The Amazing Emperor Heliogabalus/Chapter XI
One of the main causes of complaint against the Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus was his religion. Lampridius and Xiphilinus are unanimous in their condemnation of its tendencies and beliefs. Into these it is unnecessary to enter at greater length than has been done in preceding chapters. If there is one point on which all his biographers are fully agreed, it is that the Emperor was pre-eminently religious. God took the first place in his calculations and designs.
Had he been a private person, no one could have objected to this tendency. In general, piety towards the Gods has been commended throughout the world's history. It is only when a man occupies a public position and subordinates his civil to his religious duties that the world is apt to look askance at the latter. This is the position of Elagabalus, at least in part; he is accused of neglecting the business of the state for the sake of his conscience. Other sovereigns have been likewise accused, and have likewise suffered at the hands of a world even more vitally religious than were the Senate and people of third-century Rome. Similar instances may be found not far from home which have perhaps less justification, when we consider that the cause of offense here was ceremonies, not vital creeds.
A word may also be said concerning the objects which Antonine's biographers had in view when they condemned what we should — at first sight — have expected them to praise in the Emperor's life.
As we have already pointed out, Constantine's determination to impose Christianity on the empire led to grave opposition, chiefly from the adherents of the similarly monotheistic cult of Mithra, a cult which was certainly identified with that of Elagabal, the only God. It was — if on that account alone — obviously necessary that, not only the opposing religion, but also the chief exponent of that worship, should come in for severe censure at the hands of the fourth century monotheism.
As one reads the story of Antonine's life, one is struck not so much by the record of his perverse sexualities, about which no one can have known anything definite, and which, even if the reports be true, we are bound to regard as congenital, in the light of modern research, as we are by the record of his religious fanaticism. This trait is, and in all probability justly, considered to be reprehensible. It is not, however, restricted to the Emperor in question; probably everybody has come across it, in one form or another, during the course of his life; some have even suffered under its potency. Antonine was, as we have said, in a peculiar position; he was young, powerful, and extremely religious; he ascribed the success of his house to the favour of his God, and desired to make some return in the shape of coercing men to that God's worship. To this Emperor the possession of supreme power meant limitless possibilities for the effecting of his scheme. Further, as we have seen, he came of religious stock, or rather of a family whose traditions were bound up with a very definite form of religious worship, which is generally considered the same thing.
The origin of religion is a much-disputed point. Some men have considered that the source of all religion is fright; others prefer love; both of which appeal to the superstitious instinct inherent in man. It may be that these instincts breed reverence, fear, or love for forces outside man's control, and incomprehensible to him; in any case, these forces were the first things to be deified in the history of religions, and took their precedence in the natural order of their mystery or usefulness, becoming a sort of aristocracy of talent, with a supreme head, the God of Gods.
In process of time the older religions of Greece and Rome gave way to philosophies; and the thinkers having reasoned away the potency of their deities, fought against what they considered a decadent and sentimental, not to say a baseless tradition, with all the aids that experience gave them. Then it was that signs, portents, and miracles which had bolstered up the faith of the ignorant, which had kept fright and superstition alive, even the very prophecies and revelations which were the sacerdotal proofs of inherent genuineness became either natural phenomena or debasing charlatanry, amongst men who knew their origin and history, or had learned from Archimedes the principles of mathematics.
Nevertheless, in Imperial Rome the atmosphere was charged with the marvellous, very much as it was in Northern Europe until the time of the Renaissance. The world was filled with prodigies, strange Gods, and credulous crowds. The occult sciences, astrology, magic and divinations, all had their adepts, and commanded the respect which kindred practices command amongst the credulous today.
But the philosophy of the older religions was undoubtedly hard and cold. Courage, moderation, and honour were qualities that enforced the permanence of the state, not of the individual. Men laboured not for hope of reward, but for the sake of duty; they knew that vice was part of the universal order of things, perhaps an error of the understanding, certainly an error which it was idle to blame, yet righteous to rectify. But the older religions as they had developed during the latter days of the republic were far from satisfying the whole aspirations of man.
The mind of man is not his only function, he has physical parts and passions as well, such as fright, superstition, attractions, antipathies, and sex. Some men were incapable of thought, few were single in aim, and there was a craving, it may be quite irrational, but still human, which longed to create, or at least to imagine, something higher than self, something mightier than mind, something to which the irrational and traditional side of man could appeal; and so, as one God died, a newer and more mystical personage took his place. Jupiter had ceased to dominate the world with a visible potency, Mithra, more mystical, more sentimental, took his place as a power, so intimately connected with man's physical parts and passions, that the world of philosophy, which dealt with the body through the mind, could scarcely touch the fringes of his garment.
There was, therefore, in Rome at the beginning of the third century A.D. a party of men strongly attached, for sentimental or neurotic reasons, to one or other of the recently imported Eastern creeds; but there was also a large party of conservatives whose atheism was as cool and detached as that of Horace; and a still larger party of ordinary people whose attachment to the old practices or Roman Polytheism expressed all that they considered either necessary or expedient, from the point of view of ordinary piety. But in each case the religion was subordinated to a paramount political, not to an essentially religious life, which life was evolving, as we learn, from nearly all authors, towards degeneration, despite the fact that culture and literature was still based upon the philosophy of intellectual freedom.
Unfortunately, the very rule which had made for political greatness was now robbing men of every liberating interest, was leaving society sterile and empty. As a consequence of this, each generation was becoming less wishful to think, and less capable of thought; not that the intellect of Rome had by any means descended to that ultimate plane of intelligence from which it was ready to enslave itself under the retrograde tendencies of Eastern theistic beliefs. Rome, the mistress of the world, had seen good in all Gods; she had acknowledged and included in her worship the philosophies and deities of all nations, tribes, and tongues; every force, natural, physical, and political, was represented at her altars. Rome was comprehensively, sceptically Polytheist, when to her palaces flocked the engineers, astronomers, and philosophers of that vast empire. It was only to the common people, possessed as they were by beliefs in non-human powers, in beings that beset life with malignity, that the restoration of cults and ritual commended itself, and even they were eclectic in their tastes and fancies.
Despite pulpit learning, we know that Rome was no more attracted by those doctrines of the universal socialistic brotherhood which had emanated from Nazareth, than she was by the system of the ecstatic visionary from Tarsus, who was destined -- by a more systematic and regular development of his revelations -- to capture the freedom of the earlier intellectual religions, as soon as the world's hoary wisdom, having lost its virility, was involved in the dotage of an unreasoning antiquity.
In the long run we know that the mob triumphed, and that every religion of the West was orientalised, every superstition and neurotic tendency developed, and philosophy was brought to its knees utterly debased, until its function was merely to be the apologist of all that superstition taught or did. For the present, rational thinking men were alive. When they died, exclusive monotheism came, carrying before it, like a flood, the greatness of the former world. But the issue was still uncertain. Had Elagabalus lived; had the beauty and impressiveness of his Semitic ritual made its way; had time been given for men to grasp his idea of one vast, beneficent, divine power, into the empire of whose central authority men might escape from the thousand and one petty marauders of the spirit world, they might have been attracted to the worship of life and light instead of enmeshed by the seductive force of obscure and impossible dogmas, tempted by the bait of an elusive socialism and a problematical future.
It was not that Rome, atheist or religious, objected to the worship of Baal. She had her own and a round dozen other Jupiters, as men conceived him to be, and was quite ready to include him amongst the number. The trouble was that rational thinking men could not bring their minds to conceive of any supreme potency in the world, outside man himself; while religious persons had each his own particular conceit in the way of deities, all of which the new Emperor, with more zeal than discretion, proceeded to make subject to his own Lord's will.
But there was obviously more than mere amalgamation in Antonine's scheme. We have already pointed out the Emperor's position of supremacy over the old cults, and discussed the disintegrating tendency of the mystical and independent monotheisms, which was already apparent even in the city itself. The danger which these new religions imported into political life lay in the establishment of an imperium over the souls of men, which, based on superstitious terrors rather than on any appeal to reason or logic, claimed an authority over the mind equal to that of the State over the persons of its subjects.
The main attractions of these forms of faith lay in their ability to supply men with a personal and spiritual religion, which, being free from State intervention, was able to incite its adherents to rebellion, against any policy of which its priesthood disapproved, on spiritual or even on financial grounds. Statesmen had long recognised the danger, and were obviously attempting to cope with the new forces. Antonine's proposal was one for the extension of his jurisdiction (as Pontifex Maximus) to the new monotheisms, by the amalgamation of these with the older worships over which his authority as Pontifex Maximus was unchallenged. If he had succeeded he would have exerted his headship of religion in much the same fashion as Elizabeth Tudor — claiming a similar headship — exerted hers in the sixteenth century. This policy meant the appointment of State officials endowed with the wealth, titles, and a portion of the vesture of those old prelates, who had by their traditions and claims to magical powers, coerced, and indeed still coerce the minds of the credulous to the disintegration of the State. Antonine foreshadowed what Tudor greatness effected; namely, the erection of a State church, whose business it was to replace an independent priesthood which fostered fanaticism, by a race of civil servants who would restrain and modify superstition, turning all dangerous and harmful elements in the religious life into useful and philanthropic energies, concerning whose profit it would take an anchorite to disagree.
We have traced the steps by which Antonine proceeded to carry out his policy of amalgamation. The erection of that superb and gigantic temple in the XIth region; the summer residence for his God near the Porta Praenestina; and the processions, in which all men and most of the Gods took part, have been catalogued already. It was, however, this very amalgamation to which Rome, atheist and religious, objected. Antonine could have done what pleased him in the way of introducing a new worship; he might have caused all men to assist at his ceremonies, and no one would have objected; but to desecrate the older religions, and deprive them of their treasured possessions, was an offence against all canons of Roman taste.
There can be little doubt that one by one the temples were despoiled of their chief objects of veneration in order that these might contribute to Baal's glory, and attract more worshippers to his shrine. It was in this way that the Emperor designed to extinguish all the other cults in the city, and so leave his God supreme; but persecution would have been preferable to contempt. Elagabal's temple was indeed a perfect museum of ecclesiastical relics, all ad majorem dei gloriam; still it did not attract, because it was contrary to the whole spirit of the time; no one demanded a monotheistic creed, and, though all the worships of the city should be comprehended in that of Elagabal, men could not raise devotion towards an amalgamation which, they felt, was neither good deity nor good philosophy.
Undoubtedly the Emperor was most eager. Why he did not persecute in order to attain his end was a mystery, until men understood something of his psychology. He would (according to Lampridius) go to any lengths of personal inconvenience in order that he might further his plan, but would put no one else to unnecessary discomfort or loss. We are told that his desire to obtain the sacred objects from the temple of Cybele led him to sacrifice fat bulls to the Goddess, with his own hands, and, when that was not enough (as the priests proved difficult), that he submitted himself to their ordination (a ceremony which included castration) in order that he might possess himself of their sacred stone.
Lampridius has been understood to assert this castration, using the words "genitalia devinxit," but, as Professor Robinson Ellis has pointed out to me, "devinxit" usually means no more than "tied up." Aurelius Victor, being later, is naturally more explicit. He says "abscissis genitalibus," but despite his fourth-century statement, there is considerable ground for doubt as to whether the operation actually took place, chiefly on account of the records which his biographers have left concerning the Emperor's later proclivities — matrimony and the like — in which he is supposed to have indulged until the last moment of his life. And it would certainly have been a miserable ending to a life of pleasure, as he understood the meaning of the word. If it is true, it certainly proves a zeal for the Kingdom of Heaven's sake which we are scarcely capable of understanding.
Towards idols made with hands Antonine had no attraction. It was the acquisition of stones with a claim to divinity on which he had set his mind, even (according to a most faulty passage in Lampridius) to the Laodicean statue of Diana, which Orestes with his own hands had placed in its proper sanctuary. These he made, one and all, servants of the only God — some chamberlains, some domestics. Early Christianity had much the same idea as Antonine concerning the position of the older Gods, but, with a singular lack of perspicacity, it turned them into demons — where they did not become saints, — and by so doing created a power of evil out of what had formerly been a powerful beneficence.
Undoubtedly, one of the Emperor's chief mistakes was his attempt to amalgamate the kindred worship of Jerusalem, in its various forms, with that of the Roman deities, and even though his circumcision almost certainly belongs to the period when he became High Priest of Elagabal (the period when he attained to puberty), the connection of this ceremony with the kindred Jewish observance was sufficient, in the Roman mind, to brand Antonine as a Hebrew innovator. The same odium would not, however, have been attached to him when it was reported that he had submitted to the triume baptism practised by various of the Christian sects; since this practice was well known to the Romans on account of its inclusion amongst the ceremonies at the Mithraic initiations. The ceremony, therefore, would only become unpopular when men realised that it was an outward and visible sign of their Emperor's inclusion of the Nazarene sect in his grand reunion of churches.
Much has been said by persons, whose business it was to find causes of complaint, against the foolish and blasphemous proposal of the marriage for his God. To our modern notions it was a scheme quite unworthy of the great work the Emperor was inaugurating. In the third century modern notions of religion were as yet unborn. There was at the time many a divine pair, both in Rome and in the provinces, who attracted attention. The proposal was, therefore, neither unusual nor sacreligious. It was certainly inadvisable to subordinate the chief cult of Rome in the drastic fashion which Antonine employed, and the Emperor paid for his temerity; but when he proposed Urania as consort, no one objected, and it was only the return of the Vestal to connubial felicity that re-aroused the annoyance which his compliance with Roman sentiment had pacified. The idea of matrimony amongst the Gods was quite usual, so much so, that the expressions of the biographers betray willful ignorance, not only of contemporary religion, but also of the Emperor's scheme and purpose.
Concerning the magnificence of the worship all authorities tell us something, and from them we can gather that, accustomed as the Romans were to a severe and simple ritual, the Syrian worship, whether on the Palatine or in the temple at Jerusalem, was a thing for fools to gaze at and wise men to scorn. A few grains of incense, a few drops of wine in libation, a perfect pentameter verse, and the dignified Romans passed on. Here there was one long succession of butchery, hecatombs of oxen, and runlets of the finest wines, which, together with clouds of incense, served to increase the feeling of nausea caused by the smell of the victims. Nor was this all. Round and round the countless altars the wonderful painted boy, in whose eyes fanaticism and mystery glowed, led men and women through the latest and most approved terpsichorean measures, to the accompaniment of a band whose noise recalls that of Nebuchadnezzar; if there be any truth in either record, as we have it. The psalms and hymns which formed part of the worship were equally unusual in the city of the Caesars; their only place was in the Eastern religions which gave them birth, because such a display of barbaric worship had long been superseded amongst the intellectual and progressive peoples of the West. Such useless waste of life, such prodigality of movement, music, and colour, was but little in accord with the Western philosophy of religion, and it was with a sigh for his sanity that wise men escaped from the orgy in which their Emperor was taking chief part.
It was all so freakish that men might have looked and listened quietly, if the High Priest — in accordance with his scheme of reform — had not desired the assistance of his great officers of state; naturally, these men objected all the more strongly because they were perforce to profess interest in their new duties, and joyfully spread disaffection, once they were amongst the conspirators and out of the Emperor's hearing.
Lampridius' legend of Antonine's human sacrifices must be dealt with as another calumny. He says that the Emperor used to sacrifice young boys of the best families, preferring those whose parents were alive, and, being present, would be most grieved at the deed. In this case the refutation is scarcely needed, since the author asserts that such was the custom of the Syrian worship, whereas it is now certain that Rome had caused the cessation of human sacrifices long before the second century amongst all Semitic peoples. It is in all probability the same legend which was attached to the early Christian mysteries, and with even less reason, for while the Christian worship was in secret, and so might lend itself to the supposition of nefarious practices, that of the Sun God was public and blatantly open before the world, following a well-known and approved ritual.
No, Antonine might have been mad, but there was a certain method in his madness, and this form of lunacy would only have alienated the very people he was striving so hard to win. It was in the method he failed, not in the conception, for monotheism was continually gaining ground; Paganism was obviously falling asleep quite gently; Isis was giving way to Mary, apotheosis to canonisation, and saints succeeding divinities. Antonine, with the true Eastern conception of religion, strove to impress men with his vivid monotheism by means of the magnificence of the worship, the prodigal expenditure of a gorgeous pageant. This he gave the world right royally, but it was precisely this that the austere Roman could not understand was mean to be connected with the simple philosophy of his Western religion. Antonine thought to make his God great by means of a pompous show. He succeeded in presenting him as a low comedian in the last act of a puerile melodrama; unfortunately not the first, or last, deity who has been thus presented before the eyes of an astonished world.
It had long been a Roman custom to commemorate the greatest of her victories by the erection of gigantic columns in the forums of the city; Antonine proposed to build the most magnificent that had yet greeted human eyes. It was to be a memorial to the triumph of the Lord over the deities of chance and circumstance. Its summit, which he designed should be reached by a stairway inside, was to support the great meteorite. Death intervened to spoil the plan and to deprive Rome of a monument surpassing in grandeur any that the city should ever see. Such were the methods by which the boy strove to win acceptance for Elagabal, and through him for the great monotheistic principle in religion. It must be clearly understood that the religion of Emesa was in no sense idolatrous. It is true that the city possessed a huge black meteorite, which it venerated exceedingly, because it was a portion of the being of the God. In shape, we are told, it was a Phallus, and as such was the symbol of fecund life, typifying the great force of light, joy, and fruitfulness, which men regarded as the be-all and end-all of their existence.
Of this theory in religion Marcus Aurelius Antoninus was high priest and chief exponent, and even his boy's mind could see the superiority of life to death, of the supreme beneficent being to the lesser deities who oppressed other peoples. Certainly he was so impressed, and resolved to spread that worship and knowledge by means of the vast power which resided in his childish hands from the year of grace 218.
Little, when the young Emperor undertook the task of unifying churches, could he have imagined the magnitude of the task, or the reason of the opposition. As we have said, this opposition came from the fact that an entirely different system of religion held sway. Today we would call the Roman system natural religion and Antonine's conception dogmatic truth. He ascribed too much to his God, which is no uncommon failing amongst the credulous; probably he claimed a revelation from on high, and was inclined to consign those who disagreed with him to that special limbo which the ignorant have reserved for all those who make them look foolish, for all that spells truth contrary to their own limited imaginings; if so, he would not have been unusual. The genius of natural religion is that it is comprehensive, tolerant, righteous, and just. The genius of dogmatic religion lies in the assumption to itself of absolute exclusiveness; it alone contains truth, and in its later editions, finality as well. Whether Antonine's form included this latter pretension we do not know, certainly it claimed what no Roman thinker could accord to any faith under the sun -- the proposition that God was one and God was supreme. The Roman had been bred on Pyrrho, Epicurus, Lucretius, and Cicero, and was more inclined to postulate that God was the cosmic entity of spirit, something as potent as, if not analagous to, the entity of electricity in modern science. He had no relations with the older deities who had made life terrible by their persecutions of the human race, and had no desire to submit himself again to a system which would erect fright into yet another national deity. He had long since grown weary of trying to propitiate infinity, and now understood that he might as well sacrifice to the animals in the Zoological Gardens, in the hope of staying their hunger, as make oblation to the deities in the expectation of a return in kind.
This was no new struggle that Antonine proposed to inaugurate in the city of Rome. It is the contest between rationalism and dogma when pushed to its logical conclusion. Doubtless there is much to be said on both sides; certainly much has been written and more has been said during the history of civilisation. The rationalists have set it forth as the struggle between ignorance and reason; the dogmatists as that between good and evil; certainly it was not a struggle on which Antonine was either old enough or wise enough to lay down any definite line of truth for the future guidance of the world. Unfortunately, this was just what he attempted to do. He knew that the national deity of every nation under heaven was fright, and forgot that its antithesis was truth. He knew that fright was bound to predominate; that men would continue to pay their worship as they paid their taxes, lest a worse thing should happen to them. It had been the same in Homer's day. Men had been brought up to fright, and as one God died they demanded another. The Prophets had given men Gods, laughing the while at the divinities they created, because they believed as little in the sacerdotal fables as Tennyson did in the phantom idylls of Arthurian romance.
The point is, that what the mass of men demand they will get. It is the usual law of supply and demand, where the man who can increase the demand and satisfy it to any extent is the successful founder of a new religion. This is undoubtedly the business of the sacerdotal caste in every generation, and their success is assured as long as they are capable of increasing the supply, while they whet the demand. They fail when some one else appeals to the popular imagination as more mysterious, or more spiritual.
Now, Antonine seemed to think that mere dictation of what was to himself obvious should be enough to give his God a start, and, that done, all men would discover the vital attraction for themselves. Perhaps he was right; stranger things had happened before his day, and were to happen not long afterwards; we can never know, as the system had no more time for a fair trial than had that of Constantine's successor Julian.
For the moment Rome was bored with all Gods; they had found them so cruel, vindictive, and malignant that the citizens had got irritated and sceptical, had left their deities feeling that already for too long time had blood and treasure been spent without avail. Now at last, men said, "dread has vanished and in its place is the ideal." Evemerus had asserted that the Gods were just ordinary bullies who would cringe if men stood up to them, and even the lower classes had agreed with him.
This, Antonine felt, was a deplorable state of affairs -- rank atheism if not something worse. He knew the potency of his God, and desired, by gentle means, to set it forth to others that they too might believe. Unfortunately, no one desired belief, and he had to fight against rationalism as well as convention. The Romans were not yet tired of their chase after impossible delights; when they were, another dogma presented itself; and as often as not it was accepted, as being the line of least resistance.
If Antonine had given them what Julian did, his success would have been assured. Such was the philosophy, freedom, and beauty under the guise of a God whose existence he admitted, but whose intervention he denied. Antonine was not Julian; he was an Eastern monotheist, far nearer to the worship and doctrines of Jehovah than to those of any Western mode of thought. He could not understand the deification of attributes, because he wanted something more tangible, real, and superstitious, something that appealed to his neurotic nature and erotic passions.
Thus it was that his vain efforts to unite all worship, all religions in that dedicated to Deus Solus are derided, as well by the monotheistic Hebrew as by the tritheistic Christian. His fault lay in the fact that he was too young for the work, too unaccustomed to the circuitous and mole-like burrowings by which a religion captures society. But the scheme in itself showed purpose and a precocious propensity for the mysterious, unnatural and unhealthy in a child of his age.
Had Antonine been born in the twentieth instead of the third century of this era, had he enjoyed the advantages of a modern education, he would have learned that religion and unusual propensities are the last things a gentleman is expected to parade before the world. Further, he would have certainly emerged from the training — which though drastic is certainly most salutary — with his waywardness curbed, his mind and will strengthened, his lithe and graceful body healthy and fit to bear the fatigues and responsibilities which life was going to lay upon his splendid shoulders. Unfortunately for him, he was a Syrian with wonderful eyes and a mystical temperament, and was born at a time when the monarch's wayward will was a law unto himself and all the world besides; yet despite these drawbacks, with so many of the elements of success to hand, he might have triumphed, if the usual conspirators had not been at work. "Rome was still mistress of the world though she was growing very old. A few more years and the Earth's new children fell upon her; then the universe was startled by the uproar of her agony. Then and not till then, where the thunderbolt had gleamed did the emaciated figure of the crucifix appear, and upon the shoulders of a prelate descended the purple which had dazzled the world."