Louis Denise and Georges de Dubor, writing in a 1918 issue of the Mercure de France, attempt to explain the inexplicable emperor Heliogabalus by means of an interesting suggestion: the emperor was, at heart, a feminist.
Along the dusty road that leads from the gigantic ruins of Baalbek to the no less grandiose ruins of Palmyra sits a city of sad and monotonous aspect. This is Homs. By itself it has no interest whatsoever, but the countryside surrounding it harbors treasures buried there for centuries, and it is not rare for the plow of an Arab laborer to pull from the bowels of the earth a fragment of a capital, a base of a column, or a piece of skillfully carved stone.
This is because there was once a celebrated city there, that famous Emesa where the Sun God had his temple, the marvel of that opulent Phoenicia so rich in monuments. In the mysterious depths of that temple lived an army of priests and priestesses, hierodules and manservants and maidservants, under the supreme authority of a great pontiff whose power extended over the whole country. So much so that, when the Seleucid dynasty was extinguished, the high priests of the Sun were within one step of mounting the throne.
Unfortunately, Rome arrived with her legions, increasing every day the iron circle of her conquests. Emesa fell under her power, like all of Asia Minor. But, as oft we see in the history of Rome, the new slaves soon took a surprising revenge on their conquerors: the sumptuous and barbarous religion of Asia seduced the Roman legions themselves and soon the imperial purple covered the shoulders of the two high priests of the Sun: a madman and a sage, Heliogabalus and Alexander Severus.
In adding this epithet to the name of Heliogabalus, we have no pretension of rehabilitating the debauched tyrant who scandalized the Romans themselves; but the mind lives on habits as much as the body does. Usages in force, established customs, ideas in the air are the points of comparison used to judge and often to condemn men and things in all times and in all places. It therefore seemed to us that, by reconstituting the environment in which the man we are to judge lived, we might be able to come closer to impartial justice.
When we consider especially the particular rites of the religion of Emesa—when we recall that, from the cradle, Heliogabalus was consecrated to the cruel Sun God—we may be able to see the Asiatic Caesar in his true colors: as the great pontiff of a monstrous religion. For that purpose, a few details of the places where he passed the hours of his first youth and adolescence, where he was raised to the supreme priesthood, where the Roman soldiers came to take him and impose him on the world, will be indispensable.
Nothing is left of the temple of the Sun at Emesa, but the ruins of Baalbek and Palmyra have left us eloquent testimony of the grandeur of the cult devoted all over Phoenicia to Baal, the Sun God, the spouse of the goddess Ashtoreth or Astarte, the Asiatic Venus, adored at Emesa under the name of Elogabal, a cult at once bloody and voluptuous.
Herodotus recounts that at Babylon every woman was required at least once in her life to sacrifice to the goddess Mylitta. On certain set days, young girls betook themselves to the sacred woods, and each was obliged to follow the man who tossed her a piece of money, saying to him, “I invoke for you the goddess Mylitta.”
Was this custom imported from the banks of the Euphrates to Emesa? Did it not exist also at Cyprus, in the temples of Paphos and Amathus? Probably so.
Be that as it may, we must remark here that sacred prostitution in antiquity carried none of the opprobrium that modern societies attach to it. It was, rather, honored, for it was invested with a symbolic character. Do we not see, in the finest eras of Greece, the hetaera, prepared from her childhood for her social role by a high intellectual and artistic culture, receiving the homage of the greatest minds, while the matrons—the respectable women—are relegated to the gynaecium, there to pass a monotonous and solitary life? But the fact is even more pronounced in Asia Minor and Phoenicia, where we find Semites, Cushites, and Greeks mixed together. There, sacred prostitution was truly recognized and respected, and the priestesses of Elab-Gabal were as much honored by the people as the Vestals at Rome.
In the spring of every year was celebrated the symbolic feast of the resurrection of Adon, the Phoenician Adonis. Heliogabalus, still young and already high priest, took the role of Adon, and he it was whom the crowd came to adore, while at his feet accumulated the fruits of trees, pairs of birds, and perfumed flowers! And there was an interminable procession of young girls and youths, mature and old men, who came to bring their offerings to the lover of the good goddess and to admire his image in this adolescent with the graceful form.
For Heliogabalus was beautiful, with that beauty that antique statuary has immortalized. Now, beauty had, among the peoples of Asia Minor as among the Greeks, a power that we no longer suspect today, but which the story of Phryne helps us understand.
The impression this young pontiff made on the Roman soldiers seems to have been considerable. Moreover, his mother, Julia Soemias, or Semiamira, according to Lampridius, ably seconded the new whim of the legions by handing out gold in profusion, while his grandmother, Julia Moesa, “a rather beautiful lady,” says Allègre, “but especially quick-minded,” rather unscrupulous we might add, circulated the rumor that her daughter had enjoyed the favors of Caligula, and that Heliogabalus was the fruit of that union. Nothing more was needed. The legions mutinied, conquered the army of Macrinus, and, some time afterward, the new emperor entered Rome, where the people, charmed with his generosity, and the senate, degraded by long slavery, gave him an enthusiastic ovation.
Thus Heliogabalus was master of the world. This happened in the year 218. During his reign of nearly four years, the Syrian Caesar had in reality only one thought: to glorify his Asiatic god and give him predominance over the gods of the Latin Olympus.
His first priority was to have the image of his god brought to Rome. It consisted of a fat black stone, conical in form, on which were etched mysterious imprints. It was said that it had fallen from heaven. Perhaps it was believed to be a spark, an emanation from the powerful star, the source of all light, of all heat, of all life, agent of fertile decomposition, masculine principle of incessant creation, object of a profound worship among all the peoples of antiquity.
Heleiogabalus therefore, on the Palatine Hill, next to the imperial palace of Septimus Severus, constructed a magnificent temple, in which he solemnly installed the sacred stone of Emesa. Around the temple were placed numerous altars, where the emperor himself officiated, on account of his indelible character of high priest, offering hecatombs of animals, burning precious perfumes, performing dances in the Asiatic style, in the presence of the Senate and people of Rome, assembled by his order.
He appeared in the ceremonies dressed in a billowing robe with long dangling sleeves, enriched with gold and gems. His tunic was bordered with bands of purple; his forehead was girded with a golden crown; his blond hair, infused with odoriferous essences, fell in ringlets on his shoulders: all the luxurious and disturbing softness of the orient.
A little later, in order to have his god closer to him, he had a second temple built in one of his gardens, and every summer, at the solstice, the sacred stone was conducted there with great pomp. It was placed on a cart sumptuously decorated and drawn by six white horses. No mortal was permitted to sit beside the idol. The emperor, still in his role of high priest, led the cart alone, holding the horses by the bridle and walking backwards so as never to take his eyes off the god; following the cart came the ancient gods of Rome, who seemed thus to be the servants of the Phoenician god. “He said,” Lampridius reports, “that all the other gods were but the ministers of his own.” And Herodian adds that “orders were given to all the magistrates of Rome to invoke, even in public sacrifices, the new god before all the others.”
The fanatical zeal of Heliogabalus still had further to go. Having remembered a day when, in the Asiatic rite, Elab-Gabal took a spouse, he wished to have the black stone married. He thought at first of a divinity of the Latin pantheon, but, upon reflection, decided in favor of the Punic Tanith. He therefore had the venerated idol of the goddess brought from Carthage, and the nuptials of the strange couple were celebrated with a pomp worthy of him. Did he know, this astonishing monarch, that the Carthaginian Tanith was a close relative of the Phoenician Ashtoreth? The intelligent choice he made for his god’s companion leaves no doubt on that point and proves to our eyes that, even in the time of Heliogabalus, initiation preserved in the temples the spirit if not the letter of the great traditions of cosmogony.
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After having shown what was the dominant thought of Heliogabalus during his reign, it remains for us to establish on a firm foundation the title of our work: “A Feminist Roman Emperor.” This is easy to do: we need only consult history. The only reproach that can be made against him is that he was too far gone down that path, in extending his all-powerful protection to the vilest courtesans.
But we must recall that Heliogabalus had received a very feminine education, between Julia Moesa, his grandmother, and Semiamira or Soemia, his mother, whose dissolute life and notorious excesses must have been a fatal enough example for the child. The young emperor must also have remembered scenes of prostitution that he witnessed daily in the sacred gardens of Emesa, and which not only had nothing dishonorable in them for the woman, but on the contrary were commanded her by religion. How could he, once he became emperor, have separated himself from that whole past?
“He appeared in public,” says Lampridius, “dressed as a woman and crowned with a diadem, ornamented with precious stones that increased his beauty and gave his face more femininity.”
He had spouses, however, though soon repudiated. An amorous caprice even led him to tear a Vestal from the altar to put her in his bed. But this was as much to defy both the gods and laws of Rome as from an ardent desire to possess that woman.
The most curious fact of his reign, unique in the annals of Rome, is the creation of a senate of women; and doubtless the various modern societies for female emancipation are ignorant of the fact that a Roman emperor went beyond their most ambitious dreams.
Unfortunately, the Latin authors, so prodigal of detail when it comes to recounting the cruelties, licenses, and least deeds of the Roman emperors, are less prolix when it comes to such facts, whose philosophical implications have escaped them. Lampridius is, we believe, the only one who gives us any information on this subject, which we are going to borrow from him:
“He was so much devoted to Semiamira, his mother, that he did nothing in the Republic without consulting her, while she, living like a courtesan, abandoned herself to every disorder in the palace.
“At the first meeting of the Senate [meaning the real Senate of Rome], he had his mother summoned. When she arrived, she was called to take her place next to the consuls; she took part in the signature, which is to say that she witnessed the record of the Senatorial debate. Of all the emperors, he is the only one under whose reign a woman, with the title Clarissima, had access to the Senate to take the place of a man in it.
“He also established, on the Quirinal Hill, a little Senate or Women’s Senate, in a place where hitherto meetings of Roman women had been held only for the purpose of solemn festivals, a meeting to which only the wives of consuls were admitted, honored with the consular insignia; it was a concession made by our ancient emperors in favor of those women especially whose husbands had not been ennobled, so that they should not themselves remain without distinction.
“But this ‘Seimiamiric’ senate gave birth only to ridiculous edicts on women’s fashions; it was decided there what dress each should wear in the streets of the city; which woman would step aside for which other; which one was to await the kiss of the other, for whom a cart was reserved, for whom a saddle horse, for whom an ass, and, among those women who had the right to a cart, who might harness mules to it, who would have themselves pulled by oxen; among those who had the right to go mounted, whether the saddle should be in leather, in gold, in ivory or in silver; finally, who had the right to wear gold or gems on her shoes.”
This satirical and superficial description from Lampridius constitutes our entire knowledge of this curious political institution. How long did this particular senate last? Did it function until the death of Heliogabalus? What we may affirmatively state is that Julia Soemia sat in the real Senate as long as the reign of Heliogabalus lasted. A passage from Lampridius permits no doubt on that point:
“With him,” says this historian (after having spoken of the miserable end of the prince),—“With him died Semiamira, his mother, a woman without honor and truly worthy of such a son. After Heliogabalus, care was taken before anything else that no woman should ever set foot in the Senate again, and the head of anyone who should commit such an enormity was condemned to hell loaded with curses.”
A role in politics, a part in the affairs of state, doubtless access to the public purse—this was the crowned Syrian’s dream for Roman matrons. Did he not merit the title we have given him, the Feminist Emperor?
Unfortunately, he did not stop there; he wished even more for women. For them he demanded free choice in love, the satisfaction of their whims, all the easy morals that are tolerated, if not legally enshrined, as the prerogative of men even in our modern societies; in a word, he wished to take them out of the gynaecium, that jealous prison in which they had been locked for centuries.
And that is still not all. As we said above, he extended his protection to the prostitutes of Rome. How did he undertake to relieve them of the anathema that weighed them down, so as to give them in the Roman world a place conformable to the idea he held of their functions according to the education he had received and the rites of the religion of Emesa? On this point, the Latin historians abound in precise details, and we have only to glean the most singular documents; when we hear them, we understand that the rehabilitation of prostitution was one the great preoccupations of his reign.
First of all, we can no longer be astonished that he considered chastity in a woman to be a monstrous thing, perhaps a sacrilege. Did not his god ask the sacrifice of virginity as a commendable act? We must also believe Allègre when he tells us that Heliogabalus “had published a law to the effect that no Roman virgin, even a Vestal, could be obliged to keep her virginity, but that they should have the liberty to remain virgins or to marry.”
And to put his conduct in agreement with his principles, Heliogabalus frequently toured the infamous neighborhoods of Rome and redeemed all the prostitutes, giving them their liberty. “Wrapped in a muletier’s cape, so that he would not be recognized,” Lampridius adds, “he visited in one day all the courtesans of the circus, the theater, the amphitheater, and other places in the city, he distributed gold pieces to them, saying to them, “It is Antoninus Heliogabalus who gives you this, but don’t let anybody know.”
If that has nothing in common with strict morality, it is at least the deed of a generous man who is sensible to certain kinds of human misery. Well worthy, at any rate, of a man who, crossing the market one day (which he doubtless found destitute enough of everything that could flatter his jaded palace), wept for the public misery.
And—strange contradiction!—this man, in whom the historians have with reason reproached so many acts of cruelty, “ordained,” says Allègre again, “that no Roman should be so shameless as to expel and put out of his house a servant, slave, horse, dog, or other service animal, on account of age and infirmity, so that the young, by serving and entertaining the old, might hope to have similar care and freedom when they are old.”
At other times he gathered at the Circus, at the stadium, at the theater, and in the baths all the courtesans he found there, brought them together in a public building, and harangued them as if he were speaking to soldiers, calling them “brave comrades.”
Brave comrades! Companions in arms! This is how a Roman emperor addressed them—and that in a public building! And now, would it be too bold to affirm that, had this prince ruled a few more years, Rome might have seen, amid the grandiose ceremonies of the cult of Elab-Gabal, the insolent army of courtesans officially following the procession, and perhaps—who knows?—recreating the rituals and symbolic orgies of the temple of Emesa?
Our task is at an end. Doubtless, there remain enough shameful things in the life of Heliogabalus to justify the severities of history. The moral idea has conserved, among all people and in all times, in spite of more or less profound and prolonged failures, certain absolute traits that permit us to condemn him. But what has not been studied enough in this sovereign of Asiatic origin is the psychological side that explains and makes comprehensible certain aberrations that verge on madness. To us, it seemed that we ought to see, in the strange and nearly insensate acts that marked the reign of Heliogabalus, a case of religious fanaticism owing to his feminine surroundings and to the environment in which he passed his youth.
——Louis Denise et Georges de Dubor, “Un Empereur romain féministe,” Mercure de France, 1-XI-1918.