Book Review: The Crimes of Elagabalus
by Martijn Icks
Harvard University Press, 2012
The title of Martijn Icks’ new book The Crimes of Elagabalus is meant more as a cultural nod than a true indication of what readers will find inside: this isn’t really a bill of indictment against the infamous teenage emperor who ruled the Roman empire from 218 to 222. Rather, the title quotes from the Gilbert & Sullivan opera “The Pirates of Penzance,” in which the very model of a modern major-general brags that he can “quote in elegiacs on the crimes of Heliogabalus.” It’s entirely possible that the line owes its existence to the need for a rhyme with “parabolous,” but even so, that quick mention very likely introduces the name to thousands of playgoers who’d otherwise not know it.
Especially since nobody reads Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire anymore. If they did, they’d recall that Elagabalus calls forth from Gibbon even more orotund hysteria than usual – as a sink, an abyss, a human avatar of pure personal corruption, the votary of every vice in the calendar. Gibbon gets so carried away with the animus he finds in our sources for Elagabalus’ life (the Historia Augusta and figures like Cassius Dio and Herodian) that he forgets his historian’s duty to wonder why that animus is there in the first place, and so we get a Georgian thunderbolt about a wretched catamite boy filling his brief court with useless favorites, indulging in exotic cruelties (like having dinner guests crushed underneath a cumulative weight of flower petals, which is what’s happening in the great Lawrence Alma-Tadema painting on the cover of Icks’ book), wearing see-through nightgowns, and generally cavorting like a drunk topless intern at Posh at 1 a.m.
The worst part of Gibbon’s performance on the subject is the way he tries to justify it, stepping back from the froth of his indignation to hint at verifiability:
It may seem probable, the vices and follies of Elagabalus have been adorned by fancy, and blackened by prejudice. Yet confining ourselves to the public scenes displayed before the Roman people and attested by grave and contemporary historians, their inexpressible infamy surpasses that of any other age or country. The licence of an eastern monarch is secluded from the eye of curiosity by the inaccessible walls of his seraglio. The sentiments of honour and gallantry have introduced a refinement of pleasure, a regard for decency, and a respect for public opinion, into the modern courts of Europe; but the corrupt and opulent nobles of Rome gratified every vice that could be collected from the mighty conflux of nations and manners. Secure in impunity, careless of censure, they lived without restraint in the patient and humble society of their slaves and parasites. The emperor, in his turn, viewing every rank of his subjects with the same contemptuous indifference, asserted without control his sovereign privilege of lust and luxury.
But as noted, the present can have no idea what ‘public scenes’ really happened except through the imperfect filters of the men who later wrote the histories. There’s still plenty of room for fancy, and black prejudice might still be working 1500 years later, when the world’s most respected historian can talk so witheringly about a young man who “affected to copy the dress and manners of the female sex, preferred the distaff to the sceptre.”
The remarkable story of that boy – told with dry reserve by Icks in the first half of his book – starts with the assassination of the emperor Caracalla by his Praetorian Guard in 217. The leader of that guard, Macrinus, installed himself as emperor and thereby made an enemy of Caracalla’s aunt, Julia Maesa, who wanted to keep the empire in the family. Ordinarily, in the lock-step Roman patriarchy, this resentment would have been cause for no great concern for Macrinus (who presumably already had a full-time food-taster), but in this case there was a problem: Julia Maesa was an extremely formidable person, and she was staggeringly wealthy. From her base in the Syrian city of Emesa, she fomented a rebellion and put her fourteen-year-old grandson Varius at the head of it, calling him Marcus Aurelius Antoninus and letting it be known that he was really the bastard son of the late Caracalla (his posthumous name, Elagabalus, came from the fact that he was a devotee of the local Syrian sun god El-Gabal). The Syrian legion bought it, and soon enough other factions followed suit and Macrinus was dethroned and executed – and a doe-eyed young teenager became emperor at Rome.
If you believe Gibbon – and the worst strain of historians he uses – the next four years were filled with wild homosexual abandon in which one outrage after another was perpetrated upon the long-suffering Roman people. Much to his credit, Icks doesn’t believe any of this stuff on its face. He patiently sifts through what we know and don’t know – what we can know – looking for the things most likely to be true. And he always keeps in mind that after Elagabalus’ death (he too was assassinated by the Praetorian Guard – at the behest of none other than Julia Maesa, who was probably not a safe woman to know) the Roman Senate abolished his memory and vituperated his name. Through all of this material, Icks is the voice of reason and measure – it becomes a very companionable counter-weight:
All in all, the stories about Elagabalus’s excessive favouritism seem little more than negative rhetoric, meant further to discredit an emperor of whom the ancient authors did not think much in the first place. The appointment of some loyal allies into powerful positions seems hardly any justification for the outrageous comments in the literary sources.
Icks handles those literary sources with ease and approachability, always mindful of their limitations:
Cassius Dio was not in Rome during the reign of Elagabalus, and had to base his description of this period on the accounts of others, yet he did not hesitate to condemn the young monarch in the strongest terms. Elagabalus emerges from his work as ‘one by whom nothing was done that was not evil and base’, and his reign as a period in which ‘everything got turned upside down’. It is clear that Dio was not attempting an accurate portrayal of the emperor, but was modelling him on the stereotypical bad ruler of many Greek and Roman works.
All of this is more than sufficient to make Icks’ book an excellent overview, worth adding to the Roman history shelves of anybody’s library. But it’s the second half of The Crimes of Elagabalus that makes the book truly remarkable. In those later chapters, Icks completes his careful, detailed narrative of the boy-emperor’s brief reign and turns to the surprisingly vast literary legacy that reign generated. Play by play, pamphlet by pamphlet, novel by novel, Icks painstakingly traces how centuries of non-historians have characterized Elagabalus. Realistically, it’s a good approach to take for a reign as short and essentially apocryphal as this one – and Icks pulls it off in bravura style, only occasionally hitting a vaguely Gibbonesque note, as when he writes of Lance Horner and Kyle Onstott’s quite good 1966 Elagabalus novel Child of the Sun: “Serious and morally tight are adjectives which certainly do not apply to this novel, which is primarily concerned with Elagabalus’s homosexual love life and may best be classified as an erotic gay novel.” One doubts Icks would classify Claudius the God as “an erotic straight novel” just because it’s got some lewd scenes of heterosexual goings-on.
But such notes are rare, and they won’t distract readers from this soup-to-nuts summation of a controversial figure and his times – this will be the standard account in English for the foreseeable future.