second wife Julia Domna. His grandmother was Julia Maesa, widow to the consul Julius Avitus, and younger sister of Julia Domna. All of this tied him closely to the family of the Emperor Caracalla. When Caracalla was assassinated, the new Emperor Macrinus was fearful of anyone with close ties to the former emperor. He commanded that Julia Domna leave Antioch, however, she starved herself rather than comply. Her sister and her niece swore revenge.
Macrinus tried to reform how the army was paid to improve the solvency of the empire, and his stock was lowering rapidly with them. On May 16, 218 CE the young Bassianus was smuggled into the Third Gallic Legion’s camp in Syria. They met with the commander, commander Publius Valerius Comazon, and Julia Soameis swore young Bassianus was the illegitimate son of Caracalla. Based on the young man’s resemblance to the fallen emperor, and no doubt his grandmother’s wealth, they bought it and proclaimed him emperor of Rome. Caracalla’s memory was revered in the army, and they would much rather have his “son” lead them than his killer. The forces of both would be emperors met outside Antioch and Macrinus was defeated by Bassianus’ commander Gannys. The imperial party wintered in Nicomedia and Gannys mysteriously died. The gang of Julias wanted no competition for control of their little emperor.
In 219 CE, they arrived in Rome and Bassianus changed his name to Marcus Aurelius Antoninus and proclaimed emperor by the Senate. The new emperor’s venerable grandmother, Julia Maesa, and his mother, Julia Soameis, were also raised to the rank of Augusta or empress. The Senate knew which side of the bread was buttered. Publius Valerius Comazon of the fateful meeting in Syria was raised to the post of Praetorian prefect and later prefect of Rome.
Everyone was hoping for some peace and economic growth after the chaotic reigns of Caracalla and Macrinus. What they got was controversy. The new emperor was the hereditary high priest of the Syrian sun god Elagabal and he took his duties very seriously. This is how he came to be known as Elgabalus. He brought “the black stone” from the temple in Syria and had it installed in a new temple on the Palatine. The Syrian god was meant to replace the pantheon of Rome, and even Jupiter, the supreme god. He ordered people to worship at the new temple and sacrifice to a large statue of a phallus. People were shocked and outraged. Cassius Dio calls him the ‘false Antonian’ and said, “The offense consisted, not in his introducing a foreign god into Rome or in his exalting in very strange ways, but in his placing him even before Jupiter himself and causing himself to be voted his priest…. Furthermore, he was frequently seen even in public clad in the barbaric dress which the Syrian priests use, and this had as much to do as anything with his receiving the nickname of ‘The Assyrian.’”
His mother and grandmother hustled to get him properly married off to a lady of standing, but it did not do much to salvage his reputation. He would eventually have five wives, but he was not interested in any of them. Elgabalus was not interested in women except that he expressed desires to be one. He begged doctors to find a way to remove his penis and give him a vagina. In lieu of that, he settled for circumcision, which was anathema to the Romans. Later later Historia Augusta even claims that her penis was infibulated, which meant it was divided in two, but that is unsubstantiated. Elgabalus had a public bath built in the palace so he could watch the men who bathed there to see who had the largest penis. This was often how he chose his ministers apparently. Cassius Dio reports, “…he would go to taverns by night wearing a wig, and there ply the trade of a female prostitute. He frequented the notorious brothels, drove out the prostitutes and played the prostitute himself. he finally set a aside a room in the palace, and there committed his indecencies, always standing nude at the door of the room…while in a soft and melting voice he solicited the passers by.”
His extravagances and cruelty knew no bounds. Supposedly, at one banquet he is said to have murdered his dinner guests by suffocating them under a mountain of rose petals. Once he ordered a servant to fetch him a big packet of cobwebs and when the unfortunate man turned up empty handed, he had him locked up in a cage and eaten alive by hundreds of starving rats.
Elagabalus loved to pin his enemies to the wall and stick hot pokers into them, peel their skin off and dip them in salt. Rumor had it he was a masochist as well and like to have his lovers beat the living daylights out of him.
Rome was outraged. Instead of representing the best of Roman values, the new emperor was extravagant and “oriental”. The final straw was when he insisted Elgabal needed a wife, and moved an ancient statue of Minerva to the new temple on the Palatine and had it married to the black stone. Then in imitation of his god, Elgabalus divorced his wife and married one of the Vestal Virgins. He was convinced they would have divine children. This was a high crime the health of the Roman state rested on the virginity of the Vestals. His grandmother knew he was on borrowed time, and to stay in power she would have to do something. She bribed the Praetorians to have Elgabalus and his mother killed in 222 CE. Another grandson, Alexander, was quickly whisked into place as the new emperor.
Elgabalus has ranged from being portrayed as an extravagantly cruel sexual deviant to a misunderstood boy. In the words of Neil Gaiman, “Heliogabolus [sic] was just a weird kid with a thing about animals and big dicks.” The truth is somewhere in the middle, but we will never be sure.
Sources available on request