Books

In Search of Rome's Notorious Boy Emperor: Martijn Icks' 'The Crimes of Elagabalus'

Though his debaucheries became legendary, the reign of Elagabalus may have been less remarkable than once believed.


The Crimes of Elagabalus: The Life and Legacy of Rome's Decadent Boy Emperor

Publisher: Harvard University Press
ISBN: 978-0-674-06437-9
Author: Martijn Icks
Price: $29.95
Format: Hardcover
Length: 304 pages
Publication date: 2012-02
Amazon

So what were the crimes of Elagabalus? Deemed one of Rome’s “bad” emperors, his brief rule (219-222 CE) is remembered for its gross ineptitude and gross perversion. Tyrannical and cruel, Elagabalus booted Jupiter from the top of the pantheon of gods and dared to marry a Vestal virgin. He was an “Eastern” import, a Syrian, tone deaf to Roman culture and custom.

In actuality, he was more or less a pawn in his family’s push for imperial power. Behind the throne was “a conspiracy of women and eunuchs”, according to Gibbon of Decline and Fall fame. But Martijn Icks -- whose multilayered history investigates the emperor’s rule alongside its myriad historical reinterpretations -- calmly believes that “the reign of Elagabalus does not appear to have been very remarkable or innovative.”

With primary textual sources, coins, inscriptions, and artworks, Icks makes a valiant effort to sift fact from myth but concedes the task is essentially impossible. The primary sources – the Historia Romana of Cassius Dio, Herodian’s Ab excessu divi Marci, and the anonymous imperial biography Vita Heliogabali -- blend reliable history with Classical kink. Politically motivated, these biased histories laid the foundation for the emperor’s notorious legacy.

Belonging to a prominent family from the Syrian city of Emesa, Elagabalus was a youthful priest of Elagabal, a local sun god who was worshiped in the form of a conical black stone. His second cousin was the emperor Caracalla, who died childless. To restore her clan to power, Elagabalus’s grandmother, Julia Maesa, claimed that Elagabalus was actually Caracalla’s son.

In the strange soap opera that is Roman history, events proceeded quickly: soldiers in the pay of Julia Maesa defeated the emperor Macrinus, Elagabalus became emperor at the age of 14, the victorious boy ruler went to Rome and initiated a series of religious reforms. These proved unpopular. In March 222 he was killed and his body dumped in the Tiber, but not before it was dragged through the streets. The new emperor would be Severus Alexander, his adopted cousin.

These facts are not as notorious as the indulgent and thoroughly un-Roman lifestyle choices the emperor made. Or at least so the primary sources claim. Nights spent on Roman streets disguised as a male prostitute, his effeminacy and androgyny, administrative positions awarded for penis size, his resplendent suicide tower. The debaucheries became legendary. But there is a disparity between the sensational anecdotes and the unexceptional, even boring events of his reign. Icks feels that “the years 218-22 can be considered one of the most tranquil and peaceful periods of the third century.”

By challenging established accounts, Icks demonstrates how presumptions become truths. The cliché of history being written by the winners holds true for Elagabalus. He was unfortunate enough to suffer a damnatio memoriae, a condemnation and destruction of his memory. Icks, viewing the primary textual sources in light of the damnatio memoriae, understands their limitations and places them under heavy scrutiny.

The result is a work that would rather suppose than be incorrect, a history that is honorable and honest in what can and cannot be known. Fact is not the focus, but rather how historical understanding arises and adapts. Elagabalus remains in constant flux. He is “an elusive figure, an often inextricable tangle of history and imagination.”

The second half of Icks’ study delves into the fictional afterlife of the emperor. His alleged depravity and elegance made him a fitting icon for Decadent writers. More recently, Elagabalus has become “a modern gay role model.” In an interesting twist, this most maligned of Roman rulers has increasingly been viewed in a positive light. He stirs the modern imagination as a rebel, an individualist, and a nonconformist trapped in a severe civilization. The wheel turns. The story of Elagabalus is a protean layering of fresh interpretations of interpretations previous, going all the way back to antiquity.

Icks trades the intoxicating depravity of a mythic Elagabalus for a sincere push against the limits of historical source material. He then uses the emperor to understand how an individual becomes an image and how images are perpetually made anew. Ironically, by accepting that so much of his story will not be known, Icks allows Elagabalus to become real to us, again. Instead of some perverse tyrant, Elagabalus may simply have been an unprepared teenager who unexpectedly had the world thrust upon his shoulders.

7
Music


Books


Film


Recent
Music

Dancing in the Street: Our 25 Favorite Motown Singles

Detroit's Motown Records will forever be important as both a hit factory and an African American-owned label that achieved massive mainstream success and influence. We select our 25 favorite singles from the "Sound of Young America".

Music

The Durutti Column's 'Vini Reilly' Is the Post-Punk's Band's Definitive Statement

Mancunian guitarist/texturalist Vini Reilly parlayed the momentum from his famous Morrissey collaboration into an essential, definitive statement for the Durutti Column.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

What Will Come? COVID-19 and the Politics of Economic Depression

The financial crash of 2008-2010 reemphasized that traumatic economic shifts drive political change, so what might we imagine — or fear — will emerge from the COVID-19 depression?

Music

Datura4 Take Us Down the "West Coast Highway Cosmic" (premiere)

Australia's Datura4 deliver a highway anthem for a new generation with "West Coast Highway Cosmic". Take a trip without leaving the couch.

Music

Teddy Thompson Sings About Love on 'Heartbreaker Please'

Teddy Thompson's Heartbreaker Please raises one's spirits by accepting the end as a new beginning. He's re-joining the world and out looking for love.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Little Protests Everywhere

Wherever you are, let's invite our neighbors not to look away from police violence against African Americans and others. Let's encourage them not to forget about George Floyd and so many before him.

Music

Carey Mercer's New Band Soft Plastics Score Big with Debut '5 Dreams'

Two years after Frog Eyes dissolved, Carey Mercer is back with a new band, Soft Plastics. 5 Dreams and Mercer's surreal sense of incongruity should be welcomed with open arms and open ears.

Music

Sondre Lerche Rewards 'Patience' with Clever and Sophisticated Indie Pop

Patience joins its predecessors, Please and Pleasure, to form a loose trilogy that stands as the finest work of Sondre Lerche's career.

Film

Ruben Fleischer's 'Venom' Has No Bite

Ruben Fleischer's toothless antihero film, Venom is like a blockbuster from 15 years earlier: one-dimensional, loose plot, inconsistent tone, and packaged in the least-offensive, most mass appeal way possible. Sigh.

Books

Cordelia Strube's 'Misconduct of the Heart' Palpitates with Dysfunction

Cordelia Strube's 11th novel, Misconduct of the Heart, depicts trauma survivors in a form that's compelling but difficult to digest.

Music

Reaching For the Vibe: Sonic Boom Fears for the Planet on 'All Things Being Equal'

Sonic Boom is Peter Kember, a veteran of 1980s indie space rockers Spacemen 3, as well as Spectrum, E.A.R., and a whole bunch of other fascinating stuff. On his first solo album in 30 years, he urges us all to take our foot off the gas pedal.

Film

Old British Films, Boring? Pshaw!

The passage of time tends to make old films more interesting, such as these seven films of the late '40s and '50s from British directors John Boulting, Carol Reed, David Lean, Anthony Kimmins, Charles Frend, Guy Hamilton, and Leslie Norman.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.