BMCR 2013.02.22

The Crimes of Elagabalus: the Life and Legacy of Rome’s Decadent Boy Emperor

, The Crimes of Elagabalus: the Life and Legacy of Rome’s Decadent Boy Emperor. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012. 276. ISBN 9780674064379. $29.95.


Those acquainted with the works of Gilbert and Sullivan will undoubtedly recognize the title of Martijn Icks’s book from the Modern Major-General’s Song in the comedic opera, The Pirates of Penzance. It is fitting that a song so replete with historical and cultural references underscores the author’s own treatment of the notorious Roman emperor, Elagabalus, whose brief but colorful reign (218-222 CE) was commonly known for its exotic religious innovations and vice-ridden excesses.

Recent years have seen increased scholarly attention devoted to the Severan dynasty (Elagabalus in particular) and the reception and dissemination of classical culture.1 Martijn Icks’s volume aptly combines the two in its examination of the emperor’s portrayal in the ancient sources and later traditions up to the modern period. Readers should be aware that this book is not a conventional imperial biography. It is a sweeping, ambitious study that touches on themes of religious expression, the construction of ethnic identity and self-definition, and the transformation of classical culture in art, literature, music, and modern popular culture. In this fashion, Icks follows in the footsteps of similar biographic Nachleben of other notable figures in antiquity by Madeleine Henry, Lucy Hughes-Hallett, and Richard Stoneman.2

For Icks, the figure of Elagabalus has long blurred fact with fiction, not surprisingly due to the heavily rhetoricized literary sources that remain our only detailed surviving accounts. The trio of Cassius Dio, Herodian, and the Historia Augusta, according to Icks, all portray the emperor in a negative light as a typical rhetorical tyrant and luxury-loving ‘Oriental’ whose corruption and effeminate behavior are all literary topoi to be dismissed. These stereotypical portrayals overshadow the more traditional elements of Elagabalus’s reign, which features continuity with Severan and even earlier Antonine regimes. Yet, as Icks argues, these images remain an important foundation for later biographic traditions of the emperor in art and literature up to the modern age. In the end, Icks writes, “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.”

Icks divides his book into two distinct parts. The first part (chapters 1-4) deals with the ‘historical’ representations of the emperor derived from ancient literary, epigraphic, numismatic and archaeological material, while the second (chapters 5-7) examines Elagabalus’s fictional legacy from the start of the Renaissance to modern times.

In chapter one, Icks chronicles the young emperor’s regime from his rise to power, his religious reforms, and eventual downfall. Here the author quite skillfully navigates through the ancient evidence, particularly the epigraphic material, and argues that the emperor’s brief reign was not the disruptive anomaly depicted in the ancient literary tradition but was rather traditional, true to its Severan roots. Icks’s examination of important senatorial administrative posts reveals men who had served earlier under Septimius Severus and Caracalla. Elagabalus’s rule did not prove disruptive to the senate. Despite charges of mismanagement in the literary sources, Icks maintains that the emperor’s fiscal policy did not vary much from that of his predecessor, and he points out that under Elagabalus the empire did not labor under costly wars as it had under Carcalla and may have even improved economically. Even the introduction of the emperor’s personal solar deity, Elagabal, into the Roman pantheon (eventually displacing Jupiter at its head) is quite rightly characterized by Icks as a gradual transition and not revolutionary. Icks emphasizes that Elagabal’s arrival in Rome was hardly the emergence of a ‘new’ deity and that the cult to this god, with a head priest, had existed in Rome since the days of Septimius Severus.

Chapter two explores the cult of Elagabal more closely and examines the emperor’s cultural and religious background as a resident of the eastern city of Emesa, or modern Homs. Here Icks advances the idea that Elagabalus would not have seemed as ‘foreign’ as he has been portrayed since his family was no stranger to Roman culture and had prospered through its connection to the emperor Septimius Severus as members of a thoroughly Romanized provincial elite. Icks also makes the intriguing case that Elagabalus, his mother Julia Soaemias, and his siblings lived for a good number of years in Rome or at least in Italy before returning to Emesa in 217. Here Icks’s discussion on Elagabalus’s ethnicity as a provincial in the Roman empire would have been better documented with some references to some recent scholarship on the nature of Roman provincial self-identity. Self-identity and ascribed cultural behavior are fluid, depending on shifting circumstances and contexts, which may help to explain the apparent ‘foreignness’ of Elagabalus’s behavior despite his apparent ‘Roman’ background. Curiously, Warwick Ball’s discussion of the supposed location of the seemingly missing temple of Elagabal in Emesa (whether one agrees with him or not) is omitted.3

Chapter three looks at the self-representation of Elagabalus through the lens of imperial propaganda and the responses from imperial subjects. The author maintains that the emperor early in his reign conveyed an image which emphasized Roman tradition and continuity with earlier imperial regimes, but later promoted himself as an invincible priest-emperor, who fully embraced his role as head priest of his god Elagabal.

In chapter four, Icks analyzes the major ancient literary sources of the emperor including Dio, Herodian, the Historia Augusta, the Latin epitomators and later Byzantine authors. It is here that we encounter the hostile historiographic tradition that characterizes Elagabalus in all his exotic, cruel, effeminate, and libertine glory. Icks argues that what exists of the ‘historical’ Elagabalus are mainly literary constructions and topoi of the malus princeps, obfuscating much of any reliable information. Late antique and Byzantine traditions add little to what we find in the earlier sources or even distort his legacy, confusing Elagabalus with Antoninus Pius! We can only pine for Marius Maximus, the lost source for the Elagabalean material in the H. A. and to a lesser degree for the invective pamphlet written by the sophist Aelian, which likely is a major source of Dio’s. In this chapter, Icks’s points are well taken, but some important works of Timothy Barnes on the sources of the Historia Augusta are left out, as well as references to François Paschoud’s Budé’s editions of the Historia Augusta, while some important recent editions and commentaries on Herodian remain also strangely uncited. Also unfortunate omissions include any mention of Elagabalus in the “Twelfth Sibylline Oracle” or in the Syriac or Arabic traditions.

Icks begins Elagabalus’s Nachleben proper in chapters five and six, which comprise a grand survey of the emperor’s image in art, literature and history from roughly the start of the Renaissance to the modern period. Icks argues that from 1350 to the early nineteenth century Elagabalus is portrayed as an “evil tyrant”, a trope fully informed by the ancient sources’s stereotypes and one that can be found in the works of such notables as Machiavelli, Montaigne, and Gibbon. The emperor’s reign is invoked as a comment on perceived moral decline in fifteenth-century Rome in Leonardo Bruni’s Oratio Heliogabali ad meretrices, and stage depictions of Elagabalus are used to criticize monarchical rule in the Netherlands and Poland. Ick points out that beginning in the early nineteenth century literary, artistic, and academic treatments of Elagabalus appear that are awash in Orientalism. In place of the predominantly negative depictions of the emperor as an “evil tyrant” we observe the creation of the “decadent emperor” linked with concepts of androgeny, ennui, exoticism, and decay associated with the East. Icks further maintains that Elagabalus became an aesthetic hero of the Decadent movement (1850-1914), which undermined traditional moral convention and bourgeois culture. In art, we see such examples as Simeon Solomon’s painting, Heliogabalus, High Priest of the Sun (1866) and Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s The Roses of Heliogabalus (1888). As case studies, Icks explores the emperor as an aesthete monarch-artist in Stefan George’s novel, Alagabal (1892), while in Jean Lombard’s L’Agonie (1888), Elagabalus is a symbol of a decaying Rome setting the stage for a new Christian age. Finally, for Dutch author Louis Couperus’s homoerotic De berg van licht (1906), the young Elagabalus stood as the last fading representative of pagan beauty and sexuality.

In Icks’s final chapter we are exposed to a plethora of images of the emperor in a variety of contemporary media and in a bewildering array of contexts. He has been featured in a Neil Gaiman graphic novel, has been a subject of songs and albums, and is even the name of a well-known Italian designer-clothing store. Icks maintains that as a subject of popular culture the image of the emperor tends to become detached from reality and forms a reality of its own with only representations remaining. Icks finishes his book with three literary case studies written in the twentieth century. In all three, Elagabalus’s effeminacy, homosexuality, and Syrian background, as Icks’s argues, are interpreted in a positive light, as inspiring examples of self-actualization. Here the hostile and negative traditions of the emperor that emerged from the ancient sources are inverted to create a modern role model.

Martijn Icks has written an interesting, thought-provoking book, which demonstrates impressive control not only over the ancient sources, but also over difficult source material that spans nearly two millennia. By and large, the author makes some novel interpretations of Elagabalus’s reign and his legacy. Now for some points of criticism. In his analysis of the major ancient literary sources which first shaped Elagabalus’s image, s’s Icks draws attention to the heavily rhetorical and problematic nature of these documents as a reason for doubting their usefulness at conveying any kind of reliable historical reality. One wonders if this undermines his own historical narrative, the historical core around which images of Elagabalus are woven. The author’s treatment of modern interpretations of the emperor’s sexual identity should be grounded more firmly in queer theory literature, as I think a more subtle point could be made beyond the emperor’s portrayal simply as a gay hero. Also, the counterculture movement of the 1960s may help to explain the shift in the treatment of Elagabalus around the mid-twentieth century.

These points, however, should not detract from Icks’s important contribution to the study of the Severan emperors as well as the field of classical reception and all matters related to Elagabalus’s legacy be they vegetable, animal, or mineral.


1. Now see Leonardo de Arrizabalaga y Prado, The Emperor Elagabalus: Fact or Fiction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

2. Madelein Henry, Prisoner of History: Asphasia of Miletus and Her Biographic Tradition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995. Lucy Hughes-Hallett, Cleopatra: Histories, Dreams, and Distortions. New York: HarperCollins, 1991. Richard Stoneman, Alexander, A Life in Legend. New Haven: Yale University Press 2010.

3. Warwick Ball, Rome in the East. New York: Routledge, 2000.