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The Crimes of Elagabalus: The Life and Legacy of Rome's Decadent Boy Emperor.

The Crimes of Elagabalus: The Life and Legacy of Rome's Decadent Boy Emperor. By Martijn Icks. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012. Pp. 276. $29.95.)

The brief but sensational reign [218-222 CE] of the adolescent priest-emperor, Elagabalus, has inspired Martijn Icks to write a provocative synthesis of traditional history and cultural studies. During the summer of 217, as Roman troops marched through Syria towards Parthian Iran, disgruntled bodyguards murdered their commander, Emperor Caracalla, thus nearly toppling the Severan dynasty. The new ruler, Macrinus, quickly negotiated peace with Iran and withdrew westward.

Energetic women of the Severan house, Julia Maesa and Julia Soaemias, took advantage of the military turnaround to regain dynastic power. In Emesa (today Homs, Syria), they arranged the elevation of Maesa's grandson, a fourteen-year-old named Varius Avitus Bassianus, reportedly Caracalla's illegitimate son. Despite his age, the "son" served as priest of Emesa's protective deity, Elagabal (from Syriac ela-gabal, "god of the mountain"), and worshipped in his dwelling, a conical black rock. Within a year, Macrinus himself was deposed and killed by Roman troops. The young Severan--renamed Marcus Aurelius Antoninus--journeyed with his family to Rome. Still priest of Emesa's god, whose realm included mountains and the sun, he assumed a theophoric name, Elagabalus (or Heliogabalus). The emperor aroused resistance when he reportedly flaunted exuberant sexual behavior in public and when he brought Elagabal's black rock to Rome, planning to exalt the god over traditional Roman deities.

In earlier chapters, Icks describes familial intrigues that pressed Elagabalus into power but ultimately killed him. He deftly summarizes source analyses (Quellenforschung) that identify three main sources for the historical Elagabalus: roughly contemporary third-century narratives by Dio Cassius, preserved in Byzantine epitomes; a Roman history by Herodian; and the fourth-century biography Vita Heliogabali, whose credible sections derive from an earlier lost source but which is otherwise a farrago of anecdotes about the emperor's alleged cruelty, religiosity, and unbridled eroticism. In later chapters, Icks examines the "imagined" Elagabalus, which includes depictions of the young emperor, loosely informed by ancient texts like the Vita Heliogabali, that portray him in ways that fit post-Roman sensibilities.

As a survey of Elagabalus's post-Roman reception in art and literature, Icks conveniently appends a comprehensive, though admittedly incomplete, list of ninety-three works dating from 1407-1408 to 2010. The largest categories are novels (27.9 percent), images (16 percent), plays (12.9 percent), and musical works, including operas (11.8 percent). Familiar names include H. L. Mencken, Antonin Artaud, Stefan George, and Yukio Mishima. Throughout the emperor's Nachleban (reception), critical source analyses yielded to imagination; the "historical" Elagabalus was subsumed by representations showing him, for example, "as a crowned anarchist, a gay 'Oriental,' or a new, 'unarmoured' type of man" admired for his courage "to rebel against a society which refuses to accept him" (213).

Despite his book's lurid title, Icks has written a broad-ranging, sober investigation that should attract readers interested in Roman politics and religion during the third century CE and those interested in how and why biographical images have been constructed.

Lawrence Okamura

University of Missouri
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Author:Okamura, Lawrence
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2013
Words:509
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