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 This page Elagabalus is part of psychopathology series. Illustration: the head of Elagabalus, one of the five "mad emperors" of ancient Rome
This page Elagabalus is part of psychopathology series.
Illustration: the head of Elagabalus, one of the five "mad emperors" of ancient Rome

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Elagabalus (ca. 203 – March 11, 222), also known as Heliogabalus or Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, was a Roman emperor. He was known for perverse and decadent behavior with regard especially to sex, religion, and food. Due to these associations with Roman decadence, Elagabalus became something of a hero to the Decadent movement in the late 19th century.




A black propaganda campaign against Elagabalus, traditionally attributed to Julia Avitus Mamaea, was instituted after his death. The most famous among these, immortalized in the 19th century painting The Roses of Heliogabalus, is that he smothered guests at a dinner to death with a mass of sweet-smelling rose, "violet and other flowers" petals dropped from above.

Augustan History

The source of many of these stories of Elagabalus's debauchery is the Augustan History (Historia Augusta), which scholarly consensus now feels to be unreliable in its details. The Historia Augusta was most likely written near the end of the 4th century during the reign of emperor Theodosius, drawing as much upon the invention of its author as actual historical sources. The life of Elagabalus as described in the Augustan History is believed to be largely a work of historical fiction. Only the sections 13 until 17, relating to the fall of Elagabalus, are considered to hold any historical value.

Cassius Dio

Sources more credible than the Augustan History include the contemporary historians Cassius Dio and Herodian. Cassius Dio lived from the second half of the 2nd century until sometime after 229. Born into a patrician family, he spent the greater part of his life in public service. He was a senator under emperor Commodus and governor of Smyrna after the death of Septimius Severus. Afterwards he served as suffect consul around 205, and as proconsul in Africa and Pannonia. Alexander Severus held him in the highest esteem and made him his consul again. His Roman History spans nearly a millennium, from the arrival of Aeneas in Italy until the year 229. As a contemporary of Elagabalus, Cassius Dio's account of his reign is generally considered more reliable than the Augustan History, although it should be noted that Dio spent the larger part of this period outside of Rome and had to rely on second-hand accounts when composing his Roman History. Furthermore, the political climate in the aftermath of Elagabalus' reign, as well as his own position within the government of Alexander likely imposed restrictions on the extent to which his writing on this period is truthful.


Another contemporary of Elagabalus was Herodian, who was a minor Roman civil servant who lived from ca. 170 until 240. His work, History of the Roman Empire since Marcus Aurelius, commonly abbreviated as Roman History, is an eye-witness account of the reign of Commodus until the beginning of the reign of Gordian III. His work largely overlaps with Dio's own Roman History, but both texts seem to be independently consistent with each other. Although Herodian is not deemed as reliable as Cassius Dio, his lack of literary and scholarly pretensions make him less biased than senatorial historians; he is less hostile than Dio and refrains from giving irrelevant descriptions of sexual practices. Herodian is considered the most important source on the religious reforms which took place during the reign of Elagabalus, which have been confirmed by modern numismatical

Elagabalus in later art

Due to these stories, Elagabalus became something of a hero to the Decadent movement in the late 19th century. He appears in many paintings and poems as the epitome of an amoral aesthete. His life and character has inspired or at least informed many famous artworks, including the following:






  • Mencken, H.L. and Nathan, George Jean. Heliogabalus A Buffoonery in Three Acts. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1920


  • The Spanish word heliogábalo means "person overwhelmed by gluttony".


  • 1689John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Book II, ch xxvii
    But yet I think nobody, could he be sure that the soul of Heliogabalus were in one of his hogs, would yet say that hog were a man or Heliogabalus.
  • 1726Jonathan Swift, Gulliver's Travels, Part III, ch viii
    I spent five days in conversing with many others of the ancient learned. I saw most of the first Roman emperors. I prevailed on the governor to call up Heliogabalus's cooks to dress us a dinner, but they could not show us much of their skill, for want of materials.
  • 1749Henry Fielding, The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling, Book I ch i
    How pleased, therefore, will the reader be to find that we have, in the following work, adhered closely to one of the highest principles of the best cook which the present age, or perhaps that of Heliogabalus, hath produced. This great man, as is well known to all lovers of polite eating, begins at first by setting plain things before his hungry guests, rising afterwards by degrees as their stomachs may be supposed to decrease, to the very quintessence of sauce and spices.
  • 1880William S. Gilbert, The Pirates of Penzance, Act i
    I quote in elegaics all the crimes of Heliogabalus,

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