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Elagabalus: the Most Scandalous Roman Emperor in History

Ravi loves writing within the realm of relationships, history, and the bizarre—where boundaries are blurred and possibilities are immense.

The notorious excesses of the Roman Emperor Heliogabalus were too much, even for the Roman Empire.

The notorious excesses of the Roman Emperor Heliogabalus were too much, even for the Roman Empire.

Who Was the Worst Roman Emperor?

When we think about the worst Roman emperors, we usually think about Nero, Caligula, or even Domitian. Yes, these emperors were so barbaric and perverted that they left permanent scars of fear on the population they ruled.

That said, none of the above individuals can even match a fraction of Heliogabalus in debauchery, lechery, and fact, the atrocities of Heliogabalus were so extreme that they toppled the very cultural, gender, and religious norms on which the Roman society was built.

And he was able to achieve this dubious distinction in just four years of rule between 218 and 222, from the age of 14 years when he came to power.

As a Roman historian, Cassius Dio tells us.

“He gathered together in a public building all the harlots [prostitutes] from the Circus, the theatre, the Stadium, and all other places of amusement, and from the public baths, and then delivered a speech to them, as one might to soldiers, calling them "comrades" and discussing various kinds of postures and debaucheries. Afterward, he invited a similar gathering of procurers [pimps] catamites collected together from all sides, including lascivious boys and young men. And whereas he had appeared before the harlots in a woman's costume and with protruding bosom, he met the catamites in the garb of a boy who is exposed for prostitution.”

Religious insults, lurid sexual encounters, extravagant stunts, and decadent parties of the increasingly insane Heliogabalus shocked the Roman senate, who finally decided to remove him. The Senate declared him insane and an enemy of the state. He was caught hiding in his palace, murdered, and his naked corpse was thrown in the Tiber river.

Roman emperor Elagabalus (Heliogabalus) (203-222) kidnapped the Vestal Virgin

Roman emperor Elagabalus (Heliogabalus) (203-222) kidnapped the Vestal Virgin

Heliogabalus Becomes the Emperor at 14 Years

Heliogabalus became an unlikely emperor at the age of 14 years as a by-product of revenge.

In 217 AD, when Heliogabalus was just fourteen years old, his mother’s cousin, Emperor Caracalla, was assassinated by his own Praetorian prefect Marcus Opellius Macrinus who became the new emperor.

The new emperor promptly exiled Emperor Caracalla’s family, including Heliogabalus, to their estate at Emesa in Syria. Heliogabalus’s mother, Julia, would have none of it, and she began to conspire against Macrinus to put her son on the throne. She launched a propaganda campaign, publicly declaring Heliogabalus to be Caracalla’s illegitimate son, thus claiming him to be the rightful heir to the Roman throne before Macrinus.

Her relentless campaign worked, and finally, the Roman senate agreed to recognize Heliogabalus as the emperor. Macrinus soon died afterward, and Heliogabalus became the undisputed emperor. His mother and grandmother became the first women to be allowed into the senate, making them the most important and influential women in the world.

Heliogabalus was young, handsome, and calm, and the Senate finally heaved in relief that Rome would be again moving back towards political and economic stability after the chaotic reigns of Caracalla and Macrinus.

They were in for a rude shock as Heliogabalus shook the very foundations of cultural, gender, and religious norms on which the Roman society was built.

Procession of the Roman emperor Elagabalus led by his slaves

Procession of the Roman emperor Elagabalus led by his slaves

Heliogabalus Commits Blasphemous Acts

His first act of blasphemy was to replace the supreme god of Rome - Jupiter. Sun worship was widespread throughout the empire, and Heliogabalus was also the high priest of Elagabal, the Syrian sun god.

Heliogabalus threw out Jupiter and installed Elagabal at Palatine Hill, disregarding Roman sentiments and customs. Discontent stirred in the Empire at this massive Roman law and tradition breach.

Adding further insult to injury, He even defiled the sacred House of the Vestal Virgins by taking one of the sacred virgins, Aquilla Severa as his wife and justified his actions by saying.

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There is nothing more appropriate than the marriage of a priest to a priestess,”

Probably this one act, more than any other, shocked the whole of Rome to the core. And after the religious excesses came the sexual debauchery.

He gave the most important court positions to charioteers, athletes, and slaves whose job was to satisfy his carnal needs. He openly displayed his sexual tendencies and had lovers of both sexes.

He frequently appeared in public dressed like a woman and would stand by the palace windows, soliciting passer-byes by offering his services like a harlot. He had numerous agents who ensured that his wishes were fulfilled by the ‘lucky’ people selected by the emperor.

On one occasion, he even gathered all the city’s prostitutes in the palace and spurred them on to perform unnatural sexual acts by offering them huge amounts of money.

Besides these acts, Heliogabalus also wasted money on decadent excesses like using gold vessels to relieve himself and making urinals made of murra or onyx. His chariots were made of jewels and gold, and he would drive them naked around the city along with two-three women doing sexual acts on him. He preferred to be called a ‘lady’ rather than a lord and had even tried offering vast sums to any physician who could provide him with a vagina.

It didn’t take long before the public, and leading members of the Roman Senate realized that the teenage Emperor Heliogabalus was not a suitable person to lead the mighty Roman empire.

Heliogabalus dancing around the chariot of the Sun god

Heliogabalus dancing around the chariot of the Sun god

The end of Heliogabalus

In 221CE, Heliogabalus was finally convinced by his family to name his thirteen-year-old cousin Bassianus Alexanus as his heir. Heliogabalus relented but was suspicious of his cousin, on whom he made several attempts of assassination but all failed. Finally, on March 11, 222 CE Elagabalus ordered the execution of Alexius.

However, the Praetorian Guard refused, supporting Alexanus instead. They went against the emperor and caught him hiding in the palace. Heliogabalus and his mother were dragged through the streets of Rome, beheaded, and dumped into the Tiber. He was just eighteen years old and had been on the throne for only four years.

As Historia Augusta tells about the execution.

“...they fell upon Elagabalus himself and slew him in a latrine in which he had taken refuge. Then his body was dragged through the streets, and the soldiers further insulted it by thrusting it into a sewer. But since the sewer chanced to be too small to admit the corpse, they attached a weight to it to keep it from floating and hurled it ... into the Tiber.”

And while emperor Heliogabalus would always be remembered as an amoral debauched person who defiled the Roman decorum, another perspective can be that he was simply not ready to ascend the might Roman throne.

Power corrupts the most level-headed and mature individuals, and here we are talking about a 14-year-old boy who got everything suddenly and simply couldn’t handle it. The responsibility and the adultery of unbridled power made him mad.

As John Dalberg rightly says.

“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Ravi Rajan

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