Was Elagabalus Rome's first transgender Emperor?

Group gypsum busts of ancient Roman statues
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Editors Note: We will be using gender neutral they/them pronouns to refer to Elagabalus throughout this article.

Some historians have placed Elagabalus on par with Caligula, the most infamous of Roman Emperors, for their extreme eccentricity and decadence. The English historian Edward Gibbon wrote that the good-looking youth ‘abandoned [themself] to the grossest of pleasures and ungoverned fury’.

Grandmother Julia – 'The Kingmaker'

Born Sextus Varius Avitus Bassianus before adopting the name Elagabalus after the sun god Elagabal, their extraordinary leap from head priest to ruler of the Roman Empire came after the death of their cousin, the emperor Caracalla. It was Elagabalus’ grandmother, Julia Maesa, who instigated their precocious path to power when she exploited a volatile climate of civil unrest. At just 14 years old, Elagabalus became emperor on 16th May 218 AD after the Third Legion at Raphana swore allegiance to the youth.

Religious controversy

From the beginning, Elagabalus initiated a reign remembered for sex scandals, religious controversy, and bizarre behaviour. Their religious beliefs were the first indications of a controversial reign when their grandmother had a painting of them hung over the statue of the goddess Victoria in the Senate House, forcing senators to make offerings to the teenage emperor.

In order to become the high priest of their own new religion, Elagabalus was circumcised and forced senators to witness a bizarre display where they danced around an altar of the Syrian sun god, accompanied by drums and cymbals.

Despite Elagabalus’ eccentric behaviour, they went against convention by allowing women into the Senate. At the time females were barred from the political arena of decision making.

A lifestyle of extreme sexual behaviour

One writer, Cassius Dio, reported that Elagabalus would paint their eyes, shave their body hair, use cosmetics to enhance their looks, and wear wigs, before prostituting themself in Rome’s taverns and brothels. It is claimed that they set aside a room in the palace specifically for their orgiastic gatherings. They would allegedly stand naked at the door soliciting passers-by, who had been selected by the emperor’s agents for their willingness to please them and call them ‘mistress’.

Elagabalus often awarded senatorial and military positions as well as roles in the palace to men they had sexual relations with. In one case they appointed a male dancer as prefecture of the guards and a charioteer called Gordius was given prefect of the watch. Some of the more bizarre appointments included putting a barber in charge of the city’s grain supply. Although possibly mythical, it was alleged Elagabalus bestowed influential positions based on the size of a man’s genitals.

Marriages & lovers

Elagabalus was married four times to three different women. They married Julia Aquilla, a Vestal Virgin twice, act scandalised Rome’s society. However, their most prominent lover was a chariot driver named Hierocles. The gladiator was a blonde slave from southwestern Anatolia who Elagabalus referred to as their ‘husband’ and themself as the wife and the queen of Hierocles. It is claimed that in a public service in Rome they also married another man named Zoticus, an athlete from Turkey.

Gender-fluid

The teenage emperor is regarded as one of the first known gender-fluid Roman rulers. They could possibly be considered transgender on the basis that they was obsessed with changing their birth sex and often considered surgery. They are reported to have offered vast sums of money to any physician who could perform the operation.

Extravagance & degeneracy

One infamous story attributed to Elagabalus is known as ‘The Roses of Heliogabalus’ where it is alleged that, as well as fornicating during banquets, they smothered guests at a dinner to death with a mass of flowers dropped from above. At one extravagant banquet, 600 ostriches were butchered and served at tables merely for their brains to be eaten. Like the infamous Caligula, the teenage Elagabalus was obsessed with wealth and lavished money on the richest of ornaments and precious jewels.

Assassination

The legions became dismayed by Elagabalus’ debauched lifestyle and quickly came to regret having supported his accession. Their grandmother saw that her grandchild's popularity was on the wane with the Praetorian Guard and with another younger grandson in mind to replace Elagabalus she took her cue to rid the empire of them.

Elagabalus managed to flee with their mother, Julia Soaemias Bassiana, but they were eventually found by guards in a chest and viciously slain while clinging to each other. Both were decapitated on the spot.

After being stripped naked their bodies were dragged through the streets of Rome. The headless body of Elagabalus was thrown into the River Tiber. The slaughter continued as those closely associated with the despised former leader were killed, including their lover Hierocles. Elagabalus’ religious edicts were reversed and women were once again barred from attending meetings at the Senate.

If you enjoyed reading about Elagabalus, why not read about Nero, another Emperor with a bad reputation who was accused of starting the Great Fire of Rome.