The emperor known to history as Elagabalus, takes his name from the sun-god of Emesa for which he had been made high priest on May 16th, 218 AD. Elagabalus was actually born about 205 AD as Varius Avitus Bassianus and later became known as “Marcus Aurelius Antoninus”, the formal name found in titles and on his coinage. Elagabalus was born at Emesa the son of Sextus Varius Marcellus and Julia Soaemias, the daughter of Julia Maesa and grandson of the empress Julia Domna. He was related to Septimus Severus only through marraige but was the cousin of the emperor Caracalla.
With the assassination of Caracalla in 217 AD, power passed to the Praetorian Prefect Macrinus. At first, Macrinus made no threat against his mother Julia Domna who was living in Antioch at the time. Julia Domna, however, would not stay out of politics and eventually Macrinus was forced to order her to leave Antioch. Julia refused and instead starved herself to death. It is most likely that she was dying of cancer in any event.
The Severian women were very domineering, a trait that seems to have inflected the entire family. Julia Domna’s sister was certainly no exception. Julia Maesa began to make her plans to grab power using her grandson Elagabalus in 217 AD. She managed to smuggle Elagabalus into the camp of the Third Legion in Syria and by morning had convinced the troops that they should proclaim her grandson emperor of Rome.
Macrinus attempted to win back the loyality of the troops by paying a donative. However, his recent reforms of the military made him very unpopular and instead he was forced to flee Antioch in a futile attempt to make it back to Rome. The rebels overtook Macrinus and executed him as well as his son Diadumenian who was attempting to flee to Parthia. Thus began the reign of Elagabalus who would become one of the most notorius emperors of Rome sharing that distinction with Caligula, Nero, Commodus and Caracalla before him. Elagabalus was accepted by the Senate as Emperor and began his journey to Rome in 219 departing from Nicomedia.
The Black Stone From God
Gold Aureus Stone of Emesa
When Elagabalus departed for Rome, he also took with him the famous black stone symbol of the sun-god Elagabalus from the temple at Emesa in Syria. Herodian described this Stone of Emesa as being rounded at its base and rising to a point at its top. There were a few rough projections, in which people believed they saw an image of the sun. This black stone was most likely a metior lending its legend that it came from heaven as a gift from the god to mankind. Therefore, the role of the priest and the possession of this stone was of great symbolic power.
Elagabalus had been made high priest of the sun-god cult when he was very young. Both he and his mother were religious fanatics and went as far as to take their eastern god to reign over all Roman gods in Rome itself. He constructed a very large temple adjacent to the Colosseum on the Palatine Hill. A second temple was erected just outside of Rome. He and his family would walk backwards in a procession before the stone as it was brought to the second temple outside of Rome during a midsummer festival. Cassio Dio describes sacrifices of both annimals and young boys. They made it mandatory for all to worship at the Shine of the sun-god including Jews and Christians. The sun-god was supreme and all other gods were subordinate to it. His religious practices drew sharp criticism when in 220 AD Elagabalus divorced his first wife Julia Paula and took a Vestal Virgin as his wife – Aquileia Severa. Vesteral Virgins had been burried alive for breaking their vows even during the reign of Caracalla. Against the advice of his mother and grandmother, Elagabalus married Aquileia arguing that a union between the high priest and priestess would be born a son of god. But this religious taboo led to so much outrage, that Aquileia had to be divorced and a third wife Annia Faustina was selected.
For all of Elagabalus’ religious positions and many wives, he was also very notorius for being a bisexual who also enjoyed dressing up and playing the part of a woman. Cassio Dio tells us that Elagabalus even married a male slave named Hierocles and enjoyed being beaten by him as if he was Hierocles’ female salve. Other men who slept with him were given high positions in government. As such, respect for the state as a whole declined. Elagabalus even went as far as to ask doctors if they could medically transform him into a woman and carried out his own experiments by cutting off the genitles of young men as a sacrifice to his sun-god.
The totality of his behaviour led to his loss of loyality among the troops. Rebellions began as early as 218 AD when the Third Legion in Syria attempted a rebellion. This was followed by the Fourth Legion and later by the Roman Fleet. By 221 AD, his family convinced Elagabalus to adopt his cousin of 13 Severus Alexander, who was the son of his mother’s sister, Julia Mamaea.
Alexander began to clearly emerge as the favorite among the Praetorian Guard. Sometime in late 221, Elagabalus tried to order the death of Alexander but no one would carry out the execution. Finally, on March 11th, 212 AD, when Elagabalus visted the Praetorian camp, he found open support for Alexander and tried to order the arrest and execution of those offenders. Instead, the soldiers refused and Elagabalus tried to flee but was hunted down and murdered along with his mother. Thus, Severus Alexander was hailed as emperor of Rome.
His reign was notorious for religious fanaticism, for cruelty, bloodshed and excesses of every description, and there was general satisfaction when, on March 6th, 222, 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.
Titles and Powers, 218-222 AD
Yr Tribunician Power Imp Consul Other
218 TR.P. IMP. I COS AVGVSTVS. P.M. P.P.
219 TR.P.II. COS.II.
220 TR.P.III. COS.III.
222 TR.P.V. COS.IIII.
Note: Elagabalus received the Tribunician Power on January 1st, 219 AD, and it was renewed each year on that date.
Mints: Rome; Antioch (Other Eastern mints ?)
ANTONINVS PIVS SAL AVG
IMP ANTONINVI AVG
IMP ANTONINVS PIVS AVG.
IMP CAES ANTONINVS AVG.
IMP CAES M AVR ANTONINVS AVG
IMP CAES M AVR ANTONINVS PIVS AVG
The double denominations of the antoninianus and dupondius were still denoted by a portrait of the emperor wearing a radiate crown. All other denominations depict the emperor with a laurete wreath. Elagabalus on some later issues is depicted with a small horn projecting from his forehead. This was an eastern symbol of divine power.
AU Aureus (6.54 grammes)
AU Quinarius (4.61 grammes)
AR Antoninianus (=2 denarii)
Horned Bust of Elagabalus
Stone of Emesa Issues