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Who is Heliogabalus?

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  • Written By: Niki Foster
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 30 November 2016
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Heliogabalus, also called Elagabalus, was the Emperor or Rome from 218 until his assassination in 222 CE. Ascending the throne at the age of 14, he was a controversial and extremely unpopular emperor. He replaced the highest Roman deity, Jupiter, with Deus Sol Invictus, or the "Unconquered Sun God," a name he used to refer to El-Gabal, the deity of his hometown in Syria and the emperor's namesake. Heliogabalus' reign was also characterized by moral decadence, which made him reviled among early historians, but adopted as a kind of cultural hero in the Decadent movement of the late 19th century.

Heliogabalus was born Varius Avitus Bassianus in Emessa, Syria in 203 CE. As a young boy, he acted as priest of the local deity, El-Gabal, worshipped in the form of a black meteorite. Roman Emperor Caracalla was murdered in 217, and his Praetorian prefect Macrinus took his place. Caracalla's aunt, Julia Maesa, helped stage a revolt that resulted in her grandson, Heliogabalus, becoming Emperor.

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When Macrinus became Emperor following Caracalla's death, he exiled Julia Maesa and Heliogabalus to Syria, as he recognized the threat they posed to his power. Julia Maesa did indeed begin to plot immediately for her grandson to take the throne, styling him as Caracalla's illegitimate son and using her wealth to persuade the former Emperor's followers to support her cause. Heliogabalus assumed Caracalla's given names, Marcus Aurelius Antoninus. Macrinus sent troops to quell the rebellion, but they soon sided with Heliogabalus. Further attempts to regain power were likewise unsuccessful, and Macrinus was captured and executed in 218, at which time Heliogabalus ascended the throne.

Heliogabalus' religious unorthodoxy became problematic early in his reign. Julia Maesa covered the statue of Victoria in the Senate with a painting of her grandson in his priestly robes, forcing the Senators to pay the young emperor tribute whenever they made offerings to the goddess. Heliogabalus made El-Gabal the most important Roman deity, building a temple called the Elagabalium and moving important religious artifacts there out of other temples. Heliogabalus promoted the worship of El-Gabal to the exclusion of other gods and goddesses.

Heliogabalus was also disliked for his sexual conduct. He married a Vestal Virgin, a female priest who was supposed to remain celibate for 30 years according to Roman custom. She was the second of five women he married and divorced throughout his reign. Heliogabalus also had sexual relations with men and referred to his chariot driver Hierocles as his husband. Perhaps most outrageous of all, the emperor was said to dress as a woman and prostitute himself, even in the imperial palace.

With such behavior, the young emperor quickly wore out his welcome. Julia Maesa, perceiving that the Praetorian Guard was losing loyalty towards Heliogabalus, convinced the Emperor to name his cousin, Severus Alexander, as co-consul. Alexander quickly became more popular than Heliogabalus, and the latter responded with assassination attempts and finally by stripping Alexander of his titles.

Heliogabalus brought about his own end when he circulated a rumor that Alexander was dying. The Praetorian guard rioted and demanded to see them both. When they did, Heliogabalus called for the rioters to be arrested and executed, but was ignored. Instead, he was murdered along with his mother, and Severus Alexander became the new Emperor.

Heliogabalus became so hated during his reign that contemporary historical sources on him are full of slander, making it difficult to tell which stories are true. He was erased from all public records after his death as a sign of his dishonor, and worship of El-Gabal ceased in Rome. In the Decadent movement of late 19th century France and England, the wild stories about Heliogabalus and his excesses made the Emperor a popular subject in art and literature.

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