Becoming "Elagabalus" and the History of the Severan Dynasty
"Elagabalus," as we now know him, was bornVarius Avitus Bassianusin 203 AD to Julia Soaemias, a member of the powerful and matriarchal Severan Dynasty (see the Numiswiki). Elagablus was one of the grandsons of the already powerful Julia Maesa. At that time, the Roman Empire was ruled by two co-Augusti, Septimius Severus (Elagabalus' great-uncle) and Septimius' son, Caracalla.
The initial moment of the Severan Dynasty's existence, as such—one of the great Roman Imperial Dynasties—is generally dated to the year 193 AD, when Septimius Severus assumed the title of Augustus. Carcalla and Geta were the sons of Septimius Severus and Julia Domna, and the nephews ofJulia Maesa—undisputed matriarch of the Severan Dynasty despite a potentially peripheral place on the family tree.
Septimius Severus shared the title of co-Augustus, first, with his son Caracalla in 198 AD, and then Caracalla's younger brother, Geta, in 209 AD. Two years later, shortly after Septimius Severus fell ill and died at the age of 65, Caracalla arranged for the assassination of Geta, thus taking command as sole Emperor. Though not precisely identical in the sequence of events, this history of fratricide within the Severan Dynasty would foreshadow Elagabalus' own life and death. Crowned at 13, he would not live to see his 19th birthday.
For three generations, Severan Emperors were males of the family (Septimius Severus, Caracalla, Geta, Elagabalus, and Severus Alexander; 193-235 AD), though some of the Severan women held the title Augusta in honorific fashion. It is arguable, however, that the women did, indeed, play roles nearly as powerful, perhaps equally so, and, at times, more so, than the males, from start to end. Julia Maesa (165-226 AD), sister-in-law to Septimius, was especially instrumental in holding the Dynasty together for more than 30 years of her life, at times strategically giving direct orders to Legions and other military and governmental actors in the service of the family. The death of her Dynasty would occur within a decade of her own. Importantly, Maesa, who held close control over the succession ofrulers (the Caesars and Augusti of the early 3rd Century are only the best preserved and documented by historians and her influence was doubtless farther-reaching), particularly during the transfer of power from Caracalla to Elagabalus (seizing control from Macrinus) to Severus Alexander. It would become deeply consequential that Maesa's father had been a priest of the Phoenician Cult of the Sun God Heliogabalus (a name by which Elagabalus is occasionally known), and had indeed encouraged Julia Soaemias and Elagabalus to adopt its practices. Eagablaus' demise was, at a minimum, accelerated by abandoning traditional Roman gods and instead paying special homage to the gods and rituals of the Phoenicians. (It was the Phoenicians who had settled Carthage, the legendary enemy of Rome, against whom their armies tangled for decades to the absolute death of one civilization. Roman armies literally razed and burned Carthage to the ground after a decisive battle). The rituals included frequent blood sacrifice, as depicted on the coin pictured —usually by slaughtering a sacred bull and collecting the blood.
On the reverse, Elagablus is depicted heating a pan (or patera). Heating a patera is typical trope on Roman coinage, particularly the reverse. One generally assumes that the patera contains wine for the gods, as was the common practice among Romans worshiping any number of gods. However, in this case, Romans likely interpreted it as blood sacrifice, like the Carthaginians, using ritually prepared bulls' blood (presumably not humans, as the Carthaginians—inhabitants of the famous western-most Phoenician colony—are believed to have done. The Carthaginians also seem to have sacrificed tremendous numbers of young boys by bleeding and immolation.) The star imagery and the legend also point symbolically to Phoenician religion, and are unique to the coinage of Elagabalus.
The same ceremonial garb of the Phoenicians is worn by Elabalus on the back of the coin. Furthermore, the star is of considerable significance, since the bull god, Elagabalus or Heliogabalus, was though to represent the sun—quite literally.
Whatever led Elagabalus to believe this would be acceptable, he was gravely mistaken.
In 217 AD, after Caracalla was killed by a member of his own guard in the Eastern Provinces, the family briefly lost its grip on power. Upon the death of Caracalla (his first cousin), Elagabalus, born Varius Avitus Bassianus, was renamed Marcus Aurelius Antoninus in 218 AD. The assumed name was a pretense, chosen—in characteristic Roman fashion—as a means of giving credence to a tentative royal lineage and establish him as a rightful heir to the throne.
The family publicly claimed Elagabalus (Marcus Aurelius Antoninus) was the true born son of Carcalla (full name, Marcus Aurelius Severus Antoninus).
This pretense was of particular importance, since it came shortly after a rival the legal confirmation of a new Emperor with a strong claim by the Senate. Macrinus, a ruler not of royal lineage but an otherwise legitimate military and governmental background, became the official Emperor for a brief period. However, he was labeled a "usurper" by the Severan clan and thereafter remembered as such.
In the absence of an actual direct male heir to the previous Severan emperors, the "ususprer" label might not have stuck. Nor would an armed "restoration" of the Dynasty to the throne have been viewed as legitimate, but instead as what we might today call a coup. However, the Severan family (Julia Maesa in particular), proclaimed Elagabalus the son of Carcalla and rightful heir, and directed their supportive Legions to restore the Dynasty bearing arms against Macrinus. The business of securing Elagabalus' claim to the Empire, and more importantly that of the Severan family, was a matter handled largely by the astute, powerful, and wealthy matriarch. Roman religion was a plethora of cults to various deities. The old religious practices of Phoenicia and Cathage (a Phoenician colony), however, were best kept quiet by Romans in public life (given that Romans were the survivors of a fight to the finish with Carthage).
Elagabalus publicly emphasized these rituals (e.g., on coinage and elsewhere) to such a degree that it became deeply upsetting to the Roman populace. Quite significantly, he replaced the pantheon of Roman gods with Phoenician ones, especially the sacred "sun-bull." He went so far as to replace the statue of Jupiter with that of the Phoenician god Elagabal or Elagabalus (sometimes know as Heliogababalus, the prefix "Helio-" referring to the connection to sun worship), to which Romans were understandably hostile. After all, they had suffered decades of bloody war against Hannibal and his father only a few generation prior and still venerated the Roman Generals who challenged and defeated them. Now their most revered gods were being replaced by those of their most hated enemies, ones they thought were long destroyed.
Among his greatest offenses in the eyes of Romans was to unilaterally proclaim himself the high religious Consul at the age of 13 (rather reminiscent of the hubris of Augustus, but with none of the political acumen). If this was not offensive enough to Romans, who took their religion with dire seriousness, he appointed himself High Chief Priest and, furthermore, attached the title to that of Augustus—the Summus Sacerdos Augustus to which a few denarii issued by Elagablus (and no other ruler) referred, such as that pictured.
The “office” of the High Chief Priest was traditionally held for a 2-year term appointment. He reappointed himself, then again, and again (save a brief interlude for his younger brother Severus Alexander, next in line of royal lineage, and then changed his mind, cutting his brother’s term short). He continued thus until age 17, the last term he would live to assume.
Elagabalus (as he became known after his death) was spoken about with utter loathing and disdain—even by his biographers and the historians of the day, a remarkable achievement for a Roman Emperor:
"his hateful biography informs us, that loathsome young maniac ‘circumcised himself... [and] walked in Barbarian costume.’" (Dictionary of Roman Coins, 1889, London: Bell and Sons, p769: SVMMVS SACERDOS AVG.)See also: FORVM Numiswiki: Elagabalus.
His family, the Praetorian guard, and perhaps others openly plotted his assassination in 222 with no resistance or backlash whatsoever. His mother, Julia Soaemias, was accused of encouraging his eccentricities and was thus also included in the assassination, which was planned openly by the family matriarch, Julia Maesa, the grandmother of both Elagablus and his cousin and adoptive heir Severus Alexander.
The Praetorian Guard seized an opportunity to attack the pair while the Emperor and mother, Soaemias, were together, the emperor making a feeble attempt to flee and hide for a time, while his mother more stoically hugged her son as they were beheaded.
In a hurried fashion, Elagablus' younger cousin, Severus Alexander, was awarded he title of Augustus in 222 AD—also at the age of 13. The last of the politically powerful members of the Dynasty were killed by General Maximinus Thrax and a rogue Legion, who had until then served Severus Alexander faithfully, initiating a period now known as a great "Crisis and Decline" of the Empire in the Third Century. Severus Alexander was said to have ruled prudently and modestly as his Grandfather, Septimius, had. By then, however, unfounded rumors had spread that he was also a devotee of the Carthaginian "Heliogabalus" Sun God, the public faith in the Severans was lost, poisoned by the memory of Elagabalus. With only one Legion in open revolt, perhaps a stronger hand could have held the Dynasty. But none had existed since 226 AD, when Julia Maesa had died at the age of 61.