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Elagabalus Emperor of Rome

Avitus, the Future Emperor


Elagabalus at the Capitoline Museums

Elagabalus at the Capitoline Museums

Creative Commons from Giovanni Dall'Orto

Caesar Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus aka Emperor Elagabulus

Dates: Born - c. 203/204; Reigned - May 15,218 - March 11, 222.

Name: Birth - Varius Avitus Bassianus; Imperial - Caesar Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus

Family: Parents - Sextus Varius Marcellus and Julia Soaemias Bassiana; Cousin and successor - Alexander Severus

Ancient Sources on Elagabalus: Cassius Dio, Herodian, and Historia Augusta.

Elagabalus Ranked Among the Very Worst Emperors

Contemporary or near-contemporary historians sealed the reputations of many of the Roman emperors shortly after their deaths. Among the good ones were Augustus, Trajan, Vespasian and Marcus Aurelius. Those with names that have lived in infamy include Nero, Caligula, Domitian and Elagabalus.
"At the same time, he will learn of the Romans' discernment, in that these last [Augustus, Trajan, Vespasian, Hadrian, Pius, Titus and Marcus] ruled long and died by natural deaths, whereas the former [Caligula, Nero, Vitellius and Elagabalus] were murdered, dragged through the streets, officially called tyrants, and no man wishes to mention even their names."
Aelius Lampridius' The Life of Antoninus Heliogabalus
The Historia Augusta also weighs in with similar condemnation of Elagabalus:
"The life of Elagabalus Antoninus, also called Varius, I should never have put in writing - hoping that it might not be known that he was emperor of the Romans -, were it not that before him this same imperial office had had a Caligula, a Nero, and a Vitellius."

Elagabalus' Predecessor Caracalla's Mixed Evaluation

An emperor with mixed reviews, Elagabalus' cousin Caracalla (April 4, 188 - April 8, 217) ruled for only 5 years. During this time he caused the murder of his co-ruler, his brother Geta, and his supporters, raised the pay for soldiers, waged campaigns in the East where Macrinius was to have him assassinated, and implemented the (Constitutio Antoniniana 'Antonine Constitution'). The Antonine Constitution was named for Caracalla, whose imperial name was Marcus Aurelius Severus Antoninus Augustus. It extended Roman citizenship throughout the Roman Empire.

Macrinus Easily Rises to the Imperial Purple

Caracalla had appointed Macrinius to the influential position of praetorian prefect. Because of this lofty position, three days after Caracalla's murder, Macrinius, a man without senatorial rank, was powerful enough to compel the troops to proclaim him emperor.

Less competent as military leader and emperor than his predecessor, Macrinius suffered losses in the East and wound up making settlements with the Parthians, Armenians, and the Dacians. Defeats and Macrinius' introduction of a two-tiered pay for soldiers made him unpopular with the soldiers.

Enduring Ambitions of Caracalla's Mother

Caracalla's mother had been Julia Domna of Emesa, Syria, second wife of the emperor Septimius Severus. She had conceived the idea of propelling her great-nephew to the throne, but ill health prevented her involvement. The grandson of her sister Julia Maesa (who shared the family ambitious streak) was Varius Avitus Bassianus who would soon be known as Elagabalus.

Sensationalist Biographers of Elagabalus

Sir Ronald Syme calls one of the biographies of the time, Aelius Lampridius' The Life of Antoninus Heliogabalus, a "farago of cheap pornography."* One of the contentions made by Lampridius is that Julia Symiamira (Soaemias), Julia Maesa's daughter, had made no secret of her liaison with Caracalla. In the year 218, Varius Avitus Bassianus was performing the hereditary family function of high priest of the sun god whose worship was popular with the troops. A family resemblance to Caracalla probably led them to believe Varius Avitus Bassianus (Elagabalus) the illegitimate son of the more popular emperor Caracalla.

"The artful Maesa saw and cherished their rising partiality, and readily sacrificing her daughter's reputation to the fortune of her grandson, she insinuated that Bassianus was the natural son of their murdered sovereign. The sums distributed by her emissaries with a lavish hand silenced every objection, and the profusion sufficiently proved the affinity, or at least the resemblance, of Bassianus with the great original."
Edward Gibbon "Follies of Elagabalus"

Elagabalus Becomes Emperor at 14

One of the legions near their family hometown proclaimed Elagabalus emperor, naming him Marcus Aurelius Antoninus on May 15, 218. Other legions joined the cause. Meanwhile, still other troops rallied to defend Macrinius. On June 8 (see DIR Macrinus) Elagabalus' faction won in battle. The new emperor was only 14-years-old.

Elagabalus Discussion in the Forum

"I can't imagine that many people went in for this kind of prank. Having said that, I suppose Elagabalus' guests were relieved to have been subjected to something so relatively harmless!"
Was Elagabalus Mad?

*I don't remember the source of that Syme quote. It is referred to on The Toynbee Convector.

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