I’ve heard some feedback that people want me to talk about ancient Rome because it was like “super gay”. That’s not quite right though — like, yeah, a lot of guys were having gay sex but the place was so patriarchal and sexist that there were laws restricting who could be in the “feminine role” (y’know, bottoms) — slaves, prostitutes, and entertainers; people who did not get the benefit of “citizenship”. That is, that was the situation for male-on-male loving until after today’s subject wasn’t emperor anymore. Things went downhill after that.
Now Heliogabalus (also frequently called Egabalus) was probably born with the name Sextus Varius Atinus Bassianus but it’s hard to know for sure. He was born in Syria around the year 203 CE; his parents were Julia Soaemias and Sextus Varius Marcellus. In his younger years, he was a priest to a god called Elagabalus — a Syrian/Roman sun god that you’ve probably never heard of. And, you’ll note, he shares an alias with his god — there’s a reason for that and the confusion about his names. We’ll get there.
Anyways, in April of 217 CE the emperor Caracalla was assassinated by Marcellus Opellius Macrinus — who became emperor. Caracella’s aunt, Julia Maesa, began a revolt in order to have her grandson Heliogabalus named emperor instead (some families just put the “fun” in dysfunctional, y’know?). Although Heliogabalus was named emperor on May 16 of 218 CE, Macrinus wasn’t officially defeated until June 8. As emperor, Heliogabalus took the name Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus. He was 14 years old. Despite Rome’s best efforts to make it so no one remembered his reign at all, it is remembered — mostly for sex scandals and a total disregard for Roman tradition.
Right from the start, Heliogabalus started changing things and making people very unhappy about it. One of his major projects throughout his reign was changing the state religion to worship of Elagabalus. First he put a painting of Elagabalus over a statue of the goddess Victoria — so when people made offerings to Victoria they were by default also making offerings to Elagabalus (who was basically only worshipped in Syria before this. He was basically considered some kind of redneck, backwoods deity.) Later on he installed Elagabalus as the head of the Roman pantheon, replacing Jupiter, and gave Elagabalus a consort who was one of the pre-existing Roman goddesses (though there’s debate on if that was Minerva, Astarte, or Urania). He built a temple (called the Elagabalium) where he eventually had all of Rome’s most sacred artifacts moved. And, as like an extra “screw you” to the old Roman cult, he installed himself as high priest of the Cult of Elagabalus in a public rite that involved his circumcision — and he forced the entire Roman Senate to attend the ceremony. Let’s just say, the Senate was not overjoyed.
He also gave his mother and grandmother very important positions in the government, including Senate seats (making them the first women allowed in the Senate — imagine how well that went over). They probably were responsible for a number of the decisions Heliogabalus made — because, like, what 14 year old (who had nothing to do with government until his grandmother installed him in power) is going to be doing things with money like reducing the purity of the silver used in the denarius and demonetizing the antoninianus? Which, of course, ticked a lot of people off as well because that was their money he was making worthless.
Heliogabalus was definitely making his own decisions about his love life, though he still managed to make all terrible decisions according to pretty much all of Rome. He reportedly married and divorced five women (although we only know who three of them were). And that’s not counting his marriages to men. In 219 CE, he married a woman named Julia Cornelia Paula. He divorced her a year later and then flipped the bird to Roman tradition by marrying Julia Aquilia Severa — a Vestal Virgin. Vestal Virgins took a 30 year vow of chastity and Romans thought it was VERY important that Vestal Virgins not marry. But Heliogabalus said they’d have “godlike children”. He was married to her for less than a year — basically just long enough to thoroughly destroy her life — and then married a woman named Annia Aurelia Faustina. After that (brief) marriage, he went back to his Vestal bride — claiming the original divorce was invalid. Apparently, after that, she stayed with him (even though we know there were two more wives to go through!) but several sources claim she was kept by his side against her will.
Heliogabalus did have some stable relationships in his life but pretty much exclusively with men. He married an athlete named Zoticus in a very public ceremony and he gave Zoticus a high-ranking administrative position within the government. But his most stable, and most famous, relationship was with a charioteer (and slave) named Hierocles. Although there’s no record of an actual marriage ceremony, Heliogabalus referred to Hierocles as his husband and reportedly delighted in being called Hierocles’ wife or mistress or queen. He attempted to get Hierocles the title of Caesar, but couldn’t manage to get the Senate on board with that.
Heliogabalus also developed a reputation for wearing cosmetics, painting his eyes, and plucking his body hair. He would put on wigs and then prostitute himself in taverns, brothels, and even in the imperial palace. He was said to have agents who were hired to act as his lovers and leave him payments — and he is also said to have bragged to other prostitutes that he was more beautiful, had more lovers, and made more money. Reportedly, he was also offering tons of money to any doctor or surgeon who could equip him with female genitals — sadly, it would be more than 1,700 years before science would actually catch up with this goal. It’s theorized — and I’m not disagreeing with that theory — that Heligabalus was actually a transgender woman or perhaps genderfluid. Unfortunately, with what records we have there’s really no way to determine how he or she personally identified.
Anyways, by 221 CE the Praetorian Guard — the Roman soldiers who personally saw to the emperor’s security — had basically had it with Heliogabalus, largely because of his doting on the slave Hierocles. Honestly, I’m surprised it took them as long as it did. Julia Maesa, his grandmother, finally realized that he wasn’t the best choice to be emperor and decided to replace him with her other daughter’s son — Severus Alexander. She convinced Heliogabalus to name Severus Alexander heir to the throne. This worked well at first, until Heliogabalus began to notice that the Praetorian Guard liked Severus Alexander better. Heliogabalus responded by trying to have Alexander assassinated — which failed. More than once. So, instead, he stripped Alexander of his titles and power and started a rumor that Alexander was dying. The Praetorian Guard rioted and demanded that both Heliogabalus and Severus Alexander make an appearance at their camp.
On March 11, 222 CE Heliogabalus gave in to the demands of the Praetorian Guards and showed up at their camp with his mother Julia Soaemias and Severus Alexander. Since Alexander was perfectly healthy, the Praetorian Guard cheered for him. Heliogabalus was not happy, so he ordered everyone who cheered to be executed. Instead, the Praetorian Guard attacked him and his mom. They were both killed, beheaded, and then dragged through the streets of Rome. His mother’s body was lost somewhere in the streets, and Heliogabalus’ corpse was tossed into the Tiber River.
After his death, all of his religious changes were swiftly undone. The stone of Elagabal was sent back to Syria. His cohorts were executed — including Hierocles. Women were, once again, banned from the Senate. A smear campaign was launched against him, and then the practice of damnatio memoriae was initiated in an effort to erase him from history. This was one of most successful instances of this practice ever — most of what we know comes only from two historians who lived through his reign and bits of the smear campaign that managed to survive. It’s important to recognize that we really have no idea how much of this is true, and how much is the result of a concerted effort to make all of Rome despise him.
Unfortunately, the effect seems to have gone further — it’s arguable that we’re still feeling the effects of Heliogabalus’ disastrous, if short, reign every day. Shortly afterwards, Severus Alexander banished all men in public life who had male lovers from the city of Rome. Penalties, such as fines, were placed on homosexual behavior through the empire. Less than a decade later, male prostitution was illegalized — and, need I remind you, that’s extremely limiting when there’s certain positions that male prostitutes are basically the only people allowed to be in. Constantine — Rome’s first Christian emperor — wouldn’t rise to power until 306 CE, but when he did he enacted harsh laws which led to the murder of certain sects of effeminate priests. Both of Constantine’s heirs would have same-sex relationships (we’ll get to them at another time), the Roman government would continue to attempt to stamp out homosexuality and anyone who did not strictly fit into the gender binary and this would continue until the fall of Rome. As the independent nations of Europe began to develop, they continued this and, when they began to colonize and conquer the rest of the world they carried their bigoted laws with them until they’d spread to every continent. I’d definitely argue that without Heliogabalus’ disastrous reign, history might have been a lot easier on the LGBTQ+ people of the world.
His legacy isn’t all bad though — during the Decadent movement, he was celebrated as a hero in a lot of artistic works. That actually still continues to today — Marilyn Manson’s 2015 album The Pale Emperor was inspired by Heliogabalus.
(Adapted from this Facebook post.)