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Emperor of the Roman Empire
Bust of Elagabalus,
from the Capitoline Museums
Reign 218 - 222
Full name Varius Avitus Bassianus
Marcus Aurelius Antoninus,
known as Elagabalus
Born c. 203
Died 11 March 222
Predecessor Macrinus
Successor Alexander Severus
Wife/wives Julia Cornelia Paula
Julia Aquilia Severa
Annia Faustina
two other women,
names unknown
Issue Alexander Severus (adoptive)
Father Sextus Varius Marcellus
Mother Julia Soaemias Bassiana
Roman imperial dynasties
Severan dynasty
Septimius Severus alone
Septimius Severus, with Geta and Caracalla
Geta and Caracalla
Caracalla alone
Interlude, Macrinus
    Alexander Severus, adoptive
Alexander Severus

Elagabalus or Heliogabalus (c. 203– March 11, 222), born Varius Avitus Bassus and also known as Varius Avitus Bassianus Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, was a Roman emperor of the Severan dynasty who reigned from 218 to 222. Elagabalus is one of the most controversial Roman emperors. During his reign, he showed a disregard for Roman religious traditions and sexual taboos. Elagabalus' name is a Latinized form of the Semitic deity El-Gabal, a manifestation of the Semitic deity Ēl. He replaced Jupiter, head of the Roman pantheon, with a new god, Deus Sol Invictus, which in Latin means "the Sun, Undefeated God". Elagabalus forced leading members of Rome's government to participate in religious rites celebrating Sol Invictus, which he personally led.

He also took a Vestal Virgin as one of a succession of wives and openly boasted that his sexual interest in men was more than just a casual pastime, as it had been for previous emperors.

Elagabalus developed a reputation among his contemporaries for eccentricity, decadence, and zealotry which was likely exaggerated by his successors. This black propaganda was passed on and, as such, he was one of the most reviled Roman emperors to early Christian historians and later became a hero to the Decadent movement of the late 19th century.


Elagabalus was the son of Sextus Varius Marcellus and Julia Soaemias Bassiana. His father was initially a member of the equites class, but was later elevated to the rank of senator. His grandmother Julia Maesa was the widow of the Consul Julius Avitus, the sister of Julia Domna, and the sister-in-law of Emperor Septimius Severus. Julia Soaemias was a cousin of Caracalla. Other relatives included his aunt Julia Avita Mamaea and uncle Gessius Marcianus and their son Severus Alexander. Elagabalus' family held hereditary rights to the priesthood of the sun god El-Gabal, of whom Elagabalus was the high priest at Emesa (modern Homs) in Syria.

The name Elagabalus is a Latin form of the name of the Semitic god El-Gabal. The name originally referred to the patron deity of the emperor's birthplace, Emesa. El refers to the chief Semitic deity, while Gabal meaning mountain (compare with the Hebrew gevul and Arabic jebel) is his Emesene manifestation. The god became a sun god in Roman times by a confusion of the original Semitic name with the Greek word helios (sun), resulting in the name variant Heliogabalus. High priests in antiquity were identified with the god they served, and thus the creation of the name Elagabalus.

Rise to power

Coin minted by Elegabalus to celebrate Legio III Gallica, which supported Elagabalus bid for power.
Coin minted by Elegabalus to celebrate Legio III Gallica, which supported Elagabalus bid for power.

When the Emperor Macrinus came to power he exiled Julia Maesa, her two daughters, and her eldest grandson, Elagabalus, to her estate at Emesa in Syria. She began a plot, with her eunuch advisor and Elagabalus' tutor Gannys, to overthrow Macrinus almost upon arrival in Syria. She decided to elevate the fourteen year old Elagabalus as emperor. Elagabalus and his mother readily complied and announced, falsely, that he was the illegitimate son of Caracalla. After Julia Maesa displayed her wealth to the III Gallica legion at Raphana they swore allegiance to Elagabalus. At sunrise on May 16, 218 P. Valerius Comazon Eutychianus, commander of the legion, declared him emperor. He assumed Caracalla's names, Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, to strengthen his legitimacy through further propaganda.

Macrinus sent letters to the Senate denouncing Elagabalus as the False Antoninus and claiming he was insane. Both consuls and other high ranking members of Rome's leadership, including a Praetorian, condemned him, and the Senate subsequently declared war on both Elagabalus and Julia Maesa. Macrinus and his son, weakened by the desertion of the II Parthica due to bribes and promises circulated by Julia Maesa, were defeated on June 8, 218 near Antioch by troops commanded by Gannys. Macrinus fled toward Italy, disguised as a courier. He was captured near Chalcedon and later executed in Cappadocia. His son Diadumenianus, sent for safety to the Parthian court, was captured at Zeugma and also put to death.

Elagabalus declared the date of the victory at Antioch to be the beginning of his reign and assumed the imperial titles without prior Senatorial approval, which violated tradition but was a common practice among 3rd century emperors nonetheless. Letters of reconciliation were dispatched to Rome extending amnesty to the Senate and recognizing the laws. He also condemned his predecessor in the letters: "He undertook to disparage my age, when he himself had appointed his five-year-old son [emperor]."

The Senators responded by acknowledging him as emperor and accepting his claim to be the son of Caracalla. Caracalla and Julia Domna were both deified by the Senate, both Julia Maesa and Julia Soaemias were elevated to the rank of Augustae, and the memory of Macrinus and Diadumenianus was condemned and vilified by the Senate.

Imperial power

A coin commissioned by Elagabalus, bearing his likeness.
A coin commissioned by Elagabalus, bearing his likeness.

Elagabalus and his entourage spent the winter of 218 in Bithynia at Nicomedia. It was at Nicomedia that Elagabalus' religious beliefs first manifested as a problem. The local Roman citizens were disturbed by his practices and Gannys was killed while trying to suppress the ensuing riots. The Historia Augusta suggests that Gannys was in fact killed by the new emperor because Gannys was forcing him to live 'temperately and prudently'. To help Romans adjust to the idea of having an oriental priest as emperor, Julia Maesa had a painting of Elagabalus in priestly robes sent to Rome and hung over a statue of the goddess Victoria in the Senate House. This placed Senators in the awkward position of having to make offerings to Elagabalus whenever they made offerings to Victoria.

Elagabalus was delayed in Asia Minor while brief revolts by the Legio III Gallica, under the leadership of the senator Verus, and the IV Scythica, under command of Gellius Maximus, were crushed. When the entourage reached Rome in the Fall of 219, Comazon and other allies of Julia Maesa and Elagabalus were given powerful and lucrative positions, much to the outrage of many senators who did not consider them to be respectable. Comazon would serve as the city prefect of Rome three times and as consul twice. An official whose name solely survives as ...atus was moved though various positions including Suffect consul. Elagabalus tried to have his presumed lover Hierocles declared Caesar, while another alleged lover, Zoticus, was appointed to the non-administrative but influential position of Cubicularius. His offer of amnesty for the Roman leadership was largely honored, though the jurist Ulpian was exiled.

The relationships between Julia Maesa, Julia Soaemias, and Elagabalus were strong, at first. His mother and grandmother became the first women to be allowed into the Senate, and both received Senatorial titles: Soaemias the established title of Clarissima and Maesa the more unorthodox Mater Castrorum et Senatus. While Julia Maesa tried to position herself as the power behind the throne and subsequently the most powerful woman in the world, Elagabalus would prove to be highly independent, set in his ways, and impossible to control.

Religious controversy

The Emesa temple to the sun god El Gabal, with the holy stone, on the reverse of this bronze coin by Roman usurper Uranius Antoninus.
The Emesa temple to the sun god El Gabal, with the holy stone, on the reverse of this bronze coin by Roman usurper Uranius Antoninus.

Since the reign of Septimius Severus, sun worship had increased throughout the Empire. Elagabalus saw this as an opportunity to set up his god, El-Gabal, as the chief deity of the Roman Pantheon. El-Gabal, renamed Deus Sol Invictus or God the Undefeated Sun, was placed over even Jupiter. As a sign of the union between the two religions, Elagabalus gave either Astarte, Minerva, Urania, or some combination of the three, to El-Gabal as a wife. Moreover, he himself married the Vestal Virgin Aquilia Severa, provoking great outrage; he said he would have "god-like children" from the marriage. A temple (the so-called Elagaballium) to house El-Gabal, a black conical meteorite, was built in Rome on the east face of the Palatine Hill and its foundations remain today. Speaking of this stone, Herodian says "this stone is worshipped as though it were sent from heaven; on it there are some small projecting pieces and markings that are pointed out, which the people would like to believe are a rough picture of the sun, because this is how they see them". To become the high priest of El-Gabal, Elagabalus had himself circumcised. Herodian writes that Elagabalus forced senators to watch while he danced around the altar of El-Gabal to the sound of drums and cymbals and that each summer solstice became a great festival to El-Gabal popular with the masses because of its widely distributed food. During this festival, Elagabalus placed El-Gabal:

…in chariot adorned with gold and jewels and brought him out from the city to the suburbs. A six horse chariot carried the divinity, the horses huge and flawlessly white, with expensive gold fittings and rich ornaments. No one held the reins, and no one rode in the chariot; the vehicle was escorted as if the god himself were the charioteer. Elagabalus ran backward in front of the chariot, facing the god and holding the horses reins. He made the whole journey in this reverse fashion, looking up into the face of his god.

Sex/gender controversy

Coin issued in the name of Julia Cornelia Paula, first wife of Elagabalus.
Coin issued in the name of Julia Cornelia Paula, first wife of Elagabalus.

Elagabalus' sexual orientation and gender identity are the source of much controversy and debate. Elagabalus married and divorced five women, three of whom are known. His first wife was Julia Cornelia Paula; the second was the Vestal Virgin Julia Aquilia Severa. This was a flagrant breach of Roman law and tradition, which held that any Vestal found to have undertaken sexual intercourse would be buried alive. Within a year, he abandoned her and married Annia Faustina, a descendant of Marcus Aurelius and the widow of a man recently executed by Elagabalus. By the end of the year, he had returned to Severa, but according to a contemporary senator and historian, Cassius Dio, his most stable relationship seems to have been with his chariot driver, a blond slave from Caria named Hierocles, whom he referred to as his husband. Dio also wrote that Elagabalus used to:

"stand nude… at the door of his room in the palace, as harlots do, and shake the curtain which hung from gold rings, while in a soft melting voice he solicited passers by."

Herodian comments that Elagabalus pampered his natural good looks by wearing too much makeup. Elagabalus has also often been characterized by modern writers as transgender, most likely transsexual.

He is described as having been "delighted to be called the mistress, the wife, the Queen of Hierocles" and is said to have offered half the Roman Empire to the physician who could equip him with female genitalia.

Fall from power

Elagabalus' eccentricities, especially his habit of forcing others to participate in his religious practices, weighed heavily on Julia Maesa's mind and she decided he and his mother, Julia Soaemias, who had encouraged his religious practices, had to be replaced. She turned to her other daughter Julia Avita Mamaea and her son, the thirteen year old Severus Alexander, as alternatives. Maesa and Mamaea convinced Elagabalus to appoint Alexander as his heir. When he changed his mind later and ordered Alexander executed, Maesa and Mamaea bribed the Praetorian Guard before his orders could be carried out. Elagabalus and Julia Soaemias were murdered (according to the Historia Augusta, in the Emperor's latrine) on March 11, 222; their bodies were dragged through the streets of Rome and the Cloaca Maxima, and ultimately thrown into the Tiber.

After death

Cultural influence

Due to these stories, Elagabalus became something of a hero to the Decadent movement in the late 19th century. He appears in many paintings and poems as the epitome of an amoral aesthete. His life and character has inspired or at least informed many famous artworks, including the following:

  • The Major-General's patter song in Gilbert and Sullivan's comic opera The Pirates of Penzance (1879), in which he brags of being able to "quote in elegiacs / all the crimes of Heliogabalus";
  • The painting The Roses of Heliogabalus (1888), by the Anglo-Dutch academician Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema;
  • A collection of poems by the German poet Stefan George which he entitled Algabal (1892-1919);
  • The painting Heliogabalus, High Priest of the Sun (1886), by the English decadent Simeon Solomon, once a close friend of Algernon Charles Swinburne;
  • The novel L'Agonie (Agony) (1889), by the French writer Jean Lombard;
  • The novel The Sun God (1904), by the English writer Arthur Westcott;
  • The novel De Berg van Licht (The Mountain of Light) (1905), by the Dutch writer Louis Couperus;
  • the silent movie Héliogabale (1909) by the French director André Calmettes;
  • A biography, The Amazing Emperor Heliogabalus (1911), by the Oxford don John Stuart Hay;
  • the short silent movie Héliogabale, ou L'orgie romaine (1911) by the French director Louis Feuillade;
  • The essay Héliogabale ou l'Anarchiste couronné (Heliogabalus, or the Crowned Anarchist) (1934), by the French surrealist Antonin Artaud;
  • The novel Family Favourites (1960), by the Anglo-Argentine writer Alfred Duggan;
  • The novel Child of the Sun (1966), by Lance Horner and Kyle Onstott, who were more famous for writing the novel behind the movie Mandingo;
  • An orchestral work, Heliogabalus Imperator (Emperor Heliogabalus) (1972), by the German composer Hans Werner Henze (1926– );
  • A mention in Kurt Vonnegut's book Breakfast of Champions (1973);
  • A mention in Danish writer Peter Laugesen's novel Guds ord fra landet (1974);
  • The CD Eliogabalus (1990) by the band Devil Doll;
  • The 24-hour comic Being an Account of the Life and Death of the Emperor Heliogabulus (1991) by Neil Gaiman;
  • The French experimental rock band Héliogabale (first album, Yolk, released in 1995);
  • A song on the global musician Momus (aka Nick Currie)'s 2001 album Folktronic.
  • The Novel Super-Eliogabalo by the Italian writer Alberto Arbasino (1969)


  1. ^ Benjamin, Appendix C: "Transsexualism: Mythological, Historical, and Cross-Cultiral Aspects", by Richard Green, M.D.

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