From Literary Review, September 2011
Peter Jones reviews THE CRIMES OF ELAGABALUS: The Life and Legacy of Rome’s Decadent Boy Emperor, by Martjin Icks
The popular image of a Roman emperor is probably determined by Nero: fat, corrupt and doomed but determined to go out in a blaze of orgies, alcohol and mayhem. Elagabalus (actually Marcus Aurelius Antoninus), worshipper of the Syrian sun-god Elagabal whom he intended to replace Jupiter at the head of the Roman pantheon, makes Nero look an amateur. Brought to power in AD 218 at age fourteen by his family in a desperate bid to maintain Antonine rule, he lasted four years before being done to death in the arms of his mother after a reign of which Gibbon said its ‘inexpressible infamy surpasses that of any other age or country’. Even if accounts are only half accurate, one can see why.
Here are some extracts from one of the three sources for his life, the *Historia Augusta* (so named in 1603) a collection of lives of the emperors, put together probably sometime in the fourth century AD. Authorship is debatable – the great Sir Ronald Syme thought it put together by a rogue university teacher with a strong imagination and powerful sense of humour – but it gives a general idea of the sort of person we are talking about.
Depilated and made up like a woman, ‘the recipient of lust in every orifice of his body’, he sent agents looking for men with large organs to satisfy his passions. He put a dancer-cum-actor in charge of the Praetorian Guard, and a barber of the grain supply. The size of a man’s organ often determined the post he was given. His feasting and parties were a riot: ‘He would often shut his friends up when they were drunk and suddenly, in the night, let in lions and leopards and bears - rendered harmless - so that when they woke up they would find at dawn, or what is worse, at night, lions, bears and panthers in the same bedroom as themselves. Several of them died as a result of this.’
He invented a prototype whoopee-cushion: ‘Many of his humbler friends he used to seat on air-pillows instead of cushions and would let out the air while they were dining, so that often the diners were suddenly found under the tables. Finally, he was the first to think of setting out a semi-circle on the ground, not on couches, so that the air-cushions might be loosened by slave-boys at their feet, to let out the air … When already emperor, he used to order ten thousand mice to be brought to him, or a thousand weasels, or a thousand shrew-mice… He served his parasites with dinners made of glass… Sometimes, however, paintings were served up to them, so that they were served with everything, as it were, and yet were tortured with hunger…’.
Since an early, violent death had been predicted for him, he even had a suicide tower built ‘with gilded and jewelled boards spread underneath in front of him,… saying that even his death ought to be costly and of an extravagant pattern…’ (all tr. by Anthony Birley, Lives of the Later Caesars).
He was, in other words, the sort of emperor the Arts Council would have died for, and while Icks very diligently tries to sort out historical fact from fiction in the first half of the book, this is where his real interest lies – Elagabalus’ ‘cultural legacy’.
He re-emerged in the course of the fourteenth century ‘rediscovery’ of the ancient Greeks and Romans. Commonly seen as the archetypal tyrant who was above the law and committed only to his own personal desires, he was amusingly touted as the perfect ruler of an anti-utopian society by Thomas Artus (1605) in an attack on the French state of the time. In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, however, the emphasis shifted from the perfect tyrant to the perfect paradigm of sexual ambivalence, orientalism, ennui and decay. Moral disapproval disappeared and art for art’s sake held the centre stage: Elagabalus the performer with the whole world his audience, the ‘pure product of aestheticism at all costs’ (David).
Maurice, the hero of Didier’s La Destinée (1900), found in him ‘the incomparable artist’, determined to cross every boundary in the search for the unrealisable. Inevitably he is turned into an ancient pop-star in Thomas Jonigk’s opera Heliogabal (2003), with the novel message that stars come and go. He was now a positive figure, battling the morals and values of the day in the name of self-realisation and sexual liberty: in fact, ‘just a weird kid with a thing about animals and big dicks’ (a Neil Gaiman comic, 1992).
Just about sums it up, really. But ‘reception studies’ being all the rage in university classics departments at the moment at the expense of the serious study of the language and culture of the ancient world, I can already see a flock of bleating receptionists being herded together on the horizon to do yet more, pointless ‘research’ into this ghastly creature. But once you have done the historical job on him, which Icks has, the rest is intellectual froth. Comprendre tout, c’est pardonner tout. No, it isn’t.