According to the author Neil Gaiman: “Heliogabolus was just a weird kid with a thing about animals and big dicks.” As summaries go, this may not be far off – he’s that strange a character. Elagabalus (officially Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus) was emperor for for years, starting at the age of fourteen. In that time, he mostly concerned himself with religious matters – he had been brought up to be the priest of a Syrian sun god called Elagabal. As emperor he continued in this role and promoted the sun god as the highest of the gods. He was also, mostly famously, accused of shocking acts of decadence and sexual behaviour. In the end, he was assassinated by guards and replaced by his cousin at the age of eighteen.
In this book, Icks starts by reviewing the historical sources and Elagabalus’ probable life. Although the sources are heavily biased and reports of scandalous behaviour has to be taken with a pinch of salt, the emperor was unpopular enough to be killed after a short reign despite the lack of any military, natural or economic disasters. The religious element too is exaggerated, despite stories to the contrary it does not seem that Elagabalus was planning on turning monotheist – but the religious reforms seem like the most likely source of discontent.
In the context of the 3rd century, Elagabalus could seem like a step in the transition from the Principate to Constantine – the shift of focus on to the Syrian sun god (Sol Invictus) was later carried out more successfully by Aurelian and certainly helped the later transition to Christianity under Constantine. In fact, the religious changes seem more of a false start than a stepping stone, and only add to the feeling of a character ‘out of time’.
Much of the second half of this book is taken up with reviews of literature and historigraphy in the centuries after, right up to the modern day. There is a transition from medieval and early modern works that treat the emperor as a generic decadent tyrant, to twentieth century works that play with his gender and sexuality. Both of these have something to them, depending on which sources you wish to use – the stories give a lot of scope: five marriages including a vestal virgin; marrying a chariot driver who he referred to as his husband; killing guests by smothering them with rose petals; selling himself as a prostitute; harnessing naked women to his chariot; attempting to have his genitalia surgically changed. Among all the myths and interpretations the one that actually sits best for me is Elagabalus as the young, insecure emperor – bullied by his mother and grandmother, not quite mature enough for his role.
In the end, despite the lurid tales he’s a somewhat peripheral figure in Roman history and even in the art and literature it has inspired. Despite the number of works covered in this book, they are all relatively obscure – he may or may not have been a unique personality among the emperors of Rome, but he is far from the infamy of Nero or Caligula – and even Commodus has Gladiator. Perhaps his story is just a bit too odd to make great fiction?