The Mad Emperor: Heliogabalus and the Decadence of Rome 
by Harry Sidebottom.
Oneworld, 338 pp., £10.99, October, 978 0 86154 685 5
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When​ Gabriele D’Annunzio’s personal secretary likened his employer to Heliogabalus, that short-lived emperor was still a byword for florid decadence. He died at eighteen, but the Syrian boy’s appetites were monstrous from the start. He favoured every kind of sex that Romans deplored, cunnilingus most of all. He had himself shaved all over, like a eunuch, and chose his officials for the size of their genitals. He drove chariot teams of exotic animals and perfected the cruelties of Caligula and Nero. Nowadays, if this prodigy of wickedness is remembered at all, it is for an Alma-Tadema painting showing the emperor smothering his guests in a shower of roses. Polite society no longer tolerates the Orientalist racism of the older accounts but, more prosaically, everyone now knows that these stories are nonsense. Their source is the Historia Augusta, a collection of imperial biographies from Hadrian to Carinus (in other words, from AD 117 to 285) that purports to be the work of six authors writing around the year 300. That claim, broadly accepted until the 1950s, is now known to be false and the Historia is universally acknowledged as the work of a single man writing around the year 400. He worked from an older and more or less reliable biographical source for the Antonine and Severan emperors, into whose biographies he inserted the occasional distortion or fictitious episode. When that source material came to an end with the death of Caracalla in 217, he embroidered the contemporary accounts of two Greek historians and then spiralled into a lush fabulism. The life of Heliogabalus is the first of his full-blown fantasies, its handful of accurate details hidden in a cartoonish portrait of tyranny. Deprived of its main foundation, the memory of Heliogabalus now rests on the work of two Greek writers: an enormous, if fragmentary, history by the senator and twice consul Cassius Dio, who was in Rome throughout the reign, and a shorter, vaguer work by the provincial functionary Herodian. This is a fuller record than for many third-century emperors, but paltry by earlier standards. As we now know him, and unlike D’Annunzio, Heliogabalus is a questionable candidate for biography.

The empire he ruled, briefly and ineptly, from 218 to 222, was changing rapidly, and Heliogabalus’ family was a symptom of that change. The Romans had always been free with their citizenship, and the backgrounds of the imperial ruling class grew more diverse as wealthy and influential families in the provinces began to seek empire-wide roles a generation or two after their enfranchisement. We see this most clearly in the spread of senatorial status: first to the Italian municipalities, then to Provence and the urbanised parts of Spain, after that to mainland Greece and coastal Asia Minor, finally to North Africa and Hellenised Syria. Officers and magistrates might serve almost anywhere, and rich and well-connected families formed marriage alliances that criss-crossed the Mediterranean. Heliogabalus’ family was Syrian, Cassius Dio was a Greek senator from Nicaea, now Iznik in Turkey, and the Severan dynasty’s founder, Septimius Severus, came from Leptis Magna in western Libya.

In the 180s, Severus commanded a legion in Syria, where he encountered Heliogabalus’ great-grandfather Julius Bassianus of Emesa – modern Homs – in the upper Orontes valley. Originally an Arab foundation, Emesa had a long history of friendly relations with Rome under its native dynasty and, after its absorption into the empire, remained the hinge between the region’s Aramaic-speaking interior and the Hellenistic cities nearer the coast. The city’s patron deity was Elagabal, whose immanent form was a conical black stone. His priests, of whom Julius Bassianus was chief, were still socially dominant in the region (they were perhaps, but by no means certainly, descended from the extinct royal dynasty). Bassianus had two daughters, Maesa and Domna. Severus, by then a governor in Gaul, sought the hand of Julia Domna after his first wife died. They married in 187. Thus far, it is an unremarkable story of provincial families on the make, but everything changed in 193. After a brief period in the political wilderness, Severus was sent to govern the province of Pannonia Superior, which housed three legions and controlled the vital routes up the Sava and Drava valleys towards Italy and central Europe. When civil war broke out after the murder of the emperor Pertinax, Severus was well placed to seize control of Italy and win the recognition of the Senate before isolating and defeating two rivals, one in the east and one in Britain and Gaul. By 197, after brutal mopping up operations, his hold on power was unchallenged.

Severus and Domna had two sons, both still children when he took power, the elder called Bassianus, the younger Geta. In claiming the throne, Severus had invented for himself a fictional descent from the philosopher emperor Marcus Aurelius, who was already revered, and gave his son Bassianus the name of his ‘grandfather’, although the new Marcus Aurelius Antoninus was and is better known as Caracalla, after the caracallus or soldier’s cloak he affected. Severus preferred travel in the provinces to the social requirements of life in Rome and, as was normal practice, the emperor’s extended family travelled with him. That meant not just Domna and the imperial heirs, but also many Emesene connections, among them Domna’s sister, Maesa, and Maesa’s married daughters, Julia Soaemias and Julia Mamaea, both of whom would become the mothers of emperors. Soaemias was married to Sextus Varius Marcellus, another Syrian. The future Heliogabalus was born to them in the year 204 as Varius Avitus Bassianus. He was brought up at a divided court, as relations between Caracalla and Geta deteriorated. Severus decided to get the feuding siblings out of Rome, taking the imperial family with him to campaign in the restive north of Britain. Severus and Caracalla led the legions deep into Scotland, where the remains of a major fortification programme at Carpow in Perthshire suggest plans to occupy at last the territories north of Hadrian’s Wall.

The rest of the court was based at York, and since Soaemias’ husband, Varius Marcellus, was now the senior financial officer for Britain, there is at least a chance that the future Heliogabalus, who would later be so exotically coded as Syrian, spent his fifth, sixth and seventh birthdays there. He might have been in York when Severus died in 211. Caracalla patched up a Caledonian peace and led the court back to Rome, where within a year he had Geta killed in their helpless mother’s arms. In that dicey moment, Varius Marcellus proved his loyalty and took charge of the praetorian guard and the urban cohorts, the other paramilitary force garrisoned in Rome itself. When the crisis was over, Marcellus was rewarded with promotion to the senatorial order, though he died soon after. Where his wife and child were during all this is unclear. Caracalla was loathed by the Roman elite, a feeling he reciprocated, but the soldiers loved him and he loved nothing more than marching, messing and carousing with the men in the ranks. This wasn’t play-acting: the emperor spent much of his reign in the east, planning a war in Parthia (now Iran). His mother, Domna, having made peace with the murder of one son, remained the dominant figure in the other’s court, based at Antioch in Syria, and Maesa lived there with her. Soaemias and her son retired to Emesa where, at the age of eleven, the future Heliogabalus inherited his great-grandfather’s position as priest of Elagabal. He seems to have thrown himself into the role with enthusiasm, but is absent from the records until 218. In the intervening years, the emperor campaigned widely, though with little lasting success. A conspiracy was hatched early in 217 and in April Caracalla met an undignified end, stabbed to death while urinating at the side of the road. The assassin was silenced and the officer corps dithered before declaring Opellius Macrinus, the praetorian prefect and probably one of the conspirators, emperor.

Domna, by then ill with cancer, committed suicide, while Maesa was dismissed from court and went back to Emesa, fearing for her own and her family’s lives. Whatever goodwill Macrinus enjoyed, he swiftly squandered. The armies had loved their murdered leader and appreciated neither the peace with Parthia that Macrinus purchased at great expense, nor his economies with soldiers’ pay. Senators, as the blue-blooded historian Cassius Dio is at pains to emphasise, were scandalised that a mere equestrian had dared claim the purple. (The equites were the second rank in the Roman social hierarchy, qualified by their income rather than birth.) By not hastening to Rome to placate the Senate and shower largesse on the plebs, Macrinus made his weak position weaker still. Maesa, as ruthless as her sister and brother-in-law, knew that spontaneous coups tended to fail, so laid her groundwork carefully. Varius Avitus Bassianus was not, it emerged, the son of Varius Marcellus. His real father was actually Caracalla, the soldier’s friend and hero, whose liaison with his cousin Soaemias had previously been concealed. Now the truth could be told: here was another Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, the murdered emperor’s rightful heir, who would restore the dynasty, put an end to the shameful regime of Macrinus, and treat the army as it deserved to be treated. Sympathetic commanders were canvassed. On 15 May 218, Heliogabalus, Maesa, Soaemias and the boy’s tutor left Emesa under cover of darkness for the camp of the Legio III Gallica at Raphaneae. Their reception there was not guaranteed, but they were hopeful. The legion, despite its name, had been quartered in Syria for a very long time, its troops were recruited locally, and they might respond well to the 14-year-old priest of Elagabal, a god many of them worshipped. And so it turned out. The camp gates were opened and, the following morning, the boy was draped in a purple cloak and equipped with a sword to receive the troops’ acclamation.

Civil war was now inevitable. No matter the other crises an emperor might face, the threat of usurpation had to take precedence. Macrinus should have moved quickly, while he still had more governors and legionary commanders in his corner than Maesa did. But he hesitated and the rebellion gathered strength. A second legion, the II Parthica at Apamea, went over to the rebels. The rest of the eastern armies seem to have remained loyal to Macrinus, so the rebels did the only sensible thing they could with just two legions: they marched on the provincial capital at Antioch, hoping to bring Macrinus to battle before he could concentrate his forces. When the two sides met at Immae, a forced march east of Antioch, on 8 June, they were relatively evenly matched, though the rebels set up in a defensive formation that might suggest they were outnumbered. Macrinus and his praetorian guard had the better of the engagement and it took the appeals of Maesa and Soaemias, as well as the sight of the young Heliogabalus on horseback brandishing a sword, to rally the rebels. Macrinus lost his nerve and fled the field. His reign was as good as over and the new regime was settled in Antioch by the end of the next day.

Macrinus’​ partisans among the provincial governors were purged, the defeated emperor was caught trying to cross to Europe from Asia Minor, his son was betrayed in an attempt to flee to Persia, and both were swiftly executed. Cassius Dio was in the senate house when the new emperor’s accession was announced: Heliogabalus made the usual noises about modelling himself on Augustus and Marcus Aurelius, but he had taken titles of rank that should technically have been bestowed on him by vote of the Senate. Though that was a formality, disregarding the tradition gave offence. Several of the men sent ahead to Rome to impose order were of low birth, and that also rankled, even after respectable senators were chosen to command key legions in the Danubian provinces. The new emperor’s court remained at Antioch for four months before setting out for Nicomedia and the crossing to Europe. This wasn’t unprecedented – as early as the Year of the Four Emperors in 69, Vespasian had lingered in the east while western affairs were put in order by trusted proxies – but the reasons for this delay are unclear. It may be that extensive preparations were required before the god Elagabal, in the shape of his black stone, could accompany his chief priest to Rome. While the winter moratorium on sailing was observed and the court remained at Nicomedia, a series of mutinies broke out in the Syrian armies, prominent senators fell victim to imperial suspicions and the emperor killed his tutor (rumoured to be his mother’s lover) with his own hand. Their dispute seems to have been over Heliogabalus’ extravagant devotions: the emperor had sent ahead images of himself, in priestly raiment, sacrificing before the stone of Elagabal. His tutor, like Maesa and many others, would have known how little welcome that picture would find among the senators at Rome.

In spring 219, the imperial family began a long, slow progress through the Balkan and Danubian provinces to greet the legions there. They did not arrive in Rome till the end of October, when the emperor entered the city not in the toga of a civilis princeps, a good first citizen, but as a robed and trousered priest of Elagabal. After that bad start, scandal soon attended his serial marriages. The first, to the aristocratic Cornelia Paula, was impeccably correct, but their swift divorce alienated one of the most influential senatorial clans. Paula’s replacement, the equally aristocratic Aquilia Severa, alienated the entire right-thinking world, because Severa was a Vestal Virgin, one of the six consecrated virgins of high birth who tended the sacred hearth of Vesta, keeping the gods happy and Rome safe. The emperor’s violation of their sacred trust provoked a hostile reaction and another divorce. Annia Aurelia Faustina, a scion of the highest Antonine aristocracy, became his third wife, but only after her consular husband was executed to make her available. The marriage lasted a few months, until Heliogabalus divorced Faustina and remarried the disgraced Severa. There were conspicuous male lovers as well, the rivals Zotycus and Hierocles; some sort of marriage ceremony to the latter outraged the plebs and the army. These were the raw materials from which the Historia Augusta spun its still more lurid fictions.

All these marriages were also ruinously expensive, requiring vast handouts to plebs and army, and games on an elaborate scale. Also costly were the two large temples constructed to house the black stone of Elagabal, between which the god processed at midsummer. Just as alienating were the marriages of Elagabal to two goddesses, first Pallas Athena and then Urania, a Latinised Punic goddess. This conspicuous foreignness was accentuated by the emperor’s circumcision, which was most un-Roman, and his abstention from pork, then as now the staple meat of Italy: both practices smacked of Judaism, whose followers were tolerated but generally disliked by Roman elites. Some of this might have passed without comment had Heliogabalus been better at the things emperors actually needed to do: greeting clients, dispensing justice, receiving embassies and so on. But he found all that boring, preferring elaborate daily ceremonies as high priest and chariot rides through Rome dressed as a supporter of the Green chariot-racing circus faction. By early 221 the regime was clearly in trouble with every group that mattered. Maesa, formidable as ever, began to look for a way out.

She found it in her second grandson, 12-year-old Alexianus, Julia Mamaea’s son. Arguing that he could handle the boring ceremonies that Heliogabalus detested, Maesa persuaded Heliogabalus to adopt his cousin, clad him in the toga of manhood, give him the title caesar and make him his heir under the name Alexander. The ceremony took place in June, with Maesa and Soaemias flanking the emperor. Women in the senate house: another scandalous first for the dynasty, and a peculiar miscalculation on Maesa’s part. Perhaps she distrusted the emperor’s resolve if she were not present. The adoption was not a success. Alexander seems to have been popular, or at least more popular than the emperor, and Mamaea refused to allow him to become a priest of Elagabal, insisting that he have the normal education of a Greek or Roman aristocrat. Emperor and heir apparent were scheduled to enter the consulate together on 1 January 222, and give their names to the year. On the day, Heliogabalus baulked, keeping the Senate waiting, until he was persuaded that the soldiers would become mutinous if he and Alexander were not seen together. He then baulked again rather than offer sacrifice to Jupiter on the Capitol, leaving a lesser magistrate to complete the day’s rituals.

Life in the palace deteriorated as winter went on. The emperor plotted to kill his cousin and adoptive son, perhaps by poison, while Mamaea began to cultivate her own supporters in the army. Early in March, it was rumoured that Alexander was dying. The praetorians withdrew to their camp, demanding the presence of both emperor and heir. Heliogabalus insisted on bringing his hated lover Hierocles, and found himself effectively imprisoned in the Temple of Mars. The night of 12 March passed in negotiations between the imperial women and the praetorians, Soaemias making the case for her son, Mamaea for hers. Maesa, realising that no compromise was possible and with no intention of falling from power herself, sided with Mamaea and Alexander. An attempt to smuggle Heliogabalus out of the camp failed and on the morning of 13 March the praetorians cut down the emperor and his mother, butchered Hierocles and the emperor’s other retainers, and threw the decapitated bodies of Heliogabalus and Soaemias into the street, where they were dragged about on hooks and otherwise mutilated. The emperor’s corpse was then thrown into a sewer that drained to the Tiber. Across the empire, his name was chiselled from inscriptions, his coins were defaced and counter-marked, statues pulled down and vandalised. Elagabal was sent ignominiously home to Emesa and his new temple on the Palatine rededicated to Jupiter Ultor, ‘the Avenger’. Alexander, with Maesa and Mamaea at hand, was recognised by the army and senate and survived for a poorly documented decade and a half.

As to his cousin, an unlikely and catastrophic reign, but not enough material for a conventional biography. Not only are there huge gaps in the record of a very short life, but the known facts are heavily filtered through Roman prejudices against despotic Orientals and effeminate Greeks, passive homosexuals and over-mighty women, low-born courtiers and Jews. Heliogabalus triggered almost every racist and sexist topos available to Romans. Getting behind this to the motives and the inner life of the boy emperor seems hardly possible, though Harry Sidebottom is well placed to give it a try: an accomplished scholar, he is better known as a novelist, whose Roman fictions both respect the historical evidence and achieve a real psychological plausibility. And his explanation for his subject’s profoundly alienating behaviour seems fundamentally right. Not madness, despite the book’s title, and not teen rebellion, if such a thing existed before teenagers were invented. Certainly not the sybaritism of the eternal Orient, but rather a genuine religious conversion. The later second and third centuries, which E.R. Dodds called an Age of Anxiety, were a time of creative churn and new religious possibilities, of mystery religions and salvific cults, syncretic borrowings from the Indus to the Atlantic. Sidebottom takes us straight to the most apt comparison: only a few years after Heliogabalus’ death, a young man in Mesopotamia documented the visions that terrified him even as they convinced him of his mission to reveal the stark realities of a world of evil matter and good spirit. The youth was called Mani, we call his dualist revelation Manicheanism, and it took him well into adulthood to overcome his doubts and realise that his revelations demanded lifelong struggle and self-abnegation. But Mani did not unexpectedly become the ruler of the world at the age of fourteen, divine good fortune of a sort that might supercharge anyone’s belief in their god. Profound conviction, a sense of his deity’s absolute majesty and his own obligation to it, is by far the most persuasive explanation for Heliogabalus’ monumental folly in turning the Roman world against him.

Elsewhere in the book, the balance of historian and novelist is less happy. Throughout, Sidebottom gives us two or three paragraphs of fiction straight from the Historia Augusta before telling us that none of it happened. The impulse is understandable, since the fiction is a lot more fun than Dio and Herodian, but readers are more likely to remember the fiction than the facts. The emperor began life as Varius Avitus Bassianus and reigned as Marcus Aurelius Antoninus. Dio and Herodian call him Antoninus, Pseudo-Antoninus, or one of several derogatory and scatological nicknames. Modern scholarship generally favours Elagabalus, after his god. The name Heliogabalus, which melds the Syrian Elagabal with the Greek sun god Helios, is yet another invention of the Historia Augusta which the emperor’s contemporaries would not have recognised. To choose Heliogabalus, as Sidebottom does, may be defensible as a reflection of early modern and modernist practice, but its aesthetic function is to distance the author from other scholars, something he is very keen to do. Sidebottom the novelist tells us time and again that the average historian would be doing things this or that way, whereas he will just cut to the chase. All the while, of course, Sidebottom the historian understands source criticism perfectly well and deploys the historian’s tools of inference and analogy to draw the invisible lines that connect glimpses from a vanished past. The disavowal of his own methodology is for the most part tiresome but harmless – Fergus Millar’s peerless Emperor in the Roman World will survive being set up as a strawman – but it can veer towards bad taste. One can be legitimately sceptical of Tony Honoré’s lifelong effort to distinguish linguistically among the sequence of imperial jurists; to introduce that project, its author unnamed, for the sole purpose of a dismissive quip, is schoolboy jeering. You can’t have this both ways. Either engage with the scholarship as a scholar would or inhabit the amateur pose with some conviction. Because it is a pose. Sidebottom has an expert’s command of the rebarbative source base for third-century Rome, and this is not amateur history. A whole scholarly architecture lies beneath and underpins his thoroughly convincing portrait of a failed emperor. His conclusions must be taken seriously by serious historians, but they might find themselves preferring his novels.

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