“His head was covered in a lofty tiara, his numerous collars and bracelets were adorned with gems of an inestimable value. His eyebrows were tinged with black, and his cheeks painted with an artificial red and white. The grave senators confessed with a sigh, that, after having long experienced the stern tyranny of their own countrymen, Rome, was at length humbled beneath the effeminate luxury of Oriental despotism.”
~~ Edward Gibbon, Decline & Fall of the Roman Empire ~~
The Romans would most likely not have viewed events in this way: for all the faults modern society may feel they possessed, Romans were not racist or xenophobic about where people came from; the sole requirement was whether you could cut the mustard or not, not who, what, or where you came from. So, the sight of an oriental, 14 year old boy bedecked in the finest vestments of an eastern potentate could adorn himself with, would not have struck them as too far left field. Respect for tradition was an entirely different matter; and the young emperor Elagabalus was riding for a very hard fall if he didn`t understand the inner intellectual mechanism of the Roman elite.
The Historia Augusta, is, for the most part, fairly unreliable in it`s historical accuracy, but it does feed the reader with plenty of succulent and scandalous morsels regarding it`s imperial targets. Think of it as the Roman equivalent of a mass circulation scandal mag, and you probably have it`s target audience……….Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.
“At the start of his consulship, instead of throwing silver and gold coins or sweets or tiny animals to the people, he threw them fat cattle, camels, donkeys, and deer to tear apart, saying that it was the imperial thing to do.
He drew a chariot drawn by four elephants on the Vatican hill, destroying tombs that stood in his path.
He also had his chariots pulled by dogs, stags, lions, tigers or even naked women.
He would invite to dinner eight men who were all bald, or all one-eyed, or all gouty, or all deaf, or all black, or all remarkably tall, or all fat.
He would give his fellow diners air cushions rather than real cushions, and then let the air out, so that they suddenly found themselves under the table.
He would have his guests served food made of wax, wood, ivory, pottery, or stone, while he himself ate real food.
He would often make his companions drunk and then shut them in bedrooms with lions, leopards, or bears which had been rendered harmless.
At banquets, he used to give out spoons with prizes written on them, one reading `ten camels,` another `ten flies,` another `ten pounds of gold,`another `ten pounds of lead,` another `ten ostriches,` another `ten hen`s eggs.`
He did the same when he put on games, with prizes such as ten bears, or ten dormice, or ten lettuces, or ten pounds of gold; he invited the performers also to take part, with prizes such as a dead dog, or a pound of beef, or a hundred gold, silver, or copper coins.”
Elagabalus was a practicing priest of the eastern mystery cult of the Sun, Sol Invictus, which was worshipped at Emesa in the shape of a jet black conical stone that was believed to have fallen from the sky as a direct gift from the god to the scurrying earthlings below his lofty, celestial perch. On arriving in Rome to claim his prize as leader of the Roman Imperium, he made it his immediate mission to replace the traditional head honcho of the Roman religious pantheon, Jupiter, with his slab of stone. It has to be said, that this went down like the proverbial spare male sexual appendage at a wedding with the ruling elite, who wanted nothing to do with this deviant, oriental religious hanky panky.
A brand spanking new temple was erected for the purpose of adoration on the Palatine, where expensive and elaborate ( cost no object) ceremonies were performed by bejeweled, scantily clad devotees, while the most prestigious of the citizens were required to attend , thus, unwillingly implicating them in the overthrow of their own, centuries old traditions.
“I am delighted to be called the mistress, the wife, the queen of Hierocles.”
Elagabalus was, at the very least, bi-sexual: this wouldn`t have outraged a Roman society which was extremely free-and-easy with it`s sexuality; what did stick in the craw, was the fact that emperors were supposed to set a nominal example of moral rectitude, and be able and willing to take up a sword and defend the empire against the barbarian scum beyond the frontiers. Being openly effeminate, wearing jewelry and dresses, scented and bedding down with a charioteer when he should be engaging in the more manly pursuit of producing an heir, were all ticking the wrong boxes for the job description of perfect emperor and father of his country.
Actually, he had several wives percolating away on the back burner; unfortunately, one of them was a Vestal Virgin. The job description of this important religious post is clearly in the title `Vestal Virgin,` which required the lady to be a virgin: the punishment for breaking their vows was being buried alive: so Romans took this part of their traditions very seriously. Vestals were supposed to be beyond moral reproach, and spiritually pure of mind and body, which didn`t weigh too heavily with the emperor, who went ahead and took her to bed.
“His memory was branded with eternal infamy by the Senate; the justice of whose decree has been ratified by posterity.”
~~ Edward Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire ~~
Gibbon, like all of us, was a product of his age, which gave a dim view of the virulent moral corrosion of so called, “Roman perversions,” which ate away at all those sturdy, stoical and martial attitudes which he thought had made Rome great. For him, and most other historians before, and since, Elagabalus was a morally degenerate loose cannon indicative of the decline of the cultural inner core of Roman society. This emperor has basically been ignored by history because he was a one-off; a cul-de-sac, into which Rome had temporarily stalled the motor, before turning the key, reversing out, and moving on. He`s not part of any pattern; his religious reforms were created as he went along, and society reverted back to the traditional basics after his removal.
And removed he was: quite forcefully in fact; the Praetorian Guard murdered him, stripped him naked; no doubt smeared his lipstick by sticking a meat hook into his mouth, and dragged him to the nearest sewer and threw him away to join the rest of Rome`s waste deposits. He was different, he was unusual, but he wasn`t mad: he simply failed to register that his actions and behaviour were out of step with what was expected of him. He had been brought up from day one into a life as far removed from `normal` Roman values as we are geographically from the planet Mars, and he was incapable of seeing that he needed to tone down his behaviour and blend in more.
To be out of step with society brings the danger of being marginalised, and at worst, seen as a threat to the social conditioning of rest of the human hive; and there hasn`t been a job in the whole of history as exposed to the vagaries of social perceptions than that of Roman Emperor. Weakness of any sort was not an option: forget the occasional maniac who crept in under the radar, that`s why so many emperors were truly remarkable and highly gifted men. Elagabalus was neither considered a man, gifted to rule an empire, or strong: he was a child given the job of the world`s C.E.O. and he came up short. He was was just a very naughty boy who lived his four years as emperor like a rock god who crashed and burned after too much booze, sex and drugs. It`s better to burn out than fade away.