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A Brief Biography of Elagabalus: the transgender ruler of Rome

By Alexis Mijatovic

Elagabalus’ name is not quite as notorious as that of Nero and Caligula, or even Commodus, recently featured as the villain in Russell Crowe’s Gladiator. Like the three emperors mentioned above, Elagabalus has consistently been ranked among the worst and most depraved holders of the Imperial honor. Her reported atrocities and crimes however almost entirely fall under the categories of upsetting the gender, cultural and religious norms of Roman society. In this biography I will briefly narrate her life and evaluate what her contemporaries found so shocking about her. I will also show how examining her life and career can teach us much about the intersections of cultural conflict in ancient times and the lavish amount of attention transgender phenomenon have received since at least as long as history was recorded.

Name and Pronouns

First a note on name and pronouns: Historical sources uniformly refer to Elagabalus with male pronouns. The emperor is best known under this title (which is grammatically masculine) and she was assigned male at birth. I have decided to use female pronouns because, based on the evidence, this choice is just as valid as male pronouns. The three extant sources from antiquity, while they do contradict each other, still broadly concur that the sovereign did have very strong manifestations of cross-gender behavior. Telling aspects such as the story related by Dio Cassius that Elagabalus offered half the empire to the surgeon that would correct her genitalia seem to go far beyond merely scandalizing an effeminate monarch and more towards showing the desperation a transgender person might well feel in an age long before any methods were found to modify her body according to her desires.

Background

Elagabalus was born in the year 203 AD, and her brief reign occurred in the years 218-222 at the end of which she was killed. Well known through the ages, Elagabalus lived a very short but tumultuous life. Related to the family of Septimius Severus, Elagabalus was born into the highest level of privilege in Ancient Rome.

Elagabalus was inducted to the hereditary priesthood of the solar deity El Gabal, who was worshipped in her native city as the supreme deity. In a different approach to the Greeks and Romans who erected statues of their deities in their temples, El Gabal was worshiped in the form of a meteoric black stone. Elaborate ceremonies would mark this stone’s entry and brief residence in Rome.

Septimius Severus was a Roman general of North African origin who wrested the supreme power after the period of chaos that ensued from Commodus’ death (the son of one of the last of the “Five Good Emperors,” Marcus Aurelius). While Severus restored order to Rome, his stern and highly militaristic dictatorship undermined traditional Roman institutions (such as the Senate). Severus’ son, Caracalla was a ruthless tyrant, succeeding his father along with his brother Geta. The cleverly ruthless Caracalla killed the equally ruthless but clumsier Geta. Caracalla continued the militaristic dictatorship of Septimius Severus but was known for more erratic behavior. His most famous legal act was the widening of Roman citizenship to include virtually all free inhabitants of the Empire. This act helped further weaken the Roman tradition by weakening cultural and social distinctions. While this act seems appealing to modern sensibilities, it seems to have simply been a brazen ploy to increase tax revenues. Caracalla was killed by his soldiers in a plot, and the usurper Marcrinus (of commoner descent) took the throne for a brief period. The emergence of the military as the only legitimate source of power and the weakening of Roman tradition both became especially present in the Severan era and help us understand the context of Elagabalus’ brief reign.

Marcrinus’ welcome was quickly worn out when he attempted to reform the pay of the Roman legions to assist the solvency of the Empire. His attempted fiscal reforms angered the soldiers who, after overthrowing Caracalla, now missed that Emperor’s generous ways. The atmosphere all over Rome became very tense. Enter Julia Mamaea, the sister-in-law of Septimius Severus. She claimed that Elagabalus, the young child-priest, was the illegitimate son of Caracalla and this claim cemented that young person’s rise to the throne.

What makes Elagabalus rise to fame and power unusual was that the soldiers who had a chance to see her were entranced by her beauty as she danced ceremonies to El Gabal. All the ancient authors describe her sensuous robes that she wore while performing priestly duties. The fact that young boys could be sexually objectified and sexualized as much as women in the Classical world no doubt adds to Elagabalus’ ability to woo soldiers by dancing in luxurious robes and elaborate makeup rather than gain their respect with military feats in armor and sword.

Skilled generals and soldiers supported Elagabalus so Marcrinus’ forces were quickly defeated and the way was cleared for Elagabalus to reign.

Reign

The young Empress (for that is what she wanted to call herself) wasn’t used to the exercise of power. All the ancient sources agree that she made irresponsible appointments to the highest offices of government and religion. Herodian and the Historia Augusta salaciously assert that Elagabalus was in the habit of appointing ministers on account of the length of their penises.
The reign witnessed many actions that caused shock and offense to conservative Romans. Elagabalus married a vestal virgin, claiming, according to Herodian, that the priestly marriage would create divine children. Vestals’ chastity was very important to Roman religious practice and the punishment for violating chastity used to be execution by live burial. This marriage was thus an unprecedented violation akin to desecrating the Eucharist for observant Roman Catholics. Furthermore Elagabalus arranged a marriage between her deity El Gabal and Urania the goddess most worshiped in Carthage, which was the most ancient and hated enemy of Rome. In order to participate in her administration and gain Imperial favor, senators and other Roman dignitaries were forced to dress in un-Roman ways and to participate in elaborate sacrifices and other ceremonies.

The topic of Elagabalus’ genitalia comes up frequently. One way Greeks and Romans distinguished themselves from the near Eastern civilizations was that they did not practice and abhorred circumcision. The ancient sources claim that Elagabalus was circumcised as part of the requirements for the priestly profession and the later Historia Augusta even claims that her penis was infibulated (meaning that the head of the penis was divided in two.) Castration, according to Dio Cassius, was one of Elagabalus’ fondest desires, not out of religion but out of “effeminacy.” This last statement seems to very strongly indicate a condition that would today be called transsexualism.

The only symbols of Elagabalus reign that survive are precious metal coins and a very few examples of statuary. Many of the coins do indeed show the religious changes: displaying the meteoric stone of El Gabal and calling for that deity’s blessings. The statuary on the other hand shows a young man with hair cut in classic Roman style and thus seems designed to placate those of traditional feelings as it showed the young ruler as being similar in appearance to Caracalla and other Roman emperors. Some historians use this lack of archeological evidence to claim that Elagabalus cross gender behavior was greatly exaggerated or even simply made up to smear her. I think it is just as plausible that the fact that only gender normative visual records of Elagabalus survive shows that her sexual and gender variance was disapproved of and often hidden and can lead one to suppose that only images more respectable to Ancient Roman values were preserved, while evidence of cross gender behavior was effaced.
As Elagabalus’ standing decreased in the eyes of powerful Romans, she was forced to adopt her cousin Severus Alexander as a “son” and successor. Alexander was only four years younger! Meticulous care was taken to ensure that this boy was not corrupted by his eccentric cousin and was instead carefully reared according to the most conservative Greco-Roman values. Understanding quickly that Alexander was a threat, Elagabalus sought to remove him but the ploy failed and when coming to appear before the camp of the Praetorian guards, Elagabalus was murdered along with her mother. Their mutilated bodies were carried through the streets and then thrown into the Tiber as if to wash away the upset that came upon the Roman world.

Legacy

After Elagabalus’ reign, women were never allowed to enter the building where the Senate was convened. Her establishment of a “women’s senate” was considered one of the many examples of Elagabalus’ depravity. The fact that women like her grandmother, mother, and aunt wielded significant power and influence was also condemned by writers with deep patriarchal values. Care was taken to erase Elagabalus from the historical record like other Roman emperors that were considered tyrants in a process called damnatio memoriae. Elagabalus was used by subsequent historians, Roman and post-Roman, as an example of one of the worst rulers ever.

Transgender behavior existed in Rome before and after Elagabalus. Transgender practice was tolerated and even sometimes respected by the Roman populace when it was practiced by the male-born priestesses of Cybele, known as the Gallae. These women would celebrate a taurobolium which (originally meant to be the castration of a bull) was a castration ceremony where someone formally defined as male would lose their genitalia, bleed like in menstruation or childbirth, and then subsequently wear women’s clothing and go by female names. Like other cultural practices this was a highly ritualistic and mystical understanding of gender identity. Rome was a vast empire and culturally diverse empire and in some respects it can be said a marketplace of religions existed. A male-born person with strong cross gender identification could potentially seek out the local Gallae temple to Cybele and have herself castrated, both to please her goddess and also perhaps to fix a deep inadequate feeling toward her own anatomy.

The Gallae however, existed somewhat on the periphery of Roman society. While Roman polytheism greatly revered the Goddess Cybele as a very important goddess, her worship was not considered Roman and was not integrated with traditional Roman practice. For a brief span that didn’t exceed four years, however, a radical transgender and religious experiment was imposed on the Roman world by a passionate young person known as Elagabalus. It is a mistake to suppose that Elagabalus had goals akin to contemporary understandings of feminism and gender theory: Elagabalus was a product of her own time and place and the social structures in force at the time ensured her rise to power. Transgender people and phenomena have always existed but for once a person of strong gender variance caused a deep upset in an ancient culture.