June 26, 2015, by Will Leveritt
On this day in AD221 the emperor Elagabalus adopted Severus Alexander
Text by Annabel Rock-Clarke
Image © Mint Imperials
On the 26th June AD 221, Marcus Julius Gessius Bassianus Alexianus was adopted by his cousin, the emperor Elagabalus. Upon adoption he was styled Caesar Marcus Aurelius Alexander, and he was to go on to be the last emperor of the Severan dynasty.
The adoption was sparked by the character and behaviour of the emperor Elagabalus, which had estranged the Praetorian Guard, the Senate and the common people alike. His reign is remembered for its scandal and religious controversy. He is said to have had little respect for Roman religious traditions. For example, he replaced the traditional head of the Roman pantheon, Jupiter, with the deity of whom he was high priest, Elagabal. He also forced leading members of government to participate in religious rites celebrating their deity over which he personally presided.
It was soon realised by his surrounding family, notably his grandmother, the powerful and influential Julia Maesa, that pretence of stability and uniformity under Elagabalus was the greatest safeguard of the Principate. It was Maesa who urged Elagabalus to adopt his young cousin, Severus Alexander, as his successor. However, according to Roman law there must be, between the adopter and the adopted, a suitable age difference. In this case, Elagabalus overrode the law and adopted his cousin despite the fact that he was only four years younger.
The adoption provided much needed security for the preservation of the Severan dynasty, for family members and government alike. Julia Maesa could guarantee her safety and continued power in the knowledge that her grandson, Alexander, would succeed his cousin. In addition, the government could also hope for better administration and government under the future regime of Alexander.