In late November 2023, news reports highlighted that the North Hertfordshire Museum in Hitchin, a town north of London, will now refer to Elagabalus, the Roman emperor of Syrian origins, using female pronouns “she” and “her”. Elagabalus ruled the Roman Empire from 218 to 222 AD. The museum, which houses a coin featuring the emperor in collection, decided to update the information after concluding that Elagabalus was, in fact, a transgender woman. The coin is displayed alongside other LGBTQIA+ items in the collection.
The news sparked controversy on social media, with both supportive and opposing comments. The main argument against the North Hertfordshire Museum’s decision suggests that it stems from a contemporary gender identity perspective, which is anachronistic for Antiquity.
As a researcher who has been studying this emperor and their Syrian religious practices for several years, I felt compelled to write about it. I aim to analyze the situation based on the interpretation of historical sources from the Roman context, explaining the implications of this classification concerning the Syrians of Antiquity.
The association of Elagabalus with the feminine began with Cassius Dio, a senator and historian who was politically demoted by Elagabalus, his contemporary. In his work “Roman History” (LXXX, 17, 1), Cassius Dio wrote that the emperor wished to have a vagina, providing various examples of feminine behaviors exhibited by the ruler. I recently wrote an academic paper on Cassius Dio’s demotion during Elagabalus’s reign. The North Hertfordshire Museum justifies its gender identity alteration of the emperor by citing a quote from Cassius Dio, where the emperor supposedly said, “call me not Lord, for I am a Lady”.
But what is the origin of this association built by Cassius Dio?
In my interpretation, following the lead of other researchers, Cassius Dio discusses the alleged attempt by the emperor to have a vagina due to his engagement in religious rituals that likely involved cutting the male genitals. These rites were conducted in connection with the solar and fertility attributes of the Syrian god Elagabal, worshipped in the ancient city of Emesa (modern-day Homs), where the emperor was born and where his family maintained a priestly tradition.
In cults like these, male genitals held strong symbolism as a kind of simulacrum of masculinity. In the 19th century, the French scholar Jacques-Antonie Dulaure, in a study on phallic cults in antiquity (“Des Divinités Génératrices”), proposed the idea that the bull and the goat were connected to ancient fertility rites involving ritual castrations due to zodiacal considerations. According to ancient studies and astrological/astronomical beliefs, the sun entered the sign of the celestial constellations of the bull and the goat. Thus, these signs were considered symbols of the vernal sun, the regenerator of nature.
Indeed, it is possible that there was something related to the strength of the penis, at least symbolically represented by animals, on the coins issued by Elagabalus. In a study by the German researcher Elke Krengel (“Das sogenannte Horn” des Elagabal”), it was argued that the phallus of a bull started to appear on the forehead of the emperor in some coins minted by him after assuming the role of a priest.
according to the Syrian writer Lucian of Samosata (in the work “The Syrian Goddess”), priests of the Syrian goddess Atargatis performed similar rituals involving their genitalia in homage to the deity
Gold coin representing Elagabalus. On the obverse, we see a phallic object affixed to the emperor’s forehead. Could it be the penis of a bull? On the reverse, we have the emperor serving as a priest of Elagabal, performing a sacrifice for the god. Reference: RIC, IV, 2, Elagabalus, 86.
Similar rites to those of the Syrian god Elagabal were performed in honor of the goddess Cybele and her consort Attis, both highly renowned in the Roman Empire. According to various ancient writers, a specific type of priest of Cybele, known as the gallus, practiced genital self-mutilation. Similarly, according to the Syrian writer Lucian of Samosata (in the work “The Syrian Goddess”), priests of the Syrian goddess Atargatis performed similar rituals involving their genitalia in homage to the deity. As a result, priests of Cybele and Atargatis were perceived as feminine in the literature of the ancient Roman context.
However, based on the documentation available to us, we cannot determine exactly what the initiates in this type of ritual were cutting on their bodies. We do not know if it was a complete removal of the male genitalia, only a part of it, or even if this cutting was purely symbolic and not physical. Additionally, with the documentation we have today, unfortunately, we cannot ascertain what these rites meant to the initiates themselves. We cannot determine if they signified some form of gender or sexual “transition” for those who practiced them.
The emperor’s relationship with Elagabal was seen as so exaggerated that even his nomenclature became associated with the god
Considering this, if the rites for the Syrian god Elagabal involved any cutting on the bodies of initiates like the emperor, this ritual may have been exaggerated in the eyes of Cassius Dio. We cannot be sure if, in fact, the rites for Elagabal were similar to the galli of Cybele, it is a hypothesis. Another possibility is that Cassius Dio brought the rites of Elagabalus closer to rites like those practiced by the galli, widely known to the Romans, without knowing exactly what happened in the religious practices carried out by the emperor. We know very little about the god Elagabal. However, subsequently, a feminine textual tradition for Elagabalus will be created, which will be revisited in texts still within the Roman context and in works throughout the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries. The emperor’s relationship with Elagabal was seen as so exaggerated that even his nomenclature became associated with the god. Elagabalus was not the emperor’s birth name; he was born as Varius Avitus Bassianus, but he began to be called Marcus Aurelius Antoninus after being acclaimed emperor. The Latinized name Heliogabalus (or Elagabalus) comes from a later tradition and refers to Elagabal, and his association with the Latin solar god Helius.
Furthermore, it is essential to consider that the customs and attire of ancient Syrian men were viewed as feminine in the eyes of writers who valued the hegemonic masculinity of the Romans. Juvenal (Satire III), a poet who lived between the mid-1st and mid-2nd century AD, portrays Syrian men as wearing light clothing and using perfume. This does not imply that these men were feminine, but their masculinity differed from the traditional virility of the Romans in the eyes of the Romans themselves.
the only certainty we have is that Cassius Dio had defamatory intentions in perceiving the emperor as effeminate, stating that he himself wanted to be a woman
In conclusion, it is important to realize that in writing history, we do not have answers for everything; we have interpretations, and they should be based on the analysis of the nature of sources and the intentions of their producers. Faced with this, the only certainty we have is that Cassius Dio had defamatory intentions in perceiving the emperor as effeminate, stating that he himself wanted to be a woman and also claiming that he wanted to create a vagina in his body. Dio aimed to construct a negative memory of the emperor based on gender perspectives of that context.