Freedom of Religion & Severus Alexander (222-235 AD)

Elagabalus Stone of Emesa

Mixing religion and politics has been a major problem throughout history. It has never worked when one religion attempts to force their particular belief upon others. Freedom of Religion, a cornerstone of the American Constitution, was the product of reason and an understanding of history. Religion has been responsible for more bloodshed throughout history than anything, such as the English Civil War, Protestant Reformation, the takeover of Rome by Christianity, or ISIS today. Examples of such chaos when one religion attempts to force itself upon the majority extends back into Roman times. According to the “Historia Augusta (Heliogab. 1.6), when Emperor Elagabalus (218-222 AD) came to power, he had been the high priest in the city of Emesa, which is Homs today in Syria. He then imposed his religion upon Rome and the Senate.

The Emesa region is historic for its worship of a black meteorite for which Elagabalus was high priest. That meteorite was known as the Stone of Emesa. This was supposed to be the stone from the sun God, which actually played a central role in the region for nearly 2000 years for various religious beliefs. The exact origin of the black stone of Emesa remains rather obscure, but it most likely fell to Earth during the 2nd Century AD since there was evidence of a priesthood that extended well before the 3rd Century.


The destiny of this particular meteorite was closely intertwined with that of a dynasty of king-priests who had been nomads, Bedouins of the desert, before settling down in Emesa. It is possible that the stone fell somewhere else in the Middle East and was carried by the tribe before they settled in Emesa. However, Roman Emperor Septimus Severus (193-211 AD) married Julia Domna from Emesa. Severus was determined to create a dynasty and he depicted his family on his coinage regularly. This would eventually give rise to a hereditary claim to the throne of the Roman Empire by her side of the family centered in Emesa.

Over time, this religious cult worshiping the Black Stone of Emesa became extremely famous throughout the region. By the early 3rd century, the high priest known as Elagabalus from the family of Julia Domna became a Roman Emperor and the Stone of Emesa ended up being the chief deity of the Roman Empire by sheer force. This Black Stone was known under the title “deus invictus Sol Elagabalus,” the undefeatable sun which rises every day.

Stone of Emesa Denarius

The Black Stone of Emesa was depicted on the coinage of Elagabalus (218 – 222 AD) and upon his rise to the throne as an heir of Julia Domna, Elagabalus’ religious beliefs began to surface as a problem. The contemporary historian Cassius Dio suggests he murdered his adviser because he was forcing him to live “temperately and prudently” in order to get the Romans adjusted to the idea of having an oriental priest as emperor (Cassius Dio, Roman History LXXX.6). His mother, Julia Maesa, according to Herodian, went as far as to send a painting of Elagabalus in priestly robes to Rome and hung it over a statue of the goddess Victoria in the Senate House. He was forcing his religion upon Rome, which did not sit very well, to say the least. His homosexual behavior was also creating a scandal, which was much more acceptable in the East compared to Roman culture. The army did not take kindly to these homosexual tendencies. Revolts were breaking out even before he reached Rome.

Elagabalium renamed Temple of Jupiter 224AD

Elagabalus brought the Stone of Emesa to Rome and built a temple there by the Palatine Hill he called the Elagabalium, which was founded on the site of an earlier shrine to Orcus, a native Italic god of the underworld and a punisher of broken oaths. A portion of a capital from the Elagabalium was in the Forum Romanum within the vicinity of the Palatine (R. Turcan, The Cults of the Roman Empire, 10th ed. [2008], p. 181, pl. 21). This capital confirms the appearance of the cult image and includes images of Minerva and Juno. This provides important clues to the claims of Herodian and Dio (80.12) that the emperor transported the Palladium to the Palatine in order to wed her to El-Gabal and later included a second spouse by bringing the cult statue of Juno Caelestis, the Punic Tanit, from Carthage. By doing so, Elagabalus was recreating Rome in the Emesene triad consisting of El-Gabal, Atargatis (Minerva), and Astarte (Juno Caelestis), thereby superseding the traditional Capitoline triad of Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva, the goddess of wisdom and the daughter of Jupiter.

The legends of gods were always full of imagination. It was claimed that Jupiter impregnated the Titaness Metis, but then recalled a prophecy that his own child would overthrow him. Fearing that their child would grow stronger and displace him to rule the Heavens, Jupiter swallowed Metis whole. The Titaness forged weapons and armor for her child while within Jupiter. Constant pounding and ringing by Minerva inside his head gave him a headache. To relieve the pain, Vulcan used a hammer to split Jupiter’s head, and from the cleft emerged Minerva, fully grown and bearing her mother’s weapons and armor. Quite a birth, one would say. So Elagabalus was displacing this Triad of Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva with his eastern El-gabal (replacing Jupiter), Caelestis (replacing Juno), and Atargatis (replacing Minerva). Clearly, Elagabalus sought to subordinate Jupiter to El-Gabal to promote the latter god’s rites. He then demanded the Senate to honor El-Gabal before all other gods when performing their traditional sacrifices. The Elagabalium was to be the new center of worship in Rome. His reign was notorious for religious fanaticism, cruelty, bloodshed, and excesses of every description. There was general satisfaction when, on March 6, 222 AD, Elagabalus and his mother Julia Soaemias were murdered in the praetorian camp. Their bodies were dragged through the streets of Rome and thrown into the Tiber. He was one of the most hated emperors because he tried to impose his religion upon all of Rome by force.

Uranius_Antoninus Stone of Emesa

The Stone of Emesa remained respected and was sent back to Emesa. It appears in history, once again, on the coinage of another high priest who attempted the same path to the throne. When the Christians came to power, they destroy many objects. The Stone of Emesa was smashed. Smaller fragments survived in the region and were worshiped.

Severus Alexander AE Sesterius Temple of Jupiter - R

Elagabalus was succeeded by his cousin Severus Alexander (222-235 AD). He wasted no time undoing the religious machinations of Elagabalus. To advertise that religion was restored, he issued coins depicting the dedication of Elagabalus to Jupiter. He issued coins depicting the restoration of the Temple of Jupiter in silver denarii, the bronze sesterius pictured above, as well as medallions. Severus Alexander was so open-minded that he wanted to allow the Christians to establish their temple in Rome. He was persuaded against that by the majority who did not accept the idea of just one God. They had gone through hell with Elagabalus and were not about to tolerate another Eastern cult.

Colosseum Severus Alexander

Severus Alexander Gold Aureus ColosseumSeverus Alexander (222-235 AD) also issued coins to announce the restoration of the Colosseum was complete. On the day of the Vulcanalia, August 2, 217 AD, a fire devastated most of the Colosseum and the surrounding area. The Colosseum burned for several days and there was nothing left but its skeleton structure. The repairs began under Emperor Macrinus (217-218 AD) and took about 30 years to complete. When Severus Alexander came to power in 222 AD, the Colosseum was inaugurated and dedicated to the gods. Coins were issued in gold, silver, and bronze to announce the dedication.

Severus Alexander NYMPHAEUM - R2

Trophies of Marius

The third major structure announced on the coinage of Severus Alexander was the Nymphaeum located in Piazza Vittorio Emanuele at a fork between the Via Tiburtina and the Via Labicana in Rome. Because the Romans invented concrete, a substantial portion of this monument remains. The construction in 226 AD was brick-faced concrete. The fountain was a two-storied façade with a wide central niche and arched openings on each side. The overall appearance remains one of a triumphal arch. Statues indeed occupied the niches. Two such sculptures known as the Trophies of Marius were removed by Pope Sixtus V in 1590 and still survive atop the staircase leading up to the Piazza Campidoglio. They were recycled from an earlier triumphal monument built by Domitian. The Nymphaeum was connected to the end of the aqueduct into Rome, which was built inside an imperial villa at the time of Emperor Alexander Severus.