13 March 2007

The Curious Case of Elagabalus' Beard

He shaved his minions' groins, using the razor with his own hand -- with which he would then shave his own beard.

This rank insult by (the possibly fictitious) Aelius Lampridius in the Historia Augusta comes hard on the heels of an equally squalid but entirely contradictory charge:

In the public baths he always bathed with the women, and he even treated them himself with a depilatory ointment, which he applied also to his own beard, and shameful though it be to say it, in the same place where the women were treated and at the same hour.

How revolting! Elagabalus not only used hair-removal creams on his chin and chops but spread it on his pubic area as well – proof positive of a perverse, effeminate nature: prostitutes, courtesans, and probably upper class women were smooth all over, applying psilothron (melted pine resin in oil), boiling dropax (bryonia?), or a waxing plaster called Venetian clay to legs, arms, and intimate places. The poet Martial, in this (as in so much else) is explicit about that last point:

Epigram III.74

You smoothe your face with psilothron and your bald scalp with dropax. Are you scared, Gargilianus, of the barber? What happens with your nails? For surely you can't cut them with resin or Venetian clay. Desist, if you have any shame, from displaying your wretched bald scalp: this, Gargilianus, is what usually happens with a cunt.

Elagabalus is thus accused both of shaving his catamites’ privy parts with the razor he used on his very own beard, and also of being smooth like a woman on his chin and below the belly too. The author may be confused but not a jot less censorious: he had his whole body depilated, deeming it to be the chief enjoyment of life to appear fit and worthy to arouse the lusts of the greatest number.

The word of Cassius Dio, Senator

Dio, who nicknamed the emperor 'Sardanapalus' (after he was safely dead), was quoted in the previous post, as saying that Elagabalus had once “shaved his chin and held a festival to mark the event; but after that he had the hairs plucked out, so as to look more like a woman.” While Dio does not charge him with pubic depilation, he goes one better:

He carried his lewdness to such a point that he asked the physicians to contrive a woman's vagina in his body by means of an incision, promising them large sums for doing so.

The purpose of what would have been the world’s first transgender operation is as predictable as it was deplorable:

[He] set aside a room in the palace and there committed his indecencies, always standing nude at the door of the room, as the harlots do, and shaking the curtain which hung from gold rings, while in a soft and melting voice he solicited the passers-by.

“Thus far,” says the conservative Senator, “I have described events with as great accuracy as I could in every case.”

A trustworthy source?

The "haunting portraits" of Elagabalus at the top of the page caused a brief flurry in the learned blogosphere last Christmas when David Derrick published them on The Toynbee Convector. As he pointed out, it had been a deliberate Christian choice to usurp the Sun-god's natal celebration for Christ's birthday (earlier, I think, than David says: it was still within the reign of Constantine I). It had been Elagabalus, of course, who had introduced the Imperial cult of the Sun-god to Rome (which makes him, I suppose, a kind of mega-great-godfather to Christmas). Meanwhile, Adrian Murdoch on Bread and Circuses observed to his own surprise,"If my eyesight is not failing me ... it seems to show an imperial statue sporting a [moustache]."

A moustache?

“There is no [other] image in the whole history of the empire showing a Roman wearing a moustache on its own. Indeed ... there is not even a Latin word for ‘moustache’.”

David rejoined, ”It may just be a sign of Elagabalian eccentricity.... And if that was unknown in the Roman world, all the more reason [for him] to have done it."

Our sources say he depilated. These statues show a moustache. Did he, or didn't he?

Coins don't lie (at least not so much)

Elagabalus’ image on his coins show four stages (I am following Jona Lendering at Livius.Org on the stages). Note the growth of facial hair:

* a boy's portrait

* a lad with longer sideburns

* sideburns up to the chin and a moustache

* with a full beard.

Elagabalus had become emperor when a little more than 13 years old and died in his 18th year. If anything, he seems positively precocious to have sported a curly beard at the age of 18. He hardly had time to shave, let alone to depilate too, before losing his head entirely. The point is: the Senator (and the gossips) seem to have made it all up, and had no qualms at spreading unfounded scurrilous tales. Another stick with which to beat the dead “Assyrian”.

I wonder if it wasn't the oddity of the moustache that first provoked the whole mess. A worse breach of Roman decorum than we now know (though strangely not mentioned in our sources). It may, indeed, be an eastern custom. I’ve found some statues of Parthian nobles who do have moustaches and no accompanying beards. Too few and too separated in time for any firm conclusion, but, again, suggestive of an eastern habit entirely misunderstood and twisted by the Roman elite.

And this is the reason why:
Elagabalus in the gown of the Priest of the Sun.

It's a drag to be an Emperor.

Before we go: What about the third Julia, his mother Julia Soaemias?

History has not been kind: “She lived like a harlot and practised all manner of lewdness in the palace.”

The first measure enacted after her son's death, we are told, provided that no woman should ever enter the senate, and that whoever should cause a woman to enter, his life should be declared doomed and forfeited to the kingdom of the dead.


  1. Anonymous6/5/07 17:58

    The Dying Gaul has a rather nice moustache. But he's not Roman or even Greek (or maybe, as a Galatian, he's partly Greek).

    Actually, a rather 70s moustache.


  2. Or it may be that the busts in those photos are NOT Elagablus after all. Now that De Arrizabalaga y Prado has gathered photos of all reputed busts of this emperor in one place (in his book The Emperor Elagabalus: Fact or Fictoon?), one begins to wonder how such different images have all become assigned to the boy emperor. Of the coins we can be certain; of the busts, I am dubious.

  3. @Istvan, thanks for that comment. I have heard of Prado's book but haven't read it. Of course, you are both quite right to point up the problem of identifying uninscribed busts. I'm not sure there is any scholarly consensus on this yet. I do tend to agree, however, with some of Prado's critics on his handling of the (admittedly very tricky) documentary evidence. See, for ex., this review in Ancient History Bulletin

  4. I found Prado's book fascinating. Mary Beard in the TLS also objected to his methodology, and virtually said she preferred the gossip of Historia Augusta to P's more stringent approach simply because the gossip is more "fun." P begins by accepting only artefactual evidence(inscriptions, etc.) about Elagablus, disregarding the ancient historians, so as to reboot our ideas about E. from the ground up; then proceeds to a more traditional narrative interpretation. His background is Philosophy at Cambridge rather than History, and I am not surprised to see traditional historians lambasting his highly skeptical epistemological approach, as it would put the more slipshod among them out of business...and spoil the "fun"!

  5. @Istvan, true to a certain extent but you still have to deal with the written sources in a sophisticated way. You might have a look at my review last year of Icks, The Crimes of Elagabalus

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