A coin of Elagabalus found in Hertfordshire - Ancient Rome’s bisexual, trans emperor?

Gemma Hollman, Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies

A bust of Elagabalus held at the Capitoline Museum in Italy. From WikiCommons.

In Walls Field, Baldock, in the 1920s a bronze denarius coin dating to 220 AD was discovered. This coin was minted under the Roman Emperor Elagabalus, but it had been broken.

Elagabalus was one of the most notorious Roman Emperors and they ruled for just four years before being murdered aged 18. Their rule was marked by sex scandals and religious controversy. Elagabalus was bisexual, and possibly gender fluid, identifying as a man or woman. For the purposes of the article, I have referred to Elagabalus as they, as their gender pronouns and identity are not entirely clear.

Elagabalus’ birth name was Varius Avitus Bassianus and they were born in Homs, modern-day Syria. They belonged to the Severan dynasty who were very powerful, having dominated Roman politics at the end of the second century and into the third century. Their grandmother was Julia Maesa, who had been the sister-in-law to Emperor Septimius Severus. Elagabalus grew up in Syria and as a child they became the high priest of the sun god Elagabal, from whose name they would later be known, as was their family’s hereditary right. Although the worship of Elagabal had spread across the Roman Empire in the 2nd century, the god was not one of the main deities and certainly was not a traditional god of Rome, the centre of the empire.

In 208 AD Elagabalus’ father, Sextus Varius Marcellus, was put in charge of gathering taxes for Rome from Britain. Later, he was promoted by the emperor to generally manage the finances of Roman Britain. Sextus often visited Britain in his capacity under this role, and Elagabalus may well have joined him.

When Elagabalus was fourteen, their grandmother Julia used them as a pawn to regain power in the empire for herself. Elagabalus was declared emperor of Rome, and left Syria for the capital. Despite moving to Rome, Elagabalus kept their position as high priest of Elagabal, and brought a statue of the god with them.

Elagabalus’ rule quickly descended to scandal. Romans at the centre of the empire were unhappy with Elagabalus’ decision to only venerate their own religious sect, ignoring traditional Roman gods and disrespecting them. Elagabalus even scandalously took one of the sacred Vestal Virgins as their wife. Julia Aquilia Severa had been the high priestess of the Vestal Virgins and Roman law and tradition had required these women to remain virgins for 30 years – any one who had been found to have engaged in sexual intercourse was to be executed. Elagabalus stated that their union as two high priests would produce godlike children.

Elagabalus’ sexual history, and therefore orientation, was scandalous but contemporary sources are full of gossip, rumour, and exaggeration, so it can be difficult to distinguish truth from fiction. Cassius Dio, a Roman statemsman and historian who lived at the same time as Elagabalus states that they married five times. According to Dio, their first marriage was to a woman named Julia Cornelia Paula, whom they divorced in order to marry Vestal Virgin Julia Aquilia Severa. Elagabalus then divorced her and married another woman, Annia Aurelia Faustina. In the final year of their reign, Elagabalus divorced Annia and remarried Aquilia Severa. However, Elagabalus also married one or two men. One was Hierocles, an ex-slave and chariot driver. Some sources say Elagabalus also married a man named Zoticus who was an athelete, although Dio says they were not married.

Hierocles certainly seemed to be one of Elagabalus’ favourite relationships (of which they had many) and according to Dio, Elagabalus wished to be called Hierocles’ mistress, wife, and queen. Elagabalus was known to dress as a woman on numerous occasions. In one scandalous event, they gathered all of Rome’s prostitutes in the Forum and appeared before them dressed in women’s clothes with breasts, and gave orders to the prostitutes as if they were soldiers, giving them instructions on sexual practices.

Dio also recounts a time when Elagabalus was talking to Zoticus who called Elagabalus ‘my lord’. Elagabalus corrected him saying ‘Don’t call me lord, I am a lady’. Dio then goes even further to say that Elagabalus asked their physicians to perform surgery on them to give them a woman’s vagina. Some historians have considered this last comment to be fiction, although it cannot be discounted entirely. Many have taken this story as evidence that Elagabalus was a transgender woman, and the first person on record as seeking sex reassignment surgery.

As time went on, Elagabalus’ extravagences proved too much for many of the Roman ruling classes. Their popularity started to wane, and Elagabalus’ grandmother, Julia Maesa, who saw their rise to power was now to take it away. She convinced Elagabalus to appoint their cousin Severus Alexander as their heir, and Elagabalus agreed. However, Elagabalus soon started to think that Rome preferred their cousin to their own rule, and tried to arrange Alexander’s murder. This was unsuccessful, however, and instead Elagabalus and their mother were stabbed to death by their own guards. Elagabalus’ body was thrown into the River Tiber. Their husband, Hierocles, was also assassinated at the same time.

Elagabalus’ brief rule is one that went down in history books for many of the wrong reasons. They were only eighteen when they died, but they left a mark on history. They were what we today would identify as bisexual, having many lovers who were both male and female, and they seem to have identified as a woman to some degree. They dressed as a woman and asked to be given female pronouns, though whether they identified as a transwoman and indeed wished to have sex reassignment surgery, or whether they were gender fluid and identified as a man or woman at different times is not quite clear.

That their coin was found in Hertfordshire demonstrates the reach of the Roman Empire at the time of their rule, although what people living here thought of their rule is unclear. That the coin was broken into pieces may be evidence that the owner disapproved of their behaviour: after Elagabalus’ murder, they were erased from the public record by the empire, with images and statues of them being destroyed or re-carved. Elagabalus’ denarius is held today at North Hertfordshire Museum in Hitchin.

This page was added on 01/02/2021.

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