The figure of Elagabalus has long blurred fact with fiction. The many layers of images around the historical core, which already started to form in antiquity, have obscured our vision of the third-century emperor. Where does historical reality end and imagination begin? And how does one relate to the other?

As has been discussed in the first part of this book, the single most important aspect of Elagabalus’s reign was the implementation of a distinctly foreign god at the head of the Roman pantheon. Although this was an unprecedented move which played a substantial part in the emperor’s downfall, the emphasis on a personal god was in itself nothing new and would be a recurring element in the representation of third-century emperors. In any field other than religion, moreover, the reign of Elagabalus was characterised by continuity rather than change. The empire was still in the age of relative peace and stability which would start to crumble under Severus Alexander with the first attacks of the Persians. We should be careful, therefore, not to exaggerate the exceptional status of the years 218–22 within the larger scope of Roman imperial history.

Elagabalus’s self-representation contains both traditional and innovative elements. The imperial administration sent out traditional messages and emphasised dynastic continuity, but also presented Elagabalus as the ‘invincible priest-emperor’ of Elagabal. After the young ruler’s violent death and damnatio memoriae, these positive images were replaced with very negative representations in ancient literature. In the works of Cassius Dio and Herodian, as well as in the Vita Heliogabali, the traditional elements of Elagabalus’s reign are largely ignored in favour of the strange and exceptional. The latter category not only includes the emperor’s religious reforms and role as high priest of Elagabal, but first and foremost showcases the many stories about his corruption, effeminacy and perverted, luxurious lifestyle. Such stories are part of a long tradition of ‘character assassination’ in ancient historiography and biography. They represent topoi which can also be found in the accounts of many other ‘bad’ rulers and should, for the most part, not be taken too seriously.

Nevertheless, the reputation of Elagabalus as an exceptional emperor has to a large extent been determined by these scandalous stories. In early-modern times, scholars and artists were much more concerned with the young ruler’s alleged vices and excesses than with his priesthood of Elagabal. These vices and excesses continue to play an important role in artistic and literary works on Elagabalus to the present day. They can even be found in some modern historical studies, like Turcan’s monograph.

Only in the nineteenth century did other aspects of the young ruler’s reign come into focus. Historians and literary authors became interested in the emperor as an ‘Oriental’, whose rise to power and introduction of the Elagabal cult in Rome instigated a culture clash between ‘East’ and ‘West’. While this interpretation has the merit that it acknowledges the emperor’s religious reforms as an important and remarkable aspect of his reign, it tends to reduce Elagabalus to an icon of the ‘East’; someone who embodies traits which the author deems typically ‘Oriental’ and has no affinity whatsoever with Roman culture and traditions. Moreover, many of these typically ‘Oriental’ traits concern the same vices and excesses that previous authors already attributed to the emperor.

It is hardly surprising that the three major ancient accounts of Elagabalus’s reign have had such a determining influence on later scholarly and literary images of the young ruler. More difficult to answer is the question of how these later traditions of scholarship and literature have influenced each other. There is little to indicate that scholarly works on Elagabalus have had much impact on artistic interpretations, whether in early-modern or more recent times. Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, widely read and full of evocative descriptions, may well have inspired many artists and authors, but there are not enough data to verify this. Considering the frequent use of names, anecdotes and other details from the ancient literary sources, it seems that most novelists, poets and playwrights found their inspiration chiefly in Cassius Dio, Herodian and the Historia Augustathemselves – at least until the twentieth century, when the first monographs on the priest-emperor became available. In addition, Decadent and modern authors were inspired by previous artistic works on Elagabalus, as can be deduced from explicit and implicit references. Modern plays and novels sometimes contain a short bibliography of historical studies, indicating that the author was probably familiar with them. However, if these studies played a determining role in the piece’s conception, this seldom, if ever, becomes evident. We should be cautious in drawing any conclusions; but all in all, one cannot escape the impression that the most significant contribution of historiography to Elagabalus’s Nachleben in art and literature has been to point artists and authors in the right direction, to make them aware of the priest-emperor’s existence and introduce them to the ancient accounts documenting his reign.

Ironically, the reverse is easier to demonstrate: literary images of Elagabalus have directly and significantly influenced scholarly reconstructions of the emperor. I am referring to Artaud’s L’Anarchiste couronné, which has repeatedly been mistaken for a scholarly work. Not only has this curious essay been used as a serious academic study in Villeneuve’s Le César fou, it was also a major source of inspiration for Gualerzi’s Né uomo, né donna. In this study, the author complains that other historians had not picked up Artaud’s observations on the androgynous nature of the Elagabal cult, and proceeds to do so himself. Both Villeneuve and Gualerzi regard the striving for androgyny as a central aspect of Elagabalus’s religious convictions – a notion that cannot be found in the ancient literary sources, nor in previous historical studies on the emperor, but is present in Artaud’s essay, as well as in Decadent literature. Once again, fact blurs with fiction.

Ultimately, Elagabalus remains an elusive figure, an often inextricable tangle of history and imagination. From antiquity onwards, authors and artists have constantly remodelled the young ruler, using him as a vehicle to present their notions on gender, ‘Oriental’ people, monotheism, tyranny, androgyny, degeneration, anarchy and a whole range of other issues. Most remarkable in this respect is the development of Elagabalus’s image from a depraved tyrant in ancient historiography to a positive, sometimes even exemplary figure in several modern artistic works. The imperial rebel we encounter in plays and novels from the last decades, celebrating his homosexuality and breaking free from traditional role models, seems a far cry from the debauched slave of his own lusts painted by the Vita Heliogabali. Yet both images consist of many of the same elements: a sexual preference for men, a predilection to dress and act as a woman, a dynamic sex life with many different partners. It is our appreciation of these things that has changed. To many modern readers, self-realisation and sexual liberty are more important than conforming to narrow moral conventions. This shift in values has brought about a change in meaning, turning an ancient exemplum malum into a modern role model. Even Elagabalus, it appears, can be a hero.

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