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Elagabalus, reigned 218-222 CE. AR denarius, 19.4 mm, 3.5 gm. Struck 218-219 CE, Antioch. ANTONINVS PIVS FEL AVG, Laureate draped cuirassed bust right / SANCT DEO SOLI / ELAGABAL, Quadriga right, bearing sacred Baetyl stone, flanked by four parasols. RIC IV 195, Antioch.

Varius Ativus Bassianus is an interesting character in the colorful Severan Dynasty. Born to the niece of Julia Domna and possibly sired by Domna's son Caracalla, the emperor we now call Elagabalus was known to Romans as Caesar Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus

The history of Elagabalus is difficult to discern. The three primary sources of information on his life and reign are overtly biased*, written in a subsequent century, or both. Naturally, the most lurid version of his life is the one which has stuck even though it is likely extremely exaggerated if not downright false.


Despite reading various historical accounts and modern accounts I can't quite get a handle on this boy. And boy he was... he became emperor at the age of fourteen.


Here's how it happened, in a nutshell.


Caracalla was murdered. Macrinus usurped the throne. The Severan women were banished to Emesa. They missed their power and lifestyle and cleverly conspired to bring Bassianus to the throne. Macrinus didn't last long once these ladies set their minds to the task. He ruled for a year and by all accounts was not well liked, especially by the troops. They wanted their dear Caracalla, who despite being generally known for his cruelty was apparently adored by the army. Macrinus cut their pay and kept them out in the cold and barren fields. (Bad move, Macrinus.)


Once deciding to bring Soaemia's son to the throne, Julia Maesa made a big show of Varius Ativus Bassianus's hereditary claim to the title of High Priest of Elagabal.


El-Gabal (Heliogabal) was the Sun God-- a powerful Syrian deity although not popular in Rome. By all accounts Bassianus took to the role with great zeal, staging sacrifices and dances regularly. He was a beautiful boy. The masses-- including the disgruntled troops who were uncomfortably encamped in the area-- were mesmerized by his worship services.


El-Gabal's sacred object was a large conical black stone, likely a meteorite. Bassianus was utterly devoted to this Sacred Stone of Emesa. He was completely devoted to everything about this religion, which became the driving force behind all of his decisions and ultimately, his downfall.


The overthrow of Macrinus was fairly quiet. With the Severan woman manipulating everything behind the scene, the troops and population around Emesa accepted this special boy as their ruler. Having won over the army-- in part because of the rumor that Bassianus was Caracalla's son-- they troops wholeheartedly named Bassianus their new emperor in June of 218. When Macrinus understood that his days were numbered, he simply donned a disguise and fled Rome. Eventually he was found and killed.


Bassinus, now called Antonine, continued a slow procession towards Rome, Sacred Stone in tow. Once in Rome he began a quest to make El-Gabal the one and only god of Rome. Romans rather liked their existing pantheon of gods and didn't take kindly to El-Gabal being elevated above Zeus. Antonine's religious antics grew more elaborate and more bizarre. At one point, he decided that his god should be married.


Somehow this plan seemed logical to him:  divorce his first wife Julia Paula, marry a Vestal Virgin, and at the same time "marry" his Sacred Stone to a statue of Minerva (taken from the Temple of Vesta). It was scandalous. Despite the outcry he did marry Vestal Virgin Aquila Severa but had to settle on a different wife for his Stone-- Urania, daughter of Zeus.


He constructed a grandiose temple for his Stone, the Elagabalium. It wasn't enough though so a second "summer home" was constructed. Twice a year Antonine ceremoniously transported his Stone from one home to the other, dressed in Syrian priest finery and jewels. He was so enraptured by the earthly manifestation of his sun god that he walked backwards the entire way so that he might constantly gaze upon his god.


Julias Maesa and Soaemias grossly underestimated their ability to control young Antonine. Eventually they realized he must go. They began plotting to make his cousin (half brother?) Alexianus emperor.


Skipping past all of those events...  on March 11, 222 the Praetorian Guard was fed up with the shenanigans.  Antonine's cousin/half-brother/son Alexianus (Severus Alexander) was made emperor.   Antonine and his mother were captured, beheaded, and dragged  through the street, and tossed into the sewer.



Dramatic re-enactment of the Transport of the Sacred Stone of Emesa:

*Primary sources for the history of Elagabalus:


History of the Roman Empire since the Death of Marcus Aurelius (Herodian)

Cassius Dio

Historia Augusta

A secondary source used for this summary is a new book by John Stuart Hay, The Amazing Emperor Elagabalus (2014) 

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