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Heliogabalus

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Bust of Heliogabalus. Musei Capitolini, Roma (Italy). Photo Marco Prins.
Bassianus or Heliogabalus (Musei Capitolini, Rome)
Heliogabalus: emperor of Rome, ruled from 218 to 222, famous for his religious reforms and the introduction of the cult of the Syrian sun god Elagabal.
 

Life (Rome)

"Shameful, lawless and cruel practices"

And finally, what of Heliogabalus, the last of the Antonines, who is said to have lived in the lowest depths of foulness?
Cassius Dio records only one good deed of Heliogabalus: he never took revenge on those who had besmirched his name or that of his father (Roman History, 80=79.3.2). The sentence is followed by the following:
The ancient biographies
Life (Asia)
Life (Rome)
Religious policy (1)
Religious policy (2)
Conclusion
Literature
Coin of Julia Soeamias. Valkhof Museum, Nijmegen (Holland). Photo Marco Prins.
Julia Soaemias (Valkhof Museum, Nijmegen)

But, on the other hand, he drifted into all the most shameful, lawless and cruel practices…
All this was, in Dio's view, influenced by Heliogobalus' mother, Julia Soaemias, a perverse creature. Men of great distinction were removed from office and replaced by charioteers, actors, mimes, slaves, freedmen, and those who distinguished themselves in ways which satisfied the sexual lusts of the emperor. Senators were appointed without distinguishing in age, origin, or fortune. According to Heliogabalus the senators were "slaves in togas", the people were merely tillers of a single piece of land, and the equestrian order meant nothing at all to him. 

Coin of Heliogabalus from Bonn. Photo Jona Lendering.
Coin of Heliogabalus (Rheinisches Landesmuseum,
Bonn)

Cassius Dio and Herodian are horrified by the effeminate behavior of Heliogabalus. Dio says:
…for he appeared both as man and as woman and in both relations conducted himself in the most licentious fashion… (80=79.5.5)
Heliogobalus' effeminacy could be seen in his actions and heard in his voice. Not only did he have intercourse with many women, he also found great pleasure in acting as a women when he lay with his lovers. Dio insinuates that the emperor often dressed like a prostitute and went to a brothel to sell himself. These practices took place in the palace, because the emperor had a brothel constructed open to friends, clients and slaves. (An ancient ruin immediately north of the temple of Elagabal may be identified with this building - if the story is true, of course.) Men were picked out of public life when they were gifted with attributes that were esteemed by Heliogabalus. Those who were most foul were greatly appreciated. One of Heliogobalus' best friends, Hierocles, was referred to as his husband. Heliogabalus even went as far as to ask his physicians to contrive a woman's vagina inside his body. At least, that's what Dio wants us to believe (80=79.15); as we will see, castration is also mentioned in other sources.

What to think of these charges? Sacred prostitution was not unknown in the eastern part of the Mediterranean world. However, it was usually connected to goddesses who were believed to incorporate all aspects of other female deities. In Greece this was Aphrodite, elsewhere she was known as Astarte (in Phoenicia) or Atargatis (in Hierapolis). However, the association between sacred prostitution and fertility goddesses makes a connection with the Sol Invictus Elagabal cult unlikely. On the other hand, some scholars think that Sol Invictus Elagabal incorporated both male and female aspects. In that case temple prostitution is easier to explain, and can serve as background for the charges against Heliogabalus. Still, we may wonder if a high priest was expected to perform these cultic acts himself. 

Another explanation is that Heliogabalus did not merely worship Sol Invictus Elagabal, but worshipped the two female deities from the Emesene triad as well: Atargatis and Astarte. This may indeed be the solution. 

Heliogabalus furthermore wished his mother or grandmother to attend the meetings of the Senate. He is said to have created a Senate for women, a senaculum mulierum, in which the women decided on the most outrageous subjects. This women's Senate gathered on the Quirinal Hill. After Heliogobalus' death, it was the first of his measures to be revoked and the (male) senators vowed that no woman would ever enter the Senate's house again.


Sidebuilding of the Baths of Caracalla. Photo Jona Lendering.
Sidebuilding of the Baths of Caracalla

Dio, Herodian, and the Historia Augusta may be the main sources for this period, but they are not the only ones. Archaeologists have established that Heliogabalus is responsible for a circus to the east of the city and the finishing touches to the Baths of Caracalla in Rome. In the garden of the bathhouse, he built shops, an athletic track, sports fields, gardens, massage rooms, saunas, two reading rooms, a hair salon, perfumeries, cafeterias, music pavilions, and a museum.

Numismaticists have established that during the reign of the boy-emperor, the amount of silver in the Roman coins was lowered. Perhaps this debasement caused an army rebellion that is not recorded in the written sources but implied by the fact that the legions I Minervia (in Bonn), II Augusta (in northern Britain), and X Gemina (in Vienna) received the surname Antoniniana. This proves that they remained loyal to an emperor during an insurrection. Only two rulers can have awarded this surname, Caracalla and Heliogabalus, and the latter is more plausible, because Caracalla was popular with the legionaries and the surname was dropped after 222. What kind of revolt the three legions can have suppressed, is not known.
 



Moderation

Although there is no general chronology in the ancient sources, we are well-informed about the last months of Heliogobalus' life. As time passed by and the emperor radicalized his policy, voices of anger could be heard among the populace and the soldiers as well. According to Cassius Dio and to Herodian, most criticism came from the Roman elite.

Heliogobalus' grandmother Julia Maesa feared that the soldiers would not put up very much longer with the sacred violations and disgusting appearances. She therefore persuaded Heliogabalus to appoint his nephew Alexianus, the son of Julia Mamaea, as his successor (caesar) and adopt him as son under the pretense that he needed someone to relieve him from the worries that came along with state affairs. In this way he could spend all his time propagating his religion.

Heliogabalus agreed. The adoption was ratified by the senators, but they made a farce of it: a young boy who already had a son of about his own age. Still, once Alexianus had been adopted on 26 June 221, the hatred of the soldiers and the populace could be tamed and the emperor was safe.

Within a month, Heliogabalus also divorced the Vestal Virgin Julia Aquilia Severa and married Faustina. These acts were also meant to create goodwill. Heliogabalus may have been pushed towards these acts of moderation by his mother and grandmother, but we must not underestimate Heliogobalus' capacity to make his own decisions. Besides, there was room for concessions to those who felt offended: after all, the temple of Elagabal had been inaugurated, and his festival had already been been celebrated.


Julia Mamaea. Bust from the Louvre, Paris (France). Photo Marco Prins.
Julia Mamaea (Louvre)

According to our biased sources, Heliogabalus wished to start at once with the "miseducation" of Alexianus, who had changed his name now that he had been appointed as caesar, and was generally known as Severus Alexander. His mother Julia Mamaea, however, did not wish her son to be corrupted and made sure that he learned nothing from Heliogabalus. She summoned teachers of all arts to educate her son.  Heliogabalus was furious and started to regret the adoption. He expelled the teachers from the palace; the most distinguished ones are said to have been executed.
 

Death

Heliogabalus had gotten rid of Alexander's distinguished teachers, but he could not prevent the soldiers from liking Alexander more than himself. They were disgusted by Heliogabalus but warmed up to the moderacy of Alexander. Julia Mamaea knew that the emperor was displeased with her son. She had Alexander guarded non-stop and took other precautions as well. Her instinct had not failed her, for Heliogabalus was -it is said- indeed plotting against the son he had adopted.

Bust of Severus Alexander from Ryakia. Museum of Dion (Greece). Photo Jona Lendering.
Bust of Severus Alexander from Ryakia (Museum of Dion)

Although Alexander was already favored by the soldiers, Julia Mamaea gained their loyalty as well with a lavish payment. When Heliogabalus heard about this, he increased his attempts to get rid of Alexander, but his designs were checked by his grandmother Julia Maesa, who may have understood that the position of Heliogabalus was no longer tenable. When his plans failed, Heliogabalus tried to make the adoption undone, requested the Senate to take away the title of Alexander, and ordered that the caesar's statues were to be besmirched with mud. This aroused much anger among the soldiers and they could hardly be refrained from killing the emperor. The Senate preferred not to reply to Heliogabalus' request.

This incident can not be dated, but it seems that the moderation was over by December 221, when Heliogabalus remarried his Vestal Virgin. The author of the Historia Augusta says that this first attempt to murder the emperor took place in the palace gardens near the old temple of Hope (the present basilica of the Santa Croce; "Heliogabalus", 13.5). Heliogabalus did not give up and during the consular procession on 1 January 222 -it was his fourth consulship- he refused to come into public with Alexander, who was supposed to be his colleague as consul. His mother and grandmother, however, advised him to appear with his cousin and not to arouse the anger of the soldiers who wished to see consensus between the two young men. Heliogabalus agreed, but refused to sacrifice on the Capitol.

Heliogabalus then spread the rumor that Alexander was dying. The soldiers became extremely angry, refused to take their usual positions, and demanded to see Alexander. On 11 or 12 March 222, Heliogabalus came into public with Alexander at his side; the people cheered for the caesar. Enraged by this gesture, Heliogabalus ordered the overenthusiastic soldiers to be punished for rioting and sedition. Instead, the soldiers, further enraged by this order, revolted. 

According to the author of the Historia Augusta, the emperor's accomplices were taken out first (16.5). Herodian and Cassius Dio mention this too. The courtiers were murdered in the most hideous ways. Then they took out Heliogabalus himself, who had hid himself in a public sanitary. According to Herodian, the murder took place in the soldiers' camp, which is confirmed by Cassius Dio (80=79.20). The bodies of Heliogabalus and his mother were dragged through the streets, desecrated, mutilated and afterwards thrown into a sewer that discharged into the Tiber. Cassius Dio reports that only Heliogobalus' body was thrown into the river. Alexander was greeted by the soldiers as the new emperor and led to the palace.


Statue of Julia Aquilia Severa, damaged after her death. National museum, Athens (Greece). Photo Jona Lendering.
Statue of Julia Aquilia,
damaged after her death.
(National museum, Athens)

According to Herodian, the statues and other cult images of the gods of Rome were brought back to their rightful place. The baetyl which symbolized the liturgy of Sol Invictus Elagabal was seen as an offensive object and sent back to Emesa. The cult of Sol Invictus Elagabal was not forbidden, because it was already too deeply rooted. The college of priests remained. Certain men who had been advanced to positions of honor and power by Heliogabalus, however, were instructed to go back to their previous positions.

Heliogabalus received a damnatio memoriae: his name was expunged from the public records by order of the Senate. He was also refused a burial, was not to be mourned in public, and images or statues of him were not allowed. Those that existed were destroyed - although a couple of them have survived and can be seen in today's museums.

Lauren van Zoonen 2005
Latest revision: 31 March 2006




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