So what were the crimes of Elagabalus? Deemed one of Rome’s “bad” emperors, his brief rule (219-222 CE) is remembered for its gross ineptitude and gross perversion. Tyrannical and cruel, Elagabalus booted Jupiter from the top of the pantheon of gods and dared to marry a Vestal virgin. He was an “Eastern” import, a Syrian, tone deaf to Roman culture and custom.
In actuality, he was more or less a pawn in his family’s push for imperial power. Behind the throne was “a conspiracy of women and eunuchs”, according to Gibbon of Decline and Fall fame. But Martijn Icks — whose multilayered history investigates the emperor’s rule alongside its myriad historical reinterpretations — calmly believes that “the reign of Elagabalus does not appear to have been very remarkable or innovative.”
With primary textual sources, coins, inscriptions, and artworks, Icks makes a valiant effort to sift fact from myth but concedes the task is essentially impossible. The primary sources – the Historia Romana of Cassius Dio, Herodian’s Ab excessu divi Marci, and the anonymous imperial biography Vita Heliogabali — blend reliable history with Classical kink. Politically motivated, these biased histories laid the foundation for the emperor’s notorious legacy.
Belonging to a prominent family from the Syrian city of Emesa, Elagabalus was a youthful priest of Elagabal, a local sun god who was worshiped in the form of a conical black stone. His second cousin was the emperor Caracalla, who died childless. To restore her clan to power, Elagabalus’s grandmother, Julia Maesa, claimed that Elagabalus was actually Caracalla’s son.
In the strange soap opera that is Roman history, events proceeded quickly: soldiers in the pay of Julia Maesa defeated the emperor Macrinus, Elagabalus became emperor at the age of 14, the victorious boy ruler went to Rome and initiated a series of religious reforms. These proved unpopular. In March 222 he was killed and his body dumped in the Tiber, but not before it was dragged through the streets. The new emperor would be Severus Alexander, his adopted cousin.
These facts are not as notorious as the indulgent and thoroughly un-Roman lifestyle choices the emperor made. Or at least so the primary sources claim. Nights spent on Roman streets disguised as a male prostitute, his effeminacy and androgyny, administrative positions awarded for penis size, his resplendent suicide tower. The debaucheries became legendary. But there is a disparity between the sensational anecdotes and the unexceptional, even boring events of his reign. Icks feels that “the years 218-22 can be considered one of the most tranquil and peaceful periods of the third century.”
By challenging established accounts, Icks demonstrates how presumptions become truths. The cliché of history being written by the winners holds true for Elagabalus. He was unfortunate enough to suffer a damnatio memoriae, a condemnation and destruction of his memory. Icks, viewing the primary textual sources in light of the damnatio memoriae, understands their limitations and places them under heavy scrutiny.
The result is a work that would rather suppose than be incorrect, a history that is honorable and honest in what can and cannot be known. Fact is not the focus, but rather how historical understanding arises and adapts. Elagabalus remains in constant flux. He is “an elusive figure, an often inextricable tangle of history and imagination.”
The second half of Icks’ study delves into the fictional afterlife of the emperor. His alleged depravity and elegance made him a fitting icon for Decadent writers. More recently, Elagabalus has become “a modern gay role model.” In an interesting twist, this most maligned of Roman rulers has increasingly been viewed in a positive light. He stirs the modern imagination as a rebel, an individualist, and a nonconformist trapped in a severe civilization. The wheel turns. The story of Elagabalus is a protean layering of fresh interpretations of interpretations previous, going all the way back to antiquity.
Icks trades the intoxicating depravity of a mythic Elagabalus for a sincere push against the limits of historical source material. He then uses the emperor to understand how an individual becomes an image and how images are perpetually made anew. Ironically, by accepting that so much of his story will not be known, Icks allows Elagabalus to become real to us, again. Instead of some perverse tyrant, Elagabalus may simply have been an unprepared teenager who unexpectedly had the world thrust upon his shoulders.