The North Hertfordshire museum (England) has described a Roman emperor as transgender and has sparked controversy. Those responsible for the institution have decided that, from now on, they will refer to Elagabalus, who ruled during the 3rd century AD, as “she” in their exhibitions.
The center owns a coin minted during the reign of this emperor and has made the decision after consulting with the LGTBi charity Stonewall. The decision is based on the account of the Roman chronicler Lucius Cassius Dion, who states that Elagabalus was "called wife, mistress and queen."
Dion further writes that the Roman monarch told a lover: "Do not call me Lord, for I am a lady" and asked that female genitalia be designed for him. Some historians, however, believe that the chronicler, who served the emperor Severus Alexander, who came to the throne after the murder of Elagabalus, simply used his accounts as defamation.
North Hertfordshire museum policy states that pronouns used in its exhibits will be those that "the individual concerned could have used themselves" or any pronouns that "with hindsight, are appropriate."
“Although histories written in ancient times unanimously refer to Elagabalus as “he,” examination of these sources clearly suggests that the emperor did not identify himself as a man,” explains Ollie Burns, a specialist in Ancient History at the University of Birmingham.
The fame of this monarch had not been excessive until now, although his reign and his life were one of the most fascinating cases of Rome's imperial period. Probably born in Syria with the name Sextus Varius Avitus Bassianus in the year 204 AD, he was the son of an equestrian who ended up entering the Senate and Julia Soemias, Caracalla's cousin.
After the assassination of Caracalla in 217, the praetorian prefect Macrinus seized power and forced the emperor's relatives, including Elagabalus and his family, into exile. However, Macrinus's reign was very unstable and in just a few months he had already been executed.
Hence, Heliogabalus was elevated to the imperial throne at just 14 years old and the Senate accepted that he be recognized as the son of Caracalla, boosting the legitimacy of his government. His mandate was brief and controversial. He opted to place a foreign god as the new leader of the Roman pantheon, displacing Jupiter, and ordered the removal of Rome's most sacred relics (such as the Fire of Vesta) to place them in a new temple built on the Palatine Hill.
The religious controversy grew even more when Elagabalus married Aquilia Severa, a vestal virgin. Roman law very strictly stated that all Vestals must remain chaste, and anyone who had sexual relations could be buried alive, so for many this marriage was unacceptable.
“From the available historical sources, it is difficult to determine with certainty the sexual orientation of Elagabalus,” says Burns. Cassius Dion writes that the young emperor was married five times and that he had numerous extramarital sexual encounters with other women.
“He married many women and had sexual relations with many more without any legal sanction; However, it was not that he himself needed them, but simply that he wanted to imitate his actions when he slept with his lovers and wanted to make them accomplices of his debauchery. He used his body to do and allow many strange things, which no one could bear to tell or hear; but his most notorious acts, which would be impossible to hide, were the following. She went to the taverns at night, wearing a wig, and there she worked as a street vendor. She frequented the famous brothels, expelled the prostitutes and became a prostitute himself. Finally, he reserved a room in the palace and there committed his indecencies, always standing naked at the door of the room, as harlots do, and waving the curtain that hung with gold rings, while with a soft and melting voice he requested the passers-by,” Dion writes in book 80 of his Roman History.
Some historians believe that this excerpt suggests that while Elagabalus married women, this was only to learn how they acted, so that he could replicate that behavior with male partners, which would imply that he was homosexual. "In terms of gender identity, Elagabalus's habit of playing a prostitute to attract men shows a rejection of traditional Roman masculine identity, in which men (especially those of rank) were seen as weak and effeminate if they allowed themselves penetrated by other men,” says Ollie Burns.
It is also known that this emperor had married a man, the charioteer and former slave Hierocles, and that he loved to be called wife or mistress. He is credited with a penchant for frequently wearing wigs and makeup, it is said that he preferred to be called “domina” (lady) and even offered large sums of money to any doctor who could give him a vagina.
Cassius Dion even noted that Elagabalus asked one of the praetorian prefects (the high officials of Ancient Rome) what would be the most painful method to get his male genitals removed and offered him money to do it.
But the historian wrote most of his Roman History after Elagabalus was already dead and disgraced, and it is common in Roman histories to see unpopular emperors slandered and aspects of their reign negatively exaggerated to fit the status quo of the new regime.
The emperor's religious policies and general eccentricities drove some members of the Praetorian Guard into a tizzy. Fearing a coup d'état, Elagabalus's grandmother arranged for her other grandson, Severus Alexander, to take imperial power in the year 222. The Praetorian Guard murdered Elagabalus, who was barely 18, and his mother, decapitating their bodies and thrown into the Tiber River.