Sunday, 18 November 2012

Notes on reading Gibbon 2: Elagabalus’s subversion of conventional gender expectations and invention of the whoopee cushion


When I was a fifteen year old, bookish and friendless, The Augustan History was one of the books I intended to read (in the Penguin translation  because I am a victim of the dreadful Cambridge Latin Course which did not teach me to write Latin and therefore did not teach me to read it). But I never did. I am making up for it now by reading Gibbon instead, but I wonder how reliable he is or how reliable any ancient historian is. I read Michael Grant's book The Roman Emperors and was disappointed that he merely expresses disbelief in all the lurid stories of Suetonius and other historians about the Emperors, without any evidence to discount them except that they sound rum. I suppose ancient history is making bricks without much straw.

What are we to make about Gibbon's very disapproving account of the reign of Elagabalus, (better known to me at least as Heliogabalus)?

To confound the order of the season and climate, to sport with the passions and prejudices of his subjects, and to subvert every law of nature and decency, were in the number of his most delicious amusements. A long train of concubines, and a rapid succession of wives, among whom was a vestal virgin, ravished by force from her sacred asylum, were insufficient to satisfy the impotence of his passions. The master of the Roman world affected to copy the manners and dress of the female sex, preferring the distaff to the sceptre, and dishonoured the principal dignities of the empire by distributing them among his numerous lovers; one of whom was publicly invested with the title and authority of the emperor's, or, as he more properly styled himself, the empress's husband. It may seem probable, the vices and follies of Elagabalus have been adorned by fancy, and blackened by prejudice. Yet, confining ourselves to the public scenes displayed before the Roman people, and attested by grave and contemporary historians, their inexpressible infamy surpasses that of any other age or country.

Elagabalus was born in Emesa in Syria, a city much discussed in Robin Lane-Fox's book Pagans and Christians, which I read recently. Looking Emesa up in Wikipedia I see that it is the modern Homs, scene of so much bloodshed today and a place I visited some years ago.  Elagabalus brought a conical black stone, the image of  El-Gebal, the Emesan sun god, to Rome. This black stone reminds me of the black stone which was worshipped at Mecca before its conversion to Islam and which was placed by Mohammed in the wall  of the Kaaba, the ancient stone building towards which Muslims pray, in the centre of the Grand Mosque in Mecca. Perhaps both stones were meteorites, like the one mentioned in Acts 19:23-36 which was worshipped at Ephesus.

Elagabalus was a highly sexed, bisexual teenager, given absolute power over the whole civilised world, at a time when Christian morality, including sexual morality, was known to only a small minority. Like many Emperors before him, he did not behave like an English public school man. He is said to have offered vast sums to any doctor who could give him female genitalia, an operation that doctors nowadays regularly perform. Elagabalus also employed a prototype of whoopee cushions at dinner parties.

Gibbon's account of Eliogabalus's reign is dealt with on this podcast.

I came across this passage from Gibbon, which is worth quoting:

In every age and country, the wiser, or at least the stronger of the two sexes, has usurped the powers of the state, and confined the other other to the cares and pleasures of private life. In hereditary monarchies, however, and especially in those of modern Europe, the gallant spirit of chivalry, and the law of succession, have accustomed us to allow a singular exception; and a woman is often acknowledged the absolute sovereign of a great kingdom, in which she would be deemed incapable of exercising the smallest employment, civil or military. But as the Roman emperors were still considered as the generals and magistrates of the republic, their wives and mothers, although distinguished by the name of Augusta, were never associated to their personal honours; and a female reign would have appeared an inexplicable prodigy in the eyes of those primitive Romans, who married without love, or loved without delicacy and respect. The haughty Agrippina aspired, indeed, to share the honours of the empire, which she had conferred on her son; but her mad ambition, detested by every citizen who felt for the dignity of Rome, was disappointed by the artful firmness of Seneca and Burrhus. The good sense, or the indifference of succeeding princes, restrained them from offending the prejudices of their subjects; and it was reserved for the profligate Elagabalus, to disgrace the acts of the senate, with the name of his mother Soæmias, who was placed by the side of the consuls, and subscribed, as a regular member, the decrees of the legislative assembly.
The Roses of Heliogabalus, Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1888. 

The world turns on its axis and now being a cross-dresser who introduced Asian religion into Rome and appointed a woman senator sounds progressive. A review of a recent life of Eligabolus says:

Twentieth-century fictional literature, drama, and even some scholarly works celebrated what they deemed Elagabalus’s countercultural or anarchic image, homosexual inclinations, “oriental” spiritualism, or androgynous subversion of conventional gender expectations. 
The book suggests that the traditional picture of Elagabalus is unreliable and it certainly is propaganda. I'd like to know more but we seem to be reaching the frontier between history and erotic fiction. John Hay, in his The Amazing Emperor Heliogabalus (1911), which does not sound like a very scholarly work, said of the Life of Elagabalus in The Augustan History:

In the latter portion of the life there is a wealth of biographical detail, which, in plain English, means an account in extenso of what has been already described too luridly in the foregoing sections. It is written in Latin, and has never been translated into English, to the writer’s knowledge, nor has he any intention of undertaking the work at this present or any other time, as he has no desire to land himself, with the printers and publishers, in the dock at the Old Bailey, in an unenviable, if not an invidious and notorious position.

By the way, the Spanish word heliogábalo means glutton. 

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