March 11, 2015, by Will Leveritt
On this day in 222AD Elagabalus, the most luxurious emperor of Rome, was murdered
Text by Lauren Shelton
Image by Kelly Grimshaw and Katy Davies
Born in AD 204 as Varius Avitus Bassianus to Sextus Varius Marcellus and Julia Soaemias, the niece of emperor Septimius Severus’s second wife Julia Domna, Elagabalus’s claim to the throne was brought about through the machinations of his mother and grandmother, Julia Maesa.
Seeking revenge against the current emperor, Macrinus, for his hand in the death of the emperor Caracalla, Julia Maesa sought to remove Macrinus from the throne in favour of her grandson. In order to do this, on May 16th 218, Elagabalus was smuggled into the camp of the Third Gallic Legion in Syria where it was announced that he was actually the illegitimate son of Caracalla and, therefore by heredity, the true emperor of Rome. As the Roman army had been especially loyal to Caracalla, they were quick to take up the call and Elagabalus was proclaimed emperor. Those now loyal to Elagabalus quickly marched against those loyal to emperor Macrinus, the two meeting on June 8th outside of Antioch. Elagabalus’s forces, led by a commander named Gannys, swiftly defeated Macrinus and his armies, with the emperor himself being executed shortly afterwards. This allowed Elagabalus to be officially declared as emperor.
However, it became increasingly apparent that Elagabalus, now officially known as Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, was not suited to the role of emperor. Before he had come to the throne, Elagabalus had been a priest of the Syrian Sun God, Elagabal, and after whom he called himself; this devotion led him to installing Elagabal as the head of the Roman Pantheon, with the Historia Augusta intimating he may have intended this god to be the sole deity worshipped at Rome.*
This was not the sole reason for his lack of popularity, with several ancient sources such as Cassius Dio, Herodian and the author of his biography in the Historia Augusta going to great lengths to outline his perceived immorality and decadence. He was described as having enjoyed dressing as a woman and wearing make-up, spending more than any other emperor ever had on banquets, leaving matters of state to his mother and grandmother and allowing them to attend the Senate, partaking in homosexuality and smothering his guests with flowers if they bored him. Perhaps the most shocking of all to the Romans, was that he married a Vestal Virgin.
Whilst this marriage was quickly dissolved, Elagabalus had nevertheless fallen out of favour with most, including his grandmother Julia Maesa, and was pushed to name a successor. In 211, he named his thirteen year old cousin Bassianus Alexianus his heir (whom history would know as Alexander Severus) but quickly became suspicious of him. This culminated on March 11th 222 when Elagabalus ordered his execution. However this did not go as planned, as the Praetorian Guard, thoroughly dissatisfied with Elagabalus and his disregard for Roman customs, turned on the emperor and had him and his mother Julia Soaemias executed. As a final humiliation for an emperor that had been so despised, their bodies were dragged through the streets of Rome and dumped in the Tiber.
*SHA Elagabalus 3.4.