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Sunday 12 October 2008

History: Heliogabalus, the Sun Queen of Rome

Posted in: Features
By Craig Young - 25th July 2007

Heliogabalus by Simeon Solomon
Heliogabalus (204-218 CE) only reigned for four years as Roman Emperor, lived fast and died young. He was a gay transvestite, may have been a proto-transsexual, and a sun worshipper. He led a short but eventful life.

Imperial Rome was a combination of military dictatorship and absolute tyranny, and its emperors usually indulged their polymorphously perverse tastes, created culinary masterpieces, dabbled in exotic religions, and the more popular appealed to the plebs of the city through staging grandiose bloodthirsty spectacles involving gladiators, slaves and the religiously unorthodox. Sometimes, as in the reigns of Nero and Domitian, these were Christians, but other puritanical and 'subversive' faiths joined them as well.

By comparison with some of his predecessors- particularly Tiberius, Caligula and Nero of the first century CE- Heliogabalus restricted his attentions to male teenagers his own age, or in his twenties (and human beings...). Unlike his bloodthirsty immediate predecessors Commodus and Caracalla, Heliogabalus also limited himself to sex, transvestism, sun worship, luxurious and ornate banquets and cross-dressing. He was a grandson of the formidable Julia Maesa, sister to a previous empress, who ran things while he indulged himself, and purported son of Senator Sextus Varius Marcellus and Symiamira, herself rather polyandrous. She claimed that he was actually Caracalla's sun, which led to a coup that overthrew Macrinus, usurper and assassin, who died in 218 CE.

Leaving Julia Maesa to arrange the details of transition, Heliogabalus indulged himself with teenage rent boys the same age in Antioch's seaside taverns and brothels, before moving on to Nicomedia for more of the same. Contemporary LGBT observers are unsure whether Heliogabalus could be classified as either gay or transgender. He certainly enjoyed sex with other males, but if gender reassignment surgery had been available in third century Imperial Rome, he would have undergone it.

As with many rebellious adolescents before and since, he loved to shock. For that reason, he often wore sumptuous drag involving long blond wigs, golden silk dresses and ornate Persian tiaras. He married three women in rapid succession- Julia Cornelia Paula, daughter of a deceased senator; Aquilia Severa, a Vestal Virgin; and Annia Faustina. All of these women were in their forties and past their menopause in those days, and in any case, Faustina plotted against him. As for Severa, she belonged to a celibate religious sisterhood that was consecrated to the worship of Vesta,Roman goddess of domesticity, and Jupiter Capitolinus, the king of the gods.

That marriage unleashed more outrage than that to Heliogabalus' 'husband,' Hierocles, a handsome teenage male charioteer, who was permitted to beat the cross-dressed emperor when he was 'unfaithful' with other men, which was quite often. He was generous to sex workers of both sexes, had a magnificent menagerie of exotic animals, and created sumptuous banquets.

He was also religiously unorthodox, devoted to the worship of Deus Sol Invictus, a combination of solar deities from across the Roman Empire, and sought to install Sol Invictus above the orthodox Greco-Roman Olympian gods who had been assigned particular duties. Rome was religiously tolerant as long as emergent faiths didn't rock the boat and acknowledged the supremacy of the Emperor. This included the charismatic mystery religions of Orpheus, Demeter and Persephone, Mithras, Cybele and Christ.

Due to that 'heresy,' as well as his effeminacy and flamboyant lifestyle, and an aversion to military combat, Heliogabalus alienated the Senate and powerful elite military Praetorian Guard. He was forced to name his cousin, Alexander Severus, as his heir, and in March 222, the Praetorian Guard made their move. There was a palace coup, and Hierocles died in the melee. Heliogabalus and Symiamira were captured and hacked to death. Heliogabalus was then dragged through the Cloaca Maximus, Rome's sewage system, and his weighted and decapitated body was thrown into Rome's Tiber River.

Fortunately for us, he was 'rehabilitated' in the nineteenth century, and transgressive French poet Antonin Artaud wrote a biography about Heliogabalus, his loves and life. He wasn't as bad as some of his predecessors or successors, and we can celebrate his all too brief life today.

Antonin Artaud: Heliogabalus, or the Crowned Anarchist: London: Turnaround: 2006.

Craig Young - 25th July 2007