He was a Syrian transvestite who enjoyed being whipped in public. He married and divorced at least five women during a four-year period, but his most stable relationship was with a male athlete. He positively adored his pet rock.
Sounds like just another day in W. Hollywood in the ‘70s. Only the year was 217, and the transvestite in question happened to be the Emperor of Rome.
Spoiler alert: things didn’t end well for him.
The story of Marcus Aurelius Antoninus — the Emperor known to history as Elagabulus — begins with the murder of the brutal Roman Emperor Caracalla in 217. Caracalla was replaced by his praetorian prefect, Marcus Opellius Macrinus, who many believed was behind Caracalla’s murder.
Enter the Cersei* of her day, Caracalla’s aunt, Julia Maesa. Julia Maesa instigated a revolt against Macrinus by Rome’s Third Legion. At the Battle of Antioch (one of several historical battles to bear this name), Macrinus was defeated. Julia Maesa successfully maneuvered to have her 14-year old grandson, Antoninus (who we’ll just call Elagabulus from here on), declared emperor in Macrinus’ place.
But if Julia Maesa thought she was going to rule Rome through her grandson, she was in for a rude awakening. Elagabulus was too headstrong and debauched to be ruled by his scheming grandmother – or anyone else for that matter.
One of the first acts of the new emperor was the installation of the sun god El-Gabal (Latinized as Elagabul) as the chief deity of the Roman pantheon. The god – renamed Deus Sol Invictus (the undefeated sun) – was elevated above even Jupiter. He was represented by a black meteorite known as the stone of Emesa (now the city of Homs in Syria). Elagabulus would parade the stone through Rome on a golden chariot, walking backward in front of it so as to face the god.
Even more scandalous was Elagabulus’ divorce of his first wife in order to marry one of the Vestal Virgins. The Vestal Virgins were the guardians of Rome’s sacred fires, sworn to remain virgins for at least 30 years. The punishment for a Vestal Virgin who betrayed her vows was to be buried alive. Elagabulus divorced his new bride less than a year later, only to return to her when his marriage to wife number three didn’t work out.
One possible reason for Elagabulus’ failed marriages was his desire not to marry a woman, but to be one. He is reported to have asked his doctors to cut off his penis and replace it with a vagina. When they refused, he instead publicly circumcised himself, claiming it a necessary act for a priest of Elagabul.
The final straw for the Romans, however, was the emperor’s relationships with men of low birth. The Roman historian Cassius Dio claimed that Elagabulus married his chariot driver, a blond former slave named Hierocles. Other sources say the emperor also married one Zoticus – a particularly well-endowed athlete from Smyrna.
Cassius Dio adds that Elagabalus – wearing a wig and eye make-up — would often pretend to be a prostitute. He would offer himself naked to passersby in taverns, brothels, and even the imperial palace. He would then be “caught” by Hierocles, who would “punish” him with public beatings.
These antics proved to be too much, even for the jaded Romans. The troops rebelled against Elagabulus. They beheaded him and his mother and threw their bodies into the Tiber river after dragging them through the streets of Rome.
The black stone of El-gabul received better treatment, being returned to its proper seat in Emesa. No telling, however, what happened to all those pet rocks from the ‘70s.
*For those who don’t watch Game of Thrones, Cersei is the mother of the evil boy king Joffrey and – oh just rent it, already. It’s brilliant.