The Amazing Emperor Heliogabalus/Chapter IX
"I would never have written the life of Antoninus Impurissimus," said Lampridius, "were it not that he had predecessors." Even in Latin the task was difficult. In English it would be impossible, at least Lampridius' life. There are subjects that permit of a hint, particularly if it be masked to the teeth, but there are others that no art can drape, not even the free use of Latin substantives. Our task therefore is to deal, rather with their sins of omission, than with the biographers' offences against all canons of good taste in recording the inexpressible. In his work on the Caesars, Suetonius displayed the eccentricities simply, without adding any descriptive placards; therein lay Suetonius' advantage; he was able to describe; nowadays a writer may not, at least not the character we possess of Elagabalus. It is not that he was depraved, for all his house was; it is, that, like many moderns, he made depravity a pursuit, and the aegis of the purple has carried the stories beyond the limits of the imaginable, let alone beyond the limits of the real. Were we to accept unexamined, the testimony of his traducers of the Christian era, we would gather that "at the feet of that painted boy Elephantis and Parrhasius could have sat and learned a lesson," that "apart from that phase of his sovereignty, he was a little Sardanapalus, an Asiatic Mignon, who found himself great." Of course it would have been curious to see him in that wonderful palace, clothed like a Persian queen, insisting that he should be addressed as Imperatrix, and quite living up to the title. It would not only have been interesting, it would have given one an insight into how much Rome saw and how much she could stand.
Lampridius himself drew breath once, to remark that he could not vouch for the truth of the stories he was committing to paper, but he was employed to show the contrast between Constantine's "execrable superstition," as Tacitus describes it, and those of the ancient world, so went on to record things even more impossible. Perhaps his remark was unnecessary. His record has defeated its own end. He has come down to posterity as the biographer whose contradictory collection of scandalous enumerations becomes monotonous rather than amusing as he gets deeper into the mire. For ages the world has secretly revelled over these records, making no sort of effort to get at the truth, perhaps because, in secret, men like to believe that their predecessors were more inhumanly wicked than they are themselves. Not that, in the light of modern science, any physician would consider Elagabalus inhumanly wicked, any more than he would be inclined to apply the term to a man born blind, or with the taint of leprosy in his system; in fact even wickedness itself has been described as "a myth invented by good people to account for the curious attractiveness of those whom they dislike." The greater part of the dislike which men have exhibited towards this Emperor and his faults comes from the fact that he was psycho-sexually abnormal, and was possessed of a genius for the aesthetic and the religious that his historians wished to decry. He was evidently abnormal, even in an age that produced abnormalities like Nero, Tiberius, Commodus, and Hadrian; further, he was frankly abnormal, and today we know better than to be frank about anything.
Since the world began, no one has been wholly wicked, no one wholly good. The truth about Elagabalus must lie between the two extremes, admitting, however, a congenital twist towards the evil tendencies of his age. He had habits which are regarded by scientists less as vices than as perversions, but which, at the time, were accepted as a matter of course. Men were then regarded as virtuous when they were brave, when they were honest, when they were just; and this boy did, despite his hereditary taint, show more than flashes of these virtues. The idea of using the expression "virtuous" in its later sense, occurred, if at all, in jest merely, as a synonym for a eunuch. It was the matron and the vestal who were supposed to be virtuous, and their virtue was often supposititious.
The ceremonies connected with the Phallus, and those observed in the rituals of the city were of a nature that only the infirm could withstand. Indeed, the symbol of human life was then omnipresent. Iamblichus, the philosopher, has much to say on the subject; so have Arnobius and Lactantius. If Juvenal, Martial, and Petronius are more reticent, it is because they are not Fathers of the Church nor yet antiquarians. The symbol was on the coins, over the bakers' ovens; as a preservative against envy it hung from the necks of children; the vestals worshipped it; at weddings it was used in a manner which need not be described. It was a religious emblem, and as such formed the chief symbol in the training of the boy who was now ruler of the world. By birth a Syrian, by profession High Priest of the Sun, whose devotees worshipped the Phallus as his symbol, was it likely that he, the chief exponent, should remain cold, should take no interest in what was an all-absorbing topic? Besides which, the family was corrupted by the presence of a living fire in their veins, engendered by the perpetual heat of the sun. Consider the history of his relations, and no one will wonder that he was by nature voluptuous. But it was not his voluptuousness that the world objected to; it was the abnormal condition of his mind; because in the body of the man resided the soul with all the natural passions of a woman. He was what the world knew as a Psycho-sexual Hermaphrodite.
In form he was attractive and exceedingly graceful; his hair, which was very fair, glistened like gold in the sun; he was slender and possessed of glorious blue eyes, which in turn were endowed with the power of attracting all beholders to his worship; and he knew his power over men; he had first realised it when the legionaries flocked to the temple at Emesa attracted by the reports of this Prince Charming. He was then just at the age of incipient manhood, and his woman's instinct taught him, as no outside force could have done, that virility and strength were the finest things in the world; his religion, surroundings, and education told him nothing about the restraint of, what was to him, a perfectly natural, perhaps even a hereditary passion, the exercise of which so endeared him to the soldiers that they forthwith placed him upon the throne of the world. As Emperor he had every desire, and was under no compulsion to abstain from gratifying the craving to study and exaggerate that swift, vivid, violent age, when what Mill in his Essay on Liberty desired was enjoyed by the Augustitudes, "There was no check on the growth of personality, no grinding down of men to meet the average." Not that anyone has ever accused Elagabalus of being average. In no particular can he be considered mediocre. Perhaps his life and habits were not those to which the virile Roman world was addicted, despite the fact that Hadrian had deified, in Antinous, not a lad, but a lust, whose worship, a half-century later, Tertullian noted was still popular; since which time Christian diatribes of all kinds have been levelled against the pagans of the decadence, merely because their atriums dropped, not blood, but metaphysics.
Were it permitted to examine Elagabalus' extravagances in print, we should at once realise that they are those common (in a greater or less degree) to all animals at the age of puberty, where instinct has not associated the developing powers with any one special person or thing, but that they are, in this instance, exaggerated by the traits of his heredity and surroundings. What character should we expect to-day from a child of nature if he were free with an unbounded liberty, and rich beyond the efforts of imagination, to say nothing of the possession of a congenitally perverted instinct? The more one sifts the records, the clearer it appears that Elagabalus' actions are those of an incredibly generous person, instinctively trusting, open-hearted and affectionate, a mighty contrast, both in his pleasures and his punishments, to the persons who preceded him, and to his successors, who mistook new superstitions for progress in the development of the world. The example he set in tolerance of opinions not his own, and his reluctance to punish those who opposed him, must have led men to expect great things from his manhood. Alone of all the Emperors he stands out with the proud boast that no murder for political or avaricious purposes can be laid to his charge. There were a few executions, amongst the adherents of Macrinus, rendered necessary by attempts to take the crown from the new Emperor; but despite the fact of serious provocation, his amnesty to the Senate and to Rome, for their participation in the usurpation of Macrinus and his son, was scrupulously kept. In religious matters—his special domain—no one can say that he was apathetic, and yet there is no instance of persecution recorded, even by Fathers of the Church. His whole life was devoted to the introduction of a fantastic eastern monotheism, designed to extinguish the polytheistic atheism which permeated Roman society. Undoubtedly opposition and bitterness would have been raised if the Emperor had not shown a moderation foreign to his years, unless he had exercised a restraining influence over a mob which was still thirsting for the blood of the Judaisers, as later records demonstrate. In one particular, however, we are told that Elagabalus was fierce, namely, in the contradiction of his pleasures, none of which can in fairness be said to have affected the outside world. He might have been led; certainly he could not be driven; what Antonine could? His tutor Gannys found this out too late, and suffered for his mistake.
With a singular lack of consistency, Lampridius ascribes all Elagabalus' moderation to his grandmother Maesa, all his excesses to his own fault, whereas psychologists can demonstrate from a mass of similar cases that both his virtues and excesses are those usually exhibited by one of his temperament, and at any rate his relations were responsible for his lack of early training and non-association with sane, healthy-minded persons.
Undoubtedly Maesa's influence, in the executive government, was an aggravating factor; but considering the state of autonomy which the machine had then reached, and the large influence exerted by favourites, it cannot be said that she was supreme; indeed, on more than one occasion, we see the boy of fourteen years opposing her influence most strenuously, especially after she had hoodwinked him into appointing Alexianus as his coadjutor in the Empire. It was pitiable, then, to see the old lady's efforts to retain her position; this, however, she only managed to do by persuading the troops to mutiny and slay her grandson. There is not much to be said for either party, but Elagabalus obviously found relations a tedious pack of people, and their influence, like drugs, best taken in small quantities.
Quite a cursory study of authorities on psychology, such as Krafft-Ebing, Bloch, Forel, Moll, etc., will show us that characters like Elagabalus have occasionally appeared, and are still known in history. They are almost curiosities of nature, and are rarely if ever responsible for their own instincts, neither are they cruel nor evil by nature.
To-day we are inclined to regard the romantic friendships exhibited in the stories of David and Jonathan, Herakles and Hylas, Apollo and Hyacinth, to mention no others, as the outcome of somewhat similar natures, and we decry some of the noblest patriots, tyrannicides, lawgivers, and heroes, in the early ages of Greece, because they regarded the bond of male friendship as higher and nobler than what they called the sensual love for women, or because they received friends and comrades with peculiar honour on account of their staunchness in friendship. Nevertheless, psychologists have noted that this tendency towards the more elevated forms of homo-sexual feeling is still to be found, more or less developed, amongst religious leaders and other persons with strong ethical instincts. It is only therefore when this tendency occurs in slightly abnormal minds that we excite our passions against men whom our imagination alone has branded as debased criminals, men for whom the only fitting reward is an application of the stake and faggot, without further inquiry.
To the vulgar-minded, all persons who present deformities, whether physical or mental, are subjects of derision and hatred; to those who realise something of the disabilities under which these unfortunates are labouring, they are the objects of either active or passive sympathy,—in the abstract, of course; should the insane, the leprous, or even the man of genius get in our way we, as normal persons, feel ourselves justified in ridding the world of its nuisance. It is thus that the instinct of fear, rather than that of justice, spurs us on to use the collective strength of the average, to exaggerate the abnormalities of the few; but it is not a high or noble instinct, this fear which has led men for many centuries through a mire of cruelty, superstition, and deceit; and it is under this lack of justice that the memory of Elagabalus has long suffered. No credit has been given him for the quality of mercy which he displayed, though an absurd charge of cruelty has been preferred, on the ground that he occasionally took luncheon in the circus during the progress of the games; his biographer gratuitously assuming that it was only done when there were criminals to be executed. Another absurd charge of cruelty has been raised on account of Antonine's passion for flowers, of which, says Lampridius, such masses fell from panels in the ceiling that many were smothered; an obvious exaggeration, unless the guests were paralytics or suicidal lunatics, and, as even the author's account mentions no compulsion put on these gentlemen thus to die, he would seem to invite a verdict of death by misadventure, rather than by design, however aesthetic.
There was nothing sinister about Elagabalus' feasts, nothing after the style of Domitian's little supper parties, where all was melanic, walls, ceilings, linen, slaves; parties to which every one worth knowing was ultimately bidden, and, as usual in state functions, every one that was bidden came, only to find a broken column inscribed with a too familiar name behind his allotted couch, and Domitian talking very wittily about the proscriptions and headsmen he had arranged for each.
Caligula and Vitellius had been famous as hosts, but the feasts that Elagabalus gave outranked theirs for sheer splendour. His guests certainly suffered from his passion for teasing, and to dine with the Emperor in such a mood was no sybaritic enjoyment. He might serve you with wax game and sweets of crystal, the counterparts of what he was eating himself, and expect evident signs of enjoyment as you endeavoured to masticate the representation; he would seat you on air cushions, and have them deflated surreptitiously, thoroughly enjoying your discomfort; but when that was over you would be served with camels' heels, platters of nightingales' tongues, ostriches' brains (six hundred at a time), prepared with that garum sauce which the Sybarites invented, and of which the secret is lost. Therewith were peas and grains of gold, beans and amber, quail powdered with pearl dust, lentils and rubies, spiders in jelly, fig-peckers served in pastry. The guests that wine overcame were carried to bedrooms; when they awoke, there, staring at them, were tigers and leopards — tame, of course, but some of the guests were stupid enough not to know it, and died of fright. It might not be pleasant to be promised adorable sirens, and to find oneself shut up for the night with an elderly Ethiopian, but it was not essentially cruel or debased, at least not from the humorist point of view, as was proved by the laughter of the Emperor at the sight of your disgusted face when he let you out in the morning. Unless you were fond of the water, it could not have been a pleasant experience to take the part of a water Ixion — tied to a revolving wheel — for the Emperor's lust of the eye; but if you submitted to these things, you were sure of a reward more liberal than any you had expected. Lampridius reports that no guests left the Emperor's presence with empty hands. After dinner he would give you the gold and silver plate from which you had eaten, or cause you to draw lots for prizes which varied from a dead dog to the half of his daily revenue. Elagabalus saw no virtue in sending men away in the style of Domitian with their heads under their arms, — it was too conventionally the pose of the Christian martyr.
The description applied to Caesar's sexual condition can with equal justice be applied to this youth of seventeen. He was a woman for all men, and a man for all women, at least if one can judge by the number of wives he married during his short reign of less than four years. The number was six, according to Dion Cassius. Three of them were well-known women, one a Vestal, by whom he designed to produce a demi-god. The others are only referred to, their names are quite unknown. By none of them, however, had he any issue, which perhaps is as well, since he frequently remarked that should he have children, he would bring them up to his way of living, in his outlook on life, and the world could scarcely have stood a successor of his abnormal temperament. How far his marriages were true matrimony we do not know, but the fact of his going through with the ceremony presupposes that the statements of Lampridius and Zonaras to the effect that he was initiated a priest of Cybele (in the full sense) are exaggerations, and also that the operation which would have made him a woman to outward appearance as well as in sentiment and affections, never took place; indeed, this is impossible on both physiological and psychological grounds.
Despite these marriages, the one romance of this boy's life was with the fair-haired chariot-driver Hierocles. His identity is somewhat involved, though Dion Cassius states that he was a Carian slave, by profession a chariot-driver. This lad found his fortune by a mere accident. One day he was thrown from his chariot, right against the imperial pulvinar, and lost his helmet. Elagabalus was there and at once noted the perfect profile and curly hair of the athlete. He had him transferred to the palace, where on account of a similarity of taste the intimacy soon ripened into love, and that again, according to Xiphilinus, into a contract of marriage.
Hierocles must have been the best, and certainly was the most powerful, of that army of sycophants and courtesans which had always thronged the Roman Court. We have no complaints against his exercise of authority, though Lampridius says that his power exceeded that of the Emperor himself. His banishment was demanded, with that of others, in the first mutiny, but he was immediately allowed to return, despite the fact that Elagabalus meditated conferring the imperial title upon him. He was a good son, and in his prosperity was in no way ashamed of his mother. He openly purchased her from her owners, and sent a company of the Praetorian Guard to bring her to Rome, there placing her amongst the women whose husbands had been Consuls. He appears to have been proud not only of his position, but also of the Emperor's love for him, as the story of the Smyrnian Zoticus related by Xiphilinus and Zonaras well illustrates. They relate how he gave the youth a drug which made him useless to the Emperor during the first night, and thus procured his expulsion from the palace, though probably the story of Zoticus' disgrace, on account of his treachery and venality (Lampridius' version) contains as much truth as any other. Certainly Hierocles had no just cause for fear; Elagabalus' affection was too feminine, too deep-rooted, to do more than tease the man from whose hands, like many another woman in history, he was more than willing to take ill-usage and stripes, if only they were signs of jealousy or proofs of affection.
Of course there were others. The Elagabalus of whom Lampridius treats was a second Messalina in the variety of his tastes, and in the frequency of his visits to the various lupanars of the city, and like this Empress he measured his attractiveness by the amount of gold he could carry home after such expeditions. He cultivated the class of person who could discourse on the spintries with which Tiberius had refreshed his jaded mind and enfeebled frame, and made much of the man who could invent new sauces or other species of Sybaritic enjoyment. All such he treated with consideration, teased them and excited them, it is true, but pampered and fed them (sometimes, exclusively on their own inventions, till they could produce something more palatable), and loaded them with gifts, honours, offices, dignities, until they learnt that the condition of perfection is idleness, the aim of perfection is youth. We can well imagine the fury of the legitimate office seekers when they saw these children of pleasure preferred before them.
In a discussion on his psychology mention must be made of Elagabalus' love of colour. To the Roman, white in its cleanliness and simplicity was the acme of an aesthetic taste, though the profusion of purple borderings, the mingling of scarlet and gold, showed his kinship with the children of the south. Syria, and the East generally, loved that mass of brilliancy which relieves the aridity of the land; Elagabalus, posing as the aesthete of his time, annoyed the Roman world by his love of purple and shaded silk garments, by his passion for green, in all its known shades, and for feasts in which everything was in the deep azure of a cloudless sky. To-day we still cultivate colour schemes without much hostile comment, as it takes the philosopher to discover their puerility, the prurient-minded their wickedness and degeneracy.
We are told that the blatant discussions of his amusements made right-minded men blush, causing ultimate nausea for his tastes and opinions. But it could only have been the few he had the opportunity of disgusting; the majority had heard the same before and showed no desire to be shocked. Other Emperors had been as outspoken, be it said to their reprobation as well as to his, but other Emperors had not been so good-hearted, so filled with the charity that thinketh no wrong. When they had scented opposition they had removed the cause forthwith; Elagabalus let it grow and strengthen till it swallowed him up.
It may be that, as Lampridius says, his effeminacy disgusted the virile Roman world. It was a vice as reprehensible then as now. The genius of the Greek and Roman friendships was all against the weak softness of the Semitic races. Greek love had been regulated "to strengthen hardihood, to breed a contempt for death, to overcome the sweet desire for life, to humanise cruelty, to which powers almost as much veneration is due as to the cult of the Immortal Gods," says Valerius Maximus, in his treatise De amicitiae vinculo. It would have been small wonder if the whole mass of healthy-minded individuals had turned from Lampridius' picture of this little painted queen of seventeen years, who never showed in himself any traits of manliness, except when he was on the seat of judgment. If he had been portrayed as wholly woman, or wholly man, we could have understood him, but for this strange admixture even the physicians are at a loss to account, almost to understand. He had his good qualities and had them in plenty, but overshadowing them all, like a terrible blight, there was this organic affliction of the senses, passions, and general outlook. Unfortunately, this blight of femininity still exists in the world to a certain extent, especially amongst religious persons. Gulick holds that the reason why only 7 per cent of young men attend the Christian churches is because the qualities demanded are feminine not virile, such as passive love, passive suffering, rest, prayer, trust; whereas Confucianism and Mahommedanism attract men because the demand is for virile qualities, and the place for women is small. Such faiths make even more than individual demands on the virtues of courage, endurance, self-control, bravery, loyalty, and enthusiasm. Gulick says also, that the able-bodied boy who lacks the courage to fight is generally a milksop, or a sneak, without any high sense of honour.
In this epitome of the qualities demanded of men we see the true grounds on which the world has instinctively condemned Elagabalus, though probably without quite knowing why they did so. It is because they have been told that he possessed the virtues, along with the mind, of the woman, and a voluptuous woman at that, and had nothing of what the world expects to find in the male animal. His reign was short, so he left no traces of his mind on the Empire, and what little he did effect was reversed by his successor. His reign of prodigal extravagance caused not one single new impost; his government of the city and provinces alike was one of peace and harmony. That infamous system of informers under which the aristocracy and plutocracy of Rome had suffered so direly up to the death of Caracalla was never re-established by Elagabalus; despite the fact that his rule had been subverted, on more than one occasion, by the existing aristocrats. The people was sovereign, and it was important that that sovereign should be amused, flattered, and fed. All was done that had been done before by the demi-gods, and all was done with an exaggeration unparalleled. His games in the circus were such that even Lampridius admits the people considered him a worthy Emperor, because he was endowed with a sense of the grandeur of the imperial position, and expressed it by his marvellous prodigalities. They made him what he was, and has ever remained in history, the Emperor of extravagance. In him the glow of the purple reached its apogee. Rome had been watching a crescendo that had mounted with the ages. Its culmination was in this hermaphrodite. But the tension had been too great, even for the solidarity of Imperial Rome; it was as though the mainspring had snapped, and the age of anarchy, both military and religious, did the rest: undermining the State, till the Emperors, whose sceptre had lashed both gods and sky, became little better than a procession of bandits, coloured and ornate it is true, but utterly lacking in that strength and virility which is the essential of real government throughout the world.
Thus did Rome make way for Attila, the scourge whom God sent for the final extinction of art and philosophy, and incidentally for the refurbishing of the world under its mediaeval guise.