The Amazing Emperor Heliogabalus/Chapter V
To write the history of the years from 219 to 221 (as we have it in the Scriptores) is a task which can only be undertaken adequately in a language not understanded of the people. Not that these years differed materially from those which had gone before, or those that followed. " Every altar in Old Rome had its Clodius " — so Juvenal has told us — "and even in Clodius' absence there were always those breaths of sapphic song that blew through Mitylene. Rome was certainly old, but Rome was not good — not, at least, in the sense in which we use the word to-day. Of this no one who has even sauntered through the catacombs of the classics preserves so much as a lingering doubt. This is because the Roman world was beautiful, ornate, unutilitarian ; a world into which trams, advertisements, and telegraph poles had not yet come ; a world that still had illusions, myths, and mysteries, one in which religion and poetry went hand in hand, a world without newspapers, hypocrisy, and cant," a world into which this boy Emperor, his mind attuned to the whole surroundings, entered proudly during either June or July in the year of grace 219.
The date of the imperial family's departure from Nicomedia is uncertain, on the information at present available ; and we can only approximate to the date of their arrival in the city by means of a comparison between the statement of Eutropius that he reigned two years and eight months there, and the statement of Dion that he reigned in all three years nine months and four days, neither of which is definitely certain, as they do not agree with other authorities. If the date, if even the month, of Antonine's death were capable of definite interpretation, the date of his arrival would be clear. As it is, most authorities have placed his entry into the city within the first fortnight of July; Wirth suggests, on the foregoing data, 11th July, to be precise. There are, however, various circumstances which incline us to an earlier period, most probably during the month of June.
It seems incredible that, unless the illness already alluded to was of a most serious nature, the Emperor, with Macrinus' failure before his eyes, should have stayed away from Rome for more than a year. It will be remembered that the Emperor Caracalla had been absent for some years before his death, warring against the Parthians ; that Macrinus had spent the whole of his fourteen months' precarious tenure ot the imperial power in or about Antioch the voluptuous ; and that the restored house of Antonine had ruled with undisputed sway from 8th June 218. Rome had, therefore, been for about five years without her Court and her God, the personification of her greatness. All that time Rome had clamoured and grown weary, waiting for her essential life to vivify her magnificence. That Antonine was wanted and wildly popular there can be no doubt, both from the statements of Lampridius and those of Eutropius, which record the spontaneity with which both Senate and people condemned the usurping house, and rejoiced at the restoration, as also from the record of the warmth with which Antonine was welcomed on his arrival. In fact, all men seem to have been pleased; the army with their Antonine; the Senate with their Aurelius; the people with their Augustus, or their Nero, as the case might be. Save for her strength, Rome had nothing of her own. Her religion, literature, art, philosophy, luxury, and corruption were all from abroad. Greece gave her artists; in Africa, Gaul, and Spain were her agriculturists; in Asia her artisans. Rome consumed, she did not produce; except for herself and her greatness, she was sterile. She was bound to desire the fount of her greatness, the embodiment of her power in her midst.
This is, of course, supposition of a merely circumstantial kind, but there is more than supposition that the family arrived earlier than July. There is the record of the Emperor's first marriage, which must have taken place early in that month. This is commemorated by Alexandrian coins dated LB, i.e. prior to 28th August 219. The marriage took place in Rome, and the news of its accomplishment would take at least three or four weeks to reach Egypt, after which new coin dies would have to be cut, and the money, ordinary debased coins in common usage, issued. The latest possible date, therefore, at which the marriage could have taken place, to find coins in circulation recording the event, before 28th August, was the second week in July. This leaves neither time to the Emperor for the choice of his consort after his arrival — which would, after all, have been only a natural wish on his part — nor, which is more important, time to make the necessary preparations for what Herodian tells us were the most stupendous celebrations that Rome the magnificent had yet witnessed. Wirth's date is just possible, especially if Maesa had chosen the wife and had made the preparations beforehand ; otherwise, knowing Maesa's propensity for management, we must suppose an earlier date of arrival, especially as no two of the biographers agree as to the length of the reign, which is variously stated as having lasted from six years (Herodian) to thirty months (Victor).
Unfortunately, the one known inscription is mutilated. It is set up to the Sun in honour of the return of somebody and Totius Domus Divinae. It was found in 1885 under the Via Tasso on a pedestal, and bears only the date of its erection, 29th September 219, not the date of the return of the house. It seems therefore safest, in order to allow time before 21st July for the marriage and festivities, to conjecture a start made either late in April or early in May, which, after a journey of 1600 miles, would bring the family to Rome some time in the early part of June. It is, of course, conjectural, but allows time for the known events.
Once in Rome, we hear little good of the Emperor's life, conduct, administration, or abilities. Unfortunately, we have to deal in the main with Constantine's friend, Aelius Lampridius, a man whose biography is a cheap glorification of Alexander, combined with ignorant and perpetual abuse of Antonine's religion and psychology. All his statements in the way of fact could be compressed into half a page of any ordinary book of reference, and even these he manages to arrange so badly, or to draw from such conflicting sources, that they comprise simply a mass of futile contradictions.
The entry into the city is the record of a scandal which only Herodian perpetuates. This writer, as we have remarked, is nowhere famed for his accuracy; he tells us that the cortege was a rabble of women, eunuchs, and priests of the Sun who surrounded the Emperor. The boy was dressed in the silken robes worn by the priests of Syria. On his head was a jewelled tiara of Persian design, whilst his body was laden with rings, necklaces of pearls, bracelets, and other signs of vulgar ostentation; his cheeks were painted, his eyebrows darkened; in fact he was the very picture of an Egyptian or Assyrian courtesan. To finish with, we have a bit of morality, which tells us how he not only spoilt his real beauty by such extravagances, but made himself ridiculous in the eyes of gods and men by these borrowed plumes.
This is all very circumstantial, obviously the work of an eye-witness, but it is not supported by the evidence of any coin struck to commemorate the event. The Adventus Augusti shows the Emperor riding into the city laurelled and habited in military accoutrements. Nor is the scandal mentioned by either Lampridius or Dion, which means that, at least as far as Lampridius goes, his source, Marius Maximus, the then City Praefect, who would certainly be an eye-witness, had not noticed anything unusual. This, one imagines, he would have been only too anxious to do, since he appears to have vacated this office immediately afterwards in favour of the Emperor's friend Eutychianus, which circumstance was not likely to be specially pleasing to Marius, and ought to have encouraged him to keep his eyes open for indecencies. Dion, too, as we have said, is silent, and he has lost no other chance of recording Antonine's frailties. Surely, then, it is at least allowable to relegate this record of inexcusable folly to the limbo of other picturesque lies, and proceed to sift the similar accumulation which Lampridius has collected for our amusement.
Undoubtedly, the first act was to make an alliance with the daughter of the well-known jurist, Julius Paulus, and to celebrate the event with a colossal magnificence. All the authors, with the exception of Lampridius, who ignores the marriage entirely, furnish picturesque details. They describe the games, in which only one elephant and, to balance him, fifty-one tigers were killed (the numbers are peculiar, but incapable of verification) ; the general distribution of wheat, the unusual magnificence of the whole scene, and the congiary in which even the wives of Senators took part. The sums of money given are most noticeable ; every one in Rome received 150 drachmae per head, except the soldiers, who only got 100, or very slightly more — a diminution of the promised privileges formerly granted by Caracalla, which could scarcely have been pleasing to the Lords of Rome, especially if, as Lampridius says, the Emperor had already begun to lose his popularity with the army. It almost presupposes a change of idea in the body politic, and argues that the new government was bent on the same reforms which had ruined Macrinus, a circumstance which would not turn out advantageously for all concerned. Certainly it was neither wise nor conducive to peace thus to reduce the donative on such an occasion ; but of this more must be said later.
Directly after the festivities in honour of the arrival, and, as has been suggested, of the marriage as well, because we can only trace one congiary and one set of rejoicings during this year — which circumstance rather leads one to suppose that the extraordinary generosity cited did duty for the two occasions — the Emperor set to work to provide a shelter for his God. In point of fact, he provided two. The first and most magnificent, was on the Palatine ; the other, almost as vast and beautiful, was a sort of summer resting-place in the suburbs. Wissowa considers that this second was in the eastern part of the city, near the site of Sta. Croce, near also to the Porta Praenestina, and that it was built on a tract of land known as " Ad Spem Veterem " ; in other words, in the garden belonging to Varius Marcellus, the Empress Soaemias' late husband, and, therefore, imperial property.
Concerning the position of the first temple, we have more certain evidence. Baumeister has identified certain ruins on the Palatine as the Eliogabalium, and though his conclusions are not generally accepted, all the Greek authors agree as to the Palatine being the centre of the cult. Victor tells us that the God was established in " Palatii penetralibus," and Sextus Rufus corroborates Lampridius' statement that it was on the site of a temple of Orcus (Pluto) on the Circus Maximus side of the Palatine Hill.
Some idea of its general magnificence may be gathered from a coin struck in the year 222, which is described by Studniczka. " The temple," he says, " rises to a great height in a glorious symmetry of columns, and is partly covered by the figure of the Emperor and his attendant. Below the group appears the entrance to the temple courtyard, which is crowned with statues." On either side of the entrance are wing -halls, singularly reminiscent of the Bramante porticoes at St. Peter's, eagles taking the place of statues as acroteria.
We must not suppose, despite Xiphilinus' statement, that the cult of this Sun God was first heard of in Rome at this period. All the imperial money coined at Emesa had borne his temple, stone, and eagle on the obverse for many years past, besides which the worship of Mithra, the Persian Sun God, is considered by Cumont to have been the most popular religion in Rome at this time. Septimius Severus had built a temple on the Palatine in his honour, doubtless with the help and counsel of the family of Elagabal worshippers, and there seem to have been many others in the city ; a fact which would tend to pave the way for Antonine's scheme. This however could not develop itself until the temple was completed, which from the evidence that can be gathered from coins and inscriptions does not seem to have been an accomplished fact until the late autumn of the next year, 220.
No sooner was the temple finished than the scheme for the unifying of churches, which the Emperor had himself conceived, and intended to promote with the full strength of imperial command, was put into operation. As we have said, Antonine had no more idea of making Elagabal a mere rival to the Roman Deities than Constantine had of putting Christ into that unenviable position. He intended that the Lord should swallow up all other Deities, should make captive all the gods of old Rome. To do this it was necessary, first, to impress the world with the splendour, the beauty, the power, and the magnificence of that being who had so miraculously delivered the family of Bassianus from Phoenician obscurity, and brought them into the fierce light of the Roman noonday; secondly, he had to make some alliance with the head and centre of the old Roman worship of Vesta, the one religion which symbolised Rome, its perpetuity, and its undying fame ; thirdly, he had to acquire all the objects of sacred devotion, and transfer them to Elagabal's temple, as well to attract worshippers as to stimulate devotion.
For the accomplishment of the first of these objects he ordained the most magnificent worship that had as yet been devised. He, as High Priest, used to descend daily from the palace in order to sacrifice vast quantities of oxen and sheep upon innumerable altars laden with spices and odours. The libations were more ample and more costly than any that had yet been heard of. Herodian further tells us how the rare and costly wines mingling with the blood of the victims made great streams in every direction ; but even this waste was insufficient : with Davidic persistency the Emperor danced, encircling the altars, followed by the Syrians, men and women, who formed his court, while the display and waste of energy was accompanied by the clashing of cymbals and other instruments of music which had been brought from the God's home in the East. At these orgies the Senate sat in a great semicircle, and were, fortunately, mere spectators of the show. It was the generals of armies, the governors of provinces, and court officials of all sorts who were less fortunate. These worthies Antonine habited in a replica of his own trailing garments, and ordered to perform menial offices about the altars of God, a proceeding which caused them to gnash with their teeth and run about the city declaring very plainly (to one another, of course) that they infinitely preferred the tents of ungodliness to all and sundry offices of divine religion, especially in its Semitic forms. From the very outset Elagabal was unpopular with the upper classes. They had cause to dislike this insensate show. With the populace it was probably different, at least for a time. One can imagine their joy at beholding, tier upon tier, the Conscript Fathers assembled each morning as most unwilling spectators of a show which they abominated.
As we have already pointed out, other Eastern cults were making considerable headway in Rome amongst all classes, and had attracted not a few of that august body. We have mentioned the worship of the Sun God Mithra, which, with other similar religions, had constantly increased in importance since the year 204 B.C, the date of its introduction into the city.
Now the Eastern cults were popular because they supplied a felt want, namely, a personal spiritual religion, whereas the religion of Rome, though fine, virile and strong, was purely political. The God of Rome was Rome, and concerned itself solely with patriotism. With the individual, with his happiness or aspirations, it concerned itself not at all. It was the prosperity of the Empire, its peace and immortality, for which sacrifices were made and libations offered. The antique virtues, courage in war, moderation in peace, and honour at all times, were civic, not personal. It was the state that had a soul, not the individual. Man was ephemeral, it was the nation that endured. Naturally, this was unsatisfying to the uneducated ; their Rome was the abridgment of every superstition, their Pantheon an abattoir of the Gods who presided over death and whose worship was gore.
Added to this had come the worship of Isis, the secrets of Mithra, of which the chief note was one of mysticism. There was something terrifying and yet alluring about the abluent functions, the initiations, the secrets that it was death to divulge. Now, the rites that Antonine introduced were entirely blatant, Semitic, Syrian. They contained, as far as we can judge, nothing specially mysterious, either in the way of initiation or progression, little which could even attract the curiosity of the devout. All that Elagabal could appeal to was the public curiosity ; his worship was, in fact, designed to appeal to such and nothing more, at the outset ; even with such an end in view it might have become popular had it not been that Antonine made this all-embracing deity too easy of access, in consequence of which he became too cheap. The Emperor seems to have recognised this early, and to have evolved a scheme for uniting the already popular mysteries of all other Gods with his own ; to which resolve we may attribute the stories of his initiation into the priesthood of Cybele and the rest ; he thought that it would enhance his God's attractiveness and assure his popularity in the eyes of the mob. As far as we can judge from the evidence of coins and medals, there was little or no parade of Antonine's religious ideals or his comprehensive cult until the later part of the year 220, until, in fact, the temple was ready and the necessary adjuncts to hand. With its opening came the transference thither of the most venerable objects of Roman superstition : all the sacred stones, even the Palladium from the temple of Minerva, the sacred fire which was the symbol of Rome's existence, even the shields which had fallen from heaven, and to which the oracles had attached the very destinies of the city itself But of this more in its proper place.
Certainly, for all his attempts, Elagabal did not become a popular divinity. Men began to fear his propensity for swallowing other cults. His rapacity in absorbing the deities of centuries made the superstitious uneasy for the continued existence of Gods whom, they believed vaguely, they might some day need, and who would then have lost their power and authority. But there was yet another reason for Elagabal's unpopularity, namely, the Emperor's attempt to unite the Hebraic and Christian mysteries with those of his own God.
Neither Christian nor Hebrew was ever popular in old Rome. Their characters, their rites, and their machinations were sincerely disapproved of both by the rulers and the governed ; they were generally known as robbers, thieves, liars, lawbreakers, cannibals even, men who were lacking in every virtue that Rome held dear ; men who set up their own specimen of a creed to the exclusion of all others, the which was, generally speaking, subversive of government, law and order. They were men entirely displeasing to the high Gods, and therefore to be spared only when the master of Rome refused consent to kill.
Now, Antonine clearly protected these atheistic vagabonds, citizens of no state, troublers of every nation; nay more, he attempted to tolerate their blasphemies by uniting them with his own religion. As we have said, Rome was probably familiar with Elagabal through the Syrian house and Emesan coins, but with the other Judean religion they had not a few disagreements, and had certainly no wish to amalgamate it with the venerated cults of the city, as Antonine seemed bent on doing. It was certainly a bad day for the house of Severus when the Emperor decided to mix himself up with the hated Judaism.
We must here leave for a moment the history of Antonine's religious changes and aspirations to recount the secular work accomplished between the summer of the year 219 and the autumn or winter of the year 220, it may be even up to the early weeks of the year 221, when the Emperor made that vital mistake in policy which threw him into the hands of his family, to his undoing.
Amongst the "facts" recorded by Lampridius concerning this period, we have two mutually exclusive statements concerning the admission of the Emperor's mother and grandmother to the Senate, and their governmental position in the State. The first (in Sec. 4) states that at the very first meeting of that august assembly Antonine sent for his mother; that on her arrival he called her to take a place alongside the Consuls; and that with them she signed decrees, Senatus Consulta, and other documents, an enormity which no other woman had ever perpetrated, and which was certainly never heard of again. He finishes with the remark that she obtained the title of Clarissima, the only woman who has ever had this honour conferred upon her — altogether a most circumstantial account.
A few sections farther on (Sec. 12) he recounts how Antonine always took his grandmother Varia with him whenever he went to the camp or to the Senate, in order to give him the authority and dignity which he lacked, adding, that before her no woman had been admitted into the Senate either to give her opinion or append her signature. It is significant, by the way, that Varia never was and never could have been Maesa's name — so much for Lampridius' ignorance of the family history.
Now, either Antonine took one, both, or neither; Lampridius says both — each to the exclusion of the other, as each was first, each the only woman, but Soaemias was alone Clarissima. Cannot one see the jealous wrath of the grandmother, the real politician, at the promotion of her absolutely incapable daughter over her head by means of that coveted title (a title, by the way, which would have bored Soaemias' temperament inexpressibly), while she was relegated to an inferior position?
The only conclusion to be drawn is that which is recorded by all the inscriptions, namely, that Maesa was the predominant factor, since her name always occurs first where she and Soaemias are mentioned together. Maesa, in all probability, did slip into the Senate; she would have appreciated the dignity of the position enormously, and the fact would give a basis to some story or other that had got about. Antonine would certainly have had no objection; the Senate was no longer the government properly so called; Maesa could do no harm there, and it would be a sop to her for the small power she was exercising in the actual development of events.
Soaemias, we can quite believe, was president of the assembly on the Quirinal which Lampridius sneers at as a foundation of Antonine's, and yet tells us had existed before his time. It was called the Senaculum or Conventus Matronarum. Friedlander says that it was an ancient and honourable assembly as early as the year 394 B.C., when its members voted their jewels to help raise the tithe in connection with the spoils of Veii. Seneca refers to it in his treatise De matrimoniis as a regular assembly. Again, in the year 209 B.C., the matrons met, in consequence of omens, to decide on expiation; even in imperial times Suetonius says that the Assembly met to reprove Agrippina for her vagaries; and Hieronymus counts amongst the distractions of Roman life the daily attendance at the Matronarum Senatus. What, therefore, this petulant and carping critic can find to grumble about in this permanent assembly meeting to carry out the provisions of the Lex Appia, one simply cannot imagine, unless it be that, having been prejudiced in early youth, he declined to listen to any arguments for the furthering of either women's rights or duties in the State. At any rate, it is scarcely fair to stigmatise as an immoral and reprehensible act, the Emperor's grant to this Senate of women of the power to make necessary edicts on points which are now very ably supervised by the Lord Chamberlain's department. The points discussed were those relating to the length of a train or the Court uniform of a guardsman; the precedence due to rank; who must wait for another's salutation; to whom a carriage; to whom a saddle-horse; to whom a public conveyance; to whom a mere donkey-cart was a fitting means of progression; who might use mules; or for whom oxen were considered sufficiently rapid; for whom the saddle might be inlaid with ivory; for whom with bone; for whom with silver; or even when pointing out what persons might fittingly wear gold and jewelled buckles on their shoes without the imputation of plutocratic ostentation.
To-day, despite the fact that we have progressed by eighteen centuries, it is generally believed in governmental circles that such matters are possibly best settled by women, and such useful, not to say necessary functions concerning the polite amenities of civilised existence would be most readily conceded by authority to their sex, if only such would content and assuage that feline animosity which has of late disturbed social gatherings, even the intercourse between authorities in the state and ladies seeking a useful outlet for their superfluous energies. Alas, the world is grown older, and the female mind now knows itself capable of regulating both the social and political worlds, and has no intention of satisfying its aspirations, like Soaemias, with the social side of life, as long as mere man opposes her entrance into the political sphere.
Surely, everything considered, this cavilling at what was an ancient, and still would be a useful, body, is only another proof of the spirit in which the biographers have poured abuse on a boy who was so obviously striving to satisfy his relatives by giving them an outlet for their energies, while keeping the essential powers of government in his own hands. Of course he failed, mainly because his grandmother was not satisfied with her function in the state, she wanted to filch from Antonine what was his right, and what she wanted she determined to get at all costs. Whether she really aspired to the Senate and got there is another question. It is distinctly stated that under Alexander Severus no woman ever sat in that assembly; further, that decrees were passed forbidding their presence there for ever. Now, Maesa was almost sole ruler during the early years of that reign, and one can never believe that she deprived herself of one jot or tittle of a power which she had once acquired. There is one occasion, and one occasion only, on which we may well imagine, as the writers state, that the women were all present, officially, in the Senate, namely, at the meeting when Alexander was adopted. At other times, we can believe that they were there, just as the queen consort is present in the House of Peers, but without any real political significance.
To this period Lampridius assigns the winter spent at Nicomedia, which is a very fair example of this biographer's egregious carelessness and stupidity. Considering that both Dion and Herodian are perfectly explicit as to the actual date, it is monstrous that he should have put this period just a year later than it actually occurred, nor, as we have said, is it in this matter alone that he leads us to mistrust his accuracy, where either fact or fiction are at stake.
Lampridius, with a great show of moralising, and having already stated that the Emperor had lost his popularity shortly after Macrinus' death, re-ascribes its loss to this current year, namely, from the summer of 219 to the autumn of 220, and this without showing cause, reason, or mismanagement which would justify the statement, if we except the vague statement that he neglected public business for religion, though, as far as we can see, the Emperor did not begin to neglect the State for the Church until his temple was opened. After that time we can well believe that all his energies were centred on his cult, an error which, like that made by certain Stuart sovereigns of this enlightened country, equally lost, the one his head, and the other his crown. No act of cruelty is cited, no accusation of glaring or vital mistakes made, until the very end of the year 220.
Arrived at that period, there is much to be said —the mismanagement of affairs grows apace. First, there is his religion, which he makes a definite eyesore; second, he is accused of selling honours, dignities, and power, both with his own hands and by those of his favourites; third, he appoints Senators without any reference to either their age, good sense, or nobility; fourth, he sells the offices of praefect, tribune, ambassador, and general, even those about the palace itself.
Now, all this may be perfectly true. Antonine must have wanted money, but, as we have remarked before, he had a passion for giving, not for receiving. The most likely supposition is therefore, that he gave offices indiscriminately to those who pleased him, and that his favourites, often debased and unworthy people, sold what they could get hold of to the highest bidder. The accusation is vitiated by the fact that no names are mentioned, no instances given, except those of the two chariot drivers, Protogenes and Gordius, intimates of the Emperor and supervisors of his sports. It is quite possible that he admired and liked these men for their proficiency in sport, and that unwholesome minds saw more in the friendship than was warranted. Of Protogenes we hear no more. Cordus or Gordius—probably the same person as the above—was made Praefect of the Watch during the next year; perhaps he was useful, perhaps he was not; any way he was dismissed in the autumn of 221.
Amongst the last events of this 220th year of our salvation, or early in the year 221, occurred the divorce of the august Julia Cornelia Paula, Empress. We know that it was late in the year, as there are coins in existence struck at Alexandria after 29th August which bear her name, and others struck at Tripolis in Phoenicia after October 220 (Eckhel). In all probability this lady was in no way averse to retiring into opulent privacy, a woman with both a past and a future.
Certainly her husband had neglected her scandalously if even a tithe of Lampridius' stories of his infidelities are true, and, from what we can learn of his psychological state, a certain number are obviously so. Modern investigation of such psychopathic conditions inclines us to admit that the boy was a sort of nymphomaniac, if not entirely homosexual, at least heterosexual, with a strong homosexual instinct, and it would be unnatural for any woman to appreciate this temperament in a husband, especially when she knew, as she must have known, since he was perfectly frank about it, that he was already allied, by a species of matrimony, with the chariot driver Hierocles—calling himself wife and Empress—and that he was not attached to this man alone but to many others, for whom inquisition had been made throughout the Empire, on account of their looks and ability to satiate his mania more satisfactorily.
This is, of course, Lampridius' version of the Emperor's character, and the same sources have been used by both Dion and Herodian with similar though varying degrees of grossness in expression. Undoubtedly the boy was by nature abnormal, as were almost all the Emperors of Old Rome. Antonine had his moments when he imitated a virgin at bay, others when he was a wife, still others when he expected to be a mother, others when he carded wool, others when he played the pandore (an instrument of music with three strings invented by the Assyrians, according to Pollux, or, as Isidore remarks, attributed to the God Pan himself). Again, he would play the hydraulic organ of the period, and loved to dress himself in the clothes of women, even in the customary undress uniform of the courtesan, adopting the positions, voice, and manner of the most expert.
Undoubtedly these pastimes were most reprehensible and unpleasant, to be condemned one and all; though somehow to-day we are not altogether inclined to regard proficiency in music amongst men as quite so censurable and disgusting an art as the other foibles—to give them no worse a name—which Lampridius so justly censures. Unfortunately, many of these seem to have come quite naturally to the Emperor on account of his untrained and unrestrained nature, though Forquet de Dorne thinks that it was not so much evil propensities as his innate desire to please, combined with his genuine efforts to spend all his energies for other people, which have been misinterpreted by the evil-minded, especially as this was not the only side to the boy's character, as the biographers would have us believe. And this because we are told, amongst the list of his enormities, that he loved driving chariots both in the palace and in the circus, habited in a green tunic, and that he was most dextrous in the sport.
To-day, racing is considered as the sport of kings; certainly it is not the obvious outcome of an effeminate or degraded mind; rather the reverse: it is a virile occupation, calling forth nerve, pluck, courage, and other manly qualities. In third-century Rome it was much the same, but for purposes of disgusting posterity Lampridius affected not to think so. He pointed out that it was a calling proper only to coachmen and lackeys, though he must have known, if he had thought about it at all, that his readers would listen with their tongues in their cheeks when he tried to maintain that the courage, nerve, and pluck which the boy showed in this sport were evidences of the same degeneracy which he was decrying when he recounted the carding of wool and the other feminine occupations. Hosts of men, kings, and emperors of all ages have indulged in the intoxication of horse-racing. The mere fact of Lampridius putting this story, with its palpably stupid and far-fetched moral, alongside the really serious scandals would be enough to make critics distrust, not only his information, but even his ability to understand and use such when he had got it.
To sum up, therefore, our investigations of the months between June 219 and November 220, we must admit that no gross act of folly had as yet been committed. The Emperor had spent his time in building his temples, and in restoring the Flavian amphitheatre—which had been burnt down on 23rd August 217,—in finishing the baths of Caracalla, and in erecting his own splendid bathing establishments in the palace and on the Aventine. He had refounded the Senaculum, and built a hall for its use; he was attending to business, helped by his fellow-consul, Eutychianus, and was giving righteous judgment, as all biographers admit, when he attended the courts or the Senate. He was, moreover, most popular, liberal, and generous, though devoted to the pleasures of the table, and unfortunately hermaphroditic in tendency, which hereditary taint was certainly mitigated by the fact that he was devoted to outdoor exercises, especially those that demanded courage, nerve, and strength of will. Underneath all this there is a predominating religious feeling, and the simply monotheistic obsession which drove him to his doom.
The year 221 is the time of Antonine's utter failure. As far as we can judge from numismatic evidence, one of his first acts was to divorce, as we have said, the Empress Julia Paula, probably in pursuance of his scheme for religious unity. He had conceived a notion of rendering his God absolutely supreme by means of an alliance with the worship of Vesta. Now this Goddess and her Sacred Stone or Phallus, called the Palladium, her shields or bucklers, had been sent to Troy direct from heaven. Aeneas had brought them to Latium, and they were the head and centre of Roman greatness. Pallas, or Vesta, was too powerful to be absorbed in the ordinary way. Antonine therefore considered that his God, being unmarried, might well acquire possession of Vesta by a matrimonial alliance. As Pontifex Maximus, he was head of the Vesta worship, and had a perfect right to enter her shrine when and how he pleased, a circumstance which Lampridius entirely ignored when he said that the Emperor forced his way into the temple illegally. Antonine certainly did go to her shrine at this time, and took the sacred fire, carrying it to the Eliogabalium. Lampridius asserts that the high priestess, being jealous of the loss of her charge, tried to palm off a false vessel upon him, but that the Emperor saw the deceit and broke the jar in contempt for the foolish fraud. He also transferred the sacred stone at the same time, and in pursuance of his plan, celebrated the nuptials on which he had set his heart. This was bad enough for Roman susceptibilities, but he went one worse. Being himself free, he decided to marry one of the Sacred Vestals from the shrine of his God's new wife. He certainly seems to have been vitally attracted by the charms of Aquilia Severa, a woman no longer in the first flush of youth, to judge by her effigy, but one whom his religious as well as his personal predilections pointed out as a fitting consort. Pallas and Elagabal were united in a heavenly union like so many others amongst Syrian and Egyptian deities; why, then, should not Antonine, the chief priest of the Sun, and Aquilia, an important priestess of Minerva, unite in a fruitful union which would produce a demi-god meet for the Empire?
The theory had its points. Unfortunately, Rome did not see them. She stood obviously aghast, thoroughly disliking the notion. Then, as now, Rome disliked the public repudiation of vows; it was an unforgivable scandal. As Clement VII. remarked some years later to Henry Tudor, with an equally genuine fervour, "Pray, please yourself by all means, but don't let me know." That was and always will be the true Roman attitude. Concubinage amongst these ladies was perfectly natural, in fact fairly usual, if we can believe Suetonius, but matrimony never; it offended the susceptibilities, and hence the subsequent trouble. Antonine does not seem to have grasped this fact, and, if any one told him, he was too much enamoured of his scheme to resign it without an effort. But even the Senate seems to have protested, and a plot, in which Pomponius Bassus and Silius Messala were implicated (probably inspired by that upright lady Julia Mamaea), was set on foot. It was an attempt to substitute some other personage for the youth who knew so little of Roman feeling as to commit this act of sacrilege. These two men were well-known busybodies, who had already dethroned one Emperor, and were obviously anxious for further employment in the same direction. Unfortunately for them, the plan was discovered, and their secret court, held to consider the Emperor's actions, raided. They were immediately arraigned before the Senate, and condemned for the crime of lèsemajesté, or treason, probably both, thus meeting the fate they had so richly deserved; but of these two men we shall have occasion to speak later on.
There is still another thing to notice in connection with this dual marriage (that of the two Gods and of the High Priest and the Vestal), namely, the erection of a shrine in the Forum to celebrate the event, the which was probably built, according to Commendatore Boni, somewhere in the summer of the year 221. Certain pieces of a capital discovered near that place between the years 1870-1872, display the God Elagabal between Minerva and Urania, his second wife, which leads one to the conclusion that the union with Vesta, though no longer of earthly, was at least considered as one of spiritual duration.
But to proceed. By the spring of 221 Antonine must have discovered for himself, even if his friends had not told him, that his religious ideals were far from popular. The very fact of the plot was enough to show him how public opinion was trending, added to which general pressure seems to have been put upon the Emperor to rectify the two glaring mistakes which he had just made, through his perverse religiosity. We know from both Dion and Herodian that neither marriage lasted any length of time. Numismatic evidence of his third wedding is dated prior to 28th August 221, which presupposes that Aquilia Severa had returned to her nunnery, while the celebration of the nuptials between the Sun and Moon implies, what we know to be a fact, that Minerva had returned to the seclusion from which she ought never to have been taken. It must have been a great blow to the boy, thus to relinquish his hold on one of the chief parts of his scheme, but he had seen that it would do Elagabal no good to slight the religion with which the destinies of Rome were inextricably mixed up, and that he had merely thrown open the way to his grandmother's machinations. Again, as Borghesi has pointed out, probably Eutychianus was back at his side as City Praefect, in which position that officer would be better able to judge of the feeling which Antonine's action had created, than as Consul. The result was that the Emperor published a statement, by no means conciliatory in character, which announced, that his God liked not so martial a wife, in consequence of which he had decided to return her to her own shrine, and send for Astarte from Carthage instead. Tanit of the Carthaginians, Juno Coelestis or Magna Mater as she was called in Italy, where she had grown in importance from the third century B.C., when she was first introduced, was probably a Phoenician Goddess with a cosmopolitan tendency. Cumont tells us that this maiden divinity was identified with Diana, Cybele, and sometimes with Venus. Generally she was called a moon goddess, certainly she possessed a twofold nature — as queen of the heavens she directed the moon and stars, and sent down life-giving rains on the earth, and as the personification of the productive force of nature, she was the patroness of fertility. Latterly in Rome she had been identified with the cult of Mithra, which had taken such a hold on the popular mind and was now at the summit of its power. Undoubtedly the introduction of this Goddess into their midst, especially since it could hurt no local superstition, would be a popular move, and Elagabal would gain the reflected glory; at least amongst the ignorant and religious-minded to whom such arrant nonsense would be sure to appeal. From the Emperor's own point of view the marriage was fitting, since the queen of the heavens was, not only second in authority to the Sun, but was also rich, and with her came the whole of her treasure, according to Herodian. This statement, however, Dion denies flatly, asserting that the Emperor refused to take anything from her temple except two golden lions, presumably as a sort of protection for the journey, while he himself provided her dowry by a general impost on the whole Empire; so much for rival eyewitnesses.
About this same time, certainly (as we have said) before 28th August, Antonine married again, presumably at the instigation of his grandmother, and to gain the allegiance of the patrician classes. The bride was widow of that busybody Pomponius Bassus, lately deceased. The alliance, like that of the God, was sure to be popular with all classes, and the lady, though by no means in her first youth (from the portraits on her medals she leaves one with the impression of being about forty-five years of age) was of Imperial Antonine lineage. Undoubtedly the Emperor soon tired of her charms, which were scarcely likely to please a boy of eighteen, and in consequence we are told he did not keep her long. She was a friend of his grandmother, a well-known and ambitious woman, who was quite pleased to dry her eyes at once and fall in with Maesa's plan of appointing a sort of nuptial guardian for the boy, which would naturally be a great asset in the struggle that his grandmother and aunt had fully decided upon, from the moment when he made his mistake in underestimating the popular antipathy towards his unfortunate religious scheme.
Both Maesa and Mamaea were now working together, for both were determined to consolidate in their hands the power that was Antonine's by right. From this moment there is one continuous policy of corruption, vilification, and grab, while the women, their greedy claws ever stretching out, filch from the boy his popularity, his friends, and his reputation. Herodian tells us of the money spent to corrupt the guards. Every word of the biographies tells the same story. Even when they had encompassed his death and put another in his room they could not leave his memory in peace. The trump card in this game was played by Maesa's diplomacy; she knew that the only way to win the boy was to attach herself to his religious ideals, and she therefore seems to have fallen in with his scheme for the union of Elagabal and Urania. She sympathised with his endeavour to make his God popular; indeed, was not Elagabal her God also, hers by right of her position as the eldest of his hereditary house of priests? Very insidiously she wormed her way into his boyish confidence, lulled his mind to rest, and then suggested her great plan, the appointment of Alexianus to help him in the government, to assist in the secular affairs which so sadly hampered the Emperor's spiritual and sacerdotal functions.
- As Tiberius, " Principes mortales, rem publicam aeternam esse " (Ann. iii. 6).