The Amazing Emperor Heliogabalus/Preface
The life of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, generally known to the world as Heliogabalus, is as yet shrouded in impenetrable mystery. The picture we have of the reign is that of an imperial orgy—sacrilegious, necromantic, and obscene. The boy Emperor, who reigned from his fourteenth to his eighteenth year, is depicted amongst that crowd of tyrants who held the throne of Imperial Rome, by the help of the praetorian army, as one of the most tyrannical, certainly as the most debased.
Few people have made any study of the documents which relate to this particular period, and fewer still have taken the trouble to inquire whether the accounts of the Scriptores are trustworthy or consonant with the known facts.
To this present time no account of the life of this Emperor has been published. Histories of the decline and fall of Imperial Rome there are in plenty; other reigns have been examined in detail; German critics have sifted the trustworthiness of the documents, few in number and all late in date, which refer to other reigns; so far nothing has been done on the life of Elagabalus.
The present writer started this study with the view that the Syrian boy-Emperor was, in all probability, what his biographers have painted him, and what all other writers have accepted as being a substantially correct account of the absence of mind, will, policy, and authority which he was supposed to have betrayed, along with other even more reprehensible characteristics.
The first reason to doubt this estimate came from the continually recurring mention of a perpetual struggle between the Emperor and his female relatives; a fight in which the boy was always worsting able and resolute women, carrying his point with consummate tact and ability, while allowing the women a certain show of dignity and position, where it in no way diminished the imperial authority or his own prerogative.
This circumstance alone was scarcely consonant with Lampridius' account of a mere youthful debauchee, who had neither inclination nor will for anything, save a low desire to wallow in vice and unspeakable horrors as the be-all and end-all of his existence.
On further inquiry, another circumstance obtruded itself, namely, that the boy had a vast religious scheme and policy, which he was bent on imposing on his subjects in Rome, and indeed throughout the world. This policy was the unification of churches in one great monotheistic ideal.
Religion may be neurotic in itself, but the scheme of Elagabalus was not essentially so. Certainly the course of action by which he purposed to effect his ideal was not that of a mere sensualist. It showed understanding, persistency, and dogged determination; it was not popular, because in the general incredulity, the earlier deities had lost even the immortality of mummies.
Yet another reason which forced one to disagree with the usual summary of the character under discussion was that, despite (1) the awful accounts of the imperial orgies; (2) the accusations brought against the cruelty and incompetency of the government; (3) the announcement that all good men were exterminated in the general lust for destruction of such worthies; (4) the account of the class and calibre of the men employed in all state offices; (despite all this) the authors inform us that the state did not suffer from the effects of the reign. This was obviously an impossibility at the outset, and the terminological inexactitude became even more apparent when all the known good men were mentioned as peaceably holding office, not only during the reign in question, but in that of Elagabalus' successor; either they had been resurrected or had never been exterminated.
Again, the account given of the military policy is not that which would be the work of a weakling. The fiscal policy may have been unchanged, but the edict which enforced the payment of Vectigalia in gold, showed a considerable amount of sense, in demanding the payment of taxes in the one coin whose standard had been maintained when all others had been debased by preceding Emperors, and no one had been worse than the great financier Septimius Severus in this debasing of the currency.
In legal matters alone we are told that the period was sterile, because only five decrees of the reign are recorded by the editors of the Prosopographia. This may be true, but it is quite possible, in fact much more than probable, that in later redactions much of the work which Papinian, Paul, Ulpian, and other such produced during his reign has been embodied in later decrees or codifications, and one can scarcely imagine that these men were entirely sterile for four years in the zenith of their authority.
Again, it is most noticeable that in the mass of abuse and obvious animus which the "life" exhibits, there is not one definite act of cruelty reported; no wanton murder is cited; no hint given that the people were discontented with the appointments made, or that they suffered from any of the misrule which had been so prevalent for years past. On the other hand, we are told that the people considered Elagabalus a worthy Emperor, despite all that could be said to his discredit.
Chiefly it was this too obvious animus, shown on each page of the documents, which led the writer to examine the opinions of German and Italian critics on the measure of credibility which could safely be attached to the Scriptores Historiae Augustae. It was an agreeable surprise to find that their estimates of the Scriptores ranged from those of men who stigmatised the whole collection as an impudent and unenlightened forgery to men who, like Mommsen, contended that, though originally the lives might have had some real historical value, they had been so edited and enlarged as to lack the essential weight of historical evidence, and contained, as they stood, but a modicum of consecutive and unvarnished fact.
Authorities being so far in accord, the present writer set to work to sift the accounts which were obviously quite unnaturally biased, and to separate what was merely stupidly contradictory from what was mutually exclusive. This method has been applied merely to the first seventeen sections of Lampridius' work, the portion which professes to contain a more or less historical account of the events from Elagabalus' entry into Rome to his disappearance into the main drain of the city.
In the latter portion of the life there is a wealth of biographical detail, which, in plain English, means an account in extenso of what has been already described too luridly in the foregoing sections. It is written in Latin, and has never been translated into English, to the writer's knowledge, nor has he any intention of undertaking the work at this present or any other time, as he has no desire to land himself, with the printers and publishers, in the dock at the Old Bailey, in an unenviable, if not an invidious and notorious position.
Those, however, who are capable of reading the Latin tongue, and therefore inured against further corruption, will find an excellent edition published in Paris by M. Panckoucke in 1847. The last three chapters in the present volume are an attempt to bring together all the material capable of publication in these seventeen sections, and take the form of three essays on the main figures of the Emperor's psychological imagination. They are in no way an endeavour to expurgate the sections referred to, as any such attempt would leave one with the numerals as headings and the word "Finis" half-way down a sheet of notepaper. It is better for the sapient to read the chapters for themselves, and so all men will be satisfied. It has also been impossible, on the same grounds, to criticise the statements here made; the greater part are, like those in the biographical portion, frankly impossible, when not mutually exclusive. It is needless to say that the author accepts the whole with all the Attic salt at his disposal.
Another anomaly that may strike the reader is the fact that various names are used to designate the Emperor. Tristran remarks that "they are as many as the hydra has heads." The present idea is to use the titles which the boy bore at the different stages of his life, rather than apply to him on all occasions the nickname which was attached to him after his death.
In the earlier part of the work I have referred to the youth as Varius and Bassianus, the two names which appear most frequently, in reference to his reputed fathers, but have neglected Avitus, by which title he is occasionally known, in reference to his grandfather, as also that of Lupus, which is sometimes found in Dion, because, as Dr. Wotton remarks, there is no means of finding out whether he was so called (if ever he was given the name at all) on account of some ancestry, by reason of a false reading, or on account of some other matter now long laid to rest.
After the Proclamation, I have preferred to call the Emperor by his official name, Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, or Antonine for short, as this is the only manner in which the coins, inscriptions, and documents describe him. After his death, it seems allowable to give him the nickname which his relations, and later biographers, have applied to him, namely, the latinised form of the name of his God. I have nowhere adopted the later Greek spelling or adaptation, Heliogabalus, either when referring to the God of the Emesans or to the Emperor himself. The only form in which the name occurs in inscriptions is in describing the Emperor as "Priest of Elagabal" or the Sun. Lampridius certainly Hellenised its form a century later, on what grounds is by no means clear, when on realises that neither the boy nor his God had any trace of Greek blood, tradition, or philosophy about them, and that the identification of a particular Syrian monotheism with Mithraism or general Sun worship is not universally admitted as a necessary consequence, either in the case of Elagabal, Jehovah, or indeed in that of any of the other "El" claimants to exclusiveness, though the balance of probability may lie on the side of the identification. It is further unnecessary to drag in the Hellenised form of the Emperor's name in order to pander to a popular and erroneous conception of the reign, which conception this book is designed to combat and generally offend. Heliogabalus is nevertheless the sole title by which this Emperor is known to the world at large, in consequence of which I have allowed the name to stand on the title-page, chiefly in order that Mrs. Grundy's prurient mind may know, before she buys or borrows this volume, that it is the record of a life at which she may expect to be shocked, though she will in all probability find herself yawning before the middle of the introductory chapter. As I understand the reign, the main object on the part of the boy's murderers in nicknaming him Elagabalus after his death, was to throw discredit on his memory by depriving him of the venerated title Antonine, and substituting therefor the name of a Syrian monotheistic deity, who by his exclusiveness was an offence and a byword in the eyes of the virile, pantheistic philosophy which then held sway.
A word must also be said as to the attitude in leaving untouched much of the scandal attaching to the Emperor's name. I have only been able to deal with the public side of his character, as there are no coins or inscriptions which refer to his private life, and have in consequence been forced to quote what the tradition, gained from his traducer's writings, states was his unfortunate abnormality.
These traditions may be true wholly or in part, they certainly could only be disproved by the actual persons implicated, who have written neither for nor against the Emperor's psychological condition. The traditions, however, as far as they treat of the public position and reputation of the Emperor, have been shown to be grossly unfair where they are not horribly untruthful, and may be -- in all probability are -- of an equal value, when they discuss private practices about which no one can have had any particular knowledge except his actual accomplices. Suffice it to say, that any stick is good enough to beat a dog with once he is incapable of defending himself, and in this case it has been laid about Antonine's shoulders with almost diabolical ingenuity.
I much regret that I have been unable to find any portraits of the Emperor for whose authenticity Bernouilli will vouch. Alone of the whole family there remain authentic busts of Julia Mamaea and Julia Paula, neither of whom are important enough to be included, since we are unable to give a portrait of Elagabalus himself. I have therefore confined myself to the use of coins, whose veracity is undoubted, hoping that the reader will supply from his imagination that charm and beauty which the biographers have been unwillingly forced to allow both to the Emperor and his mother.
In the preparation of this work I have had much valuable and kindly assistance, for which I desire to acknowledge my deep indebtedness here. First, to Professor Bury of Cambridge, for his unwearying and sage advice on my whole manuscript; also to Dr. Bussell, Vice-Principal of Brasenose College, Oxford, for his interest and kindly corrections; to the authorities in the Bodleian Library; to the assistants in the British Museum, especially to Mr. Philip Wilson and Mr. A. J. Ellis for their continued help in my work there, and to Mr. Allen for the time and care he has spent in helping me find the coins that explain the text.
I have also to acknowledge with sincere thanks the permission of Mr. E. E. Saltus of Harvard University to quote his vivid and beautiful studies on the Roman Empire and her Customs. I am deeply indebted to Mr. Walter Pater, Mr. J. A. Symonds, and Mr. Saltus for many a tournure de phrase and picturesque rendering of Tacitus, Suetonius, Lampridius, and the rest. I also desire to thank Dr. Counsell of New College, Oxford, and Dr. Bailey of the Warneford Asylum, not only for their help in correcting my proofs, but also for their assistance in the preparation of my chapter on Psychology.
To all these gentlemen I owe a great debt, which, I hope, the general public will repay by an appreciation of the work. We have endeavoured to right a wrong; if our efforts are in any way successful, the reader will acknowledge that this mauvais quart d'heure, which has been stigmatised as full of impossible situations and intolerable surprises, is in reality a very human life which, like our own, has its exquisite moments of which we would as soon deprive ourselves as Elagabalus.