27 February 2007

More Uppity Women: the 4 Julia's (Part III)

The Third Julia, Julia Soaemias

How would a mother feel whose elder daughter has just been brutally murdered and her body thrown into an open sewer along with the mutilated remains of her grandson?

Would she have felt any differently if that grandson had been Emperor of Rome?

But what if he were the Emperor Elagabalus?

When we left Julia Maesa, you may remember, she was sitting in the Senate and speaking up in debate. She was also watching her imperial grandson with growing anxiety during the three years, nine months and four days of his rule.

Elagabalus was not interested in running the empire. Provincial duties bored him: once in Rome, he never left the city again. He had no enthusiam for the army or for conquest: “I do not want titles derived from war and bloodshed,” he supposedly said. “It is enough for me that you call me Pius (pious) and Felix (happy, prosperous)." What he did care about was the Sun-god, Elagabal, whose priest he was (and by whose name he is known). And he wanted to make Elagabal the first god of the empire, placed high above all other deities. Accordingly, he brought the black stone that he worshipped from Emesa to Rome:

A six horse chariot carried the stone
[pictured left in its Emesan temple], the horses huge and flawlessly white, with expensive gold fittings and rich ornaments. No one held the reins, and no one rode in the chariot; the vehicle was escorted as if the god himself were the charioteer. Elagabalus ran backward in front of the chariot, facing the god and holding the horses' reins. He made the whole journey in this reverse fashion, looking up into the face of his god.

Instructions were issued to every Roman magistrate or person conducting public sacrifices that Elagabal's name should precede any other gods invoked by the officiating priests.

Next, he built an enormous and magnificent temple for his god near the imperial palace, on the Palatine Hill - a remarkable achievement in such a short reign - on a site perhaps usurped from Jupiter. He took the title of High Priest of The Unconquered Sun, Sol Invictus Elagabal (relegating the traditional dignity of Pontifex Maximus to a footnote).

The photo (© M. Prins & J. Lendering) shows the massive terrace and foundations, all that’s left of this vast temple (the little church to the right, dedicated to the Christian martyr, Saint Sebastian, marks the spot). After Elagabalus' death the temple was once again dedicated to Jupiter and the black stone shipped back to Syria.

The Roman elite looked at Elagabalus askance. They had every reason.

I will not describe the barbaric chants which [he], together with his mother and grandmother, chanted to Elagabal, or the secret sacrifices that he offered to him, slaying boys and using charms, in fact actually shutting up a lion, a monkey, and a snake in the god's temple, and throwing in among them human genitals, and practicing other unholy rites, while he invariably wore innumerable amulets.

The ‘Assyrian’, as he became known, was on a slippery slope.

The offence consisted, not in his introducing a foreign god into Rome or in his exalting him in very strange ways, but in his placing him even before Jupiter himself and causing himself to be voted his priest, also in his circumcising himself and abstaining from swine's flesh, on the ground that his devotion would thereby be purer. He had planned, indeed, to cut off his genitals altogether, but that desire was prompted solely by his effeminacy..

Clothes make the man

He wouldn’t wear the Roman toga, but was "frequently seen even in public clad in the barbaric [long silk] dress which the Syrian priests use, and he used to dance, not only in the orchestra, but also, in a way, even while walking, performing sacrifices, receiving salutations, or delivering a speech."

No doubt he was only honouring his god, but Maesa was extremely worried when she saw this, and continually tried to persuade him to change into Roman clothes. In Rome, she knew, this kind of finery was more appropriate for women than men. And it led, of course, to salacious tittle-tattle.

[Elagabalus] used to have the story of Paris played in his house, and he himself would take the role of Venus, and suddenly drop his clothing to the ground and fall naked on his knees, one hand on his breast, the other before his private parts, his buttocks projecting meanwhile and thrust back in front of his partner in depravity.

The ‘Assyrian’ now plumbed the lascivious depths:

He gathered together in a public building all the harlots from ... places of amusement and from the public baths, and delivered a speech to them, as one might to soldiers, calling them "comrades" and discoursing upon various kinds of postures and debaucheries. Afterwards he invited to a similar gathering procurers, catamites collected together from all sides, and lascivious boys and young men. And whereas he had appeared before the harlots in a woman's costume and with protruding bosom, he met the catamites in the garb of a boy who is exposed for prostitution.

Shameful, Lawless, and Cruel!

..when addressed with the usual salutation, "My Lord Emperor, Hail!" he bent his neck so as to assume a ravishing feminine pose, and turning his eyes upon [the beautiful athlete] with a melting gaze, answered without any hesitation: "Call me not Lord, for I am a Lady."

I could go on, but we’re not that kind of blog.

"No one could endure to tell or hear of " what Elagabalus got up to, an ancient author insists - who then proceeds to tell us every bit of it. For those who wish to know, all the texts are preserved on a fascinating (alas, no longer updated) website celebrating the decadent emperor, The Electronic Library of the Bath House

He wasn't just a wimp and did put his foot down at times, taking a dim view, for instance, of lèse-majesté: Although the emperor seemed to spend all his time dancing and performing sacrifices, he executed many distinguished and wealthy men, after information was laid that they disapproved and made fun of his way of life. No third century emperor, it seems, could fail to leave a trail of dead bodies.

To all appearances, too, he batted both ways. He married a woman from the most aristocratic family in Rome, in order, as he said, that he might sooner become a father. He soon divorced her and married the Vestal Virgin, Aquilia Severa, thereby most flagrantly violating Roman religious law. “I did it," he was purported to have said, "in order that godlike children might spring from me, the high priest, and from her, the high-priestess." However, he divorced her, too, and married a second, a third, a fourth, and still another; after that, he returned to Severa, his no-longer-virgin Vestal.

But true love lay elsewhere: [Elagabalus] was bestowed in marriage and was termed wife, mistress, and queen. The husband of this 'woman' was Hierocles, a charioteer, and ... his affection for this 'husband' was no light inclination, but an ardent and firmly fixed passion. He wished to make him Caesar in very fact; and he even threatened his grandmother when she opposed him in this matter.

Julia Maesa moved quickly. She had another grandson waiting in the wings, her younger daughter's son, Alexianus (now renamed Alexander). At her urging, Elagabalus brought his cousin ...before the senate, and having caused Maesa and Soaemias to take their places on either side of him, formally adopted [Alexander]as his son; and he congratulated himself on becoming suddenly the father of so large a boy— though he himself was not much older than the other.

Alexander was about 13 ½ years old at the time, Elagabalus 17.

As Elagabalus’ popularity drooped, Alexander’s rose. The stage is set for drama between their mothers, Julia Soaemias and Julia Mamaea. But this post is already overly long. To be continued (tomorrow if I can).

Update (23 May 2008): There is an interesting dedication from Woerden, The Netherlands, that shows the Syrian Sun-god was already known on the other side of the empire more than a half century before the reign of Elagabalus. Published yesterday by LacusCurtius & Livius.Org

Pro Salute Imperatoris Caesaris Titi Aelii HAdriani
Antonini Avgusti Pii
BASSVS Signifer COHortis
For the good health of the emperor caesar Titus Aelius Hadrianus
Antoninus Augustus Pius,
to the invincible sun Elaga-
bal and Minerva has

Lucius Terentius
Bassus, standard bearer of the third
unit of Breuci [erected this altar].


  1. Excellent article. So much disinformation exists about Roman Emperors ; it is refreshing to read you're insightful and revealing comment.

  2. Thanks Segestan,

    I hope you keep on reading Zenobia's blog. Lots more to come in 2008.


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