Making Caligula blush, Elagabalus – one of the most notorious of Rome’s ‘bad emperors’ – has become a counter-cultural hero.
In the Western world, more and more countries are legalising same sex marriage. Critics are often vocal in their condemnation of what they regard as a nefarious development, pointing out that it constitutes a break with many centuries of tradition. Yet proponents, naturally, are not impressed by their arguments. Anticipating the United States Supreme Court decision on same sex marriage in March 2013, The Voice host Carson Daly remarked on NBC Today: ‘I can’t believe that we’re even discussing this, it still seems so archaic. Because there is a new normal out there. We gotta move on.’
In the time of the Roman Empire, the argument of tradition carried a lot more weight than it does in modern-day democracies, especially where sexual norms were concerned. As a member of the Roman elite, going against the mos maiorum, the ancestral custom, was a sure way to earn the hatred and scorn of one’s peers. Custom dictated that a man could engage in sex with a partner of the same gender, as long as he made sure he played the ‘active’ part in the relationship and refrained from penetrating fellow citizens. However, some Romans showed little regard for these unwritten rules. Eighteen centuries before the Netherlands became the first country in the world to legalise same sex marriages in 2001, the teenage emperor Elagabalus (r. 218-222) allegedly took the charioteer Hierocles for his husband. As the contemporary historian Cassius Dio records, Hierocles fell out of his chariot during a race, right in front of the imperial box, and, losing his helmet, revealed a face ‘still beardless and adorned with a crown of yellow hair’. The emperor, completely smitten, ordered the man to be taken to the palace and married him not much later. Apparently, he was content to play the bride to Hierocles’s groom, allowing his husband to beat him up on a regular basis. Rumour had it that he even contemplated elevating the former charioteer to the rank of Caesar and giving him a share in the rule of the Empire.
Greco-Roman authors record that this was not the only way in which Elagabalus deviated from the norm. The young ruler was apparently fond of wearing make-up and women’s clothing, contemplated castrating himself and even asked his physicians if they could change his gender by providing him with an artificial vagina. He appointed actors, charioteers and other riff-raff in the highest offices, forced a Vestal virgin to marry him, and sent out scouts to bring him men with large penises to nourish his insatiable appetite. Moreover, his deviance was not limited to the sexual sphere. The emperor also made a big splash in religious affairs, deposing Jupiter as the supreme god of the Roman pantheon and replacing him with the solar deity of his Syrian home town. He honoured this god with weird, orgiastic rites, slaughtering hecatombs of cattle every morning and performing ecstatic dances with Syrian women, guided by the music of cymbals, flutes and other instruments. When he was eighteen years old, the Praetorian Guard could no longer stomach his shenanigans and turned against him. The young man was lynched, decapitated, dragged through the streets and eventually chucked into the river Tiber.
The story of Elagabalus could be read as the story of a teenage boy who gained more power than he knew what to do with. Alternatively, and perhaps more likely, it could be read as the story of an emperor whose controversial religious policies offended the establishment and made him the target of one of the most vicious posthumous slander campaigns in world history. At any rate, Elagabalus’s reputation as an effeminate, masochistic weirdo mesmerized by an exotic god was sealed for centuries to come. As the Enlightenment Age British historian Edward Gibbon remarked, the emperor’s ‘vices and follies’ had quite justly earned him an ‘inexpressible infamy’ that surpassed ‘any other age or country’.
It was exactly this infamous reputation that attracted the attention of the twentieth-century playwright and actor Antonin Artaud. As the co-founder of the short-lived Alfred Jarry Theatre, he wanted to introduce European audiences to a new kind of performance, which he dubbed ‘theatry of cruelty’. This moniker did not indicate a penchant for sadism, but rather an ambition to fully submerge the viewers in performances that focused on the body and on non-verbal signs. Artaud’s goal was to reconnect audiences with the roaring primeval forces that lay hidden behind the veil of everyday life. In his essay Héliogabale ou l’anarchiste couronné (1934), the playwright used Elagabalus as a vehicle to present his ideas. In his view, the teen emperor was ‘a spirit undisciplined and fanatical, (…) a rebel, a crazed individualist’ who had turned the entire Empire into a stage. Elagabalus’s acts were no mere vices and follies, Artaud explains, but deliberate provocations. The author notes that ‘the initial anarchy was within him and ravaged his organism’. Through a ‘marvellous ardour for disorder’, Elagabalus sought to subvert the norms of the Roman establishment and to bring the Romans back in touch with the spiritual forces of anarchy that still thrived in the East, but had been largely forgotten in the static, petrified West.
As idiosyncratic as Artaud’s ideas were, they set the stage for other interpretations of Elagabalus as an imperial rebel. Most of these emerged from the sixties onwards, when hippies and other representatives of counterculture started to challenge conservative ideals. In the Italian anti-novel Super-Eliogabalo (1969), Alberto Arbasino employed the figure of the em-peror to present an ironical, critical view of the massive student protests of 1968. Gay activists found inspiration in the emperor’s alleged defiance of traditional gender roles. A prime example is Martin Duberman’s 1973 play Elagabalus, in which a young gay man living in New York seeks to model his life after that of the long-dead Roman ruler. According to Duberman, the protagonist’s guileless, positive outlook on life and his wild, unconventional ideas could serve as an example for those who want to shed their ‘male armor’ – that is, to reject the traditional masculine role and to explore the other possibilities that are available to them. ‘You have to learn to play against type,’ the reincarnated emperor tells his boyfriend. ‘That’s how you discover there aren’t any types.’
In the twenty-first century, Elagabalus is still celebrated as a counterculture hero. In his novel Boy Caesar (2004), Jeremy Reed appears to be taking a page from Artaud. ‘Already he saw himself dragging it in front of the Senate,’ the author remarks. ‘He had it in mind to subvert the whole gender-bias on which Roman society was founded.’ If the growing acceptance of same sex marriage is any indication, the ideals voiced by the imperial rebel in Elagabalus, Boy Caesar and other works are only gaining ground. Long despised as an outcast, the hedonistic, androgynous, gay figure of Elagabalus may one day come to represent the ‘new normal’. We are moving on, indeed – but whether we are moving forward will be the topic of discussion for a long time to come. ■
Martijn Icks is Lecturer in Ancient History at the University of Düsseldorf and the author of The Crimes of Elagabalus, which is now available in paperback.