Elagabalus, 218-222 CE
AR denarius, 19.4 mm, 3.5 gm
Antioch, 218-219 CE
Obv: ANTONINVS PIVS FEL AVG, Laureate draped cuirassed bust right
Rev: SANCT DEO SOLI / ELAGABAL, Quadriga right, bearing sacred Baetyl stone, flanked by four parasols
Ref: RIC IV 195
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.
So... if the rumors are true, Elagabalus and Severus Alexander are half brothers rather than cousins; the father is their first cousin, once removed. By adoption, Severus Alexander also became the son of Elagabalus. Then Elagabalus tried to kill his son. Don't you feel better about your weird family now?
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 also reportedly 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 completely and utterly devoted to this Sacred Stone of Emesa. He was utterly devoted to everything about this religion, which became the driving force behind all of his decisions and ultimately, became his downfall.
The overthrow of Macrinus was actually 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 he 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.
*Primary sources for the history of Elagabalus:
A secondary source used for this summary is a new book by John Stuart Hay, The Amazing Emperor Elagabalus (2014)
If you actually read everything in the left-side column, by now you're probably thinking "What about the depravity? The lurid tales??". Don't worry, I've summarized them below. These stories are from unreliable historians and are likely gross exaggerations or even complete fabrications. It does seem likely that Elagabalus was homosexual, but that's not particularly newsworthy, except in ancient Rome there were certain "rules" about same-sex sex. A man of Elagabalus's social status was not supposed to be on the receiving end of gay sex. Apparently he didn't care about that rule book
He cut the genitals off small children and sacrificed the parts to El-Gabal
He dressed like a woman, makeup and all, and pretended to be the Roman equivalent of a hooker, beckoning men to have sex with him
He built public baths for the sole purpose of finding lovers
He had servants scour the baths for particularly well-endowed men to better satisfy his sexual needs
He appointed low-born people to high offices without regard to ability or birth. This was done in exchange for sexual favors
Dramatic reenactment; The Transport of the Sacred Stone of Emesa