March 05, 2018

Elagabalus: Emperor or Prankster?

“Nor emperor he, nor Antoninus, nor citizen, nor senator, nor blood, nor Roman”
Historia Augusta, Vita Severi Alexandri

Considered to be the worst Roman emperor in history yet the biggest prankster in Rome, Elagabalus, originally known as Varius Avitus Bassianus, later changed to Caesar Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus, came into power in 218 A.D. at the age of 14 and assassination in 222 A.D. The Roman people were at first hopeful of Elagabalus, he presented himself as a benevolent monarch in the tradition of the Antonines, later as the invincible priest-emperor of Elagabal. However, his downfall was sudden, could this been the consequence of his playful antics?

When Elagabalus ascended to power, he was under the control of his controversial mother Julia Soaemias Bassiana, he would not do any public businesses without her consent. Once he entered the city, his main focus was not that of the affairs of the provinces but the establishing of the temple of Elagabalus on the Palatine Hill. Additionally, he declared that all religions including the Jews and Christians to be transferred to this temple therefore the priesthood of Elagabalus would include the mysteries of every form of worships. Surprisingly, he established a senaculum (women’s senate) which to the modern audience could be viewed as quite ahead of his time as it seems to show him passing over power to women.

After this short-lived period of doing what could be considered ‘sensible responsibilities’. Elagabalus began to exploit his power and wealth for the wrong reasons. Elagabalus began to host tremendous feasts, he never spent less than thirty pounds of silver, approximately 100,000 sesterces. If one compares that to frugalness of Emperor Augustus, it’s outstanding and irresponsible. But frankly, Elagabalus did not care and continued.

Although motive is unknown, perhaps boredom was the cause, Elagabalus began to take pleasure in pulling cruel pranks on companions. According to Historia Augusta, in his banqueting-room Elagabalus had a reversible ceiling that he used to pour tonnes of flowers onto his guests which caused several to suffocate and die. (The Roses of Heliogabalus) However, the death of his guests did not stop him from pulling anymore outrageous and dangerous pranks. It is said that among his pets, he kept lions which had been trained and were deemed harmless. Elagabalus would invite in his pets during dinners causing panic amongst the guests therefore amusing the sadistic Emperor for he knows that they are harmless. In addition to his use of pets in his pranks, at night Elagabalus would allow lions and leopards to enter the sleeping chambers of his companions expecting the result of tremendous shock from them – to the extent of death.

On a more positive note, Elagabalus was considered to be the inventor of the ‘whoopie cushion’. As stated in Historia Augusta, he was the first to think of placing a ‘semi-circular group on the ground instead of on couches, with the purpose of having the air-pillows loosened by slaves who stood at the feet of the guests and the air thus let out’, definitely not how ‘whoopie cushions’ work nowadays but one can see where the idea has adapted from.
Could modern society laugh at Elagabalus pranks? One could laugh at how bizarre yet creative Elagabalus’ pranks were but not agree with how extreme and dangerous to the point where people were killed for one man’s pleasure. Admittedly, one does enjoy how ‘fruitful’ Elagabalus was, for instance he would have the story of Paris reenacted however he would personally play the role of Venus, ‘suddenly drop his clothing to the ground and fall naked on his knees, one hand on his breast, the other before his private parts’. Undoubtedly the contemporary society would not take delight in their Emperor’s foolishness.

To conclude, Elagabalus was a terrible emperor but an inventive prankster. He did not do much for the Roman Empire, in fact he just ignored his responsibilities. Cassius Dio accuses the emperor of drifting into ‘the most murderous practices’ and portrayed him as a typical ‘Syrian’, purposely trying to distance Elagabalus from being considered as a Roman. He was most definitely a better prankster than emperor. Undoubtedly, his pranks were evil and Elagabalus was a blood-thirsty teenager however the obscurity of his jokester tactics are entertaining. Ultimately, Elagabalus ruthlessness and foolishness was the cause of his downfall and assassination. The senate wanted his cousin, Alexander to take over and eventually the Roman soldiers turned on Elagabalus and slew him. He was beheaded and his body was dragged through the streets before being thrown into Tiber therefore he could never be buried.

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