The short reign of Elagabalus, Rome's hard-partying emperor

Notorious for hedonism and sacrilege, the excesses of Elagabalus were too much, even for the Roman Empire.

Lounging in a golden robe and crown, the Roman emperor Elagabalis looks on as his guests are showered with rose petals in Lawrence Alma-Tadema romantic painting.
PHOTOGRAPH BY BRIDGEMAN/ACI

The man who became infamous as Elagabalus was born Varius Avitus Bassianus in Emesa, the city of Homs in Syria today. There he served as high priest of the sun god Elah-Gabal, a local form of the god Baal.

At age 14, Bassianus became emperor of Rome and assumed the name Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus in A.D. 218. From that moment, his short, chaotic reign would scandalize Rome. Lurid sexual encounters, extravagant stunts and parties, and, in a dramatic break with Roman tradition, forced worship of Elah-Gabal in spectacular public rituals marked his four years on the throne. An emblem of Roman decadence, an aura of fascination clings to this teenage emperor who, because of his association with the cult of Elah-Gabal, came to be known as Elagabalus. (Read about Zenobia, the rebel queen of Syria who took on Rome.)

The accounts of his life spill into the fantastical. But while the stories about him are, without doubt, exaggerated, they have continued to inspire art, literature,and drama down to the present day. Much of the information on Elagabalus is drawn from a collection of biographies of emperors known as the Augustan History. The section on the teenage emperor was supposedly written by one Aelius Lampridius. Modern historians not only cast a great deal of doubt on his account, but also consider that Aelius is an assumed name. Whoever the writer really was, his tone was decidedly sensationalist: “The life of Elagabalus Antoninus, also called Varius, I should never have put in writing—hoping that it might not be known that he was emperor of the Romans.”

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