When you’re the ruler of Rome, you can do anything you want—or, at least, that’s what Elagabalus believed. His religious eccentricities, penchant for dressing up as a woman, and habit of marrying the wrong people were just some of the reasons why his subjects eventually tore him off the Roman throne. This isn’t a story you want to miss.
Sextus Varius Avitus Bassianus—known to us as Elagabalus—descended from the illustrious Severan dynasty, a Roman imperial household. Born around 203, Elagabalus’s dad was a member of the Roman Senate, while mom Julia Soaemias Bassiana was a powerful Syrian noblewoman with family ties to the current Roman emperor. If his family tree was any indication, Elagabalus was clearly destined for greatness, but the road there would be painful.
When Elagabalus was around 12 years old, tragedy struck, and it struck hard. In roughly 215, his father sadly met his end, leaving behind a long and distinguished political career. The loss of his father was likely not an easy event for young Elagabalus to handle, but his family’s enormous wealth meant that neither he, nor the rest of his family, ever wanted for anything.
That didn’t mean he was free from family drama, however.
In 217, Elagabalus’s world was rocked when his maternal cousin, the Roman Emperor Caracalla, met his end at the hands of a fellow warrior. In his place, a man named Macrinus usurped the throne with support from the Roman army. This put Elagabalus in serious danger. His family ties to the previous emperor put a target on his back. One wrong move could mean the end for Elagabalus.
The problem was that Macrinus struggled to gain legitimacy for his rule, and had issues cultivating loyalty. To get rid of any potential competition, he needed to get all members of the previous emperor’s bloodline out of Rome, and that included Elagabalus’s family. Luckily for Elagabalus, Macrinus decided to merely send the family back to their original hometown of Emesa in Syria, with all their wealth intact. That turned out to be a boon for Elagabalus.
You see, sending Elagabalus back to his hometown accomplished two things for the young boy. Elagabalus’s family had hereditary rights to the priesthood of the sun god Elagabal, and upon returning home, Elagabalus ascended to the position of high priest at the tender age of 14. What’s more, being away from the prying eyes of Macrinus allowed Elagabalus’s family to start planning.
Soon, a treacherous plot against the new emperor was in motion.
Seeing that Macrinus was having trouble winning over his followers, Elagabalus’s family saw an opportunity and pounced. Elagabalus’s hometown just so happened to be close to the base of the Gallic Third Legion, who supported the previous emperor's family. This made it the perfect place to launch a full-blown coup. Elagabalus was, unfortunately, too young and inexperienced to overthrow the new emperor himself, so he got help from a powerful and unexpected ally.
That ally came in the form of his shrewd, well-connected grandmother, Julia Maesa. Elagabalus’s grandmother was power-hungry, and she had no issues using her family in order to gain a place amongst the Roman elite. Luckily for Elagabalus, his grandma’s ambition usually led to good things for the rest of his family. With a little help from the family’s vast fortune, Elagabalus’s family readied themselves for the challenge of taking down the emperor.
First, Elagabalus’s grandma made the bold claim that Elagabalus was the love child of the previous emperor, Caracalla, and Elagabalus’s mom, Bassiana. Elagabalus’s mom actively encouraged the rumor, even though it meant sacrificing her own honor and reputation. Although this rumor was almost definitely untrue, Elagabalus had the good fortune of looking a heck of a lot like Caracalla.
The plot didn’t just end there, though—Elagabalus’s family was just getting started.
To further bolster support for Elagabalus, his grandma shared her wealth with the local Roman legionaries to secure their support. News of Elagabalus’s family fortune spread through the army camps like wildfire, and this, combined with the army’s growing discontent with Macrinus, gave Elagabalus the security he needed to declare himself emperor. What followed was like something out of a movie.
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The nearby Gallic Third Legion invited Elagabalus, along with the rest of his family, into the camp, while clad in the imperial purple. At sunrise on May 16, 219, the commander of the legion crowned the teenaged Elagabalus Emperor of Rome. To further legitimize his rule, Elagabalus adopted the name of Marcus Aurelius Antonius, the name that Caracalla used as emperor.
As you can imagine, Macrinus was not happy when he received news of Elagabalus’s uprising.
As news of Elagabalus ascension and his family’s generosity spread, entire legions began defecting to Elagabalus’s side. In response, Macrinus ordered an attack on Elagabalus’s new legionaries, which ended in disaster. One account suggested that Macrinus vastly underestimated Elagabalus, and only sent out a cavalry force to meet him in battle. When the men arrived and saw the size of Elagabalus’s forces, things took a bloody turn.
Instead of attacking Elagabalus’s men, the men of the cavalry force slew their own commanding officers and defected to Elagabalus’s side. Enraged, Macrinus brought the might of the Second Legion to meet Elagabalus somewhere near the border of Syria Coele and Syria Phoenice. The two sides clashed, but it quickly ended up being a glorious victory for Elagabalus and an embarrassing defeat for his foe.
Frustrated by Macrinus’s inability to actually pay them, the warriors of the Second Legion almost immediately defected over to Elagabalus. This forced Macrinus to flee to Antioch. With his enemy on the run and with the loyalties of the Second Legion secured, Elagabalus went on the offensive and marched onto Antioch. The ensuing battle between the two men was downright legendary.
Elagabalus’s men and Macrinus’s men engaged in a pitched battle just a short ways away from Antioch. While Elagabalus had superior numbers, Macrinus had more experience; he ordered his men to wear lighter armor, allowing him to easily outmaneuver Elagabalus’s men. They managed to break through Elagabalus’s lines, and his legionnaires panicked. As they turned to flee, however, help came in a form that none of them expected.
Elagabalus’s mom and grandma, who rode into battle upon their chariots, leapt down and joined the fray, rallying the troops. Gannys, Elagabalus’s tutor who had little battle experience, grabbed his horse and charged head-first into the oncoming army. The actions of these three inspired the fleeing men, who turned around and took down Macrinus’s army.
Macrinus fled into Antioch proper, but Elagabalus wasn’t about to let his foe leave unscathed.
From Antioch, Elagabalus’s arch-nemesis attempted to flee north, but Elagabalus’s men captured him. Both Macrinus and his son were summarily executed, leaving Elagabalus free to enter Antioch in 218 as Rome’s new emperor. From there, he made two power moves that cemented his place as Rome’s imperial ruler: He kept his men from sacking Antioch, and he forced the Senate to accept him as the emperor. The reign of Elagabalus officially began.
The Roman Empire was not prepared for what was coming...
Elagabalus’s next order of business was to further elevate his family, while erasing his predecessor from the annals of history altogether. He ordered the Senate to deify Caracalla and Caracalla’s mother, and elevated his own mother and grandmother to the rank of empress. He then had the Senate completely expunge the memory of Macrinus; all official histories from Elagabalus’s reign state that he directly succeeded Caracalla as emperor.
His family and their followers celebrated—but not everyone was happy with bowing down to the teenaged emperor.
Before a year passed, rebellions began to plague the young emperor’s rule. In 219, several usurpers arose and used various reasons to make a claim for the throne. Seius Carus claimed his aristocratic heritage made him a better candidate than Elagabalus for the role of emperor; two others, Alexianus and Castinus, claimed their relationship with the imperial family made them the better choice.
The ones who claimed superior fighting strength, however, caused Elagabalus his biggest headaches.
Two usurpers named Gellius Maximus and Verus attempted to use their might to oust the young Emperor Elagabalus. Gellius Maximus was the second-in-command of the legion that captured Macrinus’s son, but Elagabalus neglected to acknowledge this feat. Likely feeling snubbed, Gellius Maximus revolted in Coele-Syria, but another nearby legion loyal to Elagabalus swiftly crushed and executed him.
Verus’s rebellion met a similar fate.
Verus also attempted to take power in the same year that Elagabalus stamped out Gellius Maximus’s uprising. Verus originally supported Elagabalus’s bid for emperor, but quickly grew disenchanted by the teen’s reign. Before he could get too far with his little rebellion, Elagabalus captured and executed Verus, dispersed his legion, and stripped the city of Tyre (the location of Verus’s headquarters) of its status as a metropolis. It was ruthless and decisive, but it wasn’t the end of Elagabalus’s bloody acts.
In 219, Elagabalus started to make his way to Rome. To prepare the senators for his arrival, Elagabalus supposedly sent a particularly scandalous painting to the senate, against his grandmother’s advice. Supposedly, Elagabalus’s grandmother urged Elagabalus to arrive in Rome wearing Roman garb, but instead, Elagabalus sent a painting of himself dressed in his priest clothes, making offerings to the sun god Elagabal. Not exactly a great way to make a good first impression, but it actually gets worse from here.
In addition to sending a painting of himself dressed in foreign garb to the xenophobic city of Rome, Elagabalus supposedly ordered for the painting to be hung above the statue of Victoria, goddess of victory, located in the Senate. This meant that whenever senators made offerings to Victoria, it also looked like they were making offerings to Elagabalus and his sun god.
It was incredibly petty, but this was only one of the things that made Elagabalus an unpopular ruler.
After executing several more prominent supporters of Macrinus, Elagabalus arrived in Rome around August or September of 219. After staging a ceremonial entrance into the city, Elagabalus made the smart move of offering amnesty to the Roman upper class. Unfortunately, he then made the unpopular move of giving powerful positions to his allies, which included his own mother and grandmother. You can bet that this nepotism didn’t go unnoticed.
Under Elagabalus’s rule, his mom and grandma received numerous honors that were unheard of for women at the time. They became the first women allowed into the Senate, received senatorial titles, appeared on coins and inscriptions, and exerted a powerful influence over the new emperor. Eventually, when Elagabalus needed a wife, it was his own grandma who found him a bride.
In 219, Elagabalus’s grandma arranged a marriage between Elagabalus and Julia Cornelia Paula, a distinguished Roman noblewoman. The wedding celebration was downright lavish, but the marriage itself didn’t last long. In a rather unfortunate twist, Elagabalus’s loyalties and interest lay in furthering the worship of his sun god—and that led to one of the most scandalous unions in Roman history.
Now that Elagabalus had a relatively good hold on the imperial throne, he and his mother saw an opportunity to make Elagabal the prime deity of the Roman pantheon in late 220. They renamed Elgabal to Sol Invictus, and placed him above Jupiter. The installation of a foreign god and the displacement of their prime deity shocked many Romans, and what Elagabalus did next only served to further displease his Roman subjects.
In 220, Elagabalus unceremoniously divorced his wife and married Aquilia Severa. There was one huge problem with this. Aquilia Severa was a Vestal Virgin—emphasis on virgin. You see, Vestal Virgins took a 30 year vow of celibacy upon entering the priestesshood. Those caught breaking this vow—such as Elagabalus’s new wife—were buried alive as punishment. If you’re shocked now, wait until you hear Elagabalus’s reason for the scandalous marriage!
One of the reasons for Elagabalus’s marriage to Severa was symbolic. As a devout follower of Sol Invictus, his marriage to Severa symbolized a union between his god and Vesta, the goddess who Severa served. The other reason was because, according to Elagabalus, his marriage to one of Vesta’s high priestesses would result in “godlike children.” His marriage made him deeply unpopular, but that wasn’t the end of the religious buffoonery that Elagabalus had in store for Rome.
Elagabalus re-dedicated a temple that may have been a place of worship to Jupiter to Sol Invictus. To add insult to injury, the zealous emperor moved several sacred Roman religious relics (including the fire of Vesta and the Palladium) into the temple, so that one could not worship a Roman deity without worshiping Sol Invictus as well. And, as the high priest to Sol Invictus, Elagabalus worshiped his god in a way that completely baffled Roman onlookers.
To increase his piety, Elagabalus circumcised himself and swore off pork. He forced his senators to watch him dance in circles around an altar to the beat of drums and cymbals. Every summer solstice, Elagabalus gave free food to the masses while leading a chariot adorned with gold and jewels through the city. The spectacle made people’s jaws drop, and Elagabalus’s family quickly realized they needed to rein the new emperor in ASAP.
At his grandmother’s behest, Elagabalus reluctantly ended his highly controversial and politically damaging marriage to Severa. He divorced her and married Annia Aurelia Faustina, a recently widowed and extremely wealthy heiress—but there was a chilling twist: Elagabalus actually executed her previous husband for a frivolous charge in order to have her, but it was necessary to save his reign. Luckily for Elagabalus, this worked… Sort of.
On some level, Elagabalus’s marriage to Faustina did him some good. He found Faustina charming and beautiful, and the fact that she descended from the imperial Nerva-Antonine dynasty certainly didn’t hurt. As a result, Elagabalus’s marriage to Faustina was better received (and the fact that the marriage wasn’t downright sacrilegious probably helped too). Elagabalus wasn’t satisfied for long though.
Elagabalus’s marriage to Faustina was brief. Those around him hoped that their union would produce an heir, but this never happened. Instead, Elagabalus lost interest in Faustina, divorced her, and returned to Severa. Elagabalus then remarried the high priestess, taking her as his fourth wife. This did nothing to improve his standing with the officials that put him in power. His other antics only caused more outrage amongst the ruling class.
When he wasn’t with his wife, some sources say that Elagabalus took his appetite for the baser things in life elsewhere. The Historia Augusta, a collection of biographies of the Roman emperors, claimed that Elagabalus eventually married a man named Zoticus. However, one of Elagabalus’s contemporaries, a historian named Cassius Dio, disputed this, stating that Zoticus was merely a eunuch. Dio’s stories of Elagabalus weren’t any less wild, however.
According to Dio, Elagabalus took a husband named Hierocles, an ex-slave and chariot racer from the region of Caria. Elagabalus reportedly “delighted in being Hierocles’s mistress, wife, and queen.” Dio also claimed that Elagabalus offered his, uh, “services” when he visited the city’s taverns and brothels. These rumors would’ve gotten any ancient Roman’s toga in a twist, but Dio’s next claim about Elagabalus would’ve made them faint from sheer horror.
According to Dio, Elagabalus habitually wore makeup and wigs and insisted that people call him a lady instead of a lord. He also allegedly offered ridiculous sums of money to any physician who could give him a vagina. For the ancient Romans, this would’ve been a bridge too far. Elagabalus began losing support for his reign. In particular, he lost two key supporters, which marked the beginning of the end for young Elagabalus.
The first key supporters who turned against Elagabalus were the Praetorian Guards. They did not approve of his religious antics or his personal relationships. Sensing that things were about to get real ugly, Elagabalus’s grandmother attempted to implement some damage control by exerting her influence over Elagabalus. This backfired on the poor woman in a spectacular fashion.
Elagabalus, either too blind to see the growing discontent around him or uncaring of the situation entirely, attempted to raise his lover Hierocles to the status of Caesar. Elagabalus’s grandmother, sensing the disaster that such a move would bring, put her foot down. In response, Elagabalus threatened to have her executed—the very woman who got him on the throne. This tactical error did not end well for Elagabalus.
After Elagabalus told his grandma to put a sock in it—or else—she presented him with a strange proposal. Elagabalus’s marriages failed to produce an heir thus far, and he needed one, badly. To secure the family’s reign, Elagabalus’s grandmother suggested he adopt his cousin, Severus Alexander, and appoint him as heir. Elagabalus probably would’ve refused, if it wasn’t for the fact that his grandma knew exactly how to work him..
Elagabalus’s grandma pointed out that, by adopting Alexander and elevating him to caesar, Elagabalus would have more time to devote himself to spreading the good word of Sol Invictus. This argument greatly appealed to Elagabalus, who went through with the adoption. Elagabalus didn’t know it, but adopting his cousin just caused the jaws of his grandmother’s trap to snap shut around him.
The adoption of Alexander may have given Elagabalus more time for religion, but the consequences of his actions far outweighed the benefits. After adopting his cousin, Elagabalus’s supporters began shifting their loyalties towards the new caesar, partly because of his grandma’s meddling. As support for Alexander increased, Elagabalus grew to regret adopting him. Soon, Elagabalus found himself in deep trouble.
The rift between Elagabalus and his more popular cousin split Rome in two. On one side stood Elagabalus, his mother, and their loyal supporters. On the other side stood Elagabalus’s cousin, his grandmother, and more importantly, the powerful Praetorian Guard. Without the support of these powerful Roman warriors, Elagabalus was toast. Their rivalry continued to intensify nonetheless, until things came to a head in 222.
The hatred between Elagabalus and his cousin grew so intense by 222 that the two no longer appeared in public together, despite sharing consulship over Rome. By now, Elagabalus fully realized he was in danger, and that he needed to get rid of Alexander through any means necessary. Unfortunately, he vastly underestimated Alexander’s popularity—and didn’t expect the backlash he got for his actions.
Elagabalus first attempted to take away Alexander’s title of consul by compelling the Senate to do so. The Senate, probably to the shock and rage of Elagabalus, refused. Incensed, Elagabalus then made several attempts on Alexander’s life, which angered the Praetorian Guard. The guards turned on the emperor, and extracted a promise out of Elagabalus that he had no choice but to agree to.
Tired of Elagabalus’s shenanigans, the Praetorian Guards demanded an assurance of Alexander’s safety from the emperor, in addition to the dismissal of certain officials. Elagabalus promised, but the 18-year-old emperor had little intention of actually keeping his oaths. Instead, Elagabalus hatched a hare-brained scheme that eventually sealed his fate, as well as that of his mother.
To test whether or not the Praetorian Guards were truly against him, Elagabalus invented a rumor that Alexander was nearing the end of his life, to see how the warriors reacted. Elagabalus likely didn’t expect just how strong the Praetorian Guards’ reaction ended up being. They immediately started a riot, and demanded to see Elagabalus and Alexander in the Praetorian camp to confirm the story. With little choice, Elagabalus entered the lion’s den.
Around March 11, 222, Elagabalus and his mother entered the camp to publicly present Alexander. Upon seeing Elagabalus’s cousin, the warriors cheered, while completely ignoring Elagabalus himself. This was probably the best reaction Elagabalus could’ve hoped for, but the young Emperor-Priest thought otherwise. What he did next ended up costing him his life.
Elagabalus immediately ordered the execution of any and all members of the Praetorian Guard who cheered for Alexander. According to Elagabalus, the reactions of the Praetorian Guard amounted to little more than insubordination, and the guard members needed to pay with their lives. This order was Elagabalus’s last mistake. Instead of carrying out his wishes, the guards turned on Elagabalus—and they made sure his end was a painful one.
Realizing his error, Elagabalus fled. Knowing he needed to escape, he devised a plan to smuggle himself out of the city in a chest, but this plan sadly didn’t work out. The guards discovered Elagabalus before he could carry out his scheme and he was immediately slain. His mother, who threw herself over Elagabalus in a last-ditch effort to protect him, was also slain. Then, the Praetorian Guards took things one step further.
The guard members—the very people who helped to put Elagabalus on the throne—made the chilling decision to dismember the bodies of both the young emperor and his mother. They tossed Elagabalus’s body in the Tiber River, before continuing their path of destruction. Many of Elagabalus’s associates, including Hierocles, met a truly gruesome end in the days and weeks that followed. The throne then went to Alexander, marking the end of Elagabalus’s rule.
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