The Roman emperor commonly known by this name, was the son of Julia Soemias and Sextus Varius Marcellus, and first cousin once removed to Caracalla. [See genealogical table prefixed to the article CARACALLA.] He was born at Emesa about A. D. 205, and was originally called VARIUS AVITUS BASSIANUS, a series of appellations derived from his father (Varius), maternal grandfather (Avitus), and maternal greatgrandfather (Bassianus). While yet almost a child he became, along with his first cousin Alexander Severus, priest of Elagabalus, the Syro-Phoenician Sun-god, to whose worship a gorgeous temple was dedicated in his native city.
The history of his elevation to the purple, to which in the earlier portions of his life he was not supposed to possess any claim, was effected in a very singular manner by his grandmother, Julia Maesa.
She had long enjoyed the splendors and dignities of the imperial court in the society of her sister, Julia Domna, the wife of Septimius Severus and the mother of Geta and Caracalla.
But after the murder of the latter by Macrinus, Maesa was compelled to return to Syria, there to dwell in unhonoured retirement. While still smarting under a reverse peculiarly galling to her haughty temper, she received intelligence that the army was already disgusted by the parsimony and rigid discipline of their new ruler, and was sighing for the luxury enjoyed under his predecessor. Maesa, skilled in court intrigues and familiar with revolutions, quickly perceived that this feeling might be turned to her own advantage.
A report was circulated with industrious rapidity that Elagabalus was not the son of his reputed father, but the offspring of a secret commerce between Soemias and Caracalla.
The troops stationed in the vicinity to guard the Phoenician border had already testified their admiration of the youth, whom they had seen upon their visits to Emesa gracefully performing the imposing duties of his priesthood, and, having been further propitiated by a liberal distribution of the wealth hoarded by Maresa, were easily persuaded to receive Elagabalus with his whole family into the camp, and to salute him as their sovereign by the title of M. Aurelius Antoninus, as if he had really been the undoubted progeny and lawful heir of their late monarch.
These proceedings took place on the 16th of May, A. D. 213. Macrinus having received information of what had happened, despatched Julianus with a body of troops to quell the insurrection.
But these, instead of obeying the orders of their general, were prevailed upon to join the mutineers. Whereupon Macrinus advanced in person to meet his rival, was signally defeated in a battle fought on the borders of Syria and Phoenicia, and having escaped in disguise was soon afterwards discovered, brought back, and put to death. [MACRINUS.] The conqueror hastened to Antioch, from whence he forwarded a letter to the senate, in which he at once assumed, without waiting for the form of their consent, all the designations of Caesar, Imperator, son of Antoninus, grandson of Severus, Pius, Felix, Augustus, and Proconsul, together with the tribunitian authority.
At the same time he inveighed against the treachery of Macrinus towards his master, his low birth, and his presumption in daring to adopt the title of emperor, concluding with a promise to consult the best interests of all classes of the community, and declaring that he intended to set up Augustus, whose age when he first grasped the reins of power he compared with his own, as a model for imitation. No resistance to these claims was testified on the part of the senate or people, for we find from a curious inscription, discovered some years ago at Rome, that the Fratres Arvales assembled in the Capitol on the 14th of July, that is scarcely more than five weeks after the decisive victory over Macrinus, in order to offer up their annual vows for the health and safety of their young prince, who is distinguished by all the appellations enumerated above.
Elagabalus entered upon his second consulship in A. D. 219, at Nicomedeia, and from thence proceeded to Rome, where he celebrated his accession by magnificent games, by prodigal largesses, and by laying the foundation of a sumptuous shrine for his tutelary deity. Two years afterwards, when he had rendered himself alike odious and contemptible by all manner of follies and abominations, he was persuaded by the politic Maesa to adopt his first cousin, Alexander Severus, to proclaim him Caesar, and nominate him consul-elect. Soon after, having repented of these steps, he endeavoured to procure the death of his kinsman, but was frustrated, partly by the watchfulness of his grandmother and partly by the zeal of the soldiers, with whom Alexander was a great favourite A repetition of a similar attempt the year following (A. D. 222) proved his own destruction; for a mutiny having arisen among the praetorians in consequence, he was slain along with Soemias in the camp while endeavouring to appease their fury.
The two bodies were dragged through the streets and cast into the Tiber, and hence the epithet or nickname of Tiberinus,
one of the many applied in scorn to the tyrant after his death.
The reign of this prince, who perished at the age of eighteen, after having occupied the throne for three years, nine months, and four days, dating from the battle of Antioch, was characterised throughout by an accumulation of the most fantastic folly, and tire most frantic superstition, together with impurity so bestial that the particulars almost trauscend time limits of credibility. Had he confined himself to the absurd practical jokes of which so many have been recorded; had he been satisfied within shipping on the tongues of peacocks and nightingales, with feeding lions on pheasants and parrots, with assembling companies of guests who were all fat, or all lean, or all tall, or all short, oi all bald, or all gouty, and regaling them with mock repasts; had he been content to occupy his leisure hours in solemnizing the nuptials of his favourite deity with the Trojan Pallas or the African Urania, and in making matches between the gods and goddresses all over Italy, men might have laughed goodnaturedly, anticipating an increase of wisdom with increasing years.
But unhappily even these trivial amusements were not unfrequently accompanied with cruelty and bloodshed. His earnest devotion to that god whose minister he had been, and to whose favour he probably ascribed his elevation, might have been regarded as excusable or even justifiable had it not been attended with persecution and tyranny. The Roman populace would with easy toleration have admitted and worshipped a new divinity, but they beheld with disgust their emperor appearing in public, arrayed in the attire of a Syrian priest, dancing wild measures and chanting barbaric hymns; they listened with horror to the tales of magic rites, and of human victims secretly slaughtered; they could scarcely submit without indignation to the ordinance that an outlandish idol should take precedence of their fathers' gods and of Jupiter himself, and still less could they consent to obey the decree subsequently promulgated, that it should not be lawful to offer homage at Rome to any other celestial power. Buut by far the blackest of his offences were his sins against the decencies of both public and private life, the details of which are too horrible and too disgusting to admit of description. (D. C. 77.30
, lxxix.; Herodian, 5.4-23 ; Lamprid. Elagab.;
Capitolin. Macrin. ; Eutrop. 8.13
; Aurel. Vict. de Caes.
A coin of Elagabalus is given under PAULA, the wife of Elagabalus.