The Transsexual Emperor: Elagabalus, Topoi and Gender in Rome

A contemporary depiction of Elegabalus. Kind of weird to see a Roman Emperor look younger than you, right?

A contemporary depiction of Elegabalus. Kind of weird to see a Roman Emperor look younger than you, right?

The history of marginalised people can be pretty difficult to write. More often than not, it’s a challenge just to prove they existed: you’d be forgiven for thinking there were no black people in Europe before mass immigration in the 1950s, no homosexual love before the gay subculture of the 1900s, no desire for men and women to change the sex they were born with until…well, that’s something that a lot of people need persuading of today. But that kind of thinking can be pretty dangerous. The stereotypical image of traditional, parochial, white Europe has been central to the campaigns of the European Far Right and the dismissal of gay and lesbian figures in history only encourages those who think that homosexuality is an invention of some ‘permissive society’. It’s a poisonous way of thinking, and one that can only really be counteracted by paying attention to those marginalised people whenever they make it into the history books – be it as a black field marshal under Napoleon, a lesbian poet in 600BC, or a cross-dressing Chinese girl in the 640s who defeats the Hu…wait, that’s the plot of Mulan, but to be fair that’s a fantastic Chinese legend anyway. And so, in this spirit, we get to the life of Elagabalus. A teenaged Roman Emperor of the 3rd century AD, Elagabalus – or Heliogabalus, if you’re feeling Greek about it, or Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, if you’re feeling official – is probably one of the most interesting characters of his era. The young princeps was a foreign ruler in control of the Roman Empire at its height, and as politically divisive as the lovechild of Thatcher and Chavez. He was a devout sun-worshipper, openly denying the existence of the Roman gods. But most unusually for a Roman Emperor, Elagabalus was also transsexual – biologically male but identifying and behaving as a young woman. That alone carries amazingly important implications for the history of gender and our modern ideas about transsexuality. But the truth is always…complicated. The sources on Elagabalus’ life are far from perfect and Elagabalus’ gender has become the subject of hot debate. But the life of Elagabalus is undoubtedly an important one in understanding how we approach gender and historical fact in the ancient world. And in any case – the story of Rome’s teenage, foreign, sun-worshipping, lion-taming head of state is far too interesting to miss.

canterburyroman

We’re talking LATE Principate here. This is an artists’s impression of Canterbury, which was basically the sticks at that point.

It would probably help to start with some context on the world into which Elagabalus came to power. The princeps was head of a Roman Empire pretty far removed from the relative peace and prosperity of the swords-and-sandals affair you might associate with Augustus, Antoninus and Asterix – by the beginning of the 3rd century AD, the empire was in turmoil, and it would remain so for Elagabalus’ entire reign. One of the key reasons for this was the sort of vicious circle of economic and military disasters: the army wants better pay, so it installs a new emperor, but the violent civil war stops people working on the fields and in the mines so there’s not enough money to even pay off the army, which, don’t you know, wants better pay. I’m sure you get the idea, but it got to the point that, through civil wars and backstabbing bodyguards, entire families were discredited and killed off (Sidenote: for the love of god, Roman Emperors, pay your bodyguards – the Romans assassinated a higher proportion of their rulers than any other polity to date). This extraordinary turnover, for want of a better term, may help to explain how, in the summer of AD 218, control of the empire was given to a fourteen-year old Syrian: the supposed son of the former emperor Caracalla. Elagabalus was one of the only surviving legitimate heirs. Then again, I suppose having a huge, loyal army and one of the era’s best politicians for a grandmother didn’t hurt. Despite this apparent support, though, Elagabalus wasn’t exactly typical Imperial stock. He wasn’t the first emperor from outside Italy – that’s either Claudius, Roman but born in Lyons, or El’s ancestor Septimius Severus, from a family of Italian-African nobles – but Syria was seen as distinctly foreign to the Roman elite. He was also a devotee and High Priest of El-Gabal – which is how he got his distinctive name. This association can’t have helped Elagabalus’ ‘foreigner’ image: for a start, it led him to reject all of the traditional Roman gods and his traditional duties as head of the Imperial Cult. On top of that, ‘El’ is such a generic Middle Eastern word for God you see it in not only Aramaic (hence Isra-el), but also Hebrew (hence el-ohim) and Arabic (hence Allah, or el-lah – kind of messy, but to be fair ancient Arabic didn’t have vowels). Admittedly, Rome would later be won over by monotheism from the East – by 274, the more West-friendly cult of Sol Incivtus and by 313, Christianity – but El’s open devotion to his god went down a lot worse than, say, Constantine’s more approachable henotheism. Elagabalus was also…well, just young. It was his grandmother Julia Maesa, who went to the Senate in his place and in a lot of ways ruled for him, which to a group of old men (because let’s not forget, America, that the word Senate literally means ‘Old Men’) was highly controversial. And like countless other young emperors, from Nero to Domitian to Joffrey Baratheon, Elagabalus seems to have developed a particularly cruel streak: his favourite prank was supposedly to move guests at his parties into bedrooms filled with tame lions and watch them freak out before they realised they were actually safe. This outrage, however, would scarcely match that which surrounded Elagabalus’ gender.

Another image of Elagabalus - but this one from 1888. Spot the Orientalism in 3..2.1..

Another image of Elagabalus – but this one from 1888. Spot the Orientalism in 3..2.1..

In modern terms, Elagabalus’ behaviour would probably be interpreted as transsexual, or at least genderfluid. El dressed like an emperor in public but assumed a completely female persona in private: demanding to be addressed as ‘Lady’ and not ‘Lord’, wearing make-up and women’s clothing, even perfecting a traditional ‘womanly’ manner of speaking. He arranged to marry his male lover Heirocles, and in the ceremony was referred to as Heirocles’ wife. When excused from imperial duty, El took up traditionally female tasks – like spinning wool, in particular, was typical Roman ‘good virtuous woman’ fare – and spent a good deal of his time around other women in the imperial court. Most interestingly of all, the majority of the sources on the life of Elagabalus state that the princeps wished he could have a procedure closely resembling a modern sex-change. (Cassius Dio 80.16.7, if you’re interested) He is even accused of castrating himself in one of the sources on account of his femininity, although this is denied by others. But here we reach the issue with an otherwise convincing argument for Elegabalus’ transsexuality. It’s this disagreement and bias in the only literary sources we have on Elagabalus’ life which makes it so hard to know anything for certain. It’s all too easy to cherry-pick evidence for historical facts based on our own modern ideas – but there’s as much conclusive evidence that the emperor asked to be referred to as ‘Lady’, for example, as there is that he sacrificed children or chose ministers based on the size of their cock. It’s only our modern perspective that makes one of those believable and two unlikely. The sources are hardly reliable in any case, coming mainly from one writer (Cassius Dio) who worked for Elagabalus’ rival and one source (the Historia Augusta) which many consider to be an exaggeration or even a parody of other writers’ work. There are other sources, from coins and from other writers, but too often they fall into the trap of topoi – the stereotypical traits that historians assign to ‘bad’ emperors. Effeminacy is one of the topoi, and one particularly associated with Syrians like Elagabalus. So are dangerous pranks and letting women rule in your place – Nero was accused of both of those. An emperor from another country in an empire on the brink of civil war? No points awarded for guessing that that gets you a lot of rivals. But the story of Elagabalus is still undoubtedly valuable. Lukas de Blois writes that behind all of the topoi lies at least an element of truth. Elagabalus may have been transsexual, but may not have been, but the fact that so much was written about it strongly suggests that writers were aware of transsexuality as a concept, albeit a hated one, some 1,800 years ago. Ultimately, there can be no definitive answer about Elagabalus’ gender. But in a way, it doesn’t matter. The fact that there’s a story alone offers some interesting evidence for the existence of transsexuality going back millennia. It’s certainly enough, for me at least, to dismiss those people who say it’s a modern invention. In the end, Elagabalus met the sort of sticky end that faced many 3rd century emperors, but also countless marginalised people throughout history – he was removed from society by his rivals, and ignominiously assassinated. He reigned for only four years, and he died when he was eighteen. Since then, his story has been reassessed and retold countless different ways, and often in ways that reflect the society which was telling the story more than his own. In the nineteenth century, during the era of empire and race theory, the focus was on his ethnicity. In the twentieth, particularly during the ‘moral panics’ of the 1920s and 1960s, the focus was on his sexuality. Now, in the twenty-first, the focus has been shifting to gender. It’s a testament to the life of Elagabalus – whether he was a tyrant, whether he was an activist, and even whether he was a she – that nearly two millennia later his experience can help us make sense of gender identity and its place in both history and the modern world. The history of the marginalised might be difficult to write, but it’s extremely important that we try.

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The Greatest Gap Year Ever: The Travels of Ibn Battuta

A Hajj – you got to look good when you’re this holy.

You get a lot of talk nowadays about living a connected world. We’re connected by social networking and connected by globalisation and connected by a shared fear of how exactly how much of our Internet history the American government can find out. Connectivity is a good thing (I’d say “We’re better connected” but I’m not really a fan of shameless advertising unless it gets me free texts) but everyone bands it about like it’s a totally new thing. As if the people 100, even 500 years before us wouldn’t go as far as to leave their little villages to see if the beer really was sweeter over in the next hamlet. In this post, I’m going to try and disprove that idea by foraying into one of my rare (but fun!) articles about one person’s life. It’s usually difficult to get a sense of the holistic with a biography, but with this guy…well, you’ll see. Because the person I’m going to talk about was, for about 400 years, the most well-travelled man in existence. In fact, would be right up until the 1800s, when steamships and railroads made his journeys possible in less than a lifetime. This is a guy who crossed three continents and four seas, saw the Mongol Empire at its peak and Constantinople in its final days.  He saw every great holy site of Islam and met everyone who was anyone in an extraordinary world of sultans, khans and imams. His name, to use the heavily shortened version, was Muhammad Ibn Battuta. And his story is the best testament to a connected, global history that you’re ever going to find.

To concur: One lifetime. One freaking lifetime.

Ibn Battuta was born in Tangier in 1304 – Tangier’s that pointy northern bit of Morocco and pretty much as far west as you can get without crossing the Atlantic. He was a devout Sunni Muslim and a trained judge of Sharia (two misconceptions here: it’s not Sharia Law, because Sharia is Arabic for…well, law. It’s also not as evil and bigoted as the Daily Mail might have you believe and for most of the medieval era it was much fairer to women, peasants and nonbelievers than anything the Christians came up with. As ever, it’s the way it’s interpreted that can lead to the ridiculous Taliban stuff and its application to the modern world). So, at some point in 1326, Ibn Battuta began his Hajj – his obligatory pilgrimage to Mecca, which would take him all across Northern Africa and along Arabia. Travelling was slow and so he stopped at famous towns, settlements, and sights along the way. But something in that awoke a travelling bug in young Muhammad, and he promised to spend the rest of his life travelling through the rest of the Muslim world – and some countries beyond it, too. In fact, he was to travel three times the distance of his contemporary Marco Polo, seeing Greece, Iran, Egypt, Arabia, even India and China, and some of Indonesia. He would go on to record stories, memories of people and places in his literary masterpiece, “A Gift to Those Who Appreciate the Wonders of Cities and the Joys of Travelling”, or, for short, “The Travels”. It’s a book that – translated and shortened, admittedly – I own myself, and it’s that which I’m going to talk about (with geeky joy, naturally) from here on.

Islamic Turkestan? Been there, done that, played the newfangled horse game.

There’s a lot to love in The Travels. It’s perfectly balanced between Ibn Battuta’s boundless enthusiasm for new things and his endless bigotry that only the Muslim things are really the best things. He’s essentially a massive geek about his religion – he goes to Egypt but states that he didn’t have time to visit the Pyramids or the Great Library of Alexandria because he was too busy looking as mosques. He goes to Jerusalem, where the Dome on the Rock is, in his words, “endowed with a plentiful share of loveliness”, while the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus (the one partially ruined in the Syrian Civil War earlier this year) is “the most exquisite in beauty, grace and consummate achievement” in the world. It’s not just the architecture he finds extraordinary – his travels through India introduce him to the rhinoceros, which he thinks has a hilariously large head but is basically, when it comes down to it, just a new sort of elephant. In Uzbekistan, he is introduced to watermelons, which in his words “have no equal in any country of the world”, and he proceeds to order melons wherever he goes. Of course, as a conservative Muslim scholar, he also looks down on the practice of everywhere and anywhere “pagan” – he can’t pass through a village in India without making reference to “idol worshippers” and in Mali, he’s shocked to fainting by the women with their chests uncovered and – even worse – without veils on their heads. By far the most adorable part (if that’s really possible for a 700-year old man) is when he finds one of his heroes, a great ascetic holy man. The man tells him that he will bless Battuta and pray to God for his one strongest wish. By this point, Ibn Battuta has been lost, robbed, abandoned and mistreated countless times across the globe. But all he can wish for is more travel. It’s that passion, that enthusiasm to see and do and feel every continent known to man, that makes The Travels such a good read. It’s not, however, the only reason to study Ibn Battuta.

Medieval Islam: Generous doesn’t even cover it.

Ibn Battuta also manages – intentionally or not – to stumble across some of the most important figures of his day. He flits between the courts of Sultans, Khans and Emperors, impressing them all with stories of travel in exchange for food and board. He finds a job working for the Sultan of Dehli, who calls himself slightly presumptuously “King of All the World”. He meets the Byzantine Emperor in his home and travels with his daughter to marry her to the Khan of the Mongols. He also meets the Emperor of freaking China. He gives one of the best impressions of the world as it was at that time – from his point of view, a huge Muslim expanse of bazaars, mosques and traders, covering a route called the Silk Road that ran all the way from Constantinople to China. The Silk Road was for about 1000 years the most important road in the world. He sees Indian Ocean trading at its height and how the same spices can be grown in the Maldives to be sold in markets in Mecca. He sees the devastating effect of the Black Death as it crosses the steppes of Asia to infect Europe and the Middle East, returning at one point to his home town to see it ruined and half-empty from the plague. But everywhere he goes, he sees faith and goods and kings and peasants who wouldn’t look that out of place in his home in Morocco. He goes to China and meets Muslim families willing to take him in. He goes to Indonesia and sees the same dried fish and nuts that he saw sold 10,000 miles away across the Indian Ocean and the same silk he saw in the Silk Road. To paraphrase the man himself, he went to the land of the Christians, but the girls were still pretty. That is the legacy of Ibn Battuta – of connectivity all across the world centuries before the telephone and the internet. And, of course, of travelling for the love of it, without knowing where to go but liking where you end up. So there you have it – Ibn Battuta, proprietor of possibly the best gap year in history and one of the few people who might actually have had a girl in every port (seriously…90 wives, following an odd custom to marry your daughters to important-sounding guests). He’s not likeable but he’s loveable, a slightly stuffy old cleric with an admirable taste for travel in a world that’s all at once varied and familiar. You don’t have to like him but his legacy – of travel, and of interconnectivity – is one you should never forget.

Holistic History Extra: Papa Doc’s Prayer

The extraordinary Lord’s Prayer, renamed “The Catechism of the Revolution”, from Haiti at the time of Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier, has to be seen to be believed. I really hope it scans better in French or Creole, but it’s fast becoming my favourite (well, second favourite) weird fascist song.

“Our Doc,

Who art in the National Palace for life,

Hallowed be Thy name by present and future generations.

Thy will be done at Port-au-Prince and in the provinces.

Give us this day our new Haiti,

and never forgive the trespasses of the antipatriots who spit every day on our country;

let them succumb to temptations,

and under the weight of their venom,

deliver them not from any evil …”

Sources:

Diederich, Bernard and Burt, Al, “Papa Doc,” pages 283-284, McGraw-Hill, New York, 1969

F. Abiola Irele, Biodun Jeyifo, The Oxford Encyclopedia of African Thought, Volume 1, page 328

http://dictatordiaries.com/francois-duvalier-lords-prayer/

The Monster Raving Loony Emperor: Norton I of the United States

Read any history textbook and you’ll be flooded by greatness. The subject is filled to the brim with stories of people who were inspirational, people who were extraordinary, people who were generous or kind or ruthless or really, really pretty. (And yes, the only group with a significant number of women in it is the last, but I’m happy that at least my namesake Phillip “the Handsome” of Spain is an exception). One group of people who tend to be forgotten by history, however – and it’s a terrible shame because they’re my absolute favourites – are the mad. The quirky. The eccentric. And unless they’re in charge of one of the largest countries in the world at the time, or the pet of someone who is, they’re likely to be swept up by asylums or banished into the wilderness forgotten. That’s what makes the case of Joshua Norton so special, what makes his story amazing and why I’m willing to forgo holistic overviews for a personal story today. Ladies and Gentlemen, by the Grace of God, I present Emperor Norton I, lord of the United States of America and Protector or Mexico, Regent of San Francisco and all-round eccentric.

Norton I in all his imperial frivolity.

Joseph Abraham Norton was born to a rather un-royal background, a British citizen born in England and raised in British South Africa in the early 1800s. His early life is largely unknown, but historians are pretty sure he moved to San Francisco in 1849 to move into finances and lost most of his money by investing unwisely.  That’s not an unusual story – thanks to the Gold Rush in California in 1848, San Francisco was the place to be for budding investment bankers and finance gurus at the time, and naturally a lot of them went bust. Norton, for his own reasons, stayed, and it’s about then that he started…you know…the mad stuff.

See, on the 17th of September, 1859, Norton did something that puts other eccentrics to shame. He declared himself Emperor of the United States of America (by some unknown authority only he knew about, of course) and ordered the entire US government to meet him in the San Francisco Theatre to hold a meeting on the state of his newly inherited country. He was ignored by the government, but the press loved him, jokingly printing his declarations in the local newspapers. This is where the story gets really heart-warming. The local people grew to love him, humouring him as he went about his “official duties” – checking the trams, posing for photographs, writing to the US government to try and dissolve Congress to give his absolute power, the usual stuff for an Emperor of his rank to do. As time went on, he grew more and more popular – the army gave him a uniform with gold-plated shoulders, restaurants would put up plaques if they got the “Imperial Seal of Approval”, plays were written with Norton as the protagonist at his favourite theatres – and he became a cult hero to the residents of what was quickly becoming the US’s most tolerant city.  He even became a force for good in the community – he campaigned for a bridge to be built across the San Francisco Bay 60 years before the Golden Gate was built, and was one of the first to suggest that America form a League of Nations (read: He invented the UN 50 years early) for international peace. His finest hour was in the middle of an anti-immigrant riot, where he protected local Chinese labourer by STARING AT THE RIOTERS UNTIL THEY WENT AWAY. Suffice to say he was a local legend by the time of his death in 1880, as 30,000 people paraded through the city’s streets in his honour.

The Norton Government, in debt by 50 cents – and therefore in a far better position than the US at the time.

The story of Norton, First Emperor of the USA, is a good one because it’s about a whole town’s kindness to one rather odd man – it’s about tolerance in a city so multicultural, so full of the weird and wonderful that racial and social tension should be constantly high. But, more importantly, it’s the story of an extraordinary man, a visionary and a lunatic all at once, and the legacy that means that, even today, the bridge he suggested across the San Francisco Bay still hold a plaque in memory of San Fransisco’s first – and so far only – Emperor.