Caligula, Nero and now Commodus (thanks to two Hollywood blockbusters in 30 years) have been imprinted in popular imagination as the epitome of depraved Roman Emperors. Their third century counterpart has not received the Hollywood treatment so far.
The third century was a violent period with most Emperors dying with their boots on. The Emperor Septimius Severus had exhorted his sons Caracalla and Geta to take care of the legions and forget the rest. It was a lesson Caracalla never forgot, though that did not prevent his assassination in 217. On his death his mother Julia Domna chose to commit suicide. He sister Julia Maesa along with her two daughters was exiled by the new emperor Macrinus to their estates in Syria. There she began to plot a return to power. The opportunity was not long in coming.
Macrinus did not abide with Septimius Severus’s death bed exhortation. The Parthians had long since ceased to be a threat to Rome, but Macrinus was only able to secure a draw with them. He then alienated the legions by cutting their pay. Julia Maesa was quick to use her ample bounty to gain support. She paraded the 14 year old Elagabalus, son of her daughter Julia Soaemias, before the legions and announced he was Caracalla’s bastard. On May 16, 218 the Third Legion proclaimed the boy Emperor. On June 8 Macrinus was defeated at Antioch, captured and put to death with his son. The Senate accepted the fait accompli and recognized Elagabalus and his purported parentage.
Awkwardness began right away. The boy was a priest of the Syrian solar deity Elagabal (which gave rise to the name by which he is popularly known) and wanted to replace Jupiter in the Roman pantheon with this deity. Before Elagabalus reached Rome the legions were having buyer’s remorse and rebellions had to be suppressed. The fun was beginning.
Elagabalus would aggressively promote his solar deity at the expense of the traditional Roman religion, rubbing sensitivities raw. All other deities were moved to the new shrine so they could not be worshiped independently of Elagabal.
Elagabalus allegedly tried to have his lover, the charioteer Heliocles declared Caesar. He scandalized Roman society by marrying a Vestal Virgin Aqulia Severia claiming the union would produce “godlike children” – Vestals who engaged in sexual intercourse were traditionally buried alive. He abandoned her within a year (though he later briefly remarried her). He married 5 women in his 4 year reign. Even with these marriages his gender identity and sexual orientation is debated. Elagabalus allegedly married an athlete in a public ceremony. Cassius Dio claims he would dress himself as a woman and prostitute himself in brothels. Dio further notes that he “delighted to be called the mistress, the wife, the queen of Hierocles” and reportedly offered vast sums of money to any physician who could equip him with female genitalia.
That said, it is unclear whether it was his sexual proclivities or his unorthodox religious policies that ticked off the Roman elite. By 221 the Praetorians were restless and Elagabalus’ grandmother realized that the boy and his mother (who encouraged his religious practices) had to be replaced. He was encouraged to appoint his 13 year old cousin Severus Alexander (son of his aunt Julia Mamaea) as his heir and Caesar. Elagabalus soon realized that his virtuous cousin was more popular. In jealousy he stripped him of his titles and started the rumor that Alexander was near death. The Praetorians rioted and demanded to see the Emperor and his heir in their camp.
On March 11, 222 Elagabalus presented his cousin and his mother Julia Soaemias in the Praetorian camp. The soldiers cheered Alexander and ignored the Emperor. When the Emperor ordered the execution of all the participants in the demonstration the soldiers attacked him.
So he made an attempt to flee, and would have got away somewhere by being placed in a chest, had he not been discovered and slain, at the age of 18. His mother, who embraced him and clung tightly to him, perished with him; their heads were cut off and their bodies, after being stripped naked, were first dragged all over the city, then the mother’s body was cast aside somewhere or other while his was thrown into the [Tiber].– Cassius Dio, Roman History LXXX.20
His associates including Heliocles and the stone of Elgabal was sent back to Emesa. Elagabalus received a damnatio memoriae and Alexander was proclaimed emperor.