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The Gay History Series

Lesson #10: The Queerest Roman of Them All: The Emperor Elagabalus

[Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Pius Felix Bassianus]

In the year 217 A.D., the Roman emperor Caracalla was murdered near Carrhae, in the province of Syria. (modern-day Turkey) by an assassin who was then cut down by a well-thrown javelin from one of his Praetorian Guard. The commander of the Praetorians, Marcus Opellius Macrinus, fell to his knees and wept over the dead emperor’s corpse. Needless to say, it was Macrinus himself who had hired the killer and arranged for him to be killed immediately afterward so as to leave no witnesses. Macrinus was absolutely astounded when his hand-picked Praetorians raised their swords and hailed him as the new emperor. You could have knocked him over with a feather. Why, shucks, fellers!

Caracalla was only 29 years old when he died, but he had come to the throne after a career of more than usual Roman blood and treachery. He was the son of one of the better emperors in Roman history, a tough no-nonsense soldier named Septimius Severus, who had designated both Caracalla and his brother Geta to reign as his co-successors, the first attempt at a double imperial throne. This setup later became the norm. Ruling a huge and sprawling empire at its height was too much of a job for one man, however competent.

Caracalla didn’t feel like sharing power; he subdivided the imperial palace in Rome into two equal halves, gave each half a main entrance, and sealed off all the interior doors between the two. He couldn’t get his assassins past Geta’s bodyguards, and Mom Julia Domna had always liked Geta best, so Caracalla needed to act quickly or he’d be the one to come short. He called for a reconciliation meeting, just the three of them. Then he stabbed his younger brother to death in his mother’s arms, arrested Mom, locked her up and left her to starve to death, although to be fair he gave her bones a lovely tomb decorated by all the best sculptors and artists. He then executed about 20,000 of Geta’s followers over the next few weeks. You couldn’t beat Roman efficiency.

Fast-forward to 217 when Caracalla gets his. Macrinus had the Praetorian Guard, at a suitable price in bribes, of course, but the rest of the army had liked and admired Caracalla, a soldier’s soldier who marched at their side instead of being carried in a litter, ate the same food, ground his own barley meal, and led from the front. Macrinus was immediately confronted with a number of revolts in the legions across the empire, all of whom were tired of the Praetorian Guards choosing emperors and wanted to choose their own. Enter a very hard and ruthless old lady, Caracalla’s aunt, Julia Maesa. Julia Maesa had a beautiful and promiscuous daughter, Julia Somaeias, who in turn had a 14-year-old son, Bassianus. Somaeias’ lover Gannys snuck the beautiful young Bassianus into the camp of the Third Legio n at Antioch, the boy made a prepared speech, and presto! New emperor in town!

Macrinus marched against the rebel legion in Antioch, but on June 8, 218, his army was defeated beneath the city walls, and after fleeing for several weeks both Macrinus and his son and heir ended up minus a head apiece. Bassianus was now emperor, and the Empire was able to get a good look at the new Leader of the Known World. Slowly word got out as to what they’d been saddled with. Hoo, boy!

14 years old or not, this kid was already a sissy with a ten-suck-a-day habit and crazy as a damned loon with it. You thought Caligula, Nero, and Commodus were bad? Say hello to the Emperor Elagabalus. That was the first thing Bassianus did on assuming the purple: he changed his name to that of the Syrian sun god, which was about as much of a shock, say, as if here in the United States we were to end up with a president whose name was Hussein. (Like that would ever happen!)

Where to begin, where to begin? Okay, to be fair, now, Elagabalus wasn’t anywhere near as bad a murderer as most Roman emperors were, although he did have Mama’s boyfriend Gannys strangled after he got the job. But let’s start with his dress sense. He was a kind of ancient Roman Liberace or Elton John. The Historia Augusta, the official history of the Roman emperors recorded by contemporaries, records:

“He would wear a tunic made wholly of cloth of gold, or one made of purple, or a Persian one studded with jewels, and at such times he would say that he felt oppressed by the weight of his pleasures. He even wore jewels on his shoes, sometimes engraved ones—a practice which aroused the derision of all, as if, forsooth, the engraving of famous artists could be seen on jewels attached to his feet. He wished to wear also a jeweled diadem in order that his beauty might be increased, and his face look more like a woman’s; and in his own house he did wear one.”

People quickly learned to try to avoid dinner invitations at the palace; Elagabalus was a coprophage. Believing himself to be descended from the Sun God of the same name, he believed his bodily excretions were sacred and that he was honoring his guests by serving them his own feces cooked and garnished in the wide variety of ways that the cuisine of ancient Rome provided for—possibly on a bed of young prawns or cucumber relish, or with pickled larks’ tongues.

His sexual hijinks were so bizarre that they even shocked the jaded Roman aristocracy. Cassius Dio wrote: “He had the whole of his body depilated, deeming it the chief enjoyment of life to appear fit and worthy to arouse the lusts of the greatest number. And even at Rome he did nothing but send out agents to search for those who had particularly large organs and bring them to the palace in order that he might enjoy their vigor …”

Elagabalus did have some heterosexual inclinations. His personal chariot was drawn through the streets of Rome by a team of naked young girls, and he actually raced such chariots in the Coliseum. (No word on whether they won or not.) In his short life Elagabalus married five different women—some at the same time, which was bigamy, and on one case he married a Vestal Virgin, which was not only blasphemy but treason against the state. The girl committed suicide after Elagabalus and his bugger boys defiled her in some way which the chroniclers never specify, which is probably to the good.

But Elagabalus was primarily a fag’s fag, being not only a transvestite but probably what would today be called transgender. “He would go to taverns by night, wearing a wig, and there play the trade of a female huckster. He frequented notorious brothels, drove out the prostitutes, and played the prostitute himself …” (Cassius Dio.)  Elagabalus also “married” two men, a burly chariot driver named Gordius whom he later “divorced” and then a Carian slave named Hierocles. When he was thus “married” Elagabalus would dress as a woman, including makeup, and allow himself to be caught in the act of “adultery” by his “husband”, who would then beat him as husbands were then allowed to beat their wives. Diplomatic missions and government business meetings at the palace must have been truly bizarre.

But this wasn’t good enough. Elagabalus wanted to be a woman, and he summoned the top doctors and surgeons from all across the empire to Rome to discuss plans to perform history’s first sex-change operation. Unfortunately, this was never carried out, since he probably would not have survived having his genitals cut off, but for a while that was the plan.

What really tore it was when Elagabalus added sacrilege to debauchery. Along with changing his name, he imported into Rome a large black stone alleged to have fallen from the heavens (probably a meteorite, like the Muslim Qa’aba) which was sacred to the Sun God Elagabalus, and he began building a huge temple wherein the stone would be set up as an idol. He announced his intention to make this foreign god the supreme deity of Rome, supplanting Jupiter Optimus and all the traditional Roman gods, and everybody— Roman , Christians, Jews, Mithran bull-worshippers, Persian fire-worshippers, everybody—would be required to worship there. Combined with such antics as addressing the Senate and the troops dressed as a woman, turning tricks in bordellos, marrying slave men and promoting cooks and professional dancers into senior government positions, it’s astounding that Elagabalus lasted as long as he did.

As odd as it may seem, the empire was in fact fairly stable and well run during this time, because Elagabalus’s redoubtable grandmother Julia Maesa was actually in charge, and she appointed competent generals and officials to run the government, collect taxes, maintain the city streets and sewers, enforce order, etc. The problem was that “Bassy” was getting older and would soon want to take over and rule in his own right, and by then, nobody wanted that. Julia Maesa saw the handwriting on the wall and remembered she had another daughter with another grandson, a kid named Alexander Severus, who was a mama’s boy and a weakling but at least not an outright faggot.

On March 11, 222 A.D., Elagabalus and his mother Julia Somaeias showed up at the Field of Mars, the main military camp, to harangue the troops. Elagabalus was dressed in a particularly outrageous courtesan’s outfit and wig, and the troops had finally had enough. It may have been planned in advance by Maesa, who had finally decided to cut her losses and change horses, and it may have been purely spontaneous, but the troops started heckling Elagabalus, and then some of them drew their swords and charged the platform. Somaeias was shoved to her knees and her head sawed off. Elagabalus fled but was found hiding in a latrine and dragged out, covered with filth and feces, to be hacked and speared to death like a turd-encrusted fish.

It was the way he would have wanted it.