Locusta the Poisoner

locusta7Rome was a rough and tumble place.  Even in the golden years of the Pax Romana where everyone was supposed to gather around and celebrate being in the glory of the Roman Empire.  Political intrigue was rife and there was more drama than Days of Our Lives even when Marlena was possessed by the devil.  So what did you do if you have a political enemy that was really getting under your skin?  You looked up Locusta of Gaul or as she was known, Locusta the Poisoner.  Tacitus describes her in his Annals, “This was the famous Locusta; a woman lately condemned as a dealer in clandestine practices, but reserved among the instruments of state to serve the purposes of dark ambition. By this tool of iniquity the mixture was prepared.”  Who was this woman and how did she get her fearsome reputation.

We don’t know much about Locusta’s early days.  Her name ends in “of Gaul” so she must have been from there at some point.  Most sources say she was a peasant woman from the dark side of the Alps in present day France.  The assumption she gained her extensive knowledge of hemlock as it was well known by her Gallic barbarian ancestors.  Somehow, she made her way to Rome in the mid-first century CE, carrying with her a knowledge of herbs so deadly it was coveted by the ambitious and unscrupulous.  Herb knowledge was not unusual, in fact most villages that could not afford Greek doctors had a wise woman to brew tisanes and potions to cure their ills.  Any herb woman worth her salt would know what plants were harmful and what plants weren’t.  It is not known when or why Locusta decided to use her knowledge for harm, but she joined Canidia and Martina in the infamous trio of female poisoners of Roman times.

Locusta dedicated her life to the study of herblore and took her calling very seriously.  She created hundreds of extracts from many plants to dispatch her client’s enemies in new and interesting ways.  Her arsenal included hemlock, belladonna, nightshade, arsenic, quinine, and possibly even cyanide and opium.  She was both creative and thorough as all poisons were tested on animals to ensure their potency.  Locusta took note on what worked and what didn’t and used this to improve her poisons.  It was scientific method at its finest.  Her dedication to quality attracted clients, and many of them were rich and influential.  Locusta ended up in jail twice for her activities, but with the help of the influence of unseen hands, she always managed to get out.

In 54 CE, Locusta was contacted by Empress Julia Agrippina, the wife and niece of Emperor Claudius.  Although Claudius had a son and heir from his previous disastrous marriage to Messalina, he ran out and married his niece who had her own grown son.  This was not about to end well.  Agrippina did have ambitions for her son, Nerō Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus.  Even if you don’t know much Roman history, you probably have heard of Nero, who was accused of fiddling while Rome burned.  No one really thinks he did, but it is a testament to his character that the rumor seemed plausible.  Agrippina wanted to see her son as Emperor of Rome, and there were two people standing in his way-  Claudius and his son Britannicus.  Enter Locusta.

Claudius wasn’t stupid.  He knew being emperor was a dangerous business, and had two food tasters as well as a bodyguard.  He also had a weakness for mushrooms, which Agrippina knew.  She had Locusta whip up something to make the bodyguard get an explosive case of the runs, which put him out of the way, then bribed food tasters to stay home.  Then she brought Claudius a lovely bag of mushrooms, seasoned by Locusta.  When he doubled over with cramps, Agrippina seemed concerned.  Was it something you ate, dear?  Then sweetly provided him with a feather so he could vomit up anything that was making him ill.  What he didn’t know was Locusta had treated the feather with strychnine.  Claudius went off to the great palace in the sky soon after.  One down.  Since Britannicus had not reached age 14 yet and Agrippina had tricked Claudius in naming Nero heir, Nero was crowned emperor.

To cover her tracks, Agrippina accused Locusta of poisoning the Emperor and had her thrown in jail for murder.  While waiting for execution, she was sprung by the most unlikely patron.  Nero was beginning to chafe at his mother’s overbearing ways and she was turning her attention to the younger Britannicus in the hopes he might be more moldable.  Britannicus was almost 14, which would make him a man in Roman society.  He could challenge Nero.  He had to go.  Locusta was sprung from prison in 55 CE and given a general pardon from any crimes she had previously committed as well as a lot of cash and land.

Her first attempt to kill Britannicus was too weak, and he was only sickened.  Nero lost his famous temper and supposedly beat her senseless with his own hands.  She had better up her game.  She tried again and this time it was a masterpiece.  Food tasters always checked any wine brought to the guests, but wine was taken watered in polite society.  Britannicus took his wine and complained of it being too hot.  The water used to cool the wine was not tasted, and was chocked full of poison.  Britannicus fell on the floor, foaming at the mouth and convulsing.  Nero made an offhand remark about Britannicus having an attack of epilepsy and everyone let the poor boy twitch on the floor.  Even Agrippina, who was not consulted in this plot, had to sit and watch Britannicus die.  He was hastily buried with only servants in attendance.

Nero was thrilled and Locusta was awarded a huge estate and named the Imperial Poisoner.  He sent her pupils, and she trained the aforementioned Martina.  Unfortunately, time ran out for Nero and in 68 CE, he was condemned to death by the Roman Senate.  Nero usually travelled with a poison suicide kit from Locusta, but for some reason didn’t have it with him and had to kill himself with a knife.

After Nero’s death, Locusta’s safety net disappeared.  She was arrested by his successor, Emperor Galba, and dragged her through the streets in chains and executed her.  Legend said she was killed in a very distasteful way- raped by wild animals in the arena, probably a giraffe.  The Romans were brutal, but thankfully, this is most likely fiction.  Only one book, The Encyclopedia of Serial Killers by Michael Newton in the first edition only, sites Apuelius as the sources.  In The Golden Ass, Apuelius does tell a story like this but does not say the woman was Locusta and it was a fictional story.  The only clue to her death we have is from Cassius Dio, “In the case, however, of Helius, Narcissus, Patrobius, Lucusta [aka Locusta], the sorceress, and others of the scum that had come to the surface in Nero’s day, he [Galba] ordered them to be led in chains throughout the whole city and then to be executed.”

In any case, be careful of your enemies and more careful of your friends, dear reader, and don’t accept any mushrooms!

ER

Sources available on request

Empress Irene

Empress Irene (image from "Pala d'Oro", Venice)
Empress Irene (image from “Pala d’Oro”, Venice)

Not much is known about Irene’s early life.  She born between 750 and 755 CE and was related in some way to the noble Greek Sarantapechos family of Athens.  She was an orphan, and there is some mystery around why she was chosen from obscurity to be the bride of Leo IV, heir to Constantinople.  It is thought she might have been selected in the first instance of a “bride show”, where girls of outstanding beauty were brought together and a wife was chosen.  There is no evidence of this though.

However, she came to the attention of Constantine V Copronymus, the ‘dung-named’ so nicknamed after an unfortunate baptismal font incident as an infant, he married Irene to his son Leo in the chapel of St. Stephen in the Daphne palace.  She was crowned in the same ceremony.  The couple had a son, named Constantine after his grandfather.  Four years later, Leo succeeded his father Constantine to the throne of the Byzantine Empire.  Little Constantine was made co-emperor with his father when the child was five years old.  This did not make Leo’s half brothers happy as they were angling to get a share of the inheritance.  However, Irene and her son withstood the first of many conspiracies against them.

Abruptly, Leo died when Constantine was ten years old under mysterious circumstances.  There was a rumor Leo died of a fever after taking and wearing a jeweled crown from the church of St. Sophia.  This was supposed to be the wrath of God.  However, other rumors persisted that his death came from a more earthly sources-  Irene, as she stepped in as Empress-Regent for her young son.  The jeweled crown story was not just to cover Irene’s tracks.  This period in Byzantine history is fraught with conflicts between iconoclasts and iconophiles.  Icons were images, most of which were beautifully wrought and encrusted with gold, jewels and swathed in silks, of God and the saints.  Leo and his forefathers were iconoclast, which meant they followed a strict prohibition against images because they felt they were blasphemous.  Many of the icons were destroyed.  Irene was an iconophile, and revered the icons as holy.  The crown story put a stain on Leo’s memories, and helped gather support for the policy u-turn on the icons Irene began implementing.

Again, Leo’s half brothers raised their head and tried to overthrow Irene.  She had the head of the revolt, Nicephorus, as well as other generals and consuls arrested, scourged and tonsured, or forcibly made monks.  Nicephorus and his brothers were ordained priests, which disqualified them from becoming emperor.  The brothers were forced to administer communion at Christmas Day mass in St. Sophia.  Although it was a regency, Irene began ruling in her own name.  She issued coins holding the orb of state and Constantine’s name was placed on the reverse.  She replaced minister with men who owed their power to her not her husband or father-in-law.  They were inexperienced, but were loyal and that was what Irene was looking for.  She and her minister, Staurakios, ruled the empire.  The empire grew rich from trade, especially the silk trade.  Irene recognized its importance, and like China before them the Byzantine Empire tried to corner the market.  Irene built the palace of Eleutherios, which was surrounded by the silk workshops.  These were mostly staffed by women, and because of fears of having the skilled workers kidnapped they were not allowed to leave.

This solidus struck under Irene reports the legend BASILISSH, Basilisse. Photo Credit- Classical Numismatic Group, Inc.
This solidus struck under Irene reports the legend BASILISSH, Basilisse. Photo Credit- Classical Numismatic Group, Inc.

Little Constantine came of age and was ready to rule in his own right, however, Irene was not ready to step aside.    He mounted a rebellion, but unfortunately for him an earthquake gave Irene and Staurakios time to counter his plans.  Irene had her son imprisoned and made the imperial army swear they would never allow him to rule and they would only be loyal to her.  However, she was not popular with the army before and this did not improve that at all.  Constantine finally got his rebellion and confined his mother her palace of Eleutherios, where she was as trapped as the silk workers.  Constantine did not make an especially good showing as a ruler.  He was defeated by the Bulgars and the Arabs.  The generals tried to bring back his Uncle Nicephorus, but Constantine was not going quietly and had his uncles blinded and their tongues torn out.  There was a old law that the Emperor had to be of sound body, so anyone missing organs was right out.

Constantine was on the wrong side of the army, and got himself on the wrong side of the church when he tried to divorce his wife and marry a new one.  He went ahead and put his mistress on the throne, but no one was happy about it.  When the new wife miscarried a son, Irene sprung into action.  Constantine was riding back from an unsuccessful campaign against the Arabs when he was captured and taken back to Constantinople.  He was thrown in a dungeon and his eyes gouged out, effectively making him ineligible for rule.  There is debate as to whether Irene gave the order to maim her own son, but she must have certainly knew about it.  Constantine died not long after.  Irene was the sole ruler of Constantinople, and empire was thicker than blood.

The Empire was frantic.  With Constantine dead, there was no heir and Irene was getting on in years and a woman besides.  At one point, it was proposed she marry Charlemagne, which would have united the Eastern and Western empires for the first time in hundreds of years.  Pope Leo had declared the throne of Constantinople technically empty since Irene was a woman.  This would unite the empires and put a man on the throne.  However, no self respecting Byzantine wanted to see a barbarian Frank on as Basileus of Constantinople.  Irene’s minister of finance, another Nicephorus, mounted a coup d’etat and crowned himself emperor.  Irene was exiled to the island of Lesbos and forced to support herself by spinning wool.  She died a year later on August 9, 803.

ER

Sources available on request

Livia Drusilla-  Princeps Femina

13312714_282911008717655_8672423286566529752_nBorn Livia Drusilla in 58 BCE, she rose to become the first Empress of Rome and an example of womanly virtue and simplicity.  However, in later years, she has been painted as treacherous and power hungry as well as a deadly foe.  How much of this is true?

Her father was M. Livius Drusus Claudianaus, and carried the blood of the both the Livii and the patrician Claudii families.  No one is sure if she was an only child, the name “Drusilla” indicates she was a younger daughter, but there is no record of an older one.  Her family did adopt Marcus Drusus Libo as a son and heir.

She was married to her cousin Tiberius Claudius Nero around 43 BCE.  Her husband was a patrician who fought on the side of the assassins of Julius Caesar against Marc Antony and Octavian.  Her father fought with the assassins as well, and committed suicide at the Battle of Philippi.  Her husband joined the Antony side against Octavian, and was forced to flee Rome in 40 BCE when Antony and Octavian came to terms.  The Second Triumvirate with Antony, Octavian and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus heralded proscriptions and wealthy families who fought on the wrong side ran to save their lives and their fortunes.  They threw in with Sextus Pompeius, son of Pompey, who was fighting the Triumvirate.  In that time, Livia bore Tiberius a son, another Tiberius, and they moved from Sicily to Greece.   In 39 BCE, peace was established between the Triumvirate and the followers of Sextus Pompeius and Livia returned to Rome where she was introduced to Octavian.  Livia was altogether on the wrong side of the war, married and pregnant to boot, but Octavian fell head over heels.

Or at least that is what the propaganda says.  It probably didn’t hurt that Octavian needed an in with the patrician faction and Livia had blue blood to spare.  However, the road to true love never runs smooth.  Octavian was married to Scribonia, who was pregnant with his child, as well as Livia still being married and by this time six months pregnant.  Octavian waited until Scribonia gave birth to a healthy girl, Julia the Elder, and filed for divorce the same day.  Sensitive guy.  He persuaded or forced, nobody is quite sure which, Tiberius Claudius Nero to divorce Livia.  As soon as her child was born, Octavian and Livia were married.  So much for Roman family values.

The omens of their marriage were said to be especially fortuitous.  The tale was that, while traveling to her country estate, an eagle, the sacred bird of Jupiter, had dropped in her lap a laying hen holding a sprig of laurel in its mouth — three potent omens occurring simultaneously obviously marked Livia for a special job.  As her husband climbed the cursus honorum, Livia rose with him.  Her two sons, Tiberius and Drusus, came to live with her along with Octavian’s daughter Julia.  Octavian took the name Caesar Augustus and became Rome’s first emperor.  Instead of Livia’s sins, he declared his sister’s son, Marcellus, his heir and married her to Julia.  People grew suspicious when Marcellus died young.  In the end, she was accused of working with a poisoner to murder Augustus’ grandsons Gaius and Lucius Caesar, while mixing tonics for her own good health.  She was also accused of having a hand in the banishment of his grandson Agrippa Postumus and his daughter, Julia.  Suetonius reports that to sate her husband’s lusts, Livia procured virgins for him to deflower.  She was even accused of murdering Augustus by poisoning all the fruit on a tree so whichever one he picked would be fatal.

However, as with most things, this was a lot of rumor and innuendo.  Augustus valued Livia to take her advice on political matters as well as adopting her into the Julian gens.  She henceforth assumed the name of Julia Augusta. The senate also elected her chief priestess of the college founded in honor of the deified Augustus.  She also endowed the “Portico of Livia” between the Opian and Cispian Hills in Rome as a public recreational area consisting of a large courtyard with a shrine to Concordia, dedicated to marital concord and harmony. At the time of its dedication, she gave a large banquet for the respectable matrons of Rome.  This was odd as it was in public, whereas women usually retired to the background.  However, Livia managed to step forward without causing to many raised eyebrows.

More tellingly, Augustus stayed married to her for fifty years, even though she did not provide him with a male heir.  Eventually, her son Tiberius would inherit the empire and co-rule with his mother.  Some said left Rome and went to the Isle of Capri to escape her.  Livia finished her life quietly in Rome.  Tiberius took the news of her death indifferently and did not attend her funeral.

Even after her death, Livia remained the gold standard for noble women in Rome.  She was so revered, most European royalty claimed her as an ancestress.

ER

Sources available on request

Aelia Galla Placidia-  Mother of the Western Roman Empire

Medallions of Honorius and Galla Placidia, Ravenna, 425 Photo Credit- Clio20
Medallions of Honorius and Galla Placidia, Ravenna, 425 Photo Credit- Clio20

If we were judging by famous ancestors, Aelia Galla Placidia had collected quite a few plums.  Daughter of Emperor Theodosius I and his second wife, Galla, who was the daughter of Emperor Valentinian I.  Her half brothers were emperors Honorius and Arcadius, and nephew was Theodosius II, emperor in Constantinople.  Her son went on to become Emperor Valentinian III.  Granted, some of the crop was a bit questionable and possibly moldy, but they were plums all the same.  Added to, or perhaps in spite of, her famous relative, Galla Placidia was one of the most influential figures of the time.  Her biographer Stewart Irvin Oost says, she “played at least as important a role as any other figure in the history of the Western Empire throughout the first half of the critical fifth century….”  In spite of all this, no one bothered to record her birthday.  We think it was between 388 and 393 CE.

Her father died soon after her birth in 395, and Galla Placidia was present at his court at his death.  She was granted the title of “Nobilissima Puella”, or most noble girl, around this time.  Galla Placidia spent most of her childhood in the household of Stilicho the Vandal and his wife Serena, who may have been the daughter of Theodosius I’s brother.  There, Galla Placidia was given the traditional education of noble woman, weaving and embroidery, as well as possibly an education in the classics.  Stilicho was magister militum, or the top military general, or the Western Roman Empire.   Passing through their home were men who were in charge of the empire, so Galla Placidia must have learned politics with her weaving.

In 408, Galla Placidia’s half brother Arcadius, Emperor in the East, died and left the throne to his son Theodosius II.  Stilicho was heading to Constantinople to advise the young ruler when a coup d’etat took place and Stilicho and Serena were killed.  There were also purges in the army to eliminate anyone still loyal to Stilicho.  Many men were killed or fled Rome.  This left Rome vulnerable, and when the Goths laid siege there was not much of defense.  Rome was sacked in 410 and captured by the Goths.  She traveled with them as their hostage for three years, moving from the Italian Peninsula to Gaul in 412.  A truce was negotiated between Ataulf, the leader of the Goths, and Honorius, the Western Emperor.  Galla Placidia’s marriage to Ataulf sealed the deal.  Perhaps in their travels the two had gotten to know each other so the marriage was as distasteful as it could have been.  There are hints in some writings that the two were more than captive and captor to each other, but this is only rumor.  The couple had one son who died young, and Ataulf died suddenly three years later.  Siegeric was proclaimed as the new leader of the Goths, and he was not well disposed to his predecessor’s family.  According to The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Galla Placidia, as Ataulf’s widow, was “treated with cruel and wanton insult” by being forced to walk more than twelve miles on foot among the crowd of captives.  Wrong answer.  Supposedly, this inspired the opponents of the new leader of the Goth’s to overthrow him.  The new leader made peace with Rome again and Galla Placidia was sent home as part of the treaty.  She was given in marriage to the new magister militum, Constantius.  All this happened before she was 25 years old.

Constantius and Galla Placidia had two children, Justa Grata Honoria and Valentinian.  Constantius was raised to co-emperor with Honorius and Galla Placidia was raised to Augusta in 421.  Constantius died soon after of an unknown illness.  This left Honorius and Galla Placidia alone together at court in Ravenna.  At first, things were fine and they seemed close.  Then Honorius developed an unsettling attachment to his younger sister.  Olympiodorus of Thebes describes increasingly scandalous public caresses Honorius foisted upon her.  That had to have been horrible.  Some historians also speculate that the Gothic soldiers were adhering too closely to the widow of their fallen leader, Ataulf.  The combination of these things and possibly unknown factors led to a falling out between the siblings and Galla Placidia was forced to flee with her family to Constantinople in 423.

Mausoleum of Galla Placidia in Ravenna Photo Credit- The Yorck Project
Mausoleum of Galla Placidia in Ravenna Photo Credit- The Yorck Project

The time in Constantinople was brief as Honorius died later that year of dropsy.  In the absence of anyone from the imperial family in Ravenna, Joannes, the primicerius notarioum or chief notary, claimed the throne at behest of another general.  This would not do.  Reconfirmed in her rank of Augusta and her son, Valentinian, confirmed as Caesar, Galla Placidia and her family traveled back to Ravenna to claim the throne.  Valentinian was proclaimed Western Emperor soon after.  

For twelve tumultuous years, Galla Placidia ruled for her minor son.  Even after her son took the throne, she was still an important influence.  In 450 when Attila the Hun ravaged Europe, Justa Grata Honoria sent a message with a ring to the barbarian leader asking him to help her avoid a forced marriage.  Attila took this as a proposal of marriage and demanded a dowry of half the Western Empire.  Valentinian did not kill his sister for this only at his mother’s urgings.  Honoria was quickly married off, but that did not stop Attila from pressing his claims.  Not long after, in 450 Galla Placidia died.

During her life, Galla Placidia built many churches in Ravenna as well as a beautiful mausoleum complete with fine examples of Byzantine mosaics.  It is called the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, but there is some question as to whether she is buried there.  Far more probable that she was buried in the Rotunda of St. Petronilla next to St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.  

ER

Sources available on request

Elagabalus

Bust of Elagabalus Photo Credit G.dallorto
Bust of Elagabalus Photo Credit G.dallorto

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.”

The Roses of Heliogabalus by Lawrence Alma-Tadema Photo Credit- Boston Globe
The Roses of Heliogabalus by Lawrence Alma-Tadema Photo Credit- Boston Globe

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.

ER

Sources available on request