ANTONINUS HELIOGABALUS BY AELIUS LAMPRIDIUS
Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus (203/4-222), better known as Heliogabalus or Elagabalus, was Roman emperor from the age of fourteen and the only one of the boy emperors to exercise real power from such a young age. He was murdered by the Praetorian Guard when he was eighteen, by when he had outraged Rome through his open sexual enthusiasm for the passive role taken by boys in Greek love.
This seventeenth book of the Augustan History is presented as having been written for the emperor Constantine I (reigned 306-37), but it may have been written up to a century later and the authorship, attributed to Aelius Lampidius, is considered doubtful. In any case, the author was writing much later than Cassius Dio and Herodian, the other two ancients to write at length about the boy emperor; they were both his contemporaries.
Lampridius’s biography covers Heliogabalus’s reign only, so it should be explained that according to the earlier book in the Augustan History which describes his rise to power at such a young age, he “was notable for his beauty and stature and for the priesthood which he held, and he was well known to all who frequented the temple, and particularly to the soldiers.” When he was proclaimed Emperor, legions were sent against him, but “when Antoninus was shown to these troops, all turned to him in wonderful affection, and, killing Julianus the prefect, they all went over to him.” A much more detailed and colourful account of these episodes was given by Herodian, writing within a few years of Heliogabalus’s death.
The translation is by David Magie in the Loeb Classical Library volume CXL (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1924) except for some amendments with explanatory footnotes and the undoing of his “translation” of “Heliogabalus” as “Elagabalus”. In deference to Lampridius’s usage, Heliogabalus is also the name used here in the notes and captions.
5 i- 6 v
Describing the new Emperor:
After he had spent the winter in Nicomedia, living in a depraved manner and being pedicated by men, the soldiers soon began to regret that they had conspired against Macrinus to make him emperor, and they turned their thoughts toward his cousin Alexander, who on the murder of Macrinus had been hailed by the senate as Caesar. For who could tolerate an emperor who received sexual gratification through every orifice of his body, when not even a beast of this sort would be tolerated? And even at Rome he did nothing but send out agents to search for those who had particularly large organs and bring them to the palace in order that he might enjoy their vigour. Moreover, he used to have the story of Paris played in his house, and he himself would take the rôle of Venus, and suddenly drop his clothing to the ground and fall naked on his knees, one hand on his breast, the other before his private parts, his buttocks projecting meanwhile and thrust back in front of his debaucher. He would likewise model the expression of his face on that with which Venus is usually painted, and he had his whole body depilated, deeming it the chief enjoyment of life to appear fit and worthy to arouse the lusts of the greatest number.
He took money for honours and distinctions and positions of power, selling them in person or through his slaves and those who served his lusts. He made appointments to the senate without regard to age, property, or rank, and solely at the price of money, and he sold the positions of captain and tribune, legate and general, likewise procuratorships and posts in the Palace. The charioteers Protogenes and Cordius, originally his comrades in the chariot-race, he later made his associates in his daily life and actions. Many whose personal appearance pleased him he took from the stage, the Circus, and the arena and brought to the palace. And such was his passion for Hierocles that he kissed him in a place which it is indecent even to mention, declaring that he was celebrating the festival of Flora.
[5.i] Ergo cum hibernasset Nicomediae atque omnia sordide ageret inireturque a viris et subigeret, statim milites facti sui paenituit, quod in Macrinum conspiraverant ut hunc principem facerent, atque in consobrinum eiusdem Heliogabali Alexandrum, quem Caesarem senatus Macrino interempto appellaverat, [ii] inclinavere animos. quis enim ferre posset principem per cuncta cava corporis libidinem recipientem, cum [iii] ne beluam quidem talem quisquam ferat? Romae denique nihil egit aliud nisi ut emissarios haberet, qui ei bene vasatos perquirerent eosque ad aulam [iv] perducerent, ut eorum conditionibus frui posset, agebat praeterea domi fabulam Paridis ipse Veneris personam subiens, ita ut subito vestes ad pedes defluerent, nudusque una manu ad mammam altera pudendis adhibita ingenicularet, posterioribus eminentibus in [v] subactorem reiectis et oppositis. vultum praeterea eodem quo Venus pingitur schemate figurabat, corpore toto expolitus, eum fructum vitae praecipuum existimans, si dignus atque aptus libidini plurimorum videretur.
[6.i] Vendidit et honores et dignitates et potestates tam per se quam per omnes servos ac libidinum ministros. [ii] in senatum legit sine discrimine aetatis, census, generis pecuniae merito, militaribus etiam praeposituris et tribunatibus et legationibus et ducatibus venditis, etiam procurationibus et Palatinis officiis. [iii] aurigas Protogenen et Cordium primo in certamine curuli socios, post in omni vita et actu participes [iv] habuit. multos, quorum corpora placuerant, de [v] scaena et Circo et arena in aulam traduxit. Hieroclem vero sic amavit ut eidem inguina oscularetur, quod dictum etiam inverecundum est, Floralia sacra se adserens celebrare.
|He made a public bath in the imperial palace and at the same time threw open the bath of Plautinus to the populace, that by this means he might get a supply of men with unusually large organs. He also took care to have the whole city and the wharves searched for those hung like donkeys, as those were called who seemed particularly manly.||[vi] Lavacrum publicum in aedibus aulicis fecit, simul et Plautini populo exhibuit, ut ex eo condiciones bene [vii] vasatorum hominum colligeret. idque diligenter curatum est, ut ex tota penitus urbe atque ex nauticis onobeli quaererentur. sic eos appellabant qui viriliores videbantur.|
Explaining a rumour attributing discreditable motives to Heliogabalus:
|This report, moreover, was spread by those most of all who were aggrieved that men well equipped for gratifying his lusts and of larger resources were opposed to themselves. And for this reason they even began to plot his death.||prodebatur autem per eos maxime, qui dolebant sibi homines ad exercendas libidines bene vasatos et maioris peculii opponi. unde etiam de nece eius cogitari coepit.|
10 ii - 12 iv
During his reign Zoticus had such influence that all the chiefs of the palace-departments treated him as their master’s consort. This same Zoticus, furthermore, was the kind to abuse such a degree of intimacy, for under false pretences he sold all Elagabalus’ promises and favours, and so, as far as he could, he amassed enormous wealth. To some men he held out threats, and to others promises, lying to them all, and as he came out from the Emperor’s presence, he would go up to each and say, “In regard to you I said this,” “in regard to you I was told that,” and “in regard to you this action will be taken”. That is the way of men of this kind, for, once admitted to too close an intimacy with a ruler, they sell information concerning his intentions, whether he be good or bad, and so, through the stupidity or the innocence of an emperor who does not detect their intrigues, batten on the shameless hawking of rumours. With this man Heliogabalus went through a nuptial ceremony and consummated a marriage, even having a bridal-matron and exclaiming, “Go to work, Cook”—and this at a time when Zoticus was ill. After that he would ask philosophers and even men of the greatest dignity whether they, in their youth, had ever experienced what he was experiencing—all without the slightest shame. For indeed he never refrained from filthy conversation and would make indecent signs with his fingers and would show no regard for decency even in public gatherings or in the hearing of the people.
He made his freedmen governors and legates, consuls and generals, and he brought disgrace on all offices of distinction by the appointment of base-born profligates. On one occasion he invited the nobles of the court to a vintage-festival, and when he had seated himself by the baskets of grapes, he began to ask the most dignified of them one by one whether he were responsive to Venus, and when the old men would blush he would cry out, “He is blushing, it’s all right,” regarding their silence and blushes as a confession. He then narrated his own doings without any cloak of shame. But when he saw that the elders blushed and kept silent, because neither their age nor their dignity was in keeping with such topics, he turned to the young men and began to question them about all their experiences. And when they told him what one would expect of their age, he began to be merry, declaring that a vintage celebrated in such a manner was truly bacchanalian. Many relate, furthermore, that he was the first to devise the custom of having slaves make jibes at their masters’ expense during a vintage-festival, even in the hearing of their masters, which jibes he had composed himself, most of them in Greek; several of these, indeed, are quoted by Marius Maximum in his Life of Heliogabalus. His courtiers, moreover, were men of depraved life, some of them old men looking like philosophers, who would do up their hair in nets, declare that they were living a life of depravity, and boast that they had husbands. Some say, however, that they only made a pretence of this in order that by counterfeiting the Emperor’s vices they might stand higher in his favour.
As prefect of the praetorian guard he appointed a dancer who had been on the stage at Rome, as prefect of the watch a chariot-driver named Cordius, and as prefect of the grain-supply a barber named Claudius, and to the other posts of distinction he advanced men whose sole recommendation was the enormous size of their genitals. As collector of the five-percent tax on inheritances he appointed a mule-driver, a courier, a cook, and a locksmith. When he went to the Camp or the Senate-house he took with him his grandmother, Varia by name, whom I have previously mentioned, in order that through her prestige he might get greater respect—for by himself he got none. And never before his time, as I have already said, did a woman come into the Senate-chamber or receive an invitation to take part in the drafting of a decree and express her opinion in the debate. At his banquets he preferred to have perverts placed next to him and took special delight in touching or fondling them, and whenever he drank one of them was usually selected to hand him the cup.
[10.ii] Zoticus sub eo tantum valuit ut ab omnibus officiorum principibus sic haberetur quasi domini maritus. [iii] erat praeterea idem Zoticus qui hoc familiaritatis genere abutens omnia Heliogabali dicta et facta venderet fumis, quam maxime divitias enormes parans,2 cum aliis minaretur, aliis polliceretur, omnes falleret egrediensque ab illo singulos adiret dicens, “de te hoc locutus sum,” “de te hoc audivi,” “de [iv] te hoc futurum est”. ut sunt homines huiusmodi, qui, si admissi fuerint ad nimiam familiaritatem principum, famam non solum malorum sed et bonorum principum vendunt et qui stultitia vel innocentia imperatorum, qui hoc non perspiciunt, infami rumigeratione [v] pascuntur. nupsit et coit, ita ut et pronubam haberet clamaretque “Concide Magire,” et eo quidem tempore  quo Zoviticus aegrotabat. quaerebat deinde a philosophis et gravissimis viris, an et ipsi in adulescentia perpessi essent quae ipse pateretur, et quidem [vii] impudentissime neque enim umquam verbis pepercit infamibus, cum et digitis impudicitiam ostentaret, nec ullus in conventu et audiente populo esset pudor.
[11.i] Fecit libertos praesides, legatos, consules, duces, omnesque dignitates polluit ignobilitate hominum [ii] perditorum. cum ad vindemias vocasset amicos nobiles et ad corbes sedisset, gravissimum quemque percontari coepit, an promptus esset in Venerem, erubescentibusque senibus exclamabat “Erubuit, salva res est,” silentium ac ruborem pro consensu ducens. [iii] addidit praeterea ipse quae faceret, sine ullius pudoris [iv] velamento. postquam senes vidit erubescere ac tacere, vel quia aetas vel quia dignitas talia refutabat, contulit se ad iuvenes et ab his coepit omnia [v] exquirere. a quibus cum audiret aetati congrua, gaudere coepit, dicens vere liberam vindemiam esse quam sic [vi] celebraret. ferunt multi ab ipso primum repertum, ut in vindemiarum festivo multa in dominos iocularia et audientibus dominis dicerentur, quae ipse composuerat, et Graeca maxime. horum pleraque Marius [vii] Maximum dicit in vita ipsius Heliogabali. erant amici improbi et senes quidam et specie philosophi qui caput reticulo componerent, qui improba quaedam pati se dicerent, qui maritos se habere iactarent. quos quidam finxisse dicunt, ut illi fierent vitiorum imitatione cariores.
[12.i] Ad praefecturam praetorii saltatorem, qui histrionicam Romae fecerat, adscivit, praefectum vigilum Cordium aurigam fecit, praefectum annonae [ii] Claudium tonsorem. ad honores reliquos promovit commendatos sibi pudibilium enormitate membrorum. ad vicensimam hereditatium mulionem curare iussit, iussit et cursorem, iussit et cocum et claustrarium [iii] artificem. cum ingressus est vel Castra vel Curiam, aviam suam, Variam nomine, de qua superius dictum est, secum induxit, ut eius auctoritate honestior fieret, quia per se non poterat; nec ante eum, quod iam diximus, senatum mulier ingressa est ita, ut ad scribendum [iv] rogaretur et sententiam diceret. in conviviis exsoletos maxime iuxta se ponebat eorumque adtrectatione et tactu praecipue gaudebat, nec quisquam ei magis poculum cum bibisset dabat.
Late in 221, Heliogabalus’s orders to have his more popular first cousin Alexander put to death provoked a mutiny by the praetorian guard. Those soldiers who went to find the emperor were persuaded by a prefect to remain loyal, but …
|In the Camp, on the other hand, the soldiers replied to the entreaties of the prefect that they would spare Heliogabalus’ life on the condition that he would send away all his filthy creatures, his chariot-drivers, and his actors, and return to a decent mode of living, dismissing particularly those who, to the general sorrow, possessed the greatest influence over him and sold all his decisions, actual or pretended. He did, finally, dismiss Hierocles, Cordius, and Mirissimus and two other base favourites who were making him even more of a fool than he was naturally. The soldiers, furthermore, charged the prefects not to permit him to continue longer his present mode of living, and also to keep watch over Alexander that no violence might be done him, and at the same time to prevent the Caesar from seeing any of the friends of the Augustus, lest he imitate their baseness. But Heliogabalus with earnest entreaties kept demanding back Hierocles, that most shameless of men, and daily increased his plotting against Alexander||[15.i] remanserant. haec in hortis. in Castris vero milites precanti praefecto dixerunt se parsuros esse Heliogabalo, si et impuros homines et aurigas et histriones a se dimoveret atque ad bonam frugem rediret, iis maxime summotis qui cum omnium dolore apud eum plurimum poterant et qui omnia eius vendebant vel [ii] veritate vel fumis. remoti sunt denique ab eo Hierocles, Cordius, et Mirissimus et duo improbi familiares, [iii] qui eum ex stulto stultiorem faciebant. mandatum praeterea a militibus praefectis, ne paterentur illum ita diutius vivere, et ut Alexander custodiretur, neve1 illi aliqua vis adferretur, simul ne Caesar quempiam amicum Augusti videret ne ulla fieret imitatio turpitudinis. [iv] sed Heliogabalus et ingenti prece Hieroclem reposcebat impudicissimum hominem et insidias [v] in dies Caesaris propagabat.|
|Concerning his life many filthy anecdotes have been put into writing, but since they are not worthy of being recorded, I have thought I ought to relate only such deeds as illustrate his extravagance. Some of these, it is said, were done before he ascended the throne, others after he was made emperor;||e huius vita multa in litteras missa sunt obscena, quae quia digna memoratu non sunt, ea prodenda censui quae ad luxuriam pertinebant, quorum aliqua privatus, aliqua iam imperator fecisse perhibetur,|
Lest modern assumptions be made about Heliogabalus’s sexuality from the foregoing, the following remark is included here, given incidentally by Lampridius as one of the examples of the Emperor’s gross extravagance:
|He never had intercourse with the same woman twice except with his wife, and he opened brothels in his house for his friends, his clients, and his slaves.||[ii] idem mulieres numquam iteravit praeter uxorem. lupanaria domi amicis, [iii] clientibus et servis exhibuit.|
|He gathered together in a public building all the harlots from the Circus, the theatre, the Stadium and all other places of amusement, and from the public baths, and then delivered a speech to them, as one might to soldiers, calling them “comrades” and discoursing upon various kinds of postures and debaucheries. Afterward he invited to a similar gathering procurers, male prostitutes collected together from all sides, and lascivious boys and young men. And whereas he had appeared before the harlots in a woman’s costume and with protruding bosom, he met the catamites in the garb of a boy who is exposed for prostitution. After his speech he announced a largess of three aurei for each, just as if they were soldiers, and asked them to pray the gods that they might find others to recommend to him.||[iii] Omnes de Circo, de theatro, de Stadio, et omnibus locis et balneis meretrices collegit in aedes publicas et apud eas contionem habuit quasi militarem, dicens eas conmilitones, disputavitque de generibus schematum [iv] et voluptatum. adhibuit in tali contione postea lenones, exsoletos undique collectos et luxuriosissimos [v] puerulos et iuvenes. et cum ad meretrices muliebri ornatu processisset papilla eiecta, ad exsoletos habitu puerorum qui prostituuntur. post contionem pronuntiavit iis quasi militibus ternos aureos donativum petiitque ab iis ut a dis peterent ut alios haberent ipsi commendandos.|
|He gave an order, too, that an amount of public grain equal to one year’s tribute should be given to all the harlots, procurers, and male prostitutes who were within the walls, and promised an equal amount to those without, for, thanks to the foresight of Severus and Trajan, there was in Rome at that time a store of grain equal to seven years’ tribute.||[vii] iusserat et canonem populi Romani unius anni meretricibus, lenonibus, exsoletis intramuranis dari, extramuranis alio promisso, cum eo tempore iuxta provisionem Severi et Traiani septem annorum canon frumentarius Romae esset.|
Even while a commoner he never made a journey with fewer than sixty wagons, though his grandmother Varia used to protest that he would squander all his substance; but after he became emperor he would take with him, it is said, as many as six hundred, asserting that the king of the Persians travelled with ten thousand camels and Nero with five hundred carriages. The reason for all these vehicles was the vast number of his procurers and bawds, harlots, catamites and pedicators.
… He shaved his pedicators’ groins, using the razor with his own hand,
[iv] iter privatus numquam minus sexaginta vehiculis fecit, avia sua Varia reclamante quod omnia perditurus esset. [v] imperator vero etiam sescenta vehicula dicitur duxisse, adserens decem milibus camelorum Persarum regem iter facere et Neronem quingentis carrucis iter inisse. [vi] causa vehiculorum erat lenonum, lenarum, meretricum, exsoletorum, subactorum etiam bene vasatorum multitudo.
[vii] … rasit et virilia subactoribus suis ad novaculam manu sua, …
|He would often shut up his friends in halting-places for the night with old hags from Ethiopia and compel them to stay there until morning, saying that the most beautiful women were kept in these places. He did this same thing with boys too—for then, before the time of Philip that is, such a thing was lawful.||[v] saepe amicos suos cum Aethiopibus aniculis inclusit nocturnis mansionibus et usque ad lucem detinuit, cum pulcherrimas [vi] his diceret apparatas. fecit hoc idem etiam de pueris, et tunc, ante Philippum utpote, licebat.|
|He invented certain new kinds of wantonness, even going beyond the boy performers used by the debauchees of old, and he was well acquainted with all the arrangements of Tiberius, Caligula, and Nero.||libidinum genera quaedam invenit, ut spinthrias veterum malorum vinceret, et omnis apparatus Tiberii et Caligulae et Neronis norat.|
 Heliogabalus and Elagabalus are forms of the Semitic Ilāh hag-Gabal, the name of the Syrian sun-god of whose cult in Emesa, Syria the boy had already been High Priest before becoming emperor. He imported this cult to Rome, hence it became symbolic of his exotic orientalism.
 For this and alleged sensationalism, Lampridius’s account is held in less esteem by modern historians than the other two. In his defence, it can be pointed out that about some other stories in recounts in section 30 that sound no more outrageous he remarks: “However, these and some other things which surpass credence, I believe to have been fabricated by those who wished to vilify Heliogabalus in order to curry favour with Alexander” (30 viii). Alexander had come to power through Heliogabalus’s overthrow. Unless Lampridius is lying, this shows that he was using early sources and that he was doing so discriminately.
 Julius Capitolinus, Opellius Macrinus 9-10 in the Augustan History.
 Even more than most translators of his time, Magie resorted to omission or mistranslation to ensure that his readers either missed homosexual content or only heard it mentioned pejoratively. Here he has translated “subigeret” as “indulging in unnatural vice”, which has been amended to “being pedicated by”. This single word is a verb, which in the active voice means, in a sexual context, to take the active role (with any person) and hence, in its passive form, as here, to take the passive role, ie. in a pederastic context to be pedicated. See J. N. Adams, The Latin Sexual Vocabulary (1990) p. 155.
 Magie has here invented a noun “man” where there is none, hence the use of “him” here instead, though ”this one” would be more literal. Heliogabalus was about 15, so clearly not a man.
 Magie here mistranslates “per cuncta cava corporis libidinem recipientem” as “indulged in unnatural lusts of every kind”.
 Magie’s mistranslation of “subactorem” as “partner in depravity” has been amended to “debaucher”.
 Otherwise unknown [note by Magie].
 Called Gordius by Dio (lxxix. 15, 1). He was appointed praefectus vigilum (c. xii. 1) but was removed from office at the demand of the soldiers (c. xv. 2) [Note by Magie].
 An ancient festival, held 28 April-3 May. The theatrical performances held in conjunction with it were characterized by lack of decorum and even lewdness and were the target for the criticism of early Christian writers; see Lactantius, Inst., i. 20, 10; Tertullian, de Spect., 17 [Note by Magie].
 Magie left “onobeli” in the Latin, but admitted in a footnote that it meant “i.e. like an ass in this respect”.
 Magie translated “viriliores” as “particularly lusty” rather than “particularly manly”.
 As explained by Dio, qv., Zoticus was nicknamed “Cook” because his father had been one.
 The praetorian guard, translated by Magi as simply “the guard” were the elite bodyguards of the emperors, who alone were allowed to bear arms in the centre of sacred Rome.
 Probably Valerius Comazon Eutychianus, a freedman; see Dio, lxxviii. 31, 1; lxxix. 4, 1-2; Herodian, v. 7, 6. He aided in the overthrow of Macrinus and was appointed prefect of the guard. Later he received the consular insignia and in 220 was Heliogabalus’ colleague in the consulship. He was prefect of the city on three different occasions. [Note by Magie]
 Otherwise unknown. [Note by Magie]
 Magie has “privatae” instead of “genitals”.
 See the website’s Glossary for an explanation of the Latin word “exoletus”. No English word can represent it well, but Magie’s “perverts” at least captures its pejorative character.
 Otherwise unknown. [Note by Magie]
 “Familiars” has been substituted for Magie’s “favourites” as a translation of “familiares” because “favourites” is so often used as a euphemism for homosexual lovers, which these two were not necessarily.
 The rest of this biography is entirely made up of these anecdotes. [Note by Magie]
 Here, “exsoletos”, which Magie earlier translated as “favourites” is translated by him as “catamites”, but in this context it means “male prostitutes”. Catamites are catamiti in Latin.
 Again, “exsoletos”, which Magie earlier translated as “favourites” is translated by him as “catamites”, but in this context it means “male prostitutes”. Catamites are catamiti in Latin.
 Magie’s translation of “exsoletorum” has here been allowed to stand, but they could equally have been male prostitutes.
 Magie has here translated a single word “subactorum” as “lusty partners in depravity”, but “pedicators” is more accurate.
 This time Magie has translated “subactoribus” as “minions”, which is rather the opposite. A “subactor” is a pedicator. See J. N. Adams, The Latin Sexual Vocabulary (1990) p. 155.
 This can only be a reference to the claim made by Sex. Aurelius Victor in his Liber de Caesaribus XXVIII 6, published in 361 that the Emperor Philip (reigned 244-9) banned male prostitution, though it continued to flourish. It is one of the references that modern historians maintain shows the Augustan History was written after Victor’s book, not before as purported.
 Magie mistranslates “libidinum” as “vice”, here amended to wantonness.
 Magie translates “spinthrias” as “perverts”, but this rare word meant something more specific, though not quite clear. It seems from the word’s most famous use by Tacitus (Annals VI 1)and Suetonius (Tiberius XLIII 1) to describe the Emperor Tiberius’s antics, that it refers to some kind of boy sexual performer.