The black legend of “Elagabalus”.

Heliogabalus, High Priest of the Sun. Artist, Simeon Solomon. 1866.

“Not even the wicked or frivolous women were more indecent” -Aurelius Victor.

Varius Avitus Bassianus, known to history as “Elagabalus” was a Roman emperor who was born in 204 and died in 222 when he was eighteen years old. Most of what you think you know about him is (most likely) false. But who really was Varius, as opposed to the myth of “Elagabalus”, how w as the myth crafted and what does it mean?

Varius came from an important Syrian family from Emesa (modern-day Homs) and he was proclaimed high priest of the Sun god Elagabal at the age of five years old. The cult of Elagabal was always the center of his life and in fact, he is mostly known for the religious controversies of his reign. It is his religious reform that made him so disliked. You probably heard that he was one of the worst rulers to have ever lived and that he flung Rome into chaos. None of that is true, there was nothing exceptional about his reign. As Martjin Icks writes:

“In any field other than religion, moreover, the reign of Elagabalus was characterized by continuity rather than change. The empire was still in the age of relative peace and stability which would start to crumble under Severus Alexander with the first attacks of the Persians. We should be careful, therefore, not to exaggerate the exceptional status of the years 218–22 within the larger scope of Roman imperial history”.

The history of Varius’s reign isn’t very interesting when you stick to the facts. No wars were waged after the Battle of Antioch and his rise to the throne in 218 and no important economic reforms were made. This is not to say that Varius didn’t govern as it has been claimed or that he governed badly. There were no famines, epidemics, or invasions. It was a largely peaceful period.

But his religious reforms were radical and they couldn’t be overlooked. At the beginning of his short reign, Varius, named as an emperor “Marcus Aurelius Antoninus” to strengthen the lie that was spread to facilitate his rise to power that he was the son of Caracalla, possessed limited agency. Varius was fourteen when he became emperor, he was the youngest emperor Rome had ever seen. The component of his age and the timeless prejudice directed at extreme youth will be at the roots, along with his Syrian origins, of his black legend. It has been widely said that he was merely a tool for others’ ambitious aims. In part this is true, one struggles to find examples of children with “real”, authorized power throughout history. Whose aims? Julia Mesa, his grandmother and Julia Soemias, his mother have been attributed an unlikely degree of influence. While they, and especially Mesa, were definitely influential figures this has been greatly exaggerated. The idea that during the time when Varius was in power the empire was governed by women is part of the black legend, which was extended also to his mother and grandmother. The misogynist component of the black legend of “Elagabalus” is extremely marked, this was a time where misopedy and misogyny were inextricable. Women were equaled with children and adolescents in their capacity to reason and in the weakness of their character. The influence of important men such as Comazon was on the contrary downplayed. When Varius turned sixteen and seventeen things began to change, the agency of Varius increased and Varius had very strong convictions, if not on the governance of the empire, surely on religion. He wasn’t a puppet in others’ hands. It is likely that before the end of 220 Roman religious traditions were mostly respected. That wouldn’t be the case anymore. Varius was very devout to his God, he took his role as high priest with extreme seriousness. Not only did he try to replace Jove with Elagabal (assimilated with the Roman sun God “Sol Invictus”), he scandalized Rome by taking Aquilia Severa, a vestal virgin, as a wife. He likely had religious reasons for doing so, it’s alleged that he believed that the union of a high priest with a high priestess would have originated godlike children, and that he wanted to tie his God to the Roman goddess Vesta. This was seen as the last straw. His outraging of Roman religion made him fall largely out of favor and he had never been well-liked by the senate, who had always been hostile to his mode of governing, the view of him as illegitimate was probably widespread. It is recounted that Julia Mesa, sensing the general dissatisfaction, scared of what the downfall of her grandson would have meant for her, pushed him to adopt his cousin Alexianus and name him as his successor. It’s unsure whether or not the adoption was truly framed by Mesa but it nevertheless marked the beginning of the end of Varius’s reign and of his life. Many of his supporters abandoned the controversial priest-emperor for his more agreeable cousin, who was only a boy of eleven but thoroughly Roman and more docile than Varius. Filosenatorial historiography consigns us an image of Alexianus, later called Alexander Severus, as Varius’s, “Elagabalus’s angelic double. Whereas “Elagabalus” is cruel, Alexander is meek, whereas “Elagabalus” is depraved, Alexander is asexual, whereas “Elagabalus” is an Oriental child tyrant, Alexander is a good Roman boy. Childhood sociologist’s Chris Jenks framework for thinking images of children which I already mentioned in my article about Rimbaud, can be useful here too. This is the opposition of Dyonisian (evil) childhood with Apollonian (innocent) childhood. Adults have long dehumanized children with these simplistic images. Varius noticed the tide was turning against him, and tensions between him and Alexianus arose. Lots of money w ere spent to keep the legions loyal to Varius, but it was never enough. It also appears that Julia Mammaea, the mother of Alexianus, gave them money as well to support her son. It has been claimed that Varius even attempted to assassinate his cousin but he was heavily guarded by the soldiers, who grew angry when they found out about his attempt. Inscriptions of the early 222 still mention the cousins together but whatever the truth it’s clear that it was all a pretense since Varius was assassinated together with his mother Soemias probably on the 13th of March 222 and Alexianus was proclaimed emperor one day later by the senate.

After Varius’s and his mother’s horrible death he was condemned to damnatio memoriae. His portraits were destroyed, his name was erased from inscriptions and papyri, and his name was canceled from the documents relating to his reign. Immediately his religious reforms were reversed. Elagabal, the rock, was not destroyed but sent back to Syria. Thus began his afterlife. The famous Nachleben of “Elagabalus”. During his reign, a positive image of Varius was promoted. He promoted an image of himself as a benevolent ruler even while stressing his more controversial image as devoted priest of Elagabal. Likely, we will never know what his subjects truly thought about him. It’s also likely that the people, in contrast with the Roman elite didn’t hold a highly negative view of him. Let us quote Icks again:

“Little can be said about Elagabalus’s popularity with the people of Rome. Considering the many festivals mentioned in the ancient sources and the many liberalitas gifts of the emperor, it is not unthinkable that the majority of the population held a favourable view of the young monarch, who was the first emperor to spend time in the capital since Caracalla had left for the East.”

But this doesn’t matter, regardless of what their view was, after he was overthrown by the praetorians, Varius or Marcus Aurelius Antoninus were quickly forgotten and “Elagabalus” was born.

The construction of “Elagabalus” and all its misopedic, misogynistic, racist, and homophobic tropes are largely rooted in the works of Cassius Dio, Herodian, and the author of the Vita Heliogabali. All other authors who slandered him took pieces of information from these three works. Cassius Dio was probably the original. They were all contemporaries of his, but none knew him directly and they were all supporters of the senate and Alexander Severus. This is on whom those who wrote the inscriptions; “Antoninus the catamite” and “the unholy little Antoninus” were relying on. This is on whom Flavius Philostratus was relying on when he compared him to a boy prostitute in a letter.

We can see the misopedy from the ver y start of Dio’s version, where he is framed as incapable of governing and the fact that he was a mere “boy” when he came to the throne is remarked upon. That was a serious problem for his image even when he was alive. After the religious reforms of 220/21 the beardless emperor began to be portrayed on coins as bearded, with an unlikely amount of beard if we take into account previous portrayals and contemporaries’ descriptions of him. It was deliberately exaggerated to promote a more authoritative image of him since he was gaining more power within his court. This was very important. The first shaving of a boy’s beard marked also the day when he would put on his toga virilis and become a man. Varius also celebrated this rite, according to Dio too. This was to prove that he was no longer a boy and perfectly capable of ruling an empire. In Ancient Rome the legal status of children was almost identical to those of slaves, and tied to adolescence there was even more stigma than now, we will see what stereotypes they attributed to them. According to Dio, Varius didn’t stand being disparaged for his age and wrote about the emperor he overthrew, Macrinus: “He undertook to disparage my age, when he himself had appointed his five-year-old son emperor”. After this start, Dio starts repeating many of the typical tropes of what a “bad” emperor was like. For example, favoritism. He repeats that favorites acquired great power under “Elagabalus”; “because they had joined in his uprising and other because they committed adultery with him”. The story of Zoticus is repeated, it will be even more embellished by other authors. While Zoticus, unlike Hierocles, is proven to have existed, this might have some credibility but the story is so far-fetched that surely it went on differently. That he assassinated Gannys is claimed. The existence of Gannys cannot be proved, it’s considered likely by historians, but that he was assassinated by Varius is cast into doubt, that was an attempt to portray him as patricidal since Gannys was his foster father. We can see how the accusations of a sort of “patricide” are tied to the misopedy of the whole account. It was said that he was assassinated for trying to correct “Elagabalus”costumes. It’s claimed that he named a certain character “Hierocles” Caesar because he was his “husband”. From Dio’s stories of Zoticus (in part rooted in truth) and Hierocles (could be rooted in truth but for what we know it could also be fully invented) we come to one of the most prominent smears tied to “Elagabalus”: Sexual and gendered smears. The contemporary and present day portrayal of “Elagabalus”, following mainly these three works, presents tropes that are also common in the misogynisticsmearing of female rulers, mainly so-called nymphomania (a misogynistic way to refer to female hypersexuality) and frivolity. Many male “bad” emperors were slandered sexually, often by the same sources. Not in the same way as Varius was. That’s because of Roman sexual ideals. Childhood was gendered feminine and boys were imagined as sexually passive. Pederasty was permissible for Roman men if it only involved slaves and not the corruption of a free man’s sons which was considered rape. Lots of slanders involving other “bad” emperors framed them as rapists of women and children, while the slander directed at Varius’ memory framed him as the one upon whom sexuality was acted upon. It was common to say of “bad” emperors that they visited brothels as clients, of Varius it was said that he visited them to play the role of the prostitute. This despite the fact that his marriage to Aquilia Severa could have given them ample opportunity to paint him as a violator. Varius might have been the first and the most heavily slandered but this was not unique to him, Johansson writes in her thesis “Boys will be Boys: The Portrayal of Youthful Emperors in Roman Imperial Histories and Biographies”: “the passivity and sexual depravity of young emperors was a topic frequently used to connect the effeminacy of the young emperors with their tyrannical behaviour”. But later on, the image of the rapist wasn’t spared to him by posterity: There are several operas and books which came out in centuries when discussing “sodomy” wasn’t permissible which frame him that way. Dio also invokes “Elagabalus” Syrian descent. Syrians were stereotyped by the Romans, along with Persians as extravagant, obsessed with luxury, and as having a servile mentality which made them more fit to be slaves than rulers. Couple this with the — to this day accepted as gospel truth — stereotypes of youth as irrational and as unable to exist without being governed by others (which makes the idea of youth governing others conjure dystopian images to our minds). It’s natural that the portrayal of this “Elagabalus” as an Oriental brat who forced the empire of rational Roman men to worship a strange black rock would have sprung up. Syrians were also painted as superstitious, and effeminate. The mixture of age and racial stereotypes also accounts for Dio’s description of the effeminacy of “Elagabalus”: “When trying someone in court he really had more or less the appearance of a man, but everywhere else he showed affectations in his actions and in the quality of his voice. For instance, he used to dance, not only in the orchestra, but also, in a wa y, even while walking, performing sacrifices, receiving salutations, or delivering a speech. […] He worked with wool, sometimes wore a hair net, and painted his eyes, daubing them with white lead and alkanet”. According to Dio, his façade of authoritativeness is disproven by the facts of his sexual behavior where he shows what he truly is, a child and an Oriental. When presented with Zoticus he reacts by striking a feminine pose and exclaiming after being greeted by him “Call me not Lord, for I am a Lady”. He is unable to suppress his desire for submission to the point of desiring physical violence: “he wished to have the reputation of committing adultery, so that in this respect, too, he might imitate the most lewd women; and he would often allow himself to be caught in the very act, in consequence of which he used to be violently upbraided by his “husband” and beaten, so that he had black eyes”. As a child and an Oriental, it’s only natural for him to want to submit to adult Roman males, even if in the case of “Hierocles”, they’re former slaves. Because of this, the social order is reversed. Another component is added to the slander, Dio claims that he wanted a doctor to give him female genital organs using an incision. A tad anachronistically, this can be called a transmisogynistic smear. Dio, who already expresses his dislike of foreign cults, was vicious with his religion. He said that he w orshipped Elagabal in “very strange ways”, chanting “barbaric chants”, circumcising himself and “actually shutting up alive in the god’s temple a lion, a monkey, and a snake, and throwing human genitals among them”. Dio lied the foundations, then came Herodian.

Herodian stressed the inadequacy of boy emperors even more markedly than Dio, in this he is even more misopedic. He remarks that empires suffer when boys or young men are put in positions of “unchecked power without parental authority”. And “Elagabalus” is a perfect example, he was “an emperor who was a disgrace”. Icks recognizes this:

“In keeping with his distrust of child emperors, Herodian portrays Elagabalus as an irresponsible brat who abuses the power entrusted to him. After the boy’s armies had defeated Macrinus, it is remarked that ‘the immediate business in the East was dealt with by his grandmother and his circle of advisers because he was young and without administrative experience or education.’The emperor shows more interest in idle pursuits than in governing the empire, wasting his time with chariot driving, dancing and, of course, the worship of his strange God”, “He is ‘in most matters a thoughtless, silly young man’ w ho can be easily manipulated by those who are older and more politically shrewd, such as his able grandmother.”

But he is not portrayed as obedient, as Alexander Severus will later on, he is portrayed as willful and as defying his grandmother whenever he can. He too mentions favoritism. He claims that he went out with “with painted eyes and rouge on his cheeks, spoiling his natural good looks by using disgusting make-up” so much that a “modest woman” would have never wore. Again he is imputed frivolity: “He wore the most expensive types of clothes, woven of purple and gold, and adorned himself with necklaces and bangles. On his head he wore a crown in the shape of a tiara glittering with gold and precious stones. The effect was something between the sacred garb of the Phoenicians and the luxurious apparel of the Medes. An y Roman or Greek dress he loathed because, he claimed, it was made out of wool, which is a cheap material. Only seric silk was good enough for him”. The cult of Elagabal again appears in an unflattering light, the rites in his honor are described as “ecstatic and orgiastic”. Orientalist stereotypes are also even more marked in Herodian than Dio. But as Icks reminds us,

“According to Herodian, Elagabalus was not just an effeminate ‘Oriental, but also that which he possibly despised even more: a child emperor who could not be kept under control”.

In the tradition of simultaneous fascination and revulsion that the myth of “Elagabalus” always suscitated, Herodian had started his account with a description of the beauty of “Elagabalus”, centuries later for Decadent authors lavish descriptions of his beauty will help cement an image of a beautiful but perverse child: “Bassianus, in the prime of youth, was the handsomest lad of his time. With physical beauty, bloom of youth, and splendor of attire combining to produce the same effect, the youth might well be compared to the handsome statues of Bacchus. W hen Bassianus was performing his priestly duties, dancing about the altars in barbarian fashion to the music of flutes, pipes, and every kind of instrument, the natives and the soldiers watched him with more than ordinary curiosity, aware that he belonged to the imperial family. His youthful beauty attracted the eyes of all. At that time a huge army was quartered at Emesa to guard Phoenicia. This army was later transferred from the city, as we shall relate in the pages to follow. The soldiers were therefore frequent visitors in the city and went to the temple on the pretext of worshiping the god; there they delighted in watching Bassianus”. It’s from this description that the Decadent novelist Couperus-Baud will make the ahistorical assertion: “the beautiful sun priest, who was proclaimed emperor because the army was in love with him, and because he can dance so beautifully”.

The “Vita Heliogabali” uses both Dio and Herodian as a source, and it’s even more absurd. He is portrayed as the worse of all emperors; “worse than Commodus is Elagabalus alone’,”’in baseness and debauchery outdid a Nero, a Vitellius, a Commodus”. The accusation of favoritism gets an absurd spin; “As prefect of the guard he appointed a dancer who had been on the stage at Rome, as prefect of the watch a chariot-driver named Cordius, and as prefect of the grain-supply a barber named Claudius, and to the other posts of distinction he advanced men whose sole recommendation was the enormous size of their privates”, no evidence of anyone unusual ever being appointed by Varius exists. Attributing to “Elagabalus” a phallic obsession is a way to highlight his inadequacy. There have been attempts to portray the cult of Elagabal as a phallic cult. This was an important aspect of Artaud’s depiction of the cult of Elagabal. Icks discusses this subtext of Artaud’s novel which has been mistaken as a biography by many:

“On a superficial level, Héliogabale seems to undermine patriarchal authority: the emperor is an androgynous figure, brought up in a matriarchal society and dominated by four women. In his family, ‘the men assumed all the malice and weakness, and the women the virility’ Father figures, as John Stout points out, are either ineffective, absent or castrated (like Héliogabale’s foster father, the eunuch Gannys). In addition, the emperor ‘banishes men from the senate and replaces them with women’. However, Artaud represents Elagabal as a phallic god, speaking about his ‘vigorous prick”, and notes that Héliogabale, “the pederast king who wanted to be a woman, was a priest of the Masculine”.

In the “Vita Heliogabali” his fondness for practical jokes is a way to present him as immature and childish. These jokes are also portrayed as sadistic. He is portrayed as a sadist himself. The cult of Elagabal is portrayed as cruel. The Vita claims that “Elagabalus” sacrificed beautiful boys to his God to make their parents suffer. These children are good models of childhood for the author of the Vita while “Elagabalus” is everything a child shouldn’t be. He attributes to him monotheistic tendencies, at the same time claims that he liked to dress up as Venus. On the Internet anecdotes from the Vita are repeated as truth and the reactions are often misopedic, “What did you expect when you made a fourteen-year-old emperor?”, Momus’ song “ Heliogabalus” contains the line “If you’d been emperor of Rome at the age of just 15 Wouldn’t you have done the same?”. It is so easy for us to believe that Varius did all that and that he was an incompetent ruler because we still don’t hold young people in much esteem. The “Royal Brat” is a well established trope in popular culture.

Leonardo de Arrizabalaga y Prado, scholar of Varius, is right to maintain that nothing from literary sources is reliable unless authenticated by material objects. Few of that is. The black legend of “Elagabalus” hasn’t stood to the test of history, even if it hasn’t ceased to fascinate. Varius has been forgotten, but “Elagabalus”, as the fictional character he is, never will be. But now he’s more than a bundle of offensive stereotypes. He has been reclaimed countless times, by rebellious youth and queer people. Elagabalus lives and he’s still the embodiment of all that adults fear.

Originally published at on May 30, 2022.



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Alba M.

Alba M.

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