History : Mar-Apr 2016
PROFILES Bassianus the new emperor of Rome. The other eastern legions were quick to follow in recognizing him. A eunuch who served as Bassianus’s tutor, Gannys, would be- come a general, and would defeat Macri- nus in Antioch, in modern-day Turkey, less than a month later. After the usurp- er’s capture and execution, Julia Maesa’s victory was secure. Rebel, Rebel Despite the lure of imperial life in Rome, the new emperor made his own rules with no regard for Roman customs and culture. He refused to adopt the traditional gods of Rome and abandon his own. Instead, he stayed faithful to his cult of Elah-Gabal and brought a statue of the god with him on the nearly 2,000-mile journey from Syr- ia to Rome. Utterly unconcerned with doing what was politically appropriate or diplomat- ic, the new emperor, soon known as Elagabalus, built a temple to the Syrian deity on Palatine Hill. Despite being em- peror, he continued in his role as high priest throughout his reign. Cows, sheep, and—according to the more sensational accounts— even humans, were sacrificed in honor of Elah-Gabal. Accounts say that the finest wines were mixed with sacri- ficial blood and poured out as offerings. Elagabalus showed no respect to any religious cult other than his own. He even profaned the House of the Vestal Virgins in the Forum by taking one of the sacred virgins as his wife. “There is nothing more appropriate than the marriage of a priest to a priestess,” he told a stunned Senate. This act, probably more than any other, shocked Rome to the core. The scandals and excesses of the em- peror apparently knew no bounds. In one account he is said to have amazed the Ro- man people with his naumachiae, simu- lated naval battles held in the Circus Maximus, with ships floating on wine to evoke the “wine-dark sea” of Homer’s Odyssey. Just as impressive were the elab- orate processions in which chariots pulled by elephants, tigers, and lions scaled the Vatican Hill, trampling any tomb that lay in their path. At his banquets, and while presiding at games, the Augustan History relates, Elagabalus hugely enjoyed distributing presents or “chances” to the populace. One day it might be a fine piece of steak, another day a dead dog, or hundreds of gold coins, so that he could amuse himself watching the people scramble for them. The same source also relates how he might, on a whim, serve “food” made of wax, wood, stone, or marble. Once he is said to have rained down so many flower petals on his dinner guests that they al- most suffocated. Above all, Elagabalus had a reputation for giving free rein to his sexual impuls- es and took many lovers of both sexes. “He never had intercourse with the same woman twice except with his wife,” the Augustan History relates, “and he opened brothels in his house for his friends, his clients, and his slaves.” On one occasion he gathered all the city’s prostitutes in the Forum and ap- peared before them “in a woman’s cos- tume and with protruding bosom.” He then proceeded to harangue the assem- bled crowd as if giving orders to ranks of soldiers. He instructed them in sex- DAGLI ORTI/ART ARCHIVE ELAGABALUS, THIRD-CENTURY MARBLE BUST DAGLI ORTI/ART ARCHIVE On one occasion, Elagabalus dressed as a woman and rallied Rome’s prostitutes in the Forum. BIGGEST FAN Elagabalus idolized the strength, speed, and beauty of charioteers, as depicted in this third-century mosaic from Sicily.