Friday 24 March 2023


What a Pooftah

No doubt my astute readership will notice the flurry of posts toward the end of this month. In truth, I have a number of posts ready and waiting for posting but for the want of a little editing. Some of these posts 'in waiting' are quite old and thusly I've decided to put forth a little editing effort.

The Roman Emporer Elagabalus ruled Rome for but a short time. The reign was truncated and tumultuous, marked by scandal, corruption, and religious controversy.

I've written extensively about ancient Rome including vignettes on the more famous/infamous Roman emperors. Of course, there are many to write about, although most are unremarkable and demand to be forgotten. During the 3rd century, during a crazy period of political instability, emperors came and went at an alarming rate and it is a wonder why so many seemed so keen to take office when the average tenure could be measured in months. A time unimaginatively known as the 'Crisis of the Third Century'. Anyway, I've decided to continue the theme, concentrating on some of the more interesting and colourful characters ever to don 'The Purple'. Today's post concerns emperor Elagabalus. This was not his given name but a later addition/affectation due to his adherence to weird and exotic Oriental religious practices. This character was unfit to rule and was not expected to. A mere marionette whose strings were pulled by powerful personalities behind the screen, notably his mother and grandmother. 

If decadence can be measured by its rulers then the 'rule' of Elagabalus indicates how far the once great Roman Empire and society had declined. An institution initiated by Octavius in 27BC had seen a plethora of incumbents, of varying competence by the time of Elagabalus' rule. However, the general reader only remembers the like of Nero and Caligula. Who recalls Marcus Aurelius or Vespasian?

Elagabalus, also known as Heliogabalus, was a Roman Emperor who 'ruled' from 218 to 222 AD. He was born in 203 AD in Emesa, Syria, as the son of Sextus Varius Marcellus and Julia Soaemias, who was the niece of the Roman emperor Septimius Severus. His real name, assigned at birth, Sextus Varius Avitus Bassinianus, was more in keeping with his eventual destiny. He adopted the nickname Elagabulus due to the worship of a sun deity of the same name. Like Gaius Caesar Germanicus, who from an early age became known as Caligula (little boots), Elagabalus is virtually unknown by his birth name. At the tender age of 14, this unremarkable wretch became emperor after the assassination of his cousin, emperor Caracalla. Caracalla is also worthy of my literary ministrations- mayhap a blog topic for the future? 

Elagabalus was known for his extravagance, particularly his lavish spending on religious rituals and ceremonies. As mentioned, he worshipped an Eastern sun god and was a self-appointed priest of the effete deity, Elagabal, and rashly brought the cult of Elagabalus to Rome when he became Imperator. He ordered the construction of a temple to Elagabalus on the Palatine Hill, and he himself would perform the religious ceremonies, wearing extravagant robes and jewellery. He even tried to introduce the worship of Elagabalus as the primary religion of the Roman Empire, which caused outrage among the Roman people. Rome was usually tolerant of the importation and inclusion of foreign gods into their pantheon, nevertheless, there was a strict hierarchy of deities with the traditional Roman gods at the pinnacle. Even the dissipated Roman populace of the period was not quite ready for the usurpation of their religion by a lush Oriental idol. Eventually, Christianity would fulfil the role once Roman civilisation was at its nadir. 

Elagabalus was also known for his scandalous personal life. He married five times, including a Vestal Virgin, which was considered a grave offence in Roman society and without precedent. And indeed, in more enlightened times, a Vestal who broke her vows of chastity would be buried alive. He justified his decision by stating that the union, if fruitful, would result in 'god-like children'. A Roman should stay within cultural norms or be Caesar. He also had numerous sexual relationships with both men and women, which was considered abhorrent by conservative Romans. His behaviour was seen as disrespectful to Roman values and traditions, and he began to accrue opposition from the Roman Senate and more importantly and disastrously, the military. 

In addition to his religious and personal controversies, Elagabalus was also known for his ineffectual rule. He was heavily influenced by his mother, Julia Soaemias, and his grandmother, Julia Maesa, who were both ambitious and sought to control the emperor. Elagabalus was often distracted by his extravagant lifestyle and did not pay much attention to the affairs of the state. He appointed incompetent officials and advisors, which led to widespread corruption and mismanagement.

Elagabalus faced several challenges during his reign, including military uprisings and invasions by foreign powers. In 222 AD, he faced a rebellion led by his own cousin, Alexander Severus, who was supported by the Roman Senate and the Praetorian Guard. In March 222AD whilst visiting the Praetorian camp Elagabalus was assassinated along with his mother, Julia Soaemias, by his own troops. Alexander Severus became the new emperor and attempted to restore order to the Roman Empire. For the period, Severus' reign of 13 years (222-235AD) is to be considered almost miraculous.    

Despite his short and controversial reign, Elagabalus  left a lingering impression on Roman history. His introduction of the cult of Elagabalus to Rome had a lasting impact on Roman religion, and some scholars argue that his influence can be seen in later Christian practices. His scandalous personal life and extravagance also contributed to the further decline of the Roman Empire and the erosion of traditional Roman values. Elagabalus remains a fascinating figure in Roman history, representing the excesses and corruption of the later Roman Empire. 


  1. If you've got it, flaunt it!

    1. Great advice. Unfortunately, the Romans flaunted their 'goods' while Rome burned. Go tell unto Nero and Alaric.