This article will discuss the tragic and tumultuous reign of Emperor Elagabalus. Out of all the Emperors and important figures in Rome’s long history, few Emperor’s reigns were as tragic or controversial as that of Roman Emperor Elagabalus. The teenage Emperor would eventually go down in history as one of Rome’s worst Emperors. We will also cover the Elagabalus fountain since it is a structure still standing which is named after him.
During his reign, he was known as Marcus Aurelius Antoninus. The name Elagabalus didn’t start till after his death. He ruled between 218-222 AD. Despite his brief rule and brief life, his reign might be one of the most fascinating out of not just the Severan dynasty but out of all the Roman Imperial Emperors.
Before he became Emperor, his name was Varius Avitus Bassianus. He was born in either 202 or 204 to Sextus Varius Marcellus and Julia Soaemias Bassiana. His name was a Latinized form of the sun god’s name. Elagabalus was eventually made high priest of this Sun god because his family claimed hereditary rights. Elagabalus was also a member of the Severan dynasty. This dynasty had been in power since the fall of Emperor Commodus.
Roman Emperor Elagabalus
In 218 AD, Elagabalus became The Emperor of Rome. He was only 14. Caracalla, one of the previous emperors, had just been assassinated. In the aftermath, there was a conflict between rival competitors.
Macrinus was a man who was born in what is today Algeria in the city of Caesarea. Macrinus was already in his fifties when he grabbed power. He then tried to win Roman favor back home by kickstarting a campaign into the Parthian territory, using his skills as a military man.
Elagabalus and his family were also in the same area that Macrinus was in. Elagabalus was also gathering support amongst the legions in that area. As a result the Third Legion Gallica and the Second Legion Parthia ended up proclaiming Elagabalus Emperor.
Near Antioch, a battle was fought between the two previously mentioned legions on the side of Elagabalus. Macrinus’s side had elements of the Praetorian Guard. Elagabalus was eventually victorious. Macrinus then fled the area knowing he faced death if captured. Macrinus masqueraded as a member of the civilian police. He would be arrested in the city of Chalcedon and executed.
On his march back to Rome, Elagabalus declared himself Emperor of several Roman cities in Asia Minor and Greece. Unlike his predecessor, Elagabalus was not only a proper Roman-born ruler but was also a member of the ruling dynasty.
Decision and Character
As an emperor, Elagabalus was eccentric. Some of the more unusual things that Elagabalus did during his reign included, marrying a vestal virgin. Vestal virgins were priestesses of the goddess of the hearth and the homestead. This vital position was not allowed to be tainted by having sexual relations.
Other unusual decrees and decisions made by Elagabalus included declaring the sun god and (the god that he had been a high priest as) the most important god of the Roman pantheon. Elagabalus was originally a Phoenician deity. This declaration upset many Romans. As Emperor and pontifex Maximus of Rome, Elagabalus decided to build an impressive temple dedicated to the god that he had proclaimed chief deity. At that place, there were a number of impressive features including a fountain. He was infamous for his amount of debauched habits.
One of the Roman construction still visited today which is named after the Roman Emperor Elagabalus is the Elagabalus Fountain. Its history is currently being debated as to what it was used for. Originally it was thought to be a simple bathhouse.
During recent excavations at the Elagabalus fountain, they found 3rd century porcelain Portraits for the Severn Dynasty. This makes it likely that originally the Elagabalus fountain had a more important use at the beginning of the 3rd century. Then the use was changed in the 4th century with renovations to more of the Bathhouse we know today.
One of the provocative and debated aspects of Elagabalus is his sexuality and his gender. Elagabalus wore wigs and preferred being called my queen or lady. Historians would go as far as to state that Elagabalus would prostitute himself in taverns. This was most un-noble behavior. For some time after he became emperor, Elagabalus also stopped eating pork and had himself circumcised. Whether he did this as a show of respect to the Jews isn’t clear.
Downfall and Death
His bizarre habits, decisions, and peculiar ways at the time made him quite unpopular with many in Rome. Elagabalus gained many powerful enemies in the senate and even amongst the Praetorian Guard. His grandmother decided that he, and his mother, who encouraged many of his behaviors, must die. On March 11 or 12, 220 AD, Elagabalus was taken by order of his cousin, Alexander.
The Praetorian guard started cheering Alexander. Elagabalus ordered their arrest on the charges of insubordination. Instead of obeying their emperor, Elagabalus was stabbed to death by a member of the Praetorian guard. His mother sobbed over his lifeless body, and then both mother and son had their heads cut off. Elagabalus’ corpse was thrown into the river Tiber. His mother’s body was disposed of in an unknown location in Rome.
He was a teenager who had quirks and eccentricities far beyond any average human. His troubled habits led him and Rome down a path of destruction. Rome needed a strong ruler and was given the opposite of that. It was an age where only the strongest emperors would rule for long. Elagabalus’ rule was brief and tragic. With all of his strange and unusual ways, it is not overly surprising that he met a brutal end.
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