11. Elagabalus Discovers the Limits of Shocking Roman Sensibilities
One of Rome’s weirdest rulers, Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus, better known to history as Elagabalus (203 – 222), was emperor from 218 until his assassination four years later. His religious practices, which would have weirded out contemporary Romans if performed by a private citizen, were outright bizarre and shocking when carried out by an emperor.
He had been a priest of the Syrian sun god Elagabalus, and after ascending the throne as a teenager, he took the god’s name as his own and brought his worship to Rome. There, he built Elagabalus a lavish temple, whose inauguration astonished everybody. Senators, high ranking officials, and the public, were flabbergasted on opening day to witness the unprecedented sight of a Roman emperor dancing around the deity’s altar, to the accompaniment of cymbals and drums.
The new emperor further offended sensibilities by attempting to incorporate his religion into the Roman pantheon. He made Elagabalus as supreme god, above Jupiter, and transferred the most sacred relics of the Roman religion to his new temple. He also ordered that other religions, including Jews and the nascent Christians, transfer their rites to Elagabalus’ temple.
Elagabalus might also have been the most flamboyantly homosexual ruler in history. He openly went about in women’s clothing, and publicly fawned upon male lovers, whom he elevated to high positions. They included an athlete who was given a powerful position at court, and a charioteer whom he sought to declare as Caesar. He also reportedly prostituted himself in the imperial palace. Respected emperors such as Trajan and Hadrian had male sexual partners, and Hadrian had even created a religious cult for a youthful lover who had accidentally drowned. However, Elagabalus was the passive, or receptive partner in homosexual acts: a Roman emperor who was a top was acceptable, but a bottom was not.
On March 11th, 222, soldiers in a military parade showed their contempt by cheering Elagabalus’ cousin, while ignoring the emperor. He ordered the arrest and execution of the insubordinate soldiers, but instead, his bodyguards turned around and attacked him and his mother, hacking them to pieces. Their heads were chopped off, and Elagabalus’ corpse was dragged around Rome, before it was unceremoniously tossed into the Tiber river.