Ancient Transgender History: Elagabalus, The Transgender Emperor of Rome

Rome was a hub for gender variance and sexual freedom in the ancient world. There are many accounts of homosexual acts, occurrences of cross-dressing and trans-like figures dotting the history of the once great empire. However, the acceptance of these events and people was not constantly accepted. Such was the plight of Elagabalus, Rome's teen transgender emperor. While this ruler's experience is not as notable as Constantine, Nero, Caligula or Caesar Augustus, the record of this worth mention for two reasons. The first being the lack of his acceptance by his own people at that time, particularly by other politicians. The second is how he was viewed by later historians and how their disapproval of his lifestyle led to the current stigma transgender people face today. Historical sources uniformly refer to him with male pronouns.

Imperator Caesar Marcus Aurelius Antinous Augustus (wow that's a mouthful of a title!) was born in the winter of the year 204 AD in Syria with the given name Varius Avitus Bassianus(This guy has too many names). It is believed he was the child of Caracalla, as a Syrian uprising named him emperor, usurping Emperor Macrinus not long after Macrinus had assassinated Caracalla and seized the throne.
He was crowned at the young age of 14, assuming the name Antinous and was the last of the emperors to bear the most glorious name in Roman Imperial history. The name Elagabalus is how he is remembered best in history, because of his title given at birth as High Priest(ess) of the androgynous god Elagabal.

When his rule began in 218, he brought his religion to Rome, nullifying the worship of other gods and closing or demolishing various temples. Elagabalus forced the people to pay homage to his god and was quite open and upfront about his beliefs, sexuality, and eccentricities. He was an extreme worshiper of the phallus and was quite fond of chariot racers often appointing them to high ranks within his rule based on the size of their penis.He was criticized by his peers for portraying himself as Venus on Mount Ida, allowing himself to be sodomized in front of a public audience

Because of anti-trans prejudice of mostly Victorian-era historians, Elagabalus is often viewed as one of the most notorious and degenerate figures in Roman history. Despite the fact that he wasn't particularly cruel or insane. They record his rule as being filled with scandal and the nature of their analysis describes a confused youth struggling with their gender identity. The general consensus was that he was not only bisexual but also a transvestite.  He would go to the taverns at night wearing a wig, woman's clothes, and makeup and walk the streets as a prostitute. This activity only ended when he met Hierocles, a Carian slave, and became his wife. Hierocles was even permitted to beat the emperor when displeased, as any man might beat his wife. Elagabalus not only acted and dressed like a woman, but he wanted to be physically transformed into one. He asked his physicians to contrive a vagina for him, promising half the empire as a reward for success. Essentially, he was a transgender youth who had the money and power to create the gender-bending lifestyle he so craved.

Elagabalus was known for commissioning various projects in architecture, including the renovation of the Colosseum which had burned many years before. He also attempted to unify his empire under one religion which was met with some resistance and did little to balance his lack of popularity with politicians. He was popular with the plebs, who he adorned with gifts, games, and entertainment.  However, none of his good works were enough to sway the elite and his rule was tarnished by his promiscuous behavior. Numerous attempts on his life were made by politicians and military leaders. Finally, after an orgy where many people were accidentally killed because so many flower petals were dropped onto banquet guests that they suffocated to death as they reclined on their couches (Depicted in a Victorian-era painting above.) his popularity diminished and he was finally assassinated in 222 AD.

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