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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Bromance of Two Kingdoms: Rome, China and and the Great Silk Road

Throughout the Age of Discovery – that awkward bit of history between the first Portuguese expeditions into the Atlantic in the 1420s and the last expeditions into unmapped Africa in the 1890s – Europe made a hell of a lot of debatable claims. Christopher Columbus discovered the Americas. James Cook discovered Hawaii. Willem Janzoon discovered Australia (sorry, Janzoon, I mean New Holland). One enthusiastic French explorer even claimed to have discovered Moscow, by that time a city of some 100,000 people.  You don’t need an obscure history blog to tell you not to take those claims at face value, but they’ve still managed to distort the way we see the world before the men with beards and boats did the exploring thing. They’ve still managed to create an image of a pretty much isolated world where each region was ignorant of everyone but its closest neighbours, where continents were never ever crossed and you could go on holiday to the next village and be amazed that the dirt was a slightly different shade of brown. This isn’t true. This couldn’t really be much further from true. Not only have fantastic, globe-spanning relationships existed for thousands of years, but they’ve also been really important in shaping the cultures and traditions at either end. We just weren’t always aware of the connections at the time, and modern historians are beginning to fill the gaps. So this post is about a new trend of real-life Holistic History – undeniable evidence of trade and even tourism stretching back for over two millennia. This is the story of the Silk Road (not the drugs one) and of the ancient Romano-Chinese Bromance.

Not pictured: Hopelessly lost vikings and camels.

Not pictured: Hopelessly lost vikings and camels.

The Silk Road is one of those brilliant historical names that has nothing to do with what it describes so I’m going to start by clearing a few things up. Even calling it The Silk Road could give you the wrong impression – it was actually a lumping together of unmarked trade routes, stretching as far north as The Black Sea and as far south as Indonesia. It provided the West with more than just silk, although as we’ll see that was one of the more controversial products, and it definitely wasn’t anything like a road – more like a rough route through mountains, valleys and miles of open sea. It was, with the Mediterranean at one end and the South China Sea at the other, the definitive route from East to West for at least 2300 years. Very few people would have travelled the route entirely – or, at least, not compared to the numbers that would travel on Silk Road successors like the Trans-Siberian Railway – but with a system that would remain nearly unchanged till the days of the Pony Express, particular traders and nomads would act like a relay team: a continent-spanning conveyor belt for swapping stories, silks and gradually more exotic treasure. The distances objects could travel are extraordinary: a Kashmiri metalworker, for example, could find their work sold to Turkish nomads, taken through to Arabic Syria and then onto Roman Greece before being plundered by Volga Vikings and taken up through Russia to end up somewhere near Stockholm. Oh, wait, did I say “could”? Because that totally did happen. But the Silk Road did more than move objects around – trade always seems to. It made the Middle East rich, both culturally and economically, and when Islam expanded out into the world, it followed the lines of the Silk Road almost exactly: West into the Mediterranean, East into Persia and India, South to Indonesia and East Africa. Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan tried to do the same 1600 years apart. And as I’ve talked about before, the Silk Road spread ideas and faiths as much as people and materials – that’s why there are medieval Christian churches in China; ancient Persian influences in Catholicism; statues of an East Indian prince and supposed acquaintance of Jesus Christ dotted around the landscape of China. And, to turn to a sour note before this gets very Crash Course trade also spreads pestilence and poverty like nobody’s business. It was along the routes of the Silk Road that the East Asian Ko-Ta-Wen disease spread to Europe and the Middle East. Europe called it the Black Death.

A luxury product made by Chinese slave workers...silk was really the iPhone of its day.

A luxury product made by Chinese slave workers…silk was really the iPhone of its day.

But all this has been fairly well-known throughout the history of…well, history. The interesting question – and the one that we’ve been unable to answer until recently – is how much the people at each end of the road knew about each other. The relay system was great, especially for the Arabic and Parthian middle men, but it did mean there was no need for direct contact between distant places like Ancient China and Rome. But now there’s evidence to change that idea. While we’re not talking Julius Caesar and Wu of Han meeting in Isfahan for coffee, their empires – the far East and West of the Silk Road – were definitely aware of each other. Moreover, they were both fascinated by the possibility of an equally expansive empire halfway around the world. Of course, the information they received about each other wasn’t always accurate: The Silk Road was quick to turn into a very literal game of Chinese Whispers. What each civilisation got wrong, however, is interesting in itself – sometimes funny, sometimes fascinating – and if there’s a better example of connection and communication in the ancient world, I don’t know where to find it.

The Roman name for Western China was Serica, the “land of Silk”, and that name makes a lot of sense: China’s most luxurious export to Rome was silk, because China fiercely protected the secret of where it came from for about 3,000 years in a copyright battle that would put even Youtube to shame. The new material fascinated the Romans – it became a craze in women’s clothing and there are still hilarious accounts of flustered old Roman men complaining that almost see-through dresses were bringing on the downfall of civilisation. During the reign of Aurelian, the price of silk reached its peak – almost the silk’s weight in gold. This fuelled a lot of interest in the semi-mythical Serica, and Roman scholars were sometimes surprisingly right when describing China. Ptolemy, 1st century author of the enormous work Geographia,  more or less correctly describes the locations of trading cities like Chang’an and Guangzhou from Parthian accounts, and guesses that Serica controls the furthest East coast of the Asian continent. Pliny the Elder, despite being one of the most prolific bullshitters in history, knew that silk was combed out of trees and that the region was all one huge kingdom and even describes a typical Serican as “mild in character” compared to the Romans, setting up 2,000 years of “hot-headed Italian” jokes in the process. More interesting, though, are the assumptions the Romans made about their Eastern trading partners. They assumed, for one, that the Indian Ocean was almost entirely surrounded by land like the Mediterranean, and that Serica controlled that southern coast, pretty much projecting the geography of the Roman Empire onto another more distant model. They also assumed the Seres were tall and blond thanks to their experiences with Caucasian barbarians like the Scythians and Germans. But they never took into account that China might be any larger or more powerful than they were. Rome’s central position in the Mediterranean, the general consensus was that the Mediterranean must be the centre of the world, with the Romans controlling all but the kingdoms to the East and the sea to the West. Serica couldn’t be as large as Rome because there simply wasn’t room on the edge of the world. In fact, China was, for as long as Rome existed, larger and more populous. But they were just as fascinated with Romans as Romans were with them.

That's an...odd looking Roman you've got there, China.

That’s an…odd looking Roman you’ve got there, China.

If Rome’s obsession with was mostly economic, China’s obsession with Rome was very different, and surprisingly spiritual. They called the empire “Da Qin” – Great China – and believed it to be a sort of Tao-style counterbalance at the other end of the world – an empire just as great, powerful and virtuous as that of the Han, if not more so. To put it another way, Rome’s China was an exotic and foreign land whereas China’s Rome was like a better version of China. As such, accounts of Da Qin should be taken with a pinch of salt, because they’re part history and part Imperial propaganda made to inspire China to improve itself, but still they get a lot of things right. Yu Huan, 3rd century author of The Peoples of the West, describes a detailed and a journey from Parthia to the city of Rome with accurate travelling times, and describes the precarious Roman custom of getting rid of crap emperors by force. He describes the “minor kings” who rule the provinces, the empire’s walled capital at the mouth of a river, even the curious western script they write in. He describes the unique Roman goods that are traded in place of silk – pure glass, which could not be made in China, as well as more exotic things like rhinoceros horn, “fire-washed cloth” (early asbestos) and the “poison-proof rat” (mongoose). There is evidence of utopian propaganda getting into the work, of course – Yu Huan describes the roads as devoid of bandits and criminals, emphasises the similarities between the Romans and Chinese above all else, and even reports that the westerners claim to be Chinese people who left to make a better society. He also lists one of Rome’s primary exports as dragons. But it’s still a piece of compelling evidence of China’s knowledge of Rome, alongside countless others like the travelogues of Gan Ying and the drawings of Da Qin-ese leaders in authentic Roman mitres. There are even stories of Roman envoys to China, but that seems to be as far as the legend spreads. For all the accounts of Roman ambassadors arriving in China, there are none of them being sent by Rome.

Holistic History’s all-time favourite historian Fernand Braudel once called Europe “an Asian peninsula”, and it’s easy to see why. For all the arguments that globalisation and international trade are modern ideas, huge swaths of the world’s largest landmass have been thoroughly connected for the most part of human civilisation (Don’t worry, Africa, I haven’t forgotten you, you were totally connected too). It’s a connection that’s affected everyone involved, whether it made your ancestors rich or cultured or inspired them to be a better person or just annoyed the hell out of their stodgy Roman sensibilities. Not only have we always been a little bit globalised, we’ve often been immediately aware of the world around us and totally fascinated by the cultures and history that surrounds us. I, for one, hope that never changes.