Heliogabal (Elagabal), the priest-emperor

We often talk about the "crisis of the third century", or even the famous "decline" of the Empire, which would have led to its no less famous "fall", historiographical clichés fortunately more and more questioned. TheEmperor Heliogabal is interesting in more than one way: his short reign takes place in the first half of the third century, a period of transition following the coming to power of the Sévères, a dynasty which succeeded the Antonines, considered to be the emperors of the Age Gold of Rome. But he is also notable for his Eastern origins and for the cult he practiced, and especially his desire to integrate him into the Roman religion. Finally, his legend (?) Of a decadent and mad emperor can only make the whole thing even more exciting ...

A context of unrest

Septimius Severus, of African descent (Libya), was brought to power by the military. After a rather prosperous reign, but also punctuated by numerous wars, his succession (in 211) became more complicated and was played out between his two sons: Geta and Caracalla. The latter solves the problem by killing his brother in the arms of his mother (the famous Julia Domna) and becomes emperor. But he is very quickly challenged, and ends up killed by his praetorian prefect, Macrinus, who is acclaimed emperor by the army. But those called the Syrian princesses (Julia Maesa, sister of Domna and her daughter Julia Soaemias) intrigue against him, and go so far as to declare that the son of Soaemis, Bassianus (the future Elagabal), is in fact the son of Caracalla (which is obviously not the case)! With this background, the young man (14 years old!) Was proclaimed emperor in Syria by the Third Gallica legion, in May 218. The problem is that he is also a priest of the God Elagabal in Emese and that he has the intends to remain so ...

Bassianus priest of an "exotic" religion

Indeed, by hereditary rights, the young Varius Avitus Bassianus became priest of the religion of the temple-city of Emesa (Homs in Syria today), and he takes his role very seriously. This religion is typical of those of these regions, like the cults of Cybele or Isis. Bassianus worships the Sun God Elagabalus, who is "materialized" in a black conical stone "fallen from the sky", the betyl. The cult of Elagabalus is very popular around Emesis, which explains, for example, the rallying to Bassianus of the Third Gallica legion, stationed near Emesa.

The sacred rites of this religion are also typical of the region: dances bordering on trance, original outfits (make-up, ...), animal sacrifices, sexual ambiguity, services that almost resemble orgies. .And it will be talked about in Rome!

Bassianus proclaimed emperor (Elagabal is in fact his nickname), Macrinus commits suicide. Therefore, the young man must go to Rome. But no question of leaving his betyl; he decides to take her on a procession and a year-long journey! His arrival in Rome is triumphant: he is a new emperor, which means gifts to the people and festivals, he is also young and handsome, and therefore "exotic". But the enthusiasm will not last ...

The marriage of divinities

Arrived in Rome, Elagabal (we will name him like that now) is still obsessed with his betyl. In fact, it was his mother and grandmother (Julia Soaemias and Maesa) who wielded power in practice, to the chagrin of the conservatives in the Senate, who were already very reactive at the time ...

Elagabalus had a temple built on the Palatine for his God: the Elagabalium (it is also said that he dedicated an already existing temple to him, rather than building a new one). Problem: how will the Jupiter / Elagabal cohabitation go? But the emperor is not finished: his solar God is alone, he must find him a companion! He chooses to marry him to Pallas and moves the Palladium (the statue) from his temple (which has not happened since 241 BC!) To the Elagabalium. Horror among the Romans! But to the chagrin of the young man, the union between the two divinities gives nothing; Pallas is undoubtedly too warrior! He then chooses Celestial Juno for him, whom he brings at great expense from Carthage. Being the goddess of the Moon, her union with the Sun God is quite logical.

In the meantime, he continues to pamper his betyl, and builds a summer palace for it in the gardens of the suburbs of Rome: the Sessorian Palace. The procession is the occasion of great festivals and savage distribution of gifts to the people, which causes bloody riots. But whatever, the Sun God is celebrated.

Elagabal still has time to marry four times, including one with a Vestal, which is also shocking, given that the priestesses of Vesta are supposed to remain virgins for at least thirty years ...

Orgies, bisexuality, human sacrifices, divine prostitution, self-destruction ... that's too much!

The reputation of Elagabalus begins to suffer from his deviations from tradition. He always invokes his God before Jupiter in his interventions, and continues to consider himself more as a priest than as an emperor. And, to add more, we begin to hear crazy rumors (amplified by later hostile sources such as the inescapable "Auguste History"): the emperor would engage in unspeakable practices such as the sacrifice of children, bisexual orgies, total hair removal, and even tried to castrate himself.

These are of course only pretexts to rule it out. We have already forced him to adopt his cousin in 221, then we will take advantage of his refusal to perform a ceremony for Jupiter to assassinate him in the latrine and throw his body in the Tiber. His mother follows him. Everything was organized by his aunt and the Praetorian Guard, and his cousin succeeds him as Severus Alexander.

Heliogabal - Elagabal, an emperor aged 14 to 18 and with a tragic fate, remains an enigma. What were his motivations? He seemed sincere in his intentions and his attempts to impose his worship on Rome, and all his excesses must be put into perspective: for some they are probably invented, for others they were only excess for the Romans and even hypocritically because some practices were common in private. They just weren't fit for an emperor.

The example of Elagabalus will be quite characteristic of the Severan dynasty, with other very young emperors (like Gordian III): indeed, a young emperor is malleable, and this allows his family, the Senate, and the The army themselves exercise power even if it means suppressing the emperor when he goes too far.


- R. TURCAN, Heliogabalus and the coronation of the sun, Albin Michel, 1985.

- J.M. CARRIE, A. ROUSSELLE, The changing Roman Empire (from the Severi to Constantine, 192-337), Points Seuil, 1999.

- M. CHRISTOL, The Third Century Roman Empire (Political History: AD 192-325), Wandering, 1998.

- J. SCHEID, The religion of the Romans, A. Colin, 2002.

Video: 13. The Prince and the Palace: Human Made Divine on the Palatine Hill (January 2022).