Episode 4: The Transgender Empress Elagabalus

In this episode we return to Rome and examine the life of the controversial hard-partying transgender Empress Elagabalus. She is widely seen as one of the worst rulers that Rome ever had, but my question is who decided it was a good idea to put a teenager in charge of an empire?




Hello, and welcome to episode 4 of Valentines Voice, the show for and by transgender people. I am your host, Valentine Valcourt. Today we will be staying in Ancient Rome and our subject is the Empress Elagabalus. Elagabalus is one of the most powerful transgender people who have ever lived. She is also usually ranked as one of the 5 worst rulers of Rome. She is also proof that transgender people are just people, like everyone else. Before any bigots try to hop onto some imaginary moral high ground, I will remind you that the 4 other people on the five worst list are all cisgender males. So chill.

Also, a short note about pronouns: historically Elagabalus is usually referred to with he/him pronouns. I will always use the pronouns that I believe the person would have preferred, and will be using she/her pronouns.

Elagabalus was the first Empress of Rome, and the only Empress that ruled over the entire Roman Empire. She was born in the year 204 into the current ruling dynasty of Rome, the Severans.

Sadly for her, but happily for the rest of the empire, soon after she was born, her tyrant of a cousin was assassinated and her family was run out of Rome to their home territory of Syria.

While here, in an effort to raise her stature, her grandmother has her named as the chief of a local but growing sun religion that worshiped a god named El-Gabbal, which is how she ended up with the nickname that we know her by, Elagabalus. Importantly, she spent her formative years here in Syria, a culture heavily influenced by the cultures of the East, and very different than Roman culture. As we referenced last episode, gender norms were a major difference between the two cultures. Therefore Elagabalus saw no issue with dressing in silk robes and wearing makeup. It likely even eased any dysphoria that she felt.

When Elagabalus was fourteen years old, her grandmother used her as the figurehead for an attempt to put the Severan family back in power. Through a mix of bribes, skillful propaganda, and luck, the army backed this bid for power and killed the usurper. At just fourteen years old, Elagabalus was Empress of the Roman Empire. I would like to emphasize her age here. One of the commonalities we see with the worst of Rome’s rulers is that they all came to power very young.

Nero, Caligula, Commodus, Caracalla, and Elagabalus were some of the youngest rulers of Rome, and were all too young to have ruled a taco stand, much less a massive multicultural empire.

We can see from history that the maxim ‘absolute power corrupts absolutely’ isn’t necessarily true. There have been rulers who ruled fairly throughout their reigns. When we put Elegabalus through the lens of not just a teenager, but a teenage who had been taught that she was the voice of the one true god El-Gabal, it becomes easy to see how her reign went off the rails so quickly, and so completely.

It started before she even got to Rome. Her grandmother, the real power player of the dynasty, had a portrait made of Elagabalus and sent ahead to Rome, with orders that it be hung in the Senate that all might know her upon her arrival. Her grandmother begged that Elagabalus put on a traditional Roman toga, but Elagabalus insisted on posing for the portrait in her robes and with her makeup on. From the perspective of a transgender woman, I couldn’t understand more. From the perspective of someone trying to impress the Senate, it was an abysmal failure. They saw their new empress and were not impressed. They had thought to have the next installment of what had been a strong military dictatorship. To say that they were disappointed is putting it mildly.

Before I begin telling the story of Elagabalus’s time in Rome, I would like to point out an issue with the sources. We have 3 main sources for this time period: the salacious Cassius Dio, the slightly less salacious Herodian, and the Historia Augusta. The Historia Augusta we can instantly dismiss due to the fact that it is often factually incorrect and written as propaganda. Cassius Dio was one of this disappointed senators, and never heard a rumor that he couldn’t put into writing. Herodian, our best source, was writing more to entertain than to inform. Along with these issues, the Romans had a literary tradition that they repeated all too often where to show that someone was a poor ruler, they would show that they were an immoral person. Absolutely none of this is in our favor when trying to give an accurate depiction of Elagabalus’s time as Empress.

Even through the distortion, we can get some generalities. As she traveled to Rome, she executed several governors and officials who had backed the prior emperor, which cost her some popularity with their friends back in the capital. When she arrived in Rome, she announced that there would be an amnesty for those who had supported the prior emperor. She then went on to banish one of the most respected men of Rome, earning more disfavor. All of this might have been forgiven as the necessary unpleasantness of a new regime, had she then ruled with moderation and wisdom. The problem is, I’m not sure that she had ever even heard the word moderation.

Her grandmother arranged a politically advantageous marriage for her to a girl from a Roman nobility. Elagabalus mostly ignored her, and began what would be a tumultuous relationship with her chariot driver Hierocles. Rather than keep the relationship secret in the Roman manner, Elagabalus had a wedding ceremony in which she was the bride and happily announced herself the Queen of Hierocles. During this time she also corrected an ambassador when he hailed her as Lord, demanding to be called a Lady. Between this and her alleged frequent orgies, she went from alienating just the Senate to also irritating her bodyguard, the Praetorian Guard.

During this time, she retained the support of her grandmother, which allowed her to ignore much of this grumbling. To show the Senate who the real power was, her grandmother insisted on attending and participating in Senatorial meetings. This irritated the misogynistic Romans Senate, but there was little that they could do about it. The alternative to Elagabalus was civil war, something that Rome has experienced all too frequently and all too recently.

Towards the end her short reign Elagabalus messed with the one thing that the hyper religious Romans could not tolerate. She tried to replace the Roman gods with El-Gabal. She married one of the sacred Vestal Virgins, in an attempt to both produce divine children, and to effect a heavenly marriage between El-Gabal and one of the Roman goddesses. The sources aren’t clear which goddess, though Astarte (the Roman version of Inanna) is a front runner for who is might have been. The grumblings of the Senate and the Praetorian Guard got louder, and Elagabalus finally lost the support of her grandmother.

Elagabalus had a cousin, named Alexander, who was a couple years younger. Due to Elegabalus being childless (even at this point she was only 17 or 18), there was no heir apparent. Playing in the Elagabalus’s fears of what would happen to her mother if Elagabalus should die, she persuaded her to name Alexander as her successor. With a clear (and much more stereotypically Roman) successor in the picture, the Senate and Praetorian Guard felt comfortable taking the gloves off and the assasination attempts started. It didn’t take Elagabalus long to figure out what was going on, and in return she started trying to kill Alexander. In attempt to see where the Praetorian Guards’s loyalties were, she leaked a rumor that Alexander was sick, maybe even dead. For the Praetorians, this was too much. Concerned about what Elagabalus might have done to Alexander, they went into revolt, and demanded that both Elagabalus and Alexander come to the Praetorian’s camp.

Elagabalus had no choice but to comply, and when she arrived at the camp and demanded the heads of whoever had been involved in what was essentially a mutiny, the Praetorian Guard decided that it was time for a regime change. They murdered Elagabalus and threw her corpse in the Tiber river.

Elagabalus was 18 when she died and had been Empress for four years. Both historians and Roman writers have spilled rivers of ink writing about how awful an Emperor Elagabalus was, and it’s true, she was bad at the job. In the main though, I think the blame really belongs with Elagabalus’s mother and especially her grandmother. Anyone who has spent more than an hour in the presence of a teenager knows that the idea of giving them any kind of responsibility is just terrifying. Giving them absolute power while telling them that they are something bordering on divine, that’s just nuts.

As a final note, Elagabalus’s religious change was where Rome was headed. El-Gabal would become Latinized and known as Sol Invictus. Less than 50 years later, when Aurelian stitched the empire back into one piece after it had crumbled in disaster, it would be Sol Invictus to whom he gave credit. And soon after, the celebration of Sol Invictus known as Dies Natalis Solis Invicti (The Birthday of Sol Invictus) would be rebranded as the birthday of the Christian god, Jesus Christ.

Next week, we will take a break from historical figures and answer some practical questions about what it is like to be transgender. As always, sources, social media links, and other formats of the show can be found at vvalcourt.com. Thank you for watching, and I’ll see you next week.




Mike Duncan’s The History of Rome







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