Heliogabalus (203 – 222), was Roman emperor from 218 until his death and stood out even among the decadent lot of Roman emperors for his perversions and deviancy. A religious zealot, he adhered to and followed eastern religious practices that seemed bizarre in Roman eyes, and shocked contemporary sensibilities with sexual practices considered inappropriate for an emperor.
In his youth, he had been a priest of the Syrian sun god Heliogabalus. Following the assassination of his cousin, the emperor Caracalla, his grandmother argued to have him succeed to the imperial throne; her attempts were fruitful. Ascending the throne, the teenage priest took his deity’s name as his own and brought its worship to Rome, where he built Heliogabalus a great temple. There, he shocked Romans by dancing around the deity’s altar amidst a cacophony of cymbals and drums.
What got him in the most trouble, however, is that he might have been the most flamboyantly homosexual ruler in history. Heliogabalus openly went about in women’s clothing, and fawned upon and engaged in public displays of affection with his male lovers, whom he frequently elevated to high positions. One such example was a charioteer he sought to have declared Caesar, later he also doted upon an athlete upon whom he bestowed powerful government positions.
Additionally, he reportedly prostituted himself 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.”
Homosexuality or bisexuality were not unusual in Rome – respected previous emperors, such as Trajan and Hadrian, had male lovers, and Hadrian in particular had gone so far as to create a religious cult for a lover who died young. Heliogabalus, however, was the passive, or receptive partner in sexual relations with other males. That and other instances of perceived effeminacy were unacceptable in a Roman emperor, and opened him to ridicule and contempt, which led to his assassination in 222.