By Jean Marie Carey

On 11 March 222, the teenage Roman Emperor Elagabalus was assassinated, along with his mother, Julia Soaemias, the first woman accorded the official title of Augusta in the Roman Senate. Elagabalus (Marcus Aurelius Antoninus augustus), born in 203, was emperor from 218 to 222. A member of the Severan dynasty on his father’s side, he came with Julia Soaemias from Syria, where he had served as a priest of the god Elagabal in his hometown, Emesa.

Julia Soaemias became the first woman to be allowed into the Senate, and received a senatorial title: Clarissima. She held the title of Augusta as well, suggesting that she may have been the power behind the throne. She exercised great influence over the young emperor throughout his reign, and can be found on coins and inscriptions.

Since the reign of Septimius Severus, sun worship had increased throughout the Empire. Elagabalus saw this as an opportunity to install Elagabal as the chief deity of the Roman pantheon. The god was renamed Deus Sol Invictus, meaning God the Undefeated Sun, and honored above Jupiter. He forced leading members of Rome’s government to participate in religious rites celebrating this deity. Elagabalus was supposedly married as many as five times, also lavishing favours on male lovers. He aroused further discontent when he married the Vestal Virgin Aquilia Severa, a flagrant breach of Roman law and tradition. His behavior estranged the Praetorian Guard, who supported his overthrow and subsequent murder.

Following the assassination of Elagabalaus, his religious edicts were reversed. Women were again barred from attending meetings of the Senate. The practice of damnatio memoriae — erasing from the public record a disgraced personage formerly of note — was systematically applied in his case, making the artifacts shown here notable rarities. Elagabalus was replaced by his cousin Severus Alexander, who ruled for 13 years before his own assassination which would mark the epoch event for the Crisis of the Third Century.

Reference: John Clarke. Art in the Lives of Ordinary Romans: Visual Representation and Non-elite Viewers in Italy, 100 B.C.-A.D. 315. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.

Roman Imperial Period Portrait of a Youth (Elagabalus), c. 218–224. Museum of Fine arts, Boston. Accession Number: 1977.377.

Verso: Gold Aureus of Elagabalus. Recto: Elagabalus standing with drapery over his left shoulder holding globe and downward-pointing spear; RECTOR ORBIS.c. 218-222. Wriston Art Galleries, Lawrence University, Appleton, Wisconsin. Ottilia Buerger Coin Collection, Nr. 91208.

Portrait head of Elagabalus, c. 220-222. Musei capitolini, Rome.

Afghan Carnelian Ringstone. Portrait of Elagabalus. c. 218-222. Michael C. Carlos Museum, Emory University, Nr. 2008.031.103.

Late Imperial Portrait Bust of a Roman Woman (Julia Soaemias), c. 220. Staatliche Museen zu Berlin ­ Preussischer Kulturbesitz. Antikensammlung. accession Number: Sk 455.

Further Reading: Martijn Icks. The Crimes of Elagabalus: The Life and Legacy of Rome’s Decadent Boy Emperor. London: I.B. Tauris, 2012. 

Constance Classen. The Colour of Angels: Cosmology, Gender and the Aesthetic Imagination. London: Routledge, 1998.

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