Who actually was… Heliogabalus?
“Heliogabalus“ was the nickname of a Roman emperor, his birth name was Varius Avitus Bassianus and as emperor he called himself Marcus Aurelius Antoninus. He came to power through a military coup as a young man and became posterity’s best example of the decadence of Roman emperors with his ruthless, vicious behavior.
After just four years in office he had alienated many political friends and ruined his reputation to the point that he was assassinated. As if death wasn’t enough, the Roman senate also imposed the ‘damnatio memoriae’, the “damnation of memory” on Bassianus. This meant that his name was removed from all records and all effigies and inscriptions containing his name or likeness were destroyed.
Bild „Elagabalo …“ (Quelle: „Elagabalo (203 o 204-222 d.C) – Musei capitolini – Foto Giovanni Dall’Orto – 15-08-2000“. Lizenziert unter Attribution über Wikimedia Commons –
Bassianus was born in 204 AD. His father Sextus Varius Marcellus came from the Roman province of Syria and built his career in the administration in Rome. The grandmother of Bassianus, Julia Maesa, was the sister-in-law of the emperor Caracalla. Father Marcellus became senator with her protection and lastly held the office of a governor in the Roman province of Numidia in Africa. This gave Bassianus the status of an eques, a “knight” and hence made him part of Rome’s nobility.
So, we can assume Bassianus had a sheltered childhood in Rome and enjoyed the upbringing of the Roman upper class, even if his father in his role of a governor in Numidia could not be with him in Rome. In 217, when the Praetorian captain Macrinus killed the emperor Caracalla, Elagabalus’ circumstances changed dramatically. Following the assassination Macrinus himself became the emperor and banished the family of his predecessor to their homeland in Emesa, which is Homs today.
This decision was to prove fatal for Macrinus, since Julia Maesa had strong societal support in her home city. Her family stemmed from a priest dynasty of the local god Elagabalus in Syria. This gave her great influence and significant financial means; both of which she used to bring her son to power.
Using a combination of bribes and promises Julia Maesa managed to convince the local Roman occupants to revolt against Macrinus. They crowned Bassianus as the counter-emperor with the name Marcus Aurelius Antonius. Here it will have also helped that his grandmother declared him as the illegitimate son of the murdered Ceasar Caracallas, since he was very popular with the army. Multiple legions joined the revolt and when Macrinus tried to quell the rebellion, he was defeated and killed.
Now that his rival was dead, Antonius and his soldiers began their journey to Rome. On the way there was an altercation with his mentor Gansys, who was a confidant of his grandmother. It is said that Antonius battered Gansys to death himself. As soon as he arrived in Rome, he felt the hostility of the senate. Even Caracalla, of which he was staged to be the successor, had to govern against the senate.
Despite the murder of her confidant Gansys, his grandmother still supported Antonius. She busied herself with managing his rise and pulling political strings, since Antonius was still very young and hotheaded. He did not care about protocol and disregarded Roman traditions, for example by dressing as an Eastern priest instead of a Roman. To make up for his temper, he tried to win over the population and soldiers with financial gifts and circus games.
So after his arrival in Rome Antonius married a noble woman of the upper class, whom he soon divorced. Instead he married Julia Aquila Severa, which caused a scandal, as she was a priest of the god Vesta. Vestals pledged abstinence and defiance was punishable by death. While he initially divorced Aquila and took another wife, probably due to pressure from his grandmother, he later returned to Aquila.
Not only his love life but also his politics displeased the nobility. He tried to build up a loyal fellowship by giving state offices to unknown men from the lower classes and even promoted former slaves to high offices. Besides the loss of their sinecures, this also meant a backlash for the reputation of noble families, who traditionally claimed those positions for themselves.
The most controversial issue during his reign was his policy on religion however. Antonius saw himself as a priest king and attempted to make worship of the god Elagabal from his homeland the official religion in Rome. To this end he transferred a central sanctuary of the cult to Rome: The holy stone. He further wanted to symbolically marry the god Elagabal with Tanit, the god of fertility, and his own marriage was to resemble this connection. This was of course contrary to the Roman understanding of abstinence and moral. Additionally Antonius was circumcised, as is tradition in the Middle East; this was frowned upon in Roman tradition.
His grandmother must have sensed that her favorite was not making the best of impressions and so she forced Antonius to adopt his cousin Bassianus Alexianus and to make him co-regent while at the same time solving the question of succession according to Roman tradition. In doing so she aimed to keep power within the family should the current emperor fall from grace. Antonius must have seen this coming, as he reportedly organized multiple assassination attempts on his cousin, all of which failed.
On March 11th 222 Antonius was murdered by mutinying soldiers, who were most likely incited by his grandmother. They killed him and his mother and threw his body into the Tiber river. The senate confirmed his cousin Alexianus as his successor. He then became the new emperor with the name of Severus Alexander and imposed the damnatio memoriae on Antonius.
Yet the lore of his actions survived and historians in later centuries described Antonius as the best example of a decadent and corrupt ruler, accused him of homosexuality and all kinds of perversions and gave him the byname Elagabal (“Heliogabalaus” in Latin), after the god he wanted to impose on the Romans.
By the way: Modern historians don’t all agree on whether the Romans really imposed a “damnatio memoriae” to remove the name from history or not. After all, almost all those who have been affected by such a judgment are still known today. The incomplete removal of names could even mean that the person in question was to remain in the public memory as particularly corrupt.