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On Emperors of Rome

Elvira Valentina Resta

ASAG Journal

April 3, 2020


Nero the Mad Emperor of Rome

Elagabalo, a Roman way of life: decadent, anarchic, doomed hero

From the dawn of our civilization Plato in his Symposium defined androgyny as the perfect myth that originally led humanity to unity, "humanity included three sexes: male, female and those who considered themselves both ". In 218 AD. the fifteen-year-old Elagabalus became the first transgender emperor in the history of Rome: he dressed as a woman and wanted to change sex.

He was Born in Homs, and named Sesto Vario Avito Bassiano, at 14 he became Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus better known as Elagabalus /El-Gabal, which in Syrian means "God of the mountain" a Semitic deity of the Sun, an asteroid, to which he was a devotee and high priest. His mother and grandmother two Syrian noblewomen, related to the Severi dynasty, had spread the news that he was the illegitimate son of Emperor Caracalla and with military assistance managed to turn the boy into emperor. A bust at the Capitoline Museums of Rome describes him as young, with large eyes and wavy hair, sideburns and a fluff on his face, full cheeks and abundant lips. He was the twenty-fifth Caesar and lasted only 1395 days, from May 16 218 to March 11 222 AD.

He did not like the clothes that the Greeks and Romans wore nor did he like to wear mens clothing.  When not dressed as Venus, he wore a large gold embroidered scarlet silk drape and wore many necklaces, bracelets and rings, used dazzling robes, or dressed in the mode of Phoenician priests or in the Persian fashion, for this reason he was satirically called "the Assyrian". He married five aristocratic Roman women for eugenics because he desired to produce children similar to gods, but had no children. He also married two eastern men out of passion: the charioteer Ierocle, who he considered "wife and queen", and then a manly and highly gifted athlete named Zotico. He prostituted himself in a brothel under the name of "the lady", he was completely shaved,   excessively made up and wore a wig (Roman women loved wigs, and wore many different colors, including green). He was circumcised for religious reasons but he wanted to change sex and was willing to give half of the Roman Empire to the doctor who would find a way to transplant female genitalia on to him.

The mother and grandmother attended meetings of the consulate sitting in seats  reserved for consuls, a taboo punishable by death that only Agrippina, Nero's mother, had violated by hiding behind a curtain, Elagabalus instituted, therefore, a senate of women in place an ancient "band of virtuous matrons". He was a protector of prostitutes, ransomed slaves and freed them, built public housing for them, gave them a lot of money and a lot of grain. The military and senators of Rome had been accustomed for centuries to the excesses of nobles and the most impudent emperors, power and wealth never came with asceticism and Elagabalus was even more extravagant than Nero: rains of petals, fragrant pools, gold cushions and silver pots, wines with exotic aromas and incredible "finger food" dishes: camel heels, nightingales tongues , flamingo brains, and mullet beards.

The custodians of the res publica (public affairs) did not like Elagabalus, the soldiers were disgusted that "a prince welcomed lust in all his holes" (at least so openly), senators did not like to be "servants in togas" and be excluded from more important positions that the emperor gave (in their opinion) to dissolute friends. But above all what was tolerated the least was the worship of one god and the exotic rituals that - by force or for love - Elagabalus tried to transplant to Rome. On the Palatine Hill, in front of the Colosseum, he built the Elagabalium, a temple where he housed the religious and ancestral symbols of Rome along with those of Jews and Christians, but imposed the cult of the Sun and decided that there was no other god except Elagabalus, an asteroid, in Latin Sol Invictus, a deity from his hometown Emesa, modern day Homs in Syria. No one understood that new spirituality, monotheism, and the strangeness of its rites and liturgies, and it was bizarre to see the emperor and high priest dancing to music around the altar with "groans and contortions", sacrificing bulls and sheep and occasionally children.

The military guards began to show signs of impatience, the Pretorians mutinied and decided to hunt him down, the emperor hid in a urinal but was found and beheaded and the body dragged to circus Maximus and then thrown into the Tiber. The meteor revered as Sol Invictus Elagabalus was sent back to Syria.

Over time the awful and judgmental ancient biographies made him the most lascivious flame of Rome and the dregs of history. Later writers called him even worse: <the most dirty of men> (Boccaccio, 14th century), <had preferred the mantis shrimp to the scepter> (Edward Gibbon, 18th century). From the nineteenth century onwards Elagabalus was rehabilitated as a decadent, anarchic and doomed hero. He has been put into music, performed in theatre, in ballets and in paintings. Some historians have explained his excesses as an anti-elite policy and his orgiastic fury as signs of a particular religious devotion.

Nero the mad Emperor of Rome

Nero was known for his debaucheries, political murders, persecution of Christians and a passion for music that led to the probably apocryphal rumor that Nero “fiddled” while Rome burned during the great fire of 64 A.D

Everything was covered in gold and adorned with gems, mother of pearl, stucco and frescoes. The ceiling of the dining room was lined with perforated ivory slabs so that flowers could rain down on them. The central hall was circular and always rotated day and night without ever stopping like the earth. In the bath rooms flowed seawater and natural hot water. So Svetonio writes of the greatest palace in Rome, built in 68 D.C. the Domus Aurea, the magnificent palace all golden because inspired by the sun god, Apollo. It had long colonnades, palaces, gardens, woods, villas, vineyards, nymphs and a large lake. Today only part of it remains, near the Colosseum, on the Oppio Hill. Forty years later, Emperor Trajan wanted to build his baths right on the gilded palace, thus burying the memory of his owner. But in doing so ended up protecting the structure, so today we can still visit the Domus Aurea and its incredible paintings. At the center of the entrance vestibule was a tall bronze statue, a 35-meter-high colossus erected on an 11-meter pedestal made by the Greek sculptor Zenodoro who wanted to represent the magnificence of the landlord: Lucius Domizio Enobarbo, Nero.

He ruled for 14 years, from 54 to 68 AD until he became a legend. But who was he really? To know this we have to go back to the night of July 14, 64 when a frightful fire burns a third of the city of Rome, Nero tries everything to douse the flames and makes available his gardens to save the people. Half a million people are homeless. Yet in Rome many people say that he is the inse leading of that misfortune. Nero starts the most impressive urban planning program in the history of Rome. Metals and tons of marble come from every corner of the empire; the use of new mortars for masonry allows prodigious works. He personally follows the works. The economic cost is exorbitant. Tigellino plunders the temples in search of the riches kept in them. No one had ever dared so much. The assets of the richest families in the Empire are seized. It was an attack on the aristocracy and the Senate of Rome. The people cheered him on. So much megalomania and greed caused the indignation of the senators who captained Pisone and prepared the conspiracy against the emperor. Nero discovers them and without trial kills them all with great cruelty.

Rome becomes the most opulent city on earth, but the emperor who has gone down in history for his cruelty is also the most fruitful patron of the arts, beauty and theatre. Nero likes to perform on stage in front of spectators, play and recite, loves poetry, but when his wife Poppea criticizes him for his theatrical performance, he goes crazy and kicks her to death. In Greece, during a party, he meets Sporus , the slave who was favoured and who, it was said, bore a striking resemblance to Poppea.

You cannot understand the story of Nero by ignoring that of his mother Agrippina, the only empress woman in the history of Rome. Possessive and intrusive, she secretly followed the Senate sessions by entering through a secret door. There was also talk of incestuous relations with Nero, warmed by     wine and lascivious kisses. She will be killed on Nero's orders.

Senators from all provinces of the empire begin to rebel against the emperor preparing for the conspiracy. Nero is declared a public enemy by the senators and is forced to flee to his villa on Cassia, where he commits suicide in June 68 A.D.

With Nero ends the Giulio-Claudia dynasty, a civil war breaks out at his death that ends with the election of Vespasian. Nero is credited with the fire of Rome, the persecution of Christians, the murder of Poppea and his mother. But he was also a great reformer, he lowered taxes on the poor, introduced monetary reform, and reformed the Senate. He ascended the throne at the age of 17 and died at 31, a voracious, greedy, fast life that cost him prejudices, convictions and many attempts at imitation.


Elagabalo, a Roman way of life: decadent, anarchic, doomed hero

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