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Our History: Elagabalus

— By Isaac Hamann 23 December 2016
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Content warning: this article contains discussions of dysphoria, cissexism/transphobia, and transmisogynistic violence.

The decline of the Severan dynasty in the third century CE was a period of rapid change and chaos for the Roman empire, particularly during the reign of the emperor Elagabalus from 218 to 222. Elagabalus was unlike any other emperor, challenging Roman cultural supremacy, introducing drastic religious reform, and, perhaps most transgressively, being a girl.

Though her family and most historians assumed she was a man because of her birth assignment as male, there are plenty of clues that Elagabalus was really a woman. Her gender expression was markedly feminine: the contemporary historian Herodian comments on her elaborate makeup, feminine jewellery, and clothing “suitable only for women”, while Cassius Dio and the Augustan History both note her grooming practices, keeping her whole body depilated in keeping with Roman ideals of womanhood. Elagabalus also seems to have experienced gender dysphoria, and according to Dio she sought a surgeon to perform a vaginoplasty on her - obviously with little success considering it was the 3rd century CE. Gender expression is, of course, not the same as gender identity, and Elagabalus’ clothes and grooming do not prove she was a girl. Her self-identification, however, does. Dio includes details of Elagabalus’ self-identification as a woman, and an anecdote in which she corrected someone who misgendered her: “Don’t call me lord, I am a lady”. From these accounts, it seems fairly likely that Elagabalus was a transgender girl.

She was born sometime around 203 CE, to a noble family in Emesa, Syria (modern day Homs). Her father was a successful Roman politician, promoted to Senator shortly before his death, while her mother, Julia Soaemias, was a relative of the Severan imperial family, cousin to then-emperor Caracalla. During Elagabalus’ early life, she served as high priest of the Emesene sun god Elagabal, whose name she was later given. When she was 14, Caracalla was assassinated by his bodyguards the Praetorian Guard, and their commander, Macrinus, declared himself emperor. This did not please Elagabalus’ mother, who wanted another Severan emperor, so she began plotting with her mother, Julia Maesa, to seat Elagabalus on the throne. Travelling to the nearby camp of the soldiers of the Third Legion, who knew her well from her role as priest, Elagabalus secured their support against Macrinus, and was declared emperor.

When he heard about this, Macrinus immediately sent an army from his camp near Antioch to subdue the rebellion, but Elagabalus convinced them to join her. With these troops at her back, she marched on Antioch, and led a charge that inspired her troops, forcing Macrinus’ army to retreat. Macrinus was captured and executed, and the Senate officially pronounced Elagabalus emperor.

She soon set off for Rome with her mother and grandmother, but on this journey things began to turn sour. In the winter of 218-219, she performed the sacred rites of Elagabal, as she had since childhood - but this time there was a problem. Her Roman supporters were angered by the sight of their emperor carrying out Syrian religious practices in feminine purple robes, marking the start of a widespread orientalist and transmisogynistic backlash against Elagabalus’ rule. Scared of losing her own influential position if Elagabalus was rejected, Julia Maesa tried to convince her granddaughter to adopt traditionally masculine Roman clothing, but the teenage emperor stood firm, insisting that the Romans accept her foreign religion and transgressive gender expression.

Unfortunately for Elagabalus, the Roman political elite only grew more infuriated by her behaviour as emperor. She had the holy stone of Elagabal - a large black meteorite - brought to Rome from Emesa, and pronounced Elagabal the new chief deity of Rome, above Jupiter, king of the Roman pantheon. In another controversial break with tradition, Elagabalus invited her mother and grandmother to actively participate in senatorial debate, the first women ever to do so. She also had a series of scandalously brief marriages - to both men and women - which further appalled conservative Romans. Even her most stable relationship, a marriage to an Anatolian chariot racer named Hierocles, became divisive when she tried to give him, a former slave, the imperial title of Caesar.

Elagabalus’ gender also continued to count against her. She was expected to live up to Roman ideals of manliness, so her insistence that she was a woman and feminine presentation were considered unnatural and immoral. Nevertheless, Elagabalus never backed down on her identity. Such public defiance of cissexist norms became increasingly untenable to conservative Roman culture, and by 221 CE her own grandmother Julia Maesa had begun scheming to overthrow her.

Maesa first proposed that Elagabalus appoint her young cousin, Severus Alexander, official imperial heir, which she did. After a few months, though, Elagabalus began to suspect a plot against her, and stripped her cousin of his title. This angered the imperial bodyguard, who had been bribed to support Alexander, and in March 222 they mutinied, murdering Elagabalus and her mother and throwing their bodies into the River Tiber. The teenage Alexander then became emperor; for the second time in four years, a military uprising placed a 14-year-old in charge of the Roman Empire.

Elagabalus’ legacy has been tarnished by a transmisogynistic and orientalist smear campaign carried out by historians from the 3rd century all the way through to the 21st. Her Syrian background and transgressive femininity have been demonised as inherently decadent and sexually immoral by writers invested in maintaining Western cisnormativity and orientalism, and it is only fairly recently that more sympathetic portrayals of her have emerged. Elagabalus certainly wasn’t a good ruler, but what teenager would have been in her position? Despite everything, she was publicly and unapologetically a bi trans girl in a society that hated her for it, and she deserves better than the hyperbolic vilification she’s endured.