The Crisis of the Third Century: The Reign of Elagabalus

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Roman Empire: From Augustus to the Fall of Rome

By: Gregory S. Aldrete, Ph.D., University of Wisconsin, Green Bay

The late second and early third centuries were not particularly great times for the Roman Empire, but they were only a foreboding for the times ahead. The middle of the third century brought along with it a state of economic, civic, and political chaos for the empire. A lot of this decline could easily be attributed to King Elagabalus, who would just as easily win the title of the worst ruler of the empire, which, given the empire’s history, would be saying a lot. 

Panoramic view of the ruins of Roman forum, one of the most popular Roman monuments.
There were many times in history when the Roman Empire was at the pinnacle of grandeur, but the third century saw a lot of negative changes, and emperor Elagabalus was responsible for significant misery in the empire. (Image: Viacheslav Lopatin/Shutterstock)

The Lineage of Elagabalus

The time of Septimius Severus, an excellent general and a competent administrator, was enveloped between the low points led by Commodus and Caracalla. It was, however, his lineage that went on to get Elagabalus on to the throne. 

While Septimius had been known as a great leader, the women in his family were unusually assertive as well. While his wife, Julia Domna, had died earlier, her sister, Julia Maesa, determined to bring power back to her family. So, she bribed the troops to gain their allegiance, and tried to rule the family with an appropriate male figurehead, as she couldn’t openly lead as a woman. 

Julia Maesa had no sons, but had two grandsons, one from each of her daughters. She selected the elder one, a fourteen-year-old, and upon his accession, officially renamed him Marcus Aurelius Antoninus. However, he is usually referred to by the Romanized name of his Sun-God deity, Elagabal, as Elagabalus, or Heliogabalus. 

Learn more about Commodus and Caracalla.

Elagabalus: The Worshipper

One of the reasons why Elagabalus was arguably the worst Roman emperor of all time, was his utter devotion to religion and his God. He embodied his god as a conical black rock, which was probably a meteorite. 

Even after he became the emperor, he would not show much interest in his government, instead he remained engaged in ritual sacrifices and dances for a lot of time. Once, he had a huge self-portrait sent to Rome ahead of his arrival, which showed him engaged in an exotic dance while clad in loud robes of his priesthood, and a jeweled tiara. He ordered this to be displayed in the Senate house. 

He also brought his sacred rock to Rome, and had it installed on the Palatine Hill. He even staged a bizarre marriage to marry his god to a statue of the goddess Pallas. The rock was then put in a jewel-studded golden chariot pulled by four white horses, which were reined in a manner that made it seem as if the rock was driving the chariot. Elagabalus, all this while, tottered on in front of the chariot in his priestly attire. This scene was also proudly preserved by being minted on coins. 

Religion was not the only interest that Elagabalus possessed which was marked with perversion, though. 

This is a transcript from the video series The Roman Empire: From Augustus to the Fall of Rome. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Other Strange Interests of Elagabalus

Coins minted by emperor Elagabalus of the Roman Empire.
Elagabalus would often have his ludicrous acts minted on his coins.
(Image: Eduardo Estellez/Shutterstock)

Elagabalus’s interests were such that they seemed to only exist to create outrage.

He offended the entire populace by marrying a Vestal Virgin, divorcing her, and then marrying her again. In fact, he may have officially married as many as six wives in a period of four years, in addition to having innumerable sexual partners. 

He was also known for his outlandish feasts. Once, he hosted a dinner where he served 600 ostrich heads. In other instances, he had presented things such as peacock tongues, camel heels, and flamingo brains. He allegedly fed his own pets exclusively on goose liver. He was also known to sometimes have real food served to himself and glass, wood, or stone food to his guests. He liked to present guests with spoons engraved with prizes which they would receive, which could range from the invaluable ones, such as gold, to worthless ones, such as dead dogs, or flies. 

Elagabalus liked to amuse himself and abuse his power by issuing ridiculous orders to his staff, such as that he be presented with 1,000 pounds of spider webs. In another instance, he wished to be brought a thousand weasels. He would sometimes have his chariot pulled by lions, or dogs, or sometimes by naked women. For his amusement, he would at times release poisonous snakes into the audience at the Circus Maximus.

Elagabalus’s political actions were truly in line with his personality, as well. 

Elagabalus’s Political Stance

Perhaps as another extension of his abuse of power, Elagabalus liked to appoint his personal staff to key positions in the government. He made one of his exotic dancers the head of the Praetorian Guard, he appointed one of his charioteer as a commander of the night watch, and his favorite hairdresser as the Prefect of the Grain Supply. Supposedly, he appointed many important posts on the basis of which men were most well-endowed. Though historians often debate about the credibility of these facts regarding the man, many of the specific incidents regarding his behavior are believed to be true. 

Learn more about the fall of the Roman Empire.

The Fall of Elagabalus

Bust of emperor Elagabalus at the Palazza Nuovo in Rome, Italy.
Elagabalus was so widely hated, that he was to be literally removed from memory.
(Image: José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro/Public domain)

When Julia Maesa, Elagabalus’s grandmother, realized that it was impossible to control his behavior, she also realized that his subjects would also turn against him soon, and she would be left bereft of her influence. So, she turned to Severus Alexander, her other grandson, and somehow convinced Elagabalus to adopt him as his heir. Even though Elagabalus recognized his error, it was too late, as he was now dispensable to the woman who was really running the show. This also went on to cause a family rift, with Elagabalus and his mother on one side, and Julia Maesa, Severus, and Severus’ mother, Julia Mamea, on the other. 

Elagabalus then tried to bribe the Praetorians to kill Severus Alexander, but the soldiers, who were by then fed up with the man and his profligacy, killed him and his mother in 222 A.D., after a reign of just four years. 

The extreme hatred held for Elagabalus is visible in the fact that he was the only emperor whose corpse was hauled through streets on a hook, dragged through sewers, and finally flung into the Tiber. His death was met with shouts of “Peior Commodo solus Heliogabalus!” or “Elagabalus alone was worse than Commodus!” from the senate, which invoked damnatio memoriae, implying that he had to literally be erased from memory. All of his coins, statues, and portraits were to be destroyed, and his name was to be excised from all inscriptions, records, and official documents. His beloved black stone was sent back to its temple in Syria. 

Severus Alexander and his mother, Julia Mamea, served as much more complying figureheads for Julia Maesa to work with. While Julia Maesa died about two years into Severus’ reign, her daughter Julia Mamea continued the tradition of strong Severan women, wielding power behind the throne for the next decade. She inculcated good governance practices, and had good relations with the senate. 

Superficially, at least, the empire seemed stable. However, this stability of Severus’ thirteen-year reign was followed by an immense downward ride for Rome, as it was to face new, and dangerous foes from the Northern and Eastern borders in the years to come. 

Common Questions about the Reign of Elagabalus

Q: Who was Elagabalus?

Elagabalus, born Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, was the elder grandson of Julia Maesa. She wished to retain power over the Roman Empire, for which she chose Marcus Aurelius Antoninus as the figurehead.

Q: Why was Elagabalus hated?

Elagabalus is widely regarded as the worst ruler in the history of the Roman Empire, and for a variety of reasons. He ignored his government for the sake of his religion, made outrageous demands from his men just for his amusement, and in general, abused his power over his subjects.

Q: What was the fate of Elagabalus?

Elagabalus was so widely hated by his public that he was assassinated by his own soldiers. His corpse was dragged through sewers before being thrown away into the Tiber. The senate issued damnatio memoriae, implying that he literally had to be erased from memory.
All his coinage, portraits, and statues were destroyed.

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