Emperor Elagabalus Shocked His Subjects
While not as vicious as some other perverted Roman emperors, Elagabalus (203 – 222), who ruled the Roman Empire from 218 until his death, could match any of them when it came to sexual deviancy. He was a religious zealot who followed eastern religious practices that weirded out the Romans, whom he shocked with sexual conduct viewed as unseemly in an emperor.
Nobody had expected that Elagabalus would ever become emperor, so he grew up training to become a priest of the Syrian sun god Heliogabalus. However, after the assassination of his cousin, the emperor Caracalla, Elagabalus was the nearest surviving male imperial relative. So his grandmother intrigued to have him succeed Caracalla as emperor at age 15. The teenaged priest-turned-emperor took his deity’s name as his own, and brought its worship to Rome, where he built Heliogabalus a great temple. Then he shocked the Romans by dancing around deity’s altar amidst a cacophony of cymbals and drums – not the kind of stuff that Roman emperors do.
That was bad, but what really sank Elagabalus was that he might have been history’s most flamboyantly gay ruler. He openly wore women’s clothing, and fawned upon and engaged in public displays of affection with his boyfriends. He frequently elevated his male lovers to high positions, such as an athlete whom he appointed to powerful government positions, and a charioteer whom he sought to have declared Caesar.
He also reportedly prostituted himself: “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.”
The problem was not that he was homosexual, as homosexuality or bisexuality were not unusual in Rome. Respected previous emperors such as Trajan and Hadrian had male lovers, and Hadrian had created a religious cult for a lover who died young. The problem was that Elagabalus was the passive, or receptive partner in sexual relations with other men. Emperor were supposed to be dominant alpha males – tops. Elagabalus was a bottom. That, plus other instances of his perceived effeminacy, was unacceptable in a Roman emperor. It opened Elagabalus to ridicule and contempt, which led to his assassination in 222.