The cousin of the Emperor Caracalla, whose assassination in A.D. 217 led to a short period of crisis, Elagabalus was installed on the throne by his canny grandmother Julia Maesa a year later. Although he was just fourteen years of age, the new Augustus was anything but an innocent child. Uninterested in the military or affairs of state, the young emperor made use of his imperial godhead to, as Edward Gibbon put it, “abandon himself to the grossest pleasures and ungoverned fury.”
Indeed, the stereotype of the decadent Roman orgy derives from the court of Elagabalus, whose debauchery rivaled that of Caligula. It is said that the Emperor took multiple wives but consorted with paramours of both sexes, that he openly dressed as a woman, and that his carnal tastes ran to the extreme and cruel. Legend has it that he murdered an entire dinner party by locking the doors and filling the room with so many rose petals that all the guests suffocated to death.
Whether these stories are completely true, wild exaggerations, or outright lies fomented after the fact by his many detractors, we cannot be certain. What we do know is that he was assassinated in 222, when he was eighteen, in a plot hatched by the same grandmother who had installed him in the first place. Elagabalus, also known as Heliogabalus, was considered a hero by the nineteenth-century Decadent movement, as has been the subject of numerous novels, plays, ballets, operas, poems, and paintings.
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