The decadent emperor

Elagabale! Elagabale! ah! l’avoir connu! avoir vécu à son ombre prodigieuse et mirifique!

Luis d’Herdy (pseud.), La Destinée (1900)

Following in the footsteps of such scholars as Barthold Georg Niebuhr and Theodor Mommsen, nineteenth-century ancient historians and classicists developed a more critical attitude towards the study of ancient Greece and Rome than their humanistic predecessors. The termAltertumswissenschaft, first coined by the historian Friedrich August Wolf in the early nineteenth century, described a field of study in which ancient texts were subjected to a critical, methodological analysis and were increasingly compared with other sources, such as coins, inscriptions, statues and other archaeological remains. By the middle of the nineteenth century this approach, which had largely originated in the German-speaking world, spread to other countries as well. Consequently, scholarly images of Elagabalus began to change. They became more independent from the works of ancient authors, although many of the old prejudices remained, and several new ones were introduced.

In the field of literature, Elagabalus became an iconic figure for authors of the Decadent movement. This movement, which reached its peak in France and England at the end of the nineteenth century, was fascinated with decay, death, the artificial and the unnatural. Between 1850 and 1914 – when World War I brutally ended the ‘long nineteenth century’ – an impressive number of works featured Elagabalus as a main character, especially in France. Rather than just being an evil tyrant, as he had been before 1850, the Decadent emperor was emphatically connected to such notions as androgyny, ‘Orientalism’, ennui and decay. Moreover, this period saw the emergence of the first positive images of Elagabalus – a trend which would continue in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

The first part of this chapter will give a general overview of scholarly and literary images of Elagabalus in the period under discussion. First, I will give a brief overview of the emergence and development of Altertumswissenschaft in the period 1810–1914, paying special attention to the images of Elagabalus which emerged from this new academic approach. I will continue with a short exposition on the most important Decadent authors, books and themes, in the course of which I will deal briefly with several works which focus on the young emperor.

In the second part of this chapter, we will take a closer look at some of the images of Elagabalus. Once again, I have selected three works to be discussed in more detail. The first is Jean Lombard’s novel L’Agonie (1888), a French work which has been labelled a ‘decadent ancient novelpar excellence’ by David.¹ Although the novel is not very well known nowadays, it inspired several other Decadent authors to write about Elagabalus, and is therefore well worthy of our attention. The second work is the lyric cycle Algabal (1892) by the German poet Stefan George. George is counted among the most eminent German poets of his generation, and Algabal, a complex lyric cycle which contains many Decadent themes, is widely regarded as one of his best and most intriguing works. Finally, we will look at the Dutch novel De berg van licht (The Mountain of Light), published in three volumes in 1905 and 1906. The author of this novel, Louis Couperus, is arguably the greatest Dutch novelist of his generation and certainly the most prominent representative of the Decadent movement in the Netherlands. Together, the three selected works represent literature in three different languages and cover both the late nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries. All contain themes and metaphors which may be labelled Decadent, but the images they present of Elagabalus are far from identical.


Elagabalus in historiographical works, 1810–1914

As we have seen in Chapter 5, the German scholar Friedrich August Wolf (1759–1824) conceptualised Altertumswissenschaft, advocating a thorough, critical analysis of ancient texts as the basis for the study of antiquity. His ideas gained ground in the first decades of the nineteenth century. In 1810, they received a decisive boost from the German (originally Danish) historian Barthold Georg Niebuhr (1776–1831).

Having recently been appointed as a member of the Prussian Academy and historiographer of the Prussian court, Niebuhr was invited to give a lecture at the opening of the University of Berlin. In this lecture, which was about Roman history, he set the tone for the study of antiquity in general and his further academic career in particular. Niebuhr seriously and systematically questioned the validity of ancient texts, arguing that the ancient historian should not simply rely on their authority, but develop a keen eye to distinguish between possibilities, probabilities and truths. In his Römische Geschichte (1811–32), a three-volume work about the history of Rome from its foundation to 272BCE, he studiously employed this principle, making an intensive analysis of the literary sources. Niebuhr’s work, and the series of lectures upon which it was based, had a huge influence on contemporary scholars and following generations. Theodor Mommsen would later praise him as the first ancient historian ‘who has dared to test the study of history by the logic of the facts’.²

Although Niebuhr’s Römische Geschichte did not cover the reign of Elagabalus, his lectures on the period after 272BCE were later reworked to two additional volumes. In the few pages dedicated to him, the priest-emperor does not receive a favourable treatment: ‘He had an instinct for everything which degrades human nature’, we read. In fact, Niebuhr assures his audience, the comparison with Elagabalus puts Nero and Caligula in a positive light. The crimes and vices of the young tyrant are not elaborated upon, except that he lost himself in the ‘most insane indulgences’.³Nowhere does Niebuhr seem to question the hostile accounts of the ancient authors.

Altertumswissenschaft was not limited to the study of ancient texts, however. It combined the hitherto separate fields of Altertumskunde – the study of ancient cultures by means of single texts and material remains – history and philology. Increasingly, scholars started to take the historical context of ancient texts into account, comparing them with other sources, such as coins and inscriptions. The period 1800–50 saw the start of systematic excavations of archaeological sites, which earned archaeology a place next to philology. In the course of the century, an increasing number of non-literary sources were published in great collections and became accessible to historians.

A famous example is the Corpus inscriptionum Latinarum, which is still of immeasurable value to students of Greek and Latin inscriptions today. The instigator of this work, the German scholar Theodor Mommsen (1817–1903), is without doubt the greatest figure in the study of ancient history in the nineteenth century. In his vast academic oeuvre, comprising over one and a half thousand publications, Mommsen unlocked a great number of ancient sources, including coins, inscriptions, late classical and early medieval texts, and sources on Roman law. To the last of these fields, he made enormous contributions, demonstrating its vital importance for the understanding of Roman history and society. Largely due to his work, the study of Roman state affairs and Roman history experienced a methodological deepening in the second half of the nineteenth century.

Like Niebuhr, Mommsen wanted to write a great work about the whole of Roman history. However (again as with Niebuhr), his Römische Geschichte, published in three volumes from 1854 to 1856, was never completed. The third volume ended with the rise of Julius Caesar. In 1885, a fifth volume was published about the Roman provinces in the imperial period, but the intermediate volume about imperial Rome was never written. It was only in 1992 that this lacuna was partially filled by the publication of notes, taken by students, of Mommsen’s lectures on this theme. Elagabalus is mentioned only once or twice in passing, which might indicate that Mommsen did not deem the emperor worthy of comment. Moreover, the scholar’s unfavourable portrayal of Caracalla as ‘a miserable man without value’, whose untimely death should be considered good fortune, stays very close to the (hostile) literary sources. This makes it likely that Mommsen’s portrayal of Elagabalus would have been equally negative, if not more so.

Gradually, the principles of German Altertumswissenschaft also spread to other Western countries. In Britain, the study of ancient Greece received much attention. The greatest scholar in this field was George Grote (1794–1871), whose History of Greece was published from 1846 to 1856. Noting that there were not enough verifiable data to distinguish between legend and history in early Greece, Grote was the first to argue for a clear distinction between legendary and historical Greece. Francis John Haverfield (1860–1919), another eminent British scholar, mainly concerned himself with Roman Britain. Under his guidance, archaeology enjoyed unprecedented expansion. The finds of numerous excavations – many of them organised on scientific principles – significantly contributed to the study of Roman Britain. As a result, both fields of research rapidly professionalised.

In France, the historian Fustel de Coulanges (1830–89) broke with the prevailing French tradition of Romantic, nationalistic historiography. Declaring that ‘history is a science’ and should not be confused with virtue, he was obsessive in his efforts for objectivity. By using historical methods which he considered impeccable, Coulanges claimed to have found definite answers to many problems in ancient history. His countryman René Cagnat (1852–1937) specialised in Latin epigraphy and Roman Africa. He founded L’Année Épigraphique, which to the present day publishes new-found inscriptions and makes them accessible to numerous scholars.

An important development in nineteenth-century studies of antiquity was the increasing attention paid to so-called ‘Oriental’ cultures. Inspired by the fascination with the ‘Orient’ in Romanticism, travelogues of eastern countries and especially Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt, scholars no longer focused only on classical Greece and Rome, but also became interested in the cultures and languages of the ancient Near East. The German historian Johann Gustav Droysen (1808–84) had been the first to take this path. His countryman Eduard Meyer (1855–1930) followed in his footsteps, taking a great interest in the interactions between the ancient Near East and the West, and acquainting himself with Hebrew, Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Egyptian and Sanskrit. It was Meyer’s aim to write a ‘universal’ history of antiquity, which would include the history of the ancient Near East as well as that of Greece and Rome. Although he never managed to take his Geschichte des Altertums (1884–1902) further than the time of Alexander the Great, Meyer is still regarded as one of the great scholars of universal history. Since the field of ancient history became ever larger and more specialised in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, no ancient historian has managed to pursue universal history on an even remotely equal scale. In addition, Meyer made important contributions to the theory and methodology of the study of ancient history.

The stronger focus on the ‘Orient’ and ‘Oriental’ cultures in nineteenth-century scholarship does not necessarily imply more appreciation of these cultures. In the climate of growing anti-Semitism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many scholars – particularly in Germany – described the peoples and cultures of the ancient Near East in openly hostile and derogatory terms. According to Johann Schiller, who published his Geschichte der römischen Kaiserzeit in 1883, Elagabalus’s ‘Oriental’ upbringing made him ‘spiritually insignificant, without any value, a resigned enemy of every serious activity’. As Gibbon had done more than a century earlier, Schiller condemned Elagabalus as the worst ruler in the history of the Roman Empire. In his own words,

Never was the emperorship held in such contempt as under this unripe, mad boy [...] The emperor played the role of Oriental despot with diadem, also outwardly at court, and desired to be worshipped. What has been handed over from Elagabalus’s activity only stains the pages of history, and his reign is verily a witches’ Sabbath of fornication, excesses and luxury

In his work Abhandlungen zur römischen Religion, published in 1909, Alfred von Domaszewski branded not just the reign of Elagabalus, but the entire period of Severan rule ‘the late revenge of the Semites on Greco-Roman culture, whose chains it had silently worn for centuries’. In describing this supposed culture clash, he made it clear on whose side he stood. Like Schiller, von Domaszewski identified himself with the ‘Western’ values of Greece and Rome, which he saw as corrupted by ‘Oriental’ influences. As he comments with a profound sense of drama, ‘It is therefore the night of barbarism which covers the Greco-Roman world since Septimius Severus.’

In La Religion à Rome sous les Sévères (1886), the French historian Jean Réville likewise imagines ‘East’ and ‘West’ as two diametrically opposed cultures, continually striving for dominance. His hostility towards the ‘East’ is often phrased in biblical terms. For instance, he remarks about Elagabalus,

There was actually nothing Roman nor Occidental any longer in the person of Elagabalus, or in that of his mother Soaemias. In them, the old spirit of Canaan, against which the prophets of Israel rose with such vigour, affirmed itself once again in a supreme exuberance before disappearing from history

A bit further, Réville speaks about the ‘Syrian mind, which he characterises as ‘frivolous and light, burning with passion but listless to effort, keen on novelties but superficial, sly and subtle but without solidity’. Not surprisingly, he regards Elagabalus’s rise to the Roman throne as a disastrous defeat for the ‘Western’ world: ‘This time, the triumph of the East was complete.’ For the next years, Rome would experience all the turpitudes of an ‘Oriental’ court: extravagant vice; eunuchs and harems; disordered luxury; the dominant influence of women and boudoir favourites; and, last but not least, ‘the complete absence of preoccupation with the public good and the egoistic concentration of all government activity on the sovereign’s wellbeing’. In other words, Elagabalus was a bad emperor because he was (and behaved like) an ‘Oriental’.

Franz Cumont, author of Les Religions orientales dans le paganisme romain (1906), acknowledges that hostile ancient authors may have misrepresented the religious reforms of Elagabalus. Nevertheless, he gives a very negative portrayal of Syrian religion, ‘who sacrificed to the divinity the life of men and the decency of women’, commenting that it had been stuck ‘at the moral level of uncivilizable and bloodthirsty tribes’. No wonder, then, that when Elagabalus tried to impose the cult of Elagabal on Rome, ‘his obscene and atrocious rites provoked an enraged upheaval of the Roman conscience’.¹⁰

Of course the element of ‘Orientalism’ in nineteenth-century descriptions of Elagabalus was hardly new. It can already be found in the ancient literary sources, especially Herodian, and in the condemning words of Gibbon, with many of the same topoi appearing. But in the course of the nineteenth century, ‘the European’ and ‘the Asian’ became fixed categories in Western thought, each determined by their own, unchangeable characteristics. The anti-Orientalism in turn-of-the-century Europe can be regarded as the culmination of this practice: supported by academia, it attributed to the ‘Asian’ all the traits which were supposed to be not Western and, therefore, wrong. In the words of Said, ‘an Oriental man was first an Oriental and only second a man’.¹¹

Despite the great interest in the ‘Orient’, no nineteenth-century historians concerned themselves overmuch with Elagabalus. As we have seen, the emperor received little attention in the great Roman histories. Moreover, no monographs were written on him in the nineteenth century. In part, this was probably because the reign of the priest-emperor was not deemed particularly relevant or important in the larger history of the Roman Empire. However, we must also consider that many scholars were likely to find the sexually explicit stories in Cassius Dio, Herodian, and particularly the Historia Augusta, too scandalous to stake their reputation on. This is especially true for stories concerning homosexuality. Only in the early twentieth century do the first monographs on Elagabalus start to appear. In other circles, however, the emperor was already well known by that time.

Decadent debaucheries, 1850–1914

In mid-nineteenth-century France, the growing power and materialism of the bourgeoisie caused resentment among a number of artists. They could not identify themselves with the Romanticism of bourgeois art, and rejected its conservative, moralistic tone. In reaction, they advocated a different kind of art, which did not primarily stand in the service of bourgeois society and morals, but existed for its own sake: l’art pour l’art. Théophile Gautier (1811–72) was one of the first and most important authors to embrace this new principle. He drew attention to the beauty of artificial, artistically made objects, and proclaimed it the highest aim of the artist to make useless things for sophisticated, refined people. The principle of art for art’s sake was also embraced by his friend Charles Baudelaire (1821–67), who found beauty in things normally considered ugly and unpleasant. Baudelaire was influential not only in France, but also in England, where the l’art pour l’art movement soon gained ground. Here, it found its most distinguished voice in the work of the essayist and literary critic Walter Pater (1839–94). By deliberately dissociating art from bourgeois morality, Gautier, Baudelaire, Pater and other French and English authors paved the way for the artistic category which has become known as Decadence.

The literary developments of the nineteenth century did not leave the image of Elagabalus unaffected. In Gautier’s novel Mademoiselle de Maupin (1835), the emperor is briefly mentioned. Rather than portraying him as a despicable emblem of vice, as had been customary up to that time, Gautier presents the reader with a far more charming, dream-like image. One of his protagonists sighs,

I, too, would like to build a bridge over the sea and pave the waves; I’ve dreamed of burning cities to light my parties; I’ve wished to be a woman to experience new pleasures. – Your gilded house, O Nero! is nothing but a muddy stable next to the palace I’ve raised; my wardrobe is better appointed than yours, Heliogabalus, and well differently splendid. – My circuses are more braving and bloodier than yours, my perfumes ranker and more penetrating, my slaves more numerous and better built; I too have hitched nude courtesans to my chariot, I’ve walked on men with a heel just as disdainful as yours.¹²

As we see, the traditional cruelty and splendour of Elagabalus are still present in this image, but the usual tone of moral disapproval is completely absent. On the contrary, the emperor becomes a fascinating figure; although he is not ‘nice’, we would love to meet him (or at least observe him from a safe distance). Something similar occurs in Gustave Flaubert’s novel La Première Éducation sentimentale (1845). In this work, the protagonist, Henry, longs for the voluptuous sensuality of ancient Rome, which allegedly throve under Elagabalus (who is associated with India) and a number of other usually abhorred Romans, such as Nero. These new interpretations of Elagabalus and other hitherto condemned historical figures by Gautier and Flaubert would set the tone for many later nineteenth- and early twentieth-century works featuring Elagabalus and other ‘bad’ emperors.

It is hard to define where l’art pour l’art ends and Decadence begins – if such a distinction should be made at all. Ever since the Baron de Montesquieu’s Considérations sur les causes de la grandeur des Romains et de leur décadence (1734), the word ‘décadence’ had been associated with the decline of the Roman Empire. Exactly a century after Montesquieu’s study, the French author and literary critic Désiré Nisard published Études de moeurs et de critique sur les poètes latins de la décadence. In this book, he compared contemporary Romantic French poetry with late Latin poetry, arguing that both were characterised – among other things – by a fascination with decline, a strong emphasis on style, and a penchant towards subtlety on the one hand and the reprehensible and the shocking on the other. Thus, ‘décadence’ was connected to the field of literature. Despite its negative connotations, some authors adopted it as an honorific. In his introduction to Baudelaire’s volume of poetry, Les Fleurs du mal (published posthumously in 1857), Gautier called his deceased colleague a ‘poet of decadence’.¹³

The exact meaning of the term ‘Decadence’ is debated to the present day. The movement, if such it can be called, lacked coherence, with many ‘Decadent’ authors and books displaying only some, or occasional, Decadent elements. I will follow Ellis Hanson in her definition of Decadence as ‘a late-romantic movement in art and literature that raised the aesthetic dictum of “art for art’s sake” to the status of a cult, especially in the final decades of the nineteenth century’.¹⁴ Hanson mentions several characteristics of Decadence, such as ‘an elaborate, highly artificial, highly ornamented, often tortuous style’ and a thematic preoccupation with art, continuing,

Most notoriously, the decadents cultivated a fascination with all that was commonly perceived as unnatural or degenerate, with sexual perversity, nervous illness, crime, and disease, all presented in a highly aestheticised context calculated to subvert or, at any rate, to shock conventional morality.¹⁵

We should also note that Decadent literature contains several recurring sexual themes, such as the femme fatale, androgyny and homosexuality.

The novel À Rebours (1884) by Joris-Karl Huysmans marks the culmination of Decadent literature in France and England at the end of the nineteenth century. Often considered to be the quintessential Decadent novel, À Rebours is ‘less a source of new beginnings than a catalogue of mature achievements, crystallising all those themes and forms in which other, often more gifted, artists had already begun to express the unease of the age’.¹⁶ Its protagonist, Des Esseintes, is a typical dandy – that is, a flamboyant – and possibly aristocratic – figure who distances himself from the masses by means of his affected, aesthetic pose. The novel concentrates on his inner life and interests. Elagabalus, ‘the amazing high priest of Emesa’, is mentioned in the musings of the protagonist. The Roman ruler is described as one of the emperors who brought about a time ‘when the Roman Empire trembled on its foundations, when the follies of Asia and the filth of paganism filled it to its brim’. Rather than condemning the emperor, however, Des Esseintes is delighted with the contrast between Elagabalus and Tertullian, a contemporary Christian author. While the former led a life of luxury and debauchery, the latter preached abstinence and sobriety – ideals which are diametrically opposed to Des Esseintes’s own. He reflects that ‘soon after, the Latin language, having reached its supreme maturity under Petronius, was starting to disintegrate’.¹⁷ As this passage underlines, it is not virtue but decay which primarily interests the Decadent author. Elagabalus’s bad reputation made him the perfect embodiment of this theme.

From the fin-de-siècle – broadly speaking, the last two decades of the nineteenth century – to the outbreak of World War I, a striking number of novels, poems and stories focus on the priest-emperor. This is especially true in France, where Decadence had originated and made its biggest impact. Like his notorious predecessor Nero, Elagabalus is imagined as an amoral artist, who behaves in a histrionic manner and regards the whole world as a stage on which to perform. As David has remarked in her study on Decadence and Latin antiquity, ‘Heliogabalus is the pure product of aestheticism at all costs’. Ruling an empire as a goal in itself means as little to him as morality. In the words of David, ‘Politics burnt on the altar of the aesthetic: can one imagine a more fabulous dream for the aesthetes and dilettantes of the fin-de-siècle?’¹⁸

The rising interest in the ‘Orient’ may also have stimulated French authors to write about Elagabalus. Much more emphatically than in works dating from before the nineteenth century, the young ruler is portrayed as an ‘Oriental’. In the Decadent novel La Dernière nuit d’Héliogabale(1889), Louis Jourdan speaks about

Heliogabalus, [...] this young Syrian who, dragging the Asian morals and customs behind him, had made his entrance in the capital of the empire in a chariot sparkling with gems and gilt, crowned with the satraps’ mitre, dressed in a woman’s gown, and carrying in his hands the symbolic representation of the god Helios, the black stone of Emesa.

The emperor’s Syrian descent, ‘Oriental’ luxury, the cult of Elagabal and the feminine appearance of its high priest are all combined in this passage. As in some of the academic works of the period, Elagabalus’s ‘foreign’ background is explicitly opposed to Rome. When the emperor attempts to violate a Roman noblewoman, she exclaims, ‘Syrian, you abuse a citizen.’ This exclamation is illustrative for the whole reign of the Syrian monarch, as sketched in the novel: during the rule of Elagabalus, with his ‘Syrian eunuchs’ and his ‘barge train of an Asian king’, the ‘East’ reigns supreme, violating the values and traditions of Western Rome.¹⁹

Jourdan’s Elagabalus is more than just another bloodthirsty tyrant, however. The emperor is cruel, but he combines his cruelty with a deep love for the aesthetic. This becomes apparent in a scene where Ariste, one of Elagabalus’s minions, performs a dance for him. The dance fails miserably and the poor courtier is condemned to death. However, as an act of mercy, the emperor grants him a ‘luxurious’ death (probably inspired by the ‘luxurious suicide’ anecdote in the Historia Augusta): he will be strangled by three beautiful women. This combination of beauty and cruelty is typical for the Decadent movement. We see it as well in The Roses of Heliogabalus (1888), a painting by the British-Dutch painter Lawrence Alma-Tadema. It depicts a scene from the Historia Augusta in which the emperor smothers his banquet guests in an avalanche of flowers (Fig. 15).

The notion of Elagabalus as an artist can also be found in Louis Didier’s novel La Destinée, published in 1900 under the pseudonym Luis d’Herdy. La Destinée is not set in Roman times, but in contemporary France. The protagonist is young Maurice, who has fled from his domineering father to live in Paris and become a writer. While reading many books to find inspiration for a new novel, Maurice stumbles across the figure of Elagabalus. He is immediately enchanted by ‘this grandiose emperor, this incomparable artist. For artist he had been! the greatest of his time and many others, without doubt.’ In an animated conversation with his landlady, Maurice mentions just about every anecdote from the Vita Heliogabali; the novel spreads them over many pages. Maurice rejects the negative image of Elagabalus presented by Jean Lombard – discussed in detail later in this chapter – and calls the emperor ‘a great man misunderstood, so alluring! So appealing!’²⁰ We cannot be certain to what extent the fictional young man is speaking for Didier himself, but it seems clear that the author of La Destinée shares his protagonist’s fascination, or even admiration, for Elagabalus. Maurice feels for the long-dead ruler, who suffered from

the unappeasable sorrow of one whose power has no limits but the very limits assigned to human possibilities, but who, maddened by desires bigger yet than his singular ability, ceaselessly hurls himself with a dour face against the bounds of the permitted, in hot and vain pursuit of the undoable.²¹

This, too, is a typically Decadent theme: the desire to cross every border, to accomplish the unaccomplishable, to go against the grain (À Rebours!) and triumph over nature, law, and even reality itself – in short, the desire to be larger than life. ‘More than the grand and the grandiose, the colossal and the gigantic are the measure of the Decadence,’ David remarks.²² Many Decadents imagined Elagabalus as answering to this desire for the surpassing and the impossible, rejecting reality in favour of his fantasies. That did not prevent them from portraying him as a cruel, tyrannical megalomaniac, however. Didier, in the voice of Maurice, is one of the very few to portray him sympathetically.

Auguste Villeroy, author of the play Héliogabale (1902), follows Jourdan in portraying the emperor as the embodiment of the ‘East’, set on dominating the ‘West’. In fact, this theme is even more prominent in Héliogabale than in La Dernière nuit. ‘It must not be / That a Barbarian ever set foot on the Sacred Road’, the prefect Julien warns his soldiers in the first act – it would mean slavery to the atrocious vices of the Orient! One of these vices is incest, as becomes clear from a later passage, in which Elagabalus considers marrying his mother. ‘The Orient, whence I come, is full of such examples / Incest is god over there,’ the emperor remarks. There is no mention of him having any male lovers, although there seems to be a clear queer subtext in the comment of the soldiers that their emperor is ‘soft and white like a girl’. Elagabalus’s feminine characteristics are emphasised again in a later scene, in which a crowd of Romans taunt their despised ruler: ‘What is your sex? Are you a priestess, empress?’²³

Throughout the play, Elagabalus is looking for someone he can love, and who will love him in return. Having been turned down by the vestal Julia, he exclaims, ‘And all besides Caesar are happy! They all love! They are loved! Yes, all!’ Frustrated, the young ruler declares war on Eros himself. Proclaiming himself ‘unsexed’, he hails a new order, in which Love has no place:

Slaves of Venus, the Universe is dead! Make way

For the Androgyne, for the Hermaphrodite, for the race

Which shall not know Love.²⁴

Here, Elagabalus phrases the ideal of androgyny – a popular theme at the time. Many esoteric theories of the nineteenth century granted a special place to the androgyne. The best known example of this occurs in the work of Joséphin Peladan (1858–1916), a self-proclaimed mystic whose ideas and striking appearance made him (in)famous throughout France and abroad. According to Péladan, who mixed his personal ideas with Catholicism, Adam had originally been androgynous, but had been split in a male and female part by God, so that he could desire and love himself. In Péladan’s view, it was man’s ultimate quest to regain this original, androgynous state.

However, not everybody looked so favourably upon androgyny: according to the famous Austro-German psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing and many others in the medical world, it was the physical manifestation of a pathological condition, namely homosexuality. Whereas many nineteenth-century thinkers, mystics and artists lauded the androgyne for combining the best of both sexes, the figure gained an increasingly negative reputation during the fin-de-siècle, when it was often associated with moral ambiguity, mental exhaustion, narcissicism and perversity.²⁵

Elagabalus was often interpreted as an androgyne. Considering the accusations of effeminate appearance and behaviour which ancient authors brought against the young ruler, this is hardly surprising. An emperor who used make-up, referred to himself as ‘empress’ and longed to have a vagina implanted in his body could not fail to attract the attention of an age so obsessed with the merging of the sexes. In an article about Elagabalus in the Jahrbuch für sexuelle Zwischenstufen of 1901, Ludwig von Scheffler-Weimar described the emperor as a ‘pathological individual’ and an ‘imperial hermaphrodite’, meaning that ‘he was of female psyche yet bodily a man’ .²⁶

The 1906 painting Lui by Gustav-Adolf Mossa illustrates this nicely. It shows a very feminine looking Elagabalus holding a mirror and applying make-up (see Fig. 16). (Its counterpart Elle shows a femme fatale on a heap of male bodies, so the weak, effeminate man is contrasted with a strong, ‘masculine’ woman.) Several decades earlier, Jean Richepin had already written a short story about a young man who, wearing female dress and make-up, committed suicide in a public toilet. According to the youth’s suicide note, his life and death had been inspired by Elagabalus: ‘I’m eighteen years old and have extraordinary passions. I was born to be an emperor in the age of Roman decadence. But the current era is not kind to dreamers. That’s why I’m leaving. Not having been able to live like Heliogabalus, I’ve at least wanted to die like him, in the latrines.’²⁷

It seems possible that the emperor indeed served as some sort of inspirational model for homosexual and gender-ambiguous men of the time. He certainly acquired that role in the twentieth century, as we will see in the next chapter.

In Henry Mirande’s novel Élagabal, which reached its fourth edition in 1910, Elagabalus is described as feminine. The young emperor is said to have ‘effeminate eyes in his androgyne’s face’ and longs to be the wife of his male lover, Hierocles. Like many Decadent authors, Mirande stresses the beauty of the young ruler, describing the portrait he sends to the senate as ‘that of a perfectly beautiful adolescent, such as one that Apelles could have imagined to portray a marvellous child Apollo’. Unfortunately, the boy’s beauty is spoiled by his use of make-up, which grants him ‘an air of Oriental unmanliness’. This last remark is probably based on Herodian, who also condemns the emperor’s use of make-up. We should note that Mirande, unlike Villeroy, does not connect androgyny to a higher state of being. Still, he seems to relish Elagabalus’s ‘radiant ephebic beauty’, vividly describing several scenes in which the young emperor appears (almost) naked.²⁸ During one such scene, in which the boy is dancing, Mirande remarks that he could have been taken for a young courtesan. Androgyny, in this context, signifies moral ambiguity.

Mirande’s Elagabalus suffers from ennui – a state of listless melancholy, which makes him sigh to a friend,

You see, my friend, I don’t know which bad spirits drive me; I want everything, perhaps because everything disgusts me. I dream of new pleasures, of impossible passions. I’m jealous at Nero who set fire to Rome and, with cythara in hand, admired the flames while singing a poem. I long for better and even worse: I invent new beverages and when I bring the desired cup to my lips, it makes me sick; I need to have the whole world by my side, even though these people tire me out; I need noise most of all to keep me from thinking of that which may await me tomorrow – I’m bored!²⁹

Ennui is a recurring theme in Decadent images of Elagabalus, as is his desire to outdo his personal example, Nero. David describes the Decadent monarch as a ‘melancholy hero suffering from an incurable ennui’, who is characterised by ‘the thirst for appreciation and the satisfaction of a limitless narcissism’.³⁰ The emperor’s listless disposition has been captured by the English painter Simeon Solomon, whose painting Heliogabalus, High Priest of the Sun (1866) shows an androgynous youth in splendid ‘Oriental’ dress, staring at nothing with a lacklustre expression on his face (see Fig. 14). Possibly, Elagabalus’s ennui in Decadent art and literature originates from a passage in Gibbon, who wrote of the young ruler that ‘the inflammatory powers of art were summoned to his aid: the confused multitude of women, of wines, and of dishes, and the studied variety of attitudes and sauces, served to revive his languid appetites.’³¹

The notion of ennui fits well with the idea of degeneration, which was very popular in fin-de-siècle Europe. Numerous experts in the fields of psychiatry, anthropology, sexology and criminology argued that the human race had somehow exhausted itself, leading to moral and physical decline on a grand scale. This degeneration – a reversal of Darwin’s idea of progressive evolution – was regarded as the cause of rising criminality, alcoholism, sexual perversions and other evils of the modern age. Although humanity’s decline was causally linked to negative influences from the environment, such as hectic city life, the aforementioned vices were usually supposed to be innate deviations, determined by biological factors. For instance, the Italian criminologist Cesare Lombroso published L’uomo delinquente (1876), a study in which he explained how ‘born’ criminals could be recognised by their physical features, such as hawk-like noses. The Austro-Hungarian Max Nordau, inspired by Lombroso, was the author of the popular book Entartung (1892). In this polemic study, he argued that many writers and artists – including Friedrich Nietzsche, Émile Zola and the Decadents – suffered from the same diseases as criminals, prostitutes and anarchists: they were morally insane, imbecilic and demented. From 1870 onwards, ‘bad’ Roman emperors were likewise defined in pathological terms.³²

Considering this background, it is hardly surprising that Decadent authors portrayed Elagabalus as a pathological case too. Instead of presenting us with a villain who is simply evil for evil’s sake, Mirande and others imagine the emperor as a perverse, degenerate boy whose senses are so dulled that almost nothing can revive them – except the most cruel and debauched practices.

The period of Decadence could be said to end with the outbreak of World War I, if not earlier. For the Nachleben of Elagabalus, this breach is very clear. In the decades following 1914, only a handful of fictional works feature the priest-emperor. One of these still contains many Decadent themes and ideas, however. The novel in question is Héliogabale: Orgies romaines, co-written by Maurice Duplay and Pierre Bonardi, and published in 1935. Like many works from the period 1850–1914, the novel takes place against the background of an empire in decline: ‘the habits in the capital of the Empire were so obscene that one cannot be surprised by the licence which governed the camps – especially in Asia.’ Elagabalus embodies this decline, as becomes clear when he is compared to his younger cousin, Severus Alexander: ‘the former prematurely crumpled, wretched, effeminate, the latter fit, his gaze direct and fresh, firm of step, already virile’. When the emperor laughs, ‘the decadence of Rome, the Latin degeneration’ are said to express themselves. Elagabalus is also portrayed as androgynous: he is said to have a double nature, with a body that is ‘at the same time virile and effeminate’.³³ The authors give no indication that this double-sexed state has any spiritual, transcendent connotations.

In all of the works discussed above, Christianity plays only a minor role, if any. In Villeroy’s Héliogabale, Christians make several appearances. They even have the final word. When Roman soldiers are celebrating that they have triumphed over Elagabalus, a Christian admonishes them: ‘Until the day that the cross of the living God who bleeds / Will in his turn shut out your eagle and your signs.’³⁴ Mirande’s Élagabal also ends on a Christian note, with one of the characters exclaiming, ‘Glory to Christ!’³⁵ However, neither of these works focuses on Christianity, or mentions the persecution of Christians. The same is true for Duplay and Bonardi’s Héliogabale, which also occasionally refers to Christianity. Rather than emphatically propagating a Christian message, as was the case with Krasiński’s Irydjon, the authors prefer to focus on Elagabalus and his vices.

Whether or not they presented him in a positive light, all Decadent authors were fascinated with the imagined ambiguity of the priest-emperor. In Elagabalus, they found a figure on the crossroads of ‘East’ and ‘West’, polytheism and Christianity, masculinity and femininity, extreme youth and fatigue, the sublime and the base – contrasting pairs whose combinations delighted them. It need not surprise us, therefore, that the young ruler became an icon of Decadence.


Elagabalus in Lombard’s L’Agonie (1888)

Jean Lombard (1854–91) led a short but very productive life. He was born into a poor family in Toulon, a French town on the Mediterranean coast. The family soon moved to Algeria, where Lombard lived for ten years before returning to France. At age 14, he came into the service of a jeweller in Marseille. These first-hand experiences with poverty and simple wage labour were an undoubted impetus to his socialist ideals. In 1878, the young man entered politics at the Congrès de Marseille. He apparently did well; not much later, he became the secretary-general of the Congrès de Lyon. Lombard did not limit his activities to politics, however: he also was a prolific writer. He wrote two studies on the democratic doctrine, three novels, and published prose, poetry and many articles in a number of journals and magazines, concerning himself with literary and political doctrines, social philosophy and many other subjects. In addition, he was the head editor of two socialist journals and editor of the Marseille Rèpublicaine.³⁶

Lombard’s novels – L’Agonie, Byzance and Loïs Majourès – were not very widely read during his lifetime. Nevertheless, they influenced several Decadent authors. Louis Didier, Louis Couperus and others writing about Elagabalus mention L’Agonie in their works. Ironically, Lombard did not consider himself a Decadent author at all, and explicitly distanced himself from the movement. He accused Decadents and Symbolists of ‘false sentimentality’ and an ‘overly subtle aesthetic’, arguing for ‘a social, healthy, true literature’ instead.³⁷ In his novels, he devoted much attention to the fate of oppressed minorities, and advocated the same socialist values for which he pleaded in his nonfictional writings. However, his novels also contain many Decadent elements. This is especially true for L’Agonie, set on the stage of Elagabalus’s decaying Rome. As David has remarked, the refined, artistic writing style of the novel is strongly reminiscent of Huysmans’s À Rebours.³⁸ Moreover, in L’Agonie, Lombard discusses several themes which are typically Decadent: sexual incertitude, androgyny and artificiality.

Contrary to most other works discussed in this chapter, Elagabalus is not the protagonist, or even the main villain, of L’Agonie. The novel does not primarily focus on life at the imperial court – although we get to see our share of that – but on Madeh, a young priest of Elagabal, and on a large group of pagans and Christians living in Rome. Together with his master and lover, Atillius, Madeh travels from Syria to the capital. Under the sway of Elagabalus and his sun god, the city has turned into a stage for endless orgies and caprices. The ultimate goal of the adherents of the Elagabal cult is to become androgyne. As the supposed embodiment of this sacred state, the emperor gives himself to both men and women. In contrast, the jealous Atillius keeps Madeh to himself and forbids him to have sex with women. When the young man cannot suppress his desires and sleeps with his master’s sister, Atillia, the angry Atillius rejects him and sends him out into the streets.

Madeh is adopted by a group of Christians. These are eastern Christians, who – as opposed to the Christians of western origin – support the cult of Elagabal, regarding its decadence as a necessary stage for the rise of Christ, and organise orgies among themselves. Lombard devotes much attention to the opposing views of the different Christian factions and their interaction with pagans. Many of his characters also appear at court, where they interact with the imperial family. Throughout the novel, there is a sense of impending doom, underlined by invocations of Babylon and the Apocalypse. Finally, the soldiers revolt against Elagabalus. In the ensuing slaughter, not only the emperor and his mother, but also Madeh, Atillius, Atillia and most of the Christians are brutally killed. The last words of the novel are spoken by a humble pork vendor, who advises another minor character that it is better to keep a low profile and not choose sides in religious and political conflicts.

Seen through the eyes of Lombard’s cast of commoners, Elagabalus remains a distant figure, with whom they hardly interact directly. The story is never focused through the character of the priest-emperor. Still, he has a significant role as the fulcrum of all the debaucheries and decadence to which Rome has fallen prey. The spectators usually see him in a grand, lavish décor, dressed in splendid garb:

under a spanning canopy of a heavy golden cloth, held up by four high spears, fixed in the earth and tilted, there flops a sumptuously immobile humanity, an obnoxiously stupid figure of fifteen years, crowned with a straight tiara wrought of pearls, gems and metals, worn atop streams of hair, black, over a whiteness of feminine shoulders shining out from a rich silken undertunic, iridescent like mother of pearl. And it is there, where Elagabalus lies on panther skins spreading his naked legs, showing his youthful virility, that with a flabellum made of a big lotus leaf, curled at the end, a black eunuch with purplish skin, white teeth and dumbly rolling white eyes fans him tranquilly³⁹

Because Lombard almost exclusively describes Elagabalus in this manner – seen from a distance in highly stylised dress, in a highly stylised environment – we never really perceive him as a person of flesh and blood. The emperor is an icon for the splendour and decadence of the ‘East’, transposed to Rome. Elagabalus hardly has any dialogue during the novel, but all his acts are public, from honouring the god Elagabal to having sexual intercourse with his minions. Despite his young age, the emperor is already past his prime. In one scene, spectators see him ‘displayed on his bed, with the moist traces of rape on his robe of purple silk; tiara on head, eyes circled with black, terrible, bored; his features fine, drawn’.⁴⁰ Rome itself is in a similar state: exhausted, lacklustre and defiled by all the sex and violence within its walls.

Throughout the novel, Lombard mentions many details from the ancient sources, especially from the Historia Augusta. Like Alma-Tadema, he is drawn towards the story of the flower avalanche, describing the extravagant luxury and refined cruelty with which Elagabalus smothers his banquet guests. The emperor shows the same ruthlessness towards the multitudes of Rome, releasing lions to chase them from his palace, followed by praetorians who slaughter all those who remain behind. When the crowd cries out against him in the circus, he reveals his member in contempt. In one scene, he even sacrifices children to Elagabal. All of this makes it clear that we are dealing with a completely immoral person, a tyrant who places no value whatsoever on the lives of his subjects.

However, even Elagabalus becomes aware of the growing resentment against him, and realises his end may be near. As in the Vita Heliogabali, he makes plans for a luxurious suicide, ‘as his extraordinary life must have such an extraordinary end, without equal in the centuries to come’.⁴¹ Here, once more, we have the Decadent desire for the grand and fantastic, the wish to outdo all others, even future generations. Driven to despair, Elagabalus wants to turn even his own death into a work of art – an ambition in which he fails miserably.

As has been touched upon above, Lombard connects the Elagabal cult to an ideal of androgyny. The black stone, interpreted as a phallic symbol, represents the principle of Life, which was originally androgynous: ‘At the beginning of All, unisexual Life engendered and gave birth to itself; the world was incapable of Happiness since the separation of the sexes; also, Perfection consisted of fusing the generating force within Unity.’⁴²

Of course, no such ideas can be found in the sources on the historical Elagabal cult. The interpretation put forth by Lombard rests on the nineteenth-century concept of the androgyne as a mystical ideal, transcending the ordinary world of sexual opposites. Elagabalus, as the high priest of Elagabal, is supposed to fulfil this ideal, merging both sexes in one body. After he has married his lover, Hiéroklès, the Roman people rejoice: ‘The Emperor is androgynous like destiny! [...] He is rich in both sexes, honour to him!’ Elsewhere, the monarch is compared to ‘The First Force’. According to the teachings of the cult, he has to give himself to all lovers, both male and female, ‘for the dark and unexplained mystery of creation’.⁴³

Impressive as this may sound, it later turns out to be wrong. To understand the true meaning of the androgynous ideal in L’Agonie, we have to consider Madeh, the young sun priest who also strives for androgyny. Atillius, Madeh’s master and lover, wants to keep his protégé completely to himself. He compares his love for the young man to ‘a black flower, with a black calyx, with black bud, whose shadow, like a cut-off phallus, clouds his brain’.⁴⁴ A black flower is an oft-used Decadent symbol for the unnatural and the artificial. Atillius rejects the ‘natural’ love of man and woman in favour of ‘artificial Love’, which he regards as the only path to androgyny. As David points out, the monstrous or black flowers – which are mentioned several times in the course of the novel – signify asexuality and death.⁴⁵ By focusing mainly or even exclusively on homosexual contacts, both Madeh and Elagabalus have chosen a dead end.

Gradually, Madeh seems to realise this. He feels that his sexuality has been twisted by the ‘monstrous flowers’ of his master’s love and tries to escape their choking grasp. A revelatory key passage near the end of the novel hints to the reader that it is not the carnal union of man with man which will bring forth the true androgyne, but (spiritual) brotherly love. Lombard’s androgynous ideal should be seen in the context of a radically socialist utopia: it points to a future world of absolute equality, in which even the differences between the sexes will be meaningless.⁴⁶

Like many contemporary novels, L’Agonie puts great emphasis on the differences between the ‘Orient’ and the ‘Occident’, imagining them as polar opposites. During the reign of the priest-emperor, Rome is ‘subjugated by the Orient’. Mention is made of Elagabalus’s orgies and follies, his ‘efforts to immerse the Occident in the pompous Orient to bring it out more dazzling, as from a bath of passions, crimes and gold’. From the start, the Roman people reject the ‘Oriental customs’ of their oppressor, regarding people from the ‘East’ as barbarians with ‘inferior spirits’.⁴⁷ Elagabalus himself is the summum of all this: he is dressed in the splendour of an ‘Oriental’ priest, surrounds himself with the most extravagant riches and is constantly engaging in sexual escapades and unscrupulous cruelties, without even an attempt at rational behaviour.

The Christian community in Rome is also divided into ‘Orientals’ and ‘Occidentals’. As has been noted, the Christians from the East actually support the emperor. They consider him an instrument of God, who brings Rome ‘more and more into Vice, Crime and excrements’, and thus unwittingly prepares the city for its salvation by Christ. In contrast, the western Christian Atta sides with Julia Mammaea and urges her to root out all eastern Christians when her time finally comes. His ruthless attitude is diametrically opposed to the religious beliefs of the ‘Orientals’, who consider all gods as aspects of (or variations on) one divine entity. The significance of this becomes clear at the end of the novel, when the delirious Atillius holds his beloved Madeh to be an androgyne. He exclaims, ‘You, you see, you are the Kreistos, the T-symbol, the Immortal Vestal, Osiris, Zeus, everything!’⁴⁸

In Lombard’s ideal androgynous world, the differences between gods and religions have become as moot as the differences between the sexes. The decline of the Roman Empire in L’Agonie does not just signify an end – it also signifies a new beginning. By dragging Rome down with him, the depraved Elagabalus helps to set the stage for a new and better world. As David puts it, ‘Here, the death throes of the Roman world lead not to the mournful pleasure which is customary for Decadence. They carry the germs of a rebirth within them.’⁴⁹

Elagabalus in George’s Algabal (1892)

Stefan George (1868–1933) is counted among Germany’s most famous poets, although his legacy is not undisputed. Born in 1868 in Büdesheim (near the Belgian border) as the son of a tavern holder, George started publishing volumes of poetry in 1890 and launched an influential art journal,Blätter für die Kunst. George never finished his studies, nor did he settle anywhere for a long period of time. From contempt for bourgeois life, he travelled through Europe all his life, staying with friends.

George’s poems were meant for a small intellectual elite. They were written in a very stylised language, with many archaic, esoteric and invented words, complex syntactical and grammatical constructions, and idiosyncratic spelling, punctuation and typography. To make them even less accessible to the masses, George’s first volumes of poetry were only printed in small numbers. At the start of his career, the poet was a typical proponent of l’art pour l’art, regarding art as an autonomous terrain which should not be infiltrated by other spheres of life, such as morality or politics. After the turn of the century, he went even further, advocating a ‘strong aestheticism’ which placed art above everything else. He gathered a select group of talented young men around him, who became his disciples. The members of this ‘George Kreis’ were meant to become the heralds of a new age in German culture and intellectual pursuit, based on the spirit of ancient Greece. Through his art, George attempted to forge a new religion, characterised by aestheticism and the transcendence of traditional morality.

The lyric cycle Algabal (1892) belongs to George’s earlier work, written well before the founding of his Kreis. It follows on two earlier cycles, Hymnen (1890) and Pilgerfahrten (1891), with which it forms a union. Hymnen is about a poet who has averted himself from the world, but is still distracted by sensual desires. In Pilgerfahrten, the poet goes on a quest better to understand himself and his poetic mission. Algabal closes the arc. The lyric cycle concentrates on its eponymous protagonist, whose name is an altered form of ‘Elagabalus’. It consists of three sections. The first section, ‘Im Unterreich’, describes the emperor’s secluded life in a submarine garden which is completely artificial, constructed from metal, jewels and other objects and fabrics. The second section, ‘Tage’, elaborates on Algabal’s nature and character, while the last, ‘Die Andenken’, has the emperor muse on his past. Each section consists of a number of short poems which do not form a continuing narrative, but evoke moods and impressions.

George had read Dio’s and Herodian’s accounts of Elagabalus, as well as the Vita Heliogabali. In all likelihood, he was also familiar with the images of Elagabalus by such authors as Gautier and Huysmans. As we will see, Algabal contains many elements that are typically Decadent. According to Jens Rieckmann, the lyric cycle has become ‘one of the canonical works of decadence’.⁵⁰

The submarine garden in which Algabal spends his days is of key importance for the understanding of his character. George gives an elaborate description of this artificial world. Interestingly, many of its details resemble features of Linderhof and Neuschwanstein.⁵¹ These palaces, built by King Ludwig II of Bavaria (1845–86), contained advanced mechanisms to simulate natural phenomena, including machines to generate rainbows and waves. Here, the king could reside in a carefully constructed world of his own imagination, secluded from the mundane lives of his subjects. The same is true of Algabal’s garden. George ends his description with these lines:

Of the creation where only he awakens and manages

Noble novelty sometimes gladdens him,

Where no will prevails except his

And where he commands the light and the weather.⁵²

Algabal, in other words, is presented as an artist, who has withdrawn from the ‘real’ world to live in an environment which is entirely his own creation, and entirely under his control. Ernst Morwitz, a member of the George Kreis, describes the emperor as someone who, like George himself, ‘must create the air he can breathe in’.⁵³

Algabal is the embodiment of l’art pour l’art. He is the artist who regards art as an autonomous domain, not subject to morality, politics and other spheres of life. Beauty means everything to him. A clear example of this is the passage in which the emperor sees a beautiful priestess in the market, ‘the most beautiful of the line of white sisters’. He marries her, but later sends her away, because it turns out her beauty is imperfect: ‘Like the others she had a blemish.’⁵⁴ The unnamed woman is obviously inspired on the vestal Aquilia Severa, but the story of the blemish comes from Elagabalus’s marriage to Julia Paula, who, according to Cassius Dio, was cast out for the same reason. However, whereas Dio mainly seems to present the story as an example of the emperor’s frivolity and capriciousness, George uses it to demonstrate the absolute, unattainable standard of beauty his protagonist desires.

The longing for the unattainable also emerges in other passages of Algabal. Early on in the lyric cycle, it becomes clear that the emperor is not satisfied with his artificial garden. Something is missing. ‘But how do I breed you in [this] sanctuary,’ Algabal sighs, ‘dark big black flower?’⁵⁵ The exact meaning of this phrase has been the subject of much debate. The black flower – a negation of the blue flower, the Romantic symbol for longing – could be interpreted as Algabal’s desire to generate life from the sterile landscape. Jeffrey Todd regards it as ‘a work of art that is wholly the creation of the artist’, that is art which has not been inspired by nature or God, but rests solely on its human conception.⁵⁶ Considering George’s doctrine of art as an autonomous field, this seems the most compelling interpretation, although there are many alternatives.

Cruelty is part of Algabal’s character: ‘I want the people to die and groan,’ the young man remarks.⁵⁷ However, the cruelties and excesses of Algabal are not the focus of the poem, nor are they condemned by the poet. ‘The emperor’s immorality, in light of Christian morality, is significant not as immoralism, but shows instead that he operates outside Judeo–Christian moral categories altogether,’ Todd remarks.⁵⁸ Like the decadent artist, Algabal transcends traditional morality. Elevated far above his subjects, the emperor functions as a mediator of fate, dealing out death and blessing as if he were a god. His cruelty is, in fact, the cruelty of life itself: ‘I do what life does to me / And should I hit them with rods until they bleed: / They have corn and they have fighting games.’⁵⁹

Despite this attitude, the concept of ‘sin’ is not absent from Algabal. George uses the word ‘sinful’ when the emperor thinks back to the time when he lost his virginity to a woman, an experience which he considers to be the destruction of his most beautiful dream.⁶⁰ Immoral behaviour, in George’s view, is behaviour which goes against the imagination and the aesthetic. Art determines morality, rather than the other way around. For instance, when the emperor poisons two sleeping children, this is not a crime, but an act of mercy: he saves them from the disillusion of waking up.

The second edition of Algabal was dedicated to the late King Ludwig II of Bavaria, to whom George professed love and whom he called Algabal’s younger brother. Indeed, many parallels can be drawn between George’s emperor and the Bavarian king. Both came to power when they were young and beautiful; both lived in isolated splendour and showed little interest in affairs of state; and both died tragic, untimely deaths (although the latter can only be assumed for Algabal: the emperor’s demise is not included in the lyric cycle). As has already been noted, Ludwig’s palaces served as inspiration for Algabal’s submarine garden. Moreover, the Bavarian king had the reputation of being averse to the world of rational politics and industry, turning to poetry, art and history instead. George, following Paul Verlaine, admired him as a monarch-artist.⁶¹

Algabal contains several hints at homosexuality. The first is the lyric cycle’s dedication to King Ludwig II, who had been notorious throughout Europe for his homosexual tastes and behaviour. George himself was, in all likelihood, homosexual as well, which may have been another reason for his fascination with Ludwig. However, the German poet was never outspoken about his sexual preference, an attitude reflected in his work. Algabal’s sexuality is deliberately presented as ambiguous. The young ruler displays an interest in women, but these women are often portrayed as treacherous seductresses. In one telling passage, singing Attic girls can no longer enchant Algabal: he longs for the ‘flute players from the Nile’, who bring him to ecstasy with their phallic instruments.⁶²

There are also hints that the emperor is striving for androgyny. After he has secretly caroused among the common people, Algabal looks into a mirror and sees ‘almost the face of a sister’ – almost, but not quite. The emperor’s god is called ‘twoformed’, which seems to indicate that the deity is a hermaphrodite. If Algabal is indeed striving for a double-sexed state, his regret about having slept with a woman for the first time gains an extra dimension: the act has distracted him from his devotion to his hermaphroditic god and is an acknowledgement of the fact that he is ‘a man like all others’, who needs a woman ‘as a complement to himself’.⁶³

The ‘Oriental’ background of Algabal is mentioned, but does not receive much attention – certainly not when we compare the lyric cycle to many other fin-de-siècle works, such as L’Agonie and Villeroy’s Héliogabale. The emperor recalls ‘how many spears whistled / When I wrestled for the crown in the East’, and laments his lost childhood in his ‘home town’ (which is not specified as Emesa). The god he worships is called Zeus, but that may just be the ‘Occidental’ name for an ‘Oriental’ deity. The procession towards Zeus’s temple – situated in the east, as the poem explicitly states – is certainly of ‘Oriental’ splendour. The emperor’s escort is opened by dancers in alluring dresses, while boys scatter sand, silver dust and dead flowers. In another passage, Algabal twice calls upon ‘Syrians’, who are said to be wise and sing chants, and are therefore probably priests or magicians.⁶⁴ Nowhere in the lyric cycle does there seem to be an explicit opposition between ‘East’ and ‘West’.

George’s Algabal has been interpreted as a self-portrait of the poet, ‘one of George’s masks’.⁶⁵ Although this interpretation seems plausible, it remains speculative. All we can say for certain is that the emperor is presented as an exemplary figure. Rather than embodying moral decay, as in most other Decadent incarnations of Elagabalus, Algabal symbolises the kind of artist George aspired to be: a mysterious, secluded figure, living in the autonomous domain of art and elevated far above conventional morality. As we have seen, the emperor was not only modelled after Elagabalus, but probably also after the ‘monarch-artist’ Ludwig II. The resulting image is that of a ruler who values beauty over power, and a priest for whom art is an alternative form of religion.

Elagabalus in Couperus’s De berg van licht (1905–6)

The Decadent movement did not have many adherents in the Netherlands. Of all major Dutch authors, Louis Couperus (1863–1923) is perhaps the only one whose work contains significant Decadent influences. Born in The Hague as the youngest of eleven children, Couperus spent part of his childhood in the Dutch Indies. In 1878, he published his first novel, Eline Vere, as a feuilleton in the journal Het Vaderland. Many more novels, volumes of short stories and travel journals would follow, leading to an impressive oeuvre of almost fifty works. Couperus married his niece, Elisabeth, but the couple never had any children. It is possible that the celebrated author – whose reputation as a dandy was frowned on by some of his Dutch contemporaries – was a closet homosexual. Many of his works contain themes and passages which are undeniably homoerotic.

Although not all of his novels were well received during his lifetime, Couperus is nowadays regarded as one of the greatest authors in Dutch literary history. A fascination with decay, the concept of the degeneration of the human race and the idea of an all-powerful, inescapable Destiny are recurring themes in his work. De berg van licht, published in 1905 and 1906 in three volumes, contains all of these. The novel is set in the time of Elagabalus and portrays the rise and fall of the priest-emperor, who functions as the novel’s protagonist. Most of the story is focused through him.

The first volume, set in the East, describes how Bassianus – as the character is initially called – serves his god in Emesa and rises to power through the machinations of his ambitious grandmother. The second and third volume show Antoninus – now called by his imperial name – in Rome, where he soon loses his initial popularity and eventually comes to a gruesome end, as was his Destiny. Couperus was obviously familiar with the accounts of Cassius Dio, Herodian and the Historia Augusta, and had also read Lombard’s L’Agonie:

Of all the emperors, I have always been most struck by the figure of the beautiful sun priest, who was proclaimed emperor because the army was in love with him, and because he can dance so beautifully. [...] Everybody who wrote about him has slandered him, even Lombard. The boy was a spoiled Child and certainly hysterical in his male-femaleness, but he was not just ‘debauched’ and nothing else. He was brilliant, and an artist in all he did.⁶⁶

These words, written by Elisabeth Couperus-Baud on behalf of her husband in a leaflet to promote De berg van licht, give a clear indication of the way the priest-emperor is portrayed in Couperus’s novel. Rather than presenting him as a vile, morally repulsive character, the author chooses to present Elagabalus as a beautiful, charismatic boy with considerable talents. That is not to say that the picture is completely positive. As the word ‘hysterical’ indicates, the protagonist of De berg van licht is a neurotic figure. Couperus describes the boy’s soul as the ‘utter bloom of an overcivilisation which is ceasing to flower’. The ‘hysteria of his sensuality’ is partially a blood heritage, but has been ‘sharpened by too much colour-fragrant weakness and luxury, too much adoration, and even too much mysticism’, resulting in a boy who is overtly sensitive and prone to excesses, but also ‘graceful, [...] artfully, full of talent, brilliant and divine’.⁶⁷ This fits well with contemporary ideas about ‘overcivilisation’, which on the one hand was supposed to lead to neurotic, degenerate individuals, but on the other hand also heightened the senses, stimulated artistic abilities and gave people a keen eye for beauty.

Like many emperors in Decadent literature, Couperus’s Antoninus is an actor who regards the whole world as his stage. According to senator Gordianus, the young ruler is ‘not a boy and not an emperor, but [...], brilliantly, everything’, a ‘life artist, who continued with his endless recreations’, ranging from an idol of divine beauty to a general in Antioch to a tempting Venus.⁶⁸ When he is still high priest in Emesa, Bassianus already knows how to appeal to the crowd. His divine beauty and dancing bring the spectators to such ecstasy that children get trampled to death without anybody noticing – even the screaming mother forgets her loss in an instant and is carried away by the spectacle. When the boy has been proclaimed emperor, his beauty and charisma gather many to his banners:

They proclaimed him, they streamed towards him, because he was adorable, that Priest-of-the-Sun. Those tens of thousands of souls, from north and south: Romans and people from Asia Minor, but also Germans, Gauls, Brits, Sarmatians, Pannonians: they worshipped, in the South, the beauty, the ancient, almighty, ruling beauty, which two centuries of expanding Christianity had not yet been able to smother.⁶⁹

In Rome, Antoninus initially has a similar effect on the people, dazzling them with his beauty and the splendid roles he plays. He surrounds himself with luxury and lives larger than life, dragging all of Rome with him in his orgies, games and ecstatic worship of the sun. Even senator Gordianus, an icon of moderation, admires him for his audacious lifestyle: he considers Antoninus ‘adorable, excessive as only a god could be’. The emperor himself regards his orgies as a way to get closer to the divine. For him, feasting and sex are ways to reach ‘the highest pleasure, that of the gods’. He scorns the ‘pigs’ who throw up behind the pillars and break expensive glasswork, not understanding what an orgy is really about.⁷⁰ Thus, the excessive banquets for which ancient authors scorned Elagabalus are given a new meaning: they are supposed to be life-celebrating events which should elevate the participants to a higher, divine level (although the opposite occurs).

Antoninus’s initial triumph does not last long. At the start of the second part, when we first see the emperor in Rome, the first signs of his impending downfall already present themselves. ‘How little he seemed changed,’ Couperus tells us: the ‘dancing child from Emessa’ has developed ‘for those not expecting it, a very striking perversity’. He has become a ‘spoiled child’ whose ‘mystical aureole’ has diminished and who flirts with those around him – not only because his priestly office requires him to offer his body to the world, as the author points out, but also for ‘playful pleasure’.⁷¹ The boy’s frivolous nature gets the better of him, distracting him from fulfilling his duties as emperor and high priest of Helegabalus (as Couperus calls the sun god). Antoninus mocks the giant Maximinus when that man comes to offer his service to him, turning the future emperor into an enemy. The cruel streak which he already possesses at the start of the novel grows worse. He violates the temple of the vestals and forces the vestal virgin Severa to marry him – a deliberate insult to Rome, where he does not feel at home – and is present at the sacrifice of a baby, in whose entrails his future is read. The constant orgies also take their toll. The emperor starts to look tired, ‘as if, unfortunately, the haze of his youth had been erased’, and his eyes express sadness and bitterness.⁷² Worst of all, Antoninus falls into the hands of Hierocles, portrayed as a violent, terrifying character, all cruelty and ambition. Despite himself, the emperor cannot stop loving this man, who embodies the Destiny to which he will succumb.

The decline and fall of Antoninus in De berg van licht can be properly understood only if we regard them in the context of ‘East’ versus ‘West’. Time and time again, Couperus emphasises that his protagonist is an ‘Oriental’: And immediately, in Emessa, Bassianus had felt that in his blood he was no Roman, but Syrian, Asian and Oriental. Hardly grown from the tenderness of childhood, an air, atmosphere, strangely familiar, had immediately surprised him in Emessa, which he breathed in smilingly’⁷³

All through his stay in the capital, Antoninus keeps longing for the ‘East’, which he associates with ‘a sultry smile, which floated towards him in the air around him, smile of sympathy and greeting; warm kiss of familiar lusts; embrace, mysterious and mystical’. Congruent with contemporary Western ideas, these terms characterise Syria as an exotic, mysterious and lascivious place, standing in sharp contrast to the more rational, moderate city of Rome. Only in the ‘sensual-mystical-fragrant East,’ Couperus assures us, would the soul of Antoninus still have been able to ‘open in splendour’; transplanted to the capital, she would ‘poison herself, and all whom she enchanted ...’⁷⁴ Indeed, the soldiers and people of Rome soon grow tired of the excesses of their emperor, feeling offended by his violations of Roman law and tradition.

Androgyny, or rather the lack thereof, also plays a role in Antoninus’s demise. The priest Hydaspes, who is the boy’s mentor in Emessa, hopes his pupil may be the ‘Chosen Soul’. Bassianus’s attractive ephebe body, ‘a costly vase full of beauty’ which is compared to the beauty of Ganymede, Hylas, Hermaphroditos and Bacchus, combines both male and female characteristics. ‘Bassianus, oh my Bassianus, are you not like that?’ Hydaspes exclaims. ‘Not too feminine, not too masculine, both sexes in balance, fused together in harmony ...’⁷⁵ He instructs the boy to strive for androgyny in mind and body, to be both Adam’ and ‘Heva’. Only by finding and maintaining this holy balance can Bassianus reach back to the divine light from which all has come into being and which itself is sexless. Maarten Klein has argued that this theology is very similar to the ideas of Péladan, which may have inspired the author. Caroline de Westenholz has explored other possibilities, arguing that Couperus’s interpretation of the Elagabal cult goes back to Gnosticism, Hermeticism, alchemy and, ultimately, ancient Shivaism.⁷⁶

Unfortunately, emperor Antoninus is not able to maintain the holy balance: his sexual preference is for men, not women, which makes him feel more comfortable in the feminine role of ‘Heva’. When he marries the charioteer Hierocles, he plays the bride. ‘Man in form, he already felt like a woman, and had married his Husband... [...] Heva, Heva he was, but he had to be both: Adam-Heva...’⁷⁷ In an attempt to restore the balance, Antoninus marries Severa, but the act is moot: she does not instil any love or passion in him, as Hierocles does. Ironically, while the emperor’s soul becomes increasingly feminine, his body grows into that of a man. This further disturbs the androgynous balance and underlines that Antoninus is not Hydaspes’s Chosen Soul after all.

In the end, the Romans are fed up with their effeminate, ‘Oriental’ ruler. Antoninus and his mother are brutally killed in an uprising of the soldiers. The novel ends with a speech by Severus Alexander, made to the senate when he accepts the imperial office. Couperus does not hide his lack of sympathy for the new ruler, contrasting the boy’s dullness and hesitant way of speaking with the audacity and brilliance of his predecessor, ‘like you, Eminence, I will NEVER forget his adorability!’ senator Gordianus whispers to grandmother Moeza.⁷⁸

It has often been suggested that Couperus identified himself with Elagabalus, presenting the beautiful emperor as a protagonist to voice his own secret homosexual desires. ‘Behind Heliogabalus, the author himself is continually hiding,’ Theo Bogaerts remarks – a hypothesis which is confirmed by Frédéric Bastet. Klein disagrees, rightly arguing that we cannot identify the author with his work in such a straightforward manner.⁷⁹

Nevertheless, it seems clear that Couperus idealised Elagabalus to some extent, even though he also attributed several negative characteristics to the boy-emperor. When Alexander makes his speech at the end of the novel, there are many ‘gloomily dressed, monk-like, slavishly cheering Christians’ among the crowd. Senator Gordianus is ‘wistfully aware [...] of an Ancient Beauty which, alas, withered [...] and an Ancient Piety, which soon gives way...’⁸⁰ More than anything else, these last lines of De berg van licht summarise what Elagabalus meant to Couperus.


Of the three works discussed in detail in this chapter, Lombard’s Elagabalus comes closest to the interpretation of the emperor as an evil tyrant. However, the emphasis on the depraved ruler as a symbol of the decay of Rome, as well as other typically Decadent elements, set this image apart from those discussed in the previous chapter. The Elagabalus of L’Agonie has relatively little ‘screen time’ and does not serve as a villain who thwarts the protagonists of the novel. Rather, he is an icon, embodying the filth and depravity to which mighty Rome has fallen. The Antoninus of De berg van licht offers a striking contrast: here, we have a figure who does not remain a distant icon, but whom we get to know intimately. Few, if any, interpretations of the priest-emperor throughout the centuries have reached a similar level of psychological depth. Moreover, rather than embodying the decay of pagan Rome and setting the stage for the glorious rise of Christianity, Couperus’s Antoninus approaches these themes from the opposite angle: he is the last symbol of an Ancient Beauty’ and Ancient Piety’ which will forever vanish as the Empire converts to the one, true God of the Bible. His orgies are not meant to be degraded excesses, but celebrations of life and expressions of devotion to Helegabalus. In addition, his ‘Oriental’ background does not merely make him effeminate and perverse, but also provides him with a mystical streak and artistic talent – characteristics which, on the whole, are presented as positive.

The contrast becomes even clearer when we consider the ways in which Lombard and Couperus address the concept of androgyny. The Elagabalus in L’Agonie is clearly misguided in his efforts to reach this divine state. Rather than engaging in lascivious homosexual acts, he should strive for a world where all people are brothers and sisters, that is completely equal. Antoninus in De berg van licht also fails in finding and maintaining a balance between the sexes in himself, but this is due to his innate homosexuality and the growth of his ephebe body into that of a man. Nowhere in the novel does Couperus hint that the theology of the Helegabalus cult itself is wrong: Antoninus simply does not turn out to be the Chosen Soul. However, that should not distract us from the fact that the boy’s effeminacy – introduced as an insult in the ancient sources – is presented as a positive trait. As with Elagabalus’s ‘Oriental’ background and his orgies, Couperus gives a twist to this negative topos, making it, at least partially, into something positive.

The Algabal of George’s poem is a different character. In contrast to the emperors in L’Agonie and De berg van licht he is not, or only barely, connected to decay; nor to the antagonism between ‘East’ and ‘West’ which is so emphatically present in the two novels. Like the Antoninus of Couperus, George’s Algabal is an artist. The emperor shares the poet’s conviction that life should be in the service of art rather than the other way around. In a similar vein, Couperus highly appreciated the artistic abilities of his protagonist, as well as his ‘pagan’ joie de vivre and piety. Lombard’s Elagabalus lacks such positive traits. Nowhere in L’Agonie do we get the impression that the author has any sympathy for the emperor: on the contrary, he is presented as an opposing force to the radical social equality which this French politician and writer preached.

All three portraits of Elagabalus contain Decadent elements. However, despite their similarities, the differences are considerable. For Lombard, the young ruler was an icon of decay; for George, the embodiment of art for art’s sake; for Couperus, the last representative of pagan beauty and piety. Within the Decadent movement, the interpretation and appreciation of Elagabalus gained more variety than it had possessed in the Nachleben of earlier times. As we will see in the next chapter, his trend of widening possible meanings would continue in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

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