The four short years of Elagabalus’s rule have generated nearly two millennia of sustained attention, from salacious rumor to scholarly analysis to novels that cast him as a gay hero avant la lettre. Here, Martijn Icks succeeds in distinguishing the reality of the emperor’s brief life from the myth that clouds it—and in tracing the meaning of the myth itself to the present day.
In 219 ce, when the fourteen-year-old Syrian arrived in Rome to assume the throne, he brought with him a conical black stone, which he declared was the earthly form of the sun god El-Gabal, who gave Elagabalus his name and lifelong office as high priest. Shoving Jupiter aside, the new emperor did the unthinkable, installing El-Gabal at the head of the Roman pantheon and marrying a vestal virgin. Whether for these offenses, his neglect of the empire, or weariness from watching the emperor dance at the elaborate daily sacrifices, the imperial guards murdered Elagabalus and put El-Gabal in a packing crate.
Sifting through later accounts of the emperor’s outrageous behavior, Icks finds the invented Elagabalus as compelling as the historical figure. In literature, art, and music from the fifteenth century on, Elagabalus appears in many guises, from evil tyrant to anarchist rebel, from mystical androgyne to modern gay teenager, from decadent sensualist to pop star. These many reincarnations reveal as much about the ages that produced them, Icks shows, as they do about the bad-boy emperor himself.
This is not a routine imperial biography, but a much wider study of the nature of religious belief, culture, and ethnicity in the Roman Empire, on the staging of the emperor's image and the subsequent response throughout the Empire. In this accessible and lively study, Icks sheds new light on the dissemination of classical culture and the reception of Rome in later periods by following the evolving figure of Elagabalus in opera, drama and fiction through the centuries.
Icks' book [is] an excellent overview, worth adding to the Roman history shelves of anybody's library. But it's the second half of The Crimes of Elagabalus that makes the book truly remarkable. In those later chapters, Icks completes his careful, detailed narrative of the boy-emperor's brief reign and turns to the surprisingly vast literary legacy that reign generated. Play by play, pamphlet by pamphlet, novel by novel, Icks painstakingly traces how centuries of non-historians have characterized Elagabalus… This will be the standard account in English for the foreseeable future.
Icks not only reconstructs the events of Elagabalus's short reign, but looks at how artists and writers have perceived him. Elagabalus has been seen as an archetype of decadence and Orientalism and, in recent years, as a member of the gay community. The fictional Elagabalus has strayed far from the historical evidence. This ambitious book is the result of earnest research, and it will challenge readers.
- 304 pages
- 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
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