Guide Death By Roses: The Decadent Emperor Heliogabalus

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The Amazing Emperor Heliogabalus/Chapter X - Wikisource, the free online library

After the defeat of the Roman Emperor Macrinus, and even though he was only 14 years of age, he was chosen by the Army as the new Roman Emperor in CE. For all his troubles, he was assassinated in CE, and his body unceremoniously dumped in the Tiber.


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Despite all this, however, Elagabalus has left a strange and vibrant legacy, which the author traces in art and literature all the way to the twentieth century. The list of inspirations is quite extensive, and Icks selects several such works to examine in more detail, showing the different emphases and interpretations of the relevant authors — an examination of interest to art and literature students in and of itself.

The enigma of this child-high-priest, loved at first, then rejected, then subjected to increasingly negative responses, so that he is perceived as evil, decadent, immoral, monstrous, an abomination, etc.


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  • Nero became more despised because he considered himself a poet. And so on. By the time we come to Elogabalus, not only were eastern effeminacy and culture made prominent, but they had actually entered into the very heart of Rome itself! They had to be eliminated! An irony also stems from the Elogabalus story: the Sol Invictus symbol still remained with Rome, and this symbol a circle with a cross in the centre used by Constantine to take over the whole Roman Empire barely a century later.

    This sun symbol is in fact associated with the Persian deity Mithras, himself probably a version of the Indian god Mithra. The choice of the symbol may be seen as a type of concession to the Army, whose main religion was Mithraic, and Mithraism was one of the main contenders for being the State Religion of Rome. The East had won! It was Leo who backed the Athanasian version and gave refuge to Athanasius when he was banished from the east.

    A double irony can also be found here. Mithras is often pictured as slaying the Bull Taurus necessary for the Ram Aries to rise. Initiates to Mithraism would bathe in the blood of the slain Bull at special ceremonies, and thus be baptised into their religion. They also had ceremonies where the initiated would eat little cakes made specially for the occasion. The Christians took over many of the Mithraic rituals and made them their own.

    On this day: March 11, 222 CE

    Mithras was born in a cave; Jesus in a stable; the slaying of the Bull became the slaying of the Lamb Ram who was also made a symbol of Jesus. The eating of the cakes in Mithraism became the Eucharist in Christianity.

    So when Constantine chose the Christian religion for the Roman State religion, in effect he was maintaining a foot in both camps, and this is still reflected in the Christianity of today. Rome and the Christian apologists who condemned Elagabalus and tried to eliminate the memory of him and his religion from history by denigration and designating his rule as representing the depths of depravity of Rome before the advent of the purifying new Christianity, may be finding that after years that Elagabalus too, like Jesus, is now being resurrected again… View all 5 comments.

    Elagabalus become Emperor at the age of 14 and was murdered shortly after his 18th birthday. This excellent book does more than examine the somewhat scanty and possibly unreliable historical records: it looks further, to consider how Elagabalus has been viewed by subsequent generations, from archetypal Bad Emperor to Gender Bending Effeminate to Teenage Anti Hero.

    This is interesting, and took me down by ways I would never have otherwise discovered such as an astonishing number of plays, nov Elagabalus become Emperor at the age of 14 and was murdered shortly after his 18th birthday. This is interesting, and took me down by ways I would never have otherwise discovered such as an astonishing number of plays, novels and reflections in several languages. However, I would really have liked more consideration of Dio Cassius, who is generally reckoned the most reliable ancient historian. And what a story he tells.

    A charioteer is thrown from his chariot in front of the Emperor and his helmet knocked off, revealing the beardless face of a youth under a shock of blond hair. Elagabalus has him taken to the palace to recover, makes love with him, and ends up marrying him. Hierocles the charioteer obviously thought he was now set up for life and when Elagabalus appoints one Zoticus as Chamberlain simply because of the legendary size of his member, Hierocles knows how to safeguard his position: he has a Roman anti-Viagra slipped in Zoticus's wine.

    To the Emperor's huge disappointment, Zoticus's enormous member remains flaccid: the next morning, he is dismissed, no doubt to the satisfaction of Hierocles. This story, and the accounts of Elagabalus flouncing around in make-up and even prostituting himself disguised as a "lady boy", make him seem like an archetypal effeminate whom the Romans despised.


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    • A manly Roman didn't lose status by penetrating other males, but he definitely did if he was penetrated by them. Except that Elagabulus is more nuanced than this: the soldiers loved him and not just because they fancied him ; he married several times, and boasted about wanting to breed a "god like race" from the chief vestal virgin one of his many wives.

      Even Dio Cassius concedes that the Emperor could sound "manly" on occasion. Icks points out that much of Elagabulus's behaviour makes sense when refracted through the lens of his religious devotion to the Syrian sun god Elagabal: it was all about encompassing both male AND female characteristics, reconciling them in a unitive way, and so manifesting in himself characteristics which were simultaneously male and female. Of course, this has the effect of making gender boundaries fluid as well as unified, hence Elagabulus's very contemporary fascination.

      For what it's worth, I still doubt that this makes Elagabulus a hero. He still seems to me to have been at the least a spoiled brat. Giving unlimited power to a teenage boy is probably always a bad idea, in any context. A bad Emperor? A fascinating one? Was he, in the words of one Victorian historian, "one of the worst monsters ever to disgrace the human form"? I doubt it.

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      And much as I would like to know what he was really like, I suspect too close an acquaintance would have been a bad idea. Read an excerpt of this book! Add to Wishlist. USD 4. Sign in to Purchase Instantly. Explore Now. Buy As Gift. His bizarre cult of the Sun God with its human sacrifices, his sexual proclivities including a lust for men with huge genitals and his often homicidal caprices such as suffocating dinner guests with an avalanche of rose petals are now the stuff of legend.

      ROSES collects four key historical texts on Heliogabalus: Aelius Lampridius' scandalous "Life Of Heliogabalus" is accompanied by 3 in-depth essays on Heliogabalus' sexual psychology, extravagances, and religious cult, respectively. ROSES reveals the shocking facts and legends about one of Rome's most notorious, decadent and despised rulers.

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