by Madison Hesse
“They called him
Big Ass and Shit Face
And told the story from father to son
While the story held up.
And then they forgot him.
Except for some.”
– Frank Manley, Excerpt from his
Poem “Heliogabalus” (1976)
PART ONE: INFORMAL INTRODUCTIONS
Varius Avitus Bassianus (more commonly, Elagabalus),
I was once asked during a college admissions interview which three historical figures I would invite to a dinner party and why. Although a vision of you danced across my mind instantly, I stammered, fumbling over an incoherent explanation of what is so alluring about you. I said that while nearly everyone from my hometown exuded an unspectacular plainness, you possessed something indescribably complex. My fingers fidgeted under the table and I noticed the interviewer’s body language: arms crossed, brows slightly furrowed, eyes squinted in doubt – she knew as well as I did that my lack of eloquence affirmed just how unsatisfied I was with my own answer.
Perhaps part of your allure is in your malleability – in the way the competing ideologies surrounding your aura can coexist and even encourage productive dialogue about inaccurate representation of historical figures. Perhaps my fascination arose from the unsettlingly neutral attitude which I must approach you with. For, as little as I trust the primary sources from historians trained in fabricating myths, the crimes pinned to you consist of serious felonies, from torture to infanticide and rape. They can hardly be handled with a light heart or nonchalance. I promise to take you and all of this baggage seriously, and to devote this space to being human alongside you. That interview may have glossed over you and continued onto my extracurricular activities, but this interview will do no such thing. We will sit here until we have done at least one small piece of meaningful work, whatever that may look like.
But perhaps we should begin with introductions. My name is Madison Hesse, and besides being around the same age as you and staring in awe at the same stars as you do, I believe we have next to nothing in common. I am non-religious, while you act as the devout high priest of the local sun god El’Gabal of Emesa, Syria (Icks 2010, 332). According to modern labels from the United States, I am considered both cis-gendered and heterosexual, while you, speculatively, have struggled with gender dysphoria and sexual identity throughout your short life. (I say ‘speculatively’ because, as we will discuss later, gender and sexuality have been weaponized against you for centuries.) Oh, and I am Caucasian, as is most of the population in my hometown of Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. My cultural experiences, I fear, have been so distantly removed from ancient Syrian culture that the first half of our dinner party might consist of becoming accustomed to each other’s equally strange lifestyles. For these reasons, I hardly feel worthy to speak on your behalf, unlike some scholars studying your life have unfortunately done. I recognize that although I have been acquainted with you since I was thirteen, right around the age when you assumed the throne of one of the world’s most grandiose empires, I have no place asserting that I know you enough to defend or vilify your actions. Without the archeological discovery of a lifetime, I may never be able to fully know you. Yet I would like to try over dinner.
Truthfully, however, if I were to ever receive your RSVP for my party, I would panic. Knowing your alleged penchant for murdering fellow dinner guests with either a torrential downpour of rose petals or with a mauling by wild tigers, should I cower in fear waiting for you to ring the doorbell? Or should I prepare for the experience of a lifetime, patiently peeking out of my window until your procession arrives, bearing gifts of exotic wine and trumpeting to announce you in all of your lavish attire, which would most certainly put my thrifted outfit to shame? Or would you arrive like an old friend, effortlessly sharing stories and watching the sunset with me as we, two lost teenagers, giggle over coffee? (Or are you a tea person?) I lament knowing that I will never know you personally in this way, but perhaps this lonesome, one-sided interview will acquaint us slightly better with each other. Through the use of thoughtful yet sympathetic dialogue, I intend to engage with you, Elagabalus, on an intimate level. If Fortuna grants me luck and eloquence, I hope to both achieve a more profound understanding of the relationship between inaccurate historical accounts and the damaging media interpretations created from them, and also to address the removal of personhood which arises when studying perceptions of a figure rather than their humanness.
PART TWO: AN ABSENT DISTINCTION BETWEEN HISTORY AND MYTH
Contemporary scholars, authors, poets, artists, and musicians, as unbiased as they attempt to be, cannot mentally reconstruct your character from any foundation other than the sparse yet theatrical extant documentation of your life. Try as they may, the damnatio memoriae, translated from Latin as a “damnation of memory,” which dishonored rather than entirely destroyed your memory, created a space for ancient historians to fabricate the own outlandish stories which become our first impressions of you. These “notoriously unreliable” sources, most notably Herodian, Cassius Dio, and anonymous author of the Vita Heliogabali, scathingly and hyperbolically attack your character (Icks 2006). Josiah Osgood, in his analysis “Cassius Dio’s Secret History of Elagabalus” (2016, 177) even suggests that the elaborate theatrics of your story comprises “some of Dio’s funniest writing in his whole history.” And yet, despite their obvious sacrifice of truthfulness, these satirical literary constructions are generally adopted as factual. This disturbs me immensely, and I sit here wondering how many more years will pass before the natural instinct in academia shifts from taking ancient authors at face value to critically scrutinizing their motives.
Once we acknowledge that these authors held great contempt for you, we naturally attempt to answer that pressing “why” question. And by “we,” I mean scholars much more knowledgeable than myself who I can only hope to do justice to. Martijn Icks, one of the researchers at the forefront of scholarship concerning you, proposes in his essay “Heliogabalus, a Monster on the Roman Throne” (2006) that you completed “only [one] noteworthy” action during your reign. This action, the one which brought such a loathsome spirit upon your name, was the elevation of the El’Gabal above Jupiter in the Roman Pantheon. Though historians Dio and Herodian most likely misunderstood the cult of El’Gabal entirely, they weaponized it to associate xenophobic sentiment with your name. Josiah Osgood examines another facet of your perceived identity. He suggests that your false legitimization as the proclaimed son of Caracalla destabilized Rome’s wellbeing so much so that it inspired Dio to speak against the power of a dynastic monarchy to collapse the foundations of the Roman government system he was employed by. However, as even Osgood (2016, 182) himself acknowledges, “Elagabalus and [their] backers weren’t up to anything new,” meaning that an unconventional rise to power had been attempted far before 218 AD with varying degrees of success. Some external factor, then, apart from the puppet leadership, opulence, and false legitimization of the Severan dynasty must have produced such vehement hatred for your persona.
Here, I believe Jussi Rantala would chime in with insight into Cassius Dio’s misogynistic and even homophobic personal agenda. In Rantala’s “Ruling in Purple … and Wearing Make-up: Gendered Adventures of Emperor Elagabalus as seen by Cassius Dio and Herodian” (2020, 127), he discusses how Dio and other likeminded Romans would have considered traditional gender roles to occupy an “’unofficial’ entity in all spheres and strata of the Roman Empire.” To Dio, a conservative Roman senator obsessed with the intertwined ideals of masculine virtus and imperium, a young teenager like you, dressed in traditional Syrian silk and accompanied by three powerful women, would have presented an imminent threat to Roman masculinity as he understood it. In his seething descriptions of your folly, you supposedly dance like a feeble woman and disguise yourself as a female sex worker to initiate intercourse with men, all while your stereotypically treacherous aunt Julia Mamaea guides the political sphere. This feminization of you coupled with a masculinization of the dominant women in your life, Rantala argues, demonstrates just how uncomfortable Dio was in a society straying from a traditional socio-sexual- political hierarchy. In fact, Dio lampooned Nero in the same way, assigning him feminine characteristics as a means of disrespect (Rantala 2020, 126). Clearly his prejudices shine in his writings, allowing us to assume that the majority of your legacy is glorified gossip. And as we are all too familiar with in the 21st century, gossip usually stems from the deep-rooted fears and insecurities of the one spreading it.
So, we know that all the details about your life ought to be taken with quite a few grains of salt. But then, how else can visual and literary artists continue to engrave you into modern memory without the use of these false details? Is there a way to either metaphorically or physically paint an identity of you which suspends belief in any program of how to view you? If not, I wonder if humans will reach a consensus as to whether perpetuating a misrepresentation of historical figures should be praised for benevolent (even if ignorant) intentions, or if ambiguous characters ought to fade into oblivion in the public eye, out of respect to their absent voices. What do you think? Do you care how the world sees you?
PART THREE: HARMFUL REPRESENTATIONS
As it stands now, media interpretations continue to morph the already hyperbolic descriptions of you from the ancient historians into even more fantastical pieces. I fear that although this process goes relatively unnoticed, adding misleading representations to your portfolio will produce a barrier to the unlearning which must be done over the next few decades. Even over the course of this project, I have seen truth starting to drown among an ocean of inaccurate portrayals. Of the ones I have seen, a few stick out as particularly damaging. One, a poem by John Hollander entitled “Heliogabalus” (1967), ends with lines addressing rumors of your gender dysphoria:
“Vainly pretending at
Problems beneath his Im-
The word choice here speaks for itself, using only nine words to rashly summarize your gender identity. However, this literary exploration (or should I say exploitation) of your character hardly presents as the most problematic one. “Being an Account of the Life and Death of the Emperor Heliogabolous,” a 24-panel comic strip completed in 24 hours by renowned artist Neil Gaiman (1991), easily takes the cake there, encapsulating a demonic essence and titling it with your name. I can’t decide whether you might be pleased by or utterly repulsed by the content of this comic, which blindly accepts claims that you murdered dinner guests for entertainment, engaged in human child sacrifice, and even “created possibly the world’s only penocracy:” a government which hires and ranks officials based on the size of their genitalia (Gaiman 1991, 13). These claims show less of an innocent misunderstanding of historical truth than an unquestioning acceptance of ancient historians as infallible. Maybe it doesn’t bother you as much as it bothers me… Or maybe we could fume about it together!
Ironically enough, Gaiman does exclude one crucial aspect of Herodian’s account: your exceptionally Syrian features and oriental opulence. I assume you must have Google Scholar or JSTOR in whatever afterlife you are in, and thus can monitor how your image has repeatedly metamorphosized, so what do you think of this visual representation of yourself? Immediately my attention pulls towards the overtly masculine, European-presenting features of your face scattered across the pages, and I imagine how problematic this might be as a future reference for artists trying to model your hair, nose, or other prominent characteristics. However, these complaints pale in comparison to my horror at the talon-like fingernails, blacked out eyes, and sadistic grin which proceed to transform you into a nightmarish, non-human creature. Even as I approached this artwork with a purposeful intention to respect your humanity, I found myself de-personalizing you more with each passing page. Don’t fret – I snapped out of it.
Disturbed, I then searched for the covers of more professionally published novels which boasted your face on the front covers. Surely after months of writing and researching, they would provide more consistency in illustrating your ethnicity and gender identity, right? Alas, my hopes here were instantly dashed upon viewing the exteriors of the 1966 British First Edition of Kyle Onstott and Lance Horner’s Child of the Sun and the 1973 British Reprint edition of Alfred Duggan’s Family Favorites. The former displays a man roughly in his mid to late twenties who, though he has the full lips and eyebrows which suggest possible Syrian descent, disappears from a viewer’s focus among the tiara, gaudy necklace, earrings, and half dozen rings adorning his body. The latter illustration hardly resembles the same character: it lacks any jewels and undoubtedly conveys the sentiments of both European skin tone and features. Their only similarities, it seems, may be curly hair, effeminate hand gestures, and inappropriately old ages. I wonder if either of the depictions please you. Would you hang either on the halls of your palace as self-portraits, or do you weep in shame at the blatant misrepresentations of your identity?
If you would weep, it begs the question what we ought to do when misrepresentations of a historical figure cause so much confusion that the person loses their personhood in readers’ eyes. We sacrifice historical accuracy so that Duggan could “render Elagabalus inoffensive to mid-twentieth-century ideals of manhood” (Nugent 2009, 173). We sacrifice truth so that Onstott and Horner could celebrate the emperor’s supposed muliebrity and thus “reinforce the cultural category of the mincing, whoring, queer” in their homoerotic and vividly pornographic novel (Nugent 2009, 178). We become witnesses to white male authors shaping history to serve their agendas. Does this surprise us? No. Do either of these literary projects constitute proper reasoning to do this much injustice to the visual depiction of an oriental teenager whose supposed effeminacy was at best an elaborate projection by a spiteful Cassius Dio? It seems to me as though Dio projected enough confusion onto the discussion of your gender, femininity, and masculinity without these authors perpetuating your reputation as “a dangerous, degenerate ‘other’… a feminine easterner” (Rantala 2020, 123). These novels which remove humanity from history for purely monetary gain inevitably produce consequences across Classics as an entire discipline. But the damage has been done. You have been perceived in this way by thousands of people, 14 year old me being one of them.
PART FOUR: LACK OF HUMANITY
You have never been human for me, though I thought I had been studying you intimately for years. This might sound exceptionally strange, but for five years, I was a member of an organization, the National Junior Classical League, which fosters intellectual competition among thousands of young students on (mostly useless) trivia from the ancient world. And I loved it. Stay with me here. Your birthday, your legacy, and yes, details of your whitewashed and effeminate portraits are acknowledged by this community as facts to be memorized and recalled. They are so black and white, so certain, so undisputable that we could anticipate and answer questions about your life in fractions of a second. At least 90% of the high school students I studied and competed against would affirm the years of your reign in the same breath that they would affirm that you brutally sacrificed children or requested gender reassignment surgery. They were facts to us, and we were simply instructed to compile every shred of a fact we could locate, making flashcards and proceeding onwards without second thoughts. So, imagine my disappointment at now realizing that this organization prides itself in how it trains students to memorize rather than analyze – to take the ancient historians as irrefutable, all for the sake of competition. Can you believe that? Do you think an ancient philosopher would be nauseous at the notion that robotic performance in competition would one day represent more success than critical analysis or productive dialogue? It not only damages a student’s mindset as they enter college unaccustomed to questioning the sources provided to them, but it also perpetuates the acceptability of willful ignorance among older Classicists who refuse to see faults in their ancient heroes.
These adults, my Latin coaches included, seem to have conveniently forgotten that neither Cassius Dio, Herodian, nor the anonymous author of the Vita Heliogabali witnessed your reign or had any incentive to speak an unbiased truth. They seem to have forgotten that authors achieved fame, status, honor, and imperial protection by criticizing perceived enemies of the Empire in outlandishly dramatic and nationalistic ways. Instead, these educators attempt to reconcile your bountiful reputations as cruel monster, revolutionary leader, homoerotic queer icon, devout priest, and teenager into one identity so crowded that no space remains for your humanity. Not surprisingly, this effort, destined to fail, results in adults so uncomfortable in discussing your identity that they blush when they must teach it and hush students who begin classroom dialogue about crossdressing or Syrian stereotypes. For teachers accustomed to lecturing on unproblematic grammar constructions and undisputable temple inscriptions, I can understand why they felt too intimidated to explain such a complex being as you. I can simultaneously lament that thousands of children who naively trust that they are on the path to intersectional scholarship of classical antiquity subconsciously learn and practice the othering of you into a non-human existence as a result.
I am deeply sorry that I allowed myself to see you as other than human. Regardless of my training, I feel a chest-burning shame for not realizing sooner that my first question upon reading something like your alleged quotation,
“μή με λέγε κύριον· ἐγὼ γὰρ κυρία εἰμί.”
Do not call me Lord, for I am a Lady
should have been about the sexual politics of assigning a feminine identity to someone satirically (Dio 1914, 469). Instead, my first thoughts were about which flashcard pile to add this quote to so that I would be sure to remember it by the next tournament. From here onward, I intend to remain entirely skeptical, holding just as much faith that you might be a terrified and confused teenager than that you might be the demon and sexual deviant which Cassius Dio portrayed. If only I could prepare a feast fit for an emperor and invite you over for a few hours of conversation…
PART FIVE: DINNER PARTY QUESTIONS
Maybe this historical nonsense bores the hell out of you, and you would prefer to gossip about love, cults, or the 21st century with me. Or maybe you can hardly wait for me to stop talking, because the afterlife has a game of shuffleboard scheduled in fifteen minutes. I promise I would never jeopardize shuffleboard time, but before you go, may I ask you my most burning question?
I know it sounds terribly silly, but I wonder about your potential relationship with the chariot boy Hierocles far more than is probably relevant to my scholarship. Did Dio invent the entire romance, only pretending that it blossomed after your experimentation with four female wives and as a sex worker to gain homoerotic experience with men? Dio ceaselessly attacks you for acting passively, as a women would, going so far as to describe a roleplay in which Hierocles catches you being unfaithful and subsequently beats you to a pulp. He even asserts that you requested an ancient form of gender reassignment surgery in order to surgically create a vagina for intercourse (Dio 1914, 471).
“Ἄβιτος, ὥς φησι Δίων, τὸν ἰατρὸν ἠντιβόλει διφυῆ αὐτὸν διὰ τομῆς ἐμπροσθίου τῇ τέχνῃ ποιεῖσθαι.”
Avitus, according to Dio, besought his physician to employ his skill to make him bisexual by means of an anterior incision
Does Dio know anything about your love, or even care to recognize your relationship as valid in any capacity beyond the moral degradation he could accomplish through the weaponization of gender? Maybe you could never answer that question, but I do have a few that you could. For starters, was it true love with Hierocles? Do you believe in soulmates; do you believe he is yours? From one teenager to another, do you have any advice on young love, or heartbreak perhaps?
Trust me, I understand how unreliable of a source you are, and have not forgotten your violent, psychotic reputation when I pose these questions. Regardless, my mind wants to know if you experienced real love before you died. I wonder if you danced under the stars with your first love as I did with mine; or if the tension from being a priest emperor with unfathomable responsibility applied pressure onto your relationships; or if you wrote profound poetry which only your lover’s eyes beheld before history erased it; or if you ever planned out the rest of your lives together. I want to know your love story, if there is one to know.
I also want to know your wildest dreams. Your favorite smells. The thing you regret most. What you would do with one more day on Earth. If dying scared you. If you could only be one animal for the rest of your life or only eat one food for eternity, what you would pick and why. All the silly ice breakers that I know I will never know. And though unlikely, I will cling to the hope that an archeologist may stumble across a primary source, maybe from your own handwriting, which would lift the veil of uncertainty around your identity and give you a voice once again. An entire community of scholars waits patiently for this day, and you can rest knowing that your legacy remains sacred to us. You, even from the grave, have intimately touched my life. Thank you for the role you played in sculpting the lens through which I study the ancient world, and for speaking with me today despite your extremely busy schedule.
Requiescat in pace,
May [they] rest in peace,
Cassius Dio Cocceianus. 1914. Dio’s Roman History. Translated by Earnest Cary and Herbert
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Being an Account of the Life and Death of the Emperor Heliogabolous (1991)
Being an Account of the Life and Death of the Emperor Heliogabolous (1991)