Posted by: ken98 | September 30, 2009

Drag Queens and Young Republicans-Emperors Elagabulus and Alexander

Day 17 – Ken Here

(continued apology) and yes, I’m posting this very late – I was out of town, but kept up with the reading – sans-blogging – so I apologize.

Macrinus – Rise of the (very) Common Man

Gibbon briefly explains the brief, but very important reign of Macrinus (March 217-March 218)- civil (not military) Prefect in the city of Rome. Per a footnote in Gibbon (DF i.p161,fn43) Macrinus was a native of Caesarea in Numidia (Africa), a former slave and gladiator (although Gibbon points out, we are using the one and only source we have, so facts may be skewed). Macrinus was also a man with a long history in public administration under the Severans, and a long history in the highest office in the land at the time of Caracalla’s death – Praetor (since Caracalla was never at Rome, Macrinus may have operated as de facto emperor in his absence).

Heavy heavy gold coin (Aureus) of Macrinus-used to insure election as Emperor

Heavy heavy gold coin (Aureus) of Macrinus-used to insure election as Emperor

Macrinus was murdered by his troops (along with his 10 year old son and co-emperor Diadumenianus (what a cool name!)) because he wanted to reform the lax rules and regulations of the current military – this after giving HUGE amounts of money over to the military to guarantee Macrinus’ election as emperor.

The Praetorian Guard was not amused. Macrinus was judged by most to be a sober, repectable man interested in governing the Empire well, but at this point (the beginning of the Crisis period of the 200’s) politics were spinning quietly out of control.

The Fabulous Heliogabulus

Antoninus (Elagabulus) was another handsome Severan. Caracalla’s Aunt Julia, Julia Maesa was living in Syria, with her gorgeous, young, flaming Diva son Antoninus, a priest of the sun god there Heliogabulus. Within 20 days of Macrinus’ death (6-7-218), Elegabulus (as we know him) was elevated and praised as a descendant of Marcus Aurelius and a representative of the house of Septimus Severus.

Elagabalus, such a sweet face

Elagabalus, such a sweet face

He seemed the perfect choice – although he had a very, very quiet and respectable cousin Alexander – who was passed over.

The First to wear Silk

He is the personification of personal, artistic, aestheticism over staid, conservative social acceptance – or so he has been championed, esp. in past centuries. He is either god or devil, depending on your political/social stance.

Here’s some quotes from Gibbon highlighted in Wiki:

“To confound the order of the season and climate, to sport with the passions and prejudices of his subjects, and to subvert every law of nature and decency, were in the number of his most delicious amusements. A long train of concubines, and a rapid succession of wives, among whom was a vestal virgin, ravished by force from her sacred asylum, were insufficient to satisfy the impotence of his passions. The master of the Roman world affect to copy the manners and dress of the female sex, preferring the distaff to the sceptre, and dishonored the principle dignities of the empire by distributing them among his numerous lovers; one of whom was publicly invested with the title and authority of the the emperor’s, or, as he more properly styled himself, the empress’s husband. It may seem probable, the vices and follies of Elagabalus have been adorned by fancy, and blackened by prejudice. Yet, confining ourselves to the public scenes displayed before the Roman people, and attested by grave and contemporary historians, their inexpressible infamy surpasses that of any other age or country” (DF Ch VI), and “Elagabalus, the first who, by this effeminate habit [of wearing silk], had sullied the dignity of an emperor and a man” (DF Ch XL).

Lawrence Alma-Tadema The Roses of Heliogabulus

Painting by Lawrence Alma-Tadema The Roses of Heliogabulus

The Augustan Histories put it a little plainer:

“And even at Rome he did nothing but send out agents to
search for those who had particularly large organs and
bring them to the palace in order that he might enjoy
their vigor. Moreover, he used to have the story of Paris
played in his house, and he himself would take the role
of Venus, and suddenly drop his clothing to the ground
and fall naked on his knees, one hand on his breast, the
other before his private parts, his buttocks projecting
meanwhile and thrust back in front of his partner in
depravity.”

He was murdered by his troops (3-10-222), and another young Severan, Alexander was pushed forward by another very political daughter of Julia Domna, Julia Mamaea.

Alexander (222-235)

We are approaching the blank years in the time of Crisis of the 200’s. Sources grow thin or disappear entirely. Gibbon shows this in that he writes for pages on Elagabulus, but can only vaguely hint at Alexander’s reign before launching into a long aside on taxes and Roman Citizenship (which we will hit tomorrow). Alexander is remembered as a strong man, an philosopher-king, a weak plaything of his mother’s ambition and a crybaby. Gibbon does not attempt to disentangle the web of fact, fiction, and pure spin in the meager sources available to him. But the Empire, returned to stability, rolled remorselessly forward, pulled more and more by barbarian invasions to emphasize the military over all other forms of Roman civic life.

Alexander Severus

Alexander Severus


Alexander is also know for his standardization of Senatorial advice by creation (at the instigation of his mother Mamaea) of a council of 16 (a kind of cabinet), and a regularization of governing the various districts in the capital Rome. Civil law continued to be studied and systematized with jurists such as Alexander’s advisor Ulpian.

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