While by all accounts a bad Emperor, I find Elagabalus to be a fascinating figure due to his allegedly feminine presentation. Of course, you have to take the written accounts with a grain of salt, but if even just some of the accusations against him were true then Elagabalus was almost certainly what we would now consider a transwoman. To clarify, the surviving accounts of the Roman Empire mostly come from Senators. So if an Emperor pissed off the Senate, he’d be damned to history despite probably being more well-rounded than we’ve been led to believe. A good example of this phenomenon is Nero, who in the historical record is a sadistic madman that fiddled while Rome burned, but was actually popular with the commoners. In fact, Nero used the Imperial palace to shelter the newly homeless after the fire.
However, the charge that Elagabalus literally hit on his own Praetorian Guard (supposedly standing by doorways and mewing at them like a prostitute) and offered a reward to any doctor who could give him female genitalia is *really* specific. Sexual debauchery is a common slander used against people in the Roman sources, but that strikes me as too unusual, too specific and too wild even for the Roman writers. It’s not a charge ever filed before or after in Roman historiography as far as I’m aware, which makes me believe it must be based on some sliver of truth however exaggerated. (Most slander against the unpopular Emperors isn’t completely fabricated, just caricatured depictions of real problems with their reign.) So, while Elagabalus probably wasn’t nearly as lecherous as we’ve been told, I do think it’s as likely as not that he was possibly trans (just not as cartoonishly over the top about it as depicted), or at the very least effeminate and gender nonconforming.
(ASIDE: For the record, I refer to Elagabalus with male pronouns because, ultimately, we cannot be 100% sure and for better or worse he lived his life as a male. That said, Elagabala, stylized as “Ella Gabala,” or even “Elle Gabal” sounds cute to me 🙂 As it happens, Elagabalus’ name is yet another modern anachronism; in his own time he was known as Bassianus but the nickname arose due to his devotion to the foreign God, El-Gabal. With that context in mind, “Elle Gabal” strikes me as an adorably humanized and feminine version of his God’s name. But…that’s just me thinking out loud 😜)
What Does This Mean for Modern Audiences?
1) I think it’s cool to see some proof there were transwomen back in the days of Ancient Rome. As far as a lot of ignorant people are concerned, they just sort of magically sprang up into existence in 2014 just for fun. And to my knowledge this would also make Elagabalus the first and thus far only transgender head of state in human history. I’d have preferred if a more competent Emperor held this honor, but it’s still pretty cool as-is.
2) It also shows that even all the riches and power in the world are no substitute for living authentically. Assuming the charges are accurate for a second, that means Elagabalus could not stop himself from asking for a vagina, or sex with men, even with so much to lose from displeasing his masculine, moralizing subjects. As inexperienced as he was, surely he must have understood that such actions would be frowned upon in the best of circumstances. That, to me, is the ultimate example of how it’s more important to be yourself, to be Bassiana, even if it means discrimination and defamation in history as well as death. If you, the reader, are sympathetic to transgender experiences, it’s both a profound and tragic story that would make a great novel or film someday. If you’re not, then surely you must agree that if nothing else, being transgender is not a choice–why would someone with the world at their fingertips throw it all away on a hunch to present femininely?
3) It’s an example of our reliance on, essentially, malicious slander at worst, gossip at best for our understanding of history. We really don’t understand the distant or even not-so-distant past as well as we think we do. Imagine how accurate your life story would be if written by your worst enemy? Imagine people 2,000 years from now relying on FOX News reports, or Rush Limbaugh for information on Obama’s life. Remember real life people are far more complex than the caricatures we create from faulty sources.
Odd that no one else has liked this. Elagabalus is certainly a fascinating figure! Since discovering that painting by Alma-Tadema, it has become one of my all-time favourites. Love this essay too. And please don’t stop thinking out loud! 🙂
Did you know that Elagabalus/Heliogabalus has been the subject of numerous musical odes? Understandably perhaps, most of them are pretty extreme—lots of doom metal and sludgy stuff. Here’s the one I discovered first, a 70-minute howl of pain by the Swiss band Rorcal: