(c) Jerry Fielden 2000 

Antoninus Elagabalus and his relationship with the Senate 

Elagabalus – a name reviled by history. But somehow, it is hard to believe that this emperor reigned for nearly four years before his demise, if he was not popular in some way with the Senate, as well as with the people and the army. I will discuss this princeps’s relationship with the conscript fathers and how they were one of the causes of his demise, and if they were the most important one, which I do not believe from the evidence placed before us. 

When Macrinus learned of the uprising led by the grandson of the former empress’s sister and that this claimant to the throne was claiming to be the illegitimate son of Caracalla, he was quite worried and sent a letter to the Senate stating that the young pretender was crazy.[1] In another letter, Macrinus talked about the uprising of “the False Antoninus” and the consuls, one of the praetors and the tribunes said words against the boy. The Senate, obediently, immediately declared war on the contender and his family.[2] Macrinus failed however and the Senate did not have kind words for him after his demise.[3] 

The victorious Elagabalus sent a letter to the Senate informing them of his intentions and insulting the memory of his predecessor, by talking about Macrinus’s lowly birth and the irony of the ex-emperor criticizing Elagabalus’s age while making his own five-year-old son a Caesar. He wished the conscript fathers well, promised them amnesty, stating he would not begrudge them their previous acts,[4] and pledged to rule according to Augustus’s principles.[5] The Senate then acclaimed Elagabalus princeps while the same body that had earlier on reviled him and his family cursed Macrinus and his son.[6] Actually, the Senate was just confirming a fait accompli, which might have been an initial source of resentment, as the mood was dark in Rome and it was understood to be most likely really the army that controlled the events unfolding at that moment.[7] 

At that point, there remained for the people of Rome and the Senate to get accustomed to the decidedly non-Roman appearance of their new emperor. In a strategic move, Julia Maesa, the emperor’s grandmother, had sent an image of Elagabalus dressed in sacrificial garb to the Senate, and this depiction was to be hung over the statue of Victory so all could see him and get used to his Eastern priestly accoutrements before he entered Rome.[8] At this moment, the Senate and the people were said to be happy and the emperor was apparently quite popular.[9] 

But the seeds of discontent had been planted, even with that maneuver of Julia Maesa’s. When a senator lit incense or made libations at the statue of Victory, he was now sacrificing to the emperor himself as well.[10] And when Elagabalus entered Rome with the new chief god, Sol Invictus Heliogabalus,[11] religion based on this deity was imposed from above with many people being quite disgruntled at the emperor (but others, especially the populace, being happy as well with the bounty given at various festivals). For instance, one had to salute the new god first, before all others, even Jupiter, in any religious ceremony.[12] Many events angered the traditionalists in Rome, for instance Elagabalus’s marriages and concubines of both sexes, but especially his ravishing of the Vestal Virgin Aquilia Severa.[13] On the religious front, his raising of a statue to himself for adoration,[14] the move of various statues to the temple of Heliogabalus,[15] the “weddings” of Heliogabalus and Pallas, then Urania, [16] and his many sacrifices,[17] some in which the equestrians and the senators were forced to participate,[18] would have been a cause of discontent as well. 

On the subject of offices, Elagabalus, who had so eagerly criticized Macrinus for his lowly condition, surely angered the Senate by elevating some men to positions of power that their birth did not warrant. He was accused of elevating men to the Senate regardless of their qualifications, and of selling offices to anyone, directly or through his slaves.[19] A particular case was that of the chariot driver Hierocles, whom he viewed as his “husband” and wanted to make Caesar.[20] This man was later killed with other associates of Elagabalus when the emperor was murdered.[21] Another case was that of the strange career of the mysterious praetorian prefect “…atus” who went from senatorial to equestrian posts: he was made a legate, then a suffect consul, then a praefectus annonae, and finally a praetorian prefect.[22] Another official who parallels a career path originating from a lowly birth is the praetorian prefect Comazon. This prefect is described as a dancer or actor, and he also became a consul in 220.[23] Not only that; he also held the position of city prefect three times,[24] confirming that Elagabalus had no respect for the orders, and appointed men whom he chose at any position, whether equestrian or senatorial, which was surely another irritant for the Senate. There was also the case of Zoticus, another “husband” of Elagabalus’s, whom he appointed cubicularius, which was not really an administrative post, but which could lead to appointments and favors for others through the influence the position entailed for the holder through the emperor. Zoticus amassed riches and power by selling “reports” and influence to others wanting him to say a good word to the emperor about them.[25] Hieroclus eventually got rid of this rival by drugging him and thus embarrassing him in front of the emperor, who chased him from the court.[26] Elagabalus also appointed another actor as procurator ad census, in charge of morals and census qualifications of the orders.[27] Finally, for himself and his family, he broke all the rules as well: he appointed himself consul without an election,[28] and let his mother and grandmother attend the Senate.[29] 

He allowed Julia Soaemias in the Senate as early as the first time he convened it, in 218, and we note both his mother and grandmother attended when he adopted Alexander Severus on July 10, 221. Also, a Senate session was convened on January 1, 222, to confirm the concord between the two cousins and Julia Maesa attended that one too.[30] Julia Soaemias also had the senatorial title clarissima, but this title had been known to exist at least since Hadrian or Antoninus Pius’s time, so it was not really a breach of the mos maiorum, thus not really a possible irritant to the Senate. However, Julia Maesa did not have this title, but she had the title mater castrorum et senatus.[31] Some say that Maesa was allowed in the Senate only because this body was no longer the seat of government and that she could not do any harm there.[32] It is only under Elagabalus that women were ever allowed in the Senate; even Julia Domna never had access to this extraordinary privilege.[33] After Elagabalus, no woman ever sat in the Senate again, and decrees were passed to prohibit them from ever doing so,[34] and this must have been proof that the presence of women in the Senate was a major irritant to that assembly. 

Julia Soaemias was also the president of the senaculum, the “women’s senate” that was supposedly invented by Elagabalus, but in fact was the continuation of an assembly of married women that had existed since 394 BC.[35] This assembly debated on points of precedence, transportation, clothing and other subjects pertaining to married women and not considered by the Senate.[36] 

The one point that brought matters to a head was the adoption of Alexander and the subsequent crises provoked by Elagabalus’s “jealousy” of his “adopted son”. Some have said that it was actually a conspiracy by Julia Mamaea and Julia Maesa to get rid of Elagabalus by replacing him with Alexander that was the cause of his demise and that the adoption was the first step in this plot.[37] Maesa began by persuading Elagabalus to adopt Alexander as his son, to take care of “worldly affairs” for him so he could devote himself entirely to his god, and that an outsider should not be running things, but someone of his own family.[38] So the twelve-year-old Alexander was adopted by his sixteen-year-old “father” and appointed Caesar; the Senate had surely been irritated by the travesty of a ceremony that took place, where they agreed to everything Elagabalus told them to do in the matter of this adoption.[39] We are told that Elagabalus was plotting against Alexander’s life and did not succeed, because of the close watch the soldiers and Mamaea kept on the young Caesar,[40] and that he had given the order to have him killed.[41] Apparently, he was sorry to have adopted the boy, and told the Senate to strip his would-be successor of his rank of Caesar. The Senate was utterly silent at this, presumably because the boy was popular with the conscript fathers (as well as with the other segments of Roman society), because he did not partake in the sins of his imperial cousin.[42] Later on, some of the praetorians, whom we presume to have been paid by Mamaea, tried to kill Elagabalus but were dissuaded of doing this by the praetorian prefect Anthiochianus, but the emperor was forced to get rid of some of his associates.[43] Elagabalus was certainly aware of the praetorians’ hatred for him; one day he told the Senate when they were praising him that “Yes, you love me, and so, by Jupiter, does the populace, and also the legions abroad; but I do not please the praetorians, to whom I keep giving so much”.[44] Spurred by his grandmother and his mother, Elagabalus had to go to the Senate to show the concord with Alexander that was required to calm the praetorians. He refused to carry out the ceremonies and the urban praetor had to go instead. At this point, the Senate was disbanded and forced out of the city, so that he would have a “free hand” to kill his cousin and that they could not vote a replacement Caesar.[45] When he tried to execute this plan, he was killed by the praetorians, along with his mother and his associates, and his body was dragged all over the city, through the sewers, then thrown in the Tiber.[46] This form of negative propaganda earned him the names of Tiberinus,[47] Tractatitius, Impurus, etc.[48] 

We can safely and convincingly conclude that the Senate was not the body mostly responsible for Elagabalus’s demise, but that the Praetorian Guard was. But it is quite probable that given the circumstances, at least some senators must have been quite angry with the religious affronts of Elagabalus, his unprecedented allowing of women in the Senate, and the fact that they were exiled from the city when he wanted to take care of the problem caused by his cousin, aunt and grandmother. They got the last word in after his death by chasing his god from the city,[49] passing a damnatio memoriae on him, especially as pertains to his use of the name Antoninus, and never allowing another woman to set foot in the Senate.[50] Many of his statues were eventually defaced or their traits changed to depict Alexander instead of him.[51] According to one theory, Mamaea’s smear campaign had worked perfectly,[52] and her nephew was now to be considered one of the most monstrous men in history, a role which is still assigned to his memory today, and of which ill repute the Senate probably played a major part in by its damnatio memoriae and the other defamatory measures it took in the case of an emperor who did not really seem to want to reign, was torn by his family’s pressures on him and probably just desired to enjoy life and to serve his god in peace, even though it is likely he was not totally innocent in some of the aforementioned occurrences and that was cause enough to anger the Senate. 


Dio Cassius, Roman History, (Loeb, London, 1964) 

Herodian, (Loeb, London, 1970) 

Lives of the Later Caesars, (Penguin, London, 1976) 

Chastagnol, André, “Les femmes dans l’ordre sénatorial : titulature et rang social à Rome”, RH 262 1979, 3-28 

Hajjar, Youssef, “Divinités oraculaires en Syrie et en Phénicie”, ANRW II.18.4 1990, 2257-2258 

Halsberghe, G.H., “Le culte de Deus Sol Invictus”, ANRW II.17.4 1984, 2184-2194 

Hay, J. Stuart, The Amazing Emperor Heliogabalus, (London, 1911) 

Rea, John, “A letter of the emperor Elagabalus”, ZPE 96 1993, 127-132 

Salway, Benet, “A Fragment of Severan History: The Unusual Career of …atus, Praetorian Prefect of Elagabalus”, Chiron 27, 1997, 127-153 

Turcan, Robert, Les cultes orientaux dans le monde romain, (Paris, 1989) 

Turcan, Robert, “Les Dieux de l’Orient dans l’Histoire Auguste”, JS 1993, 21-62 

Varner, Eric R., “Condemnation in Crisis: Three Portraits of Severus Alexander and Damnatio Memoriae in the Late Severan Period”, AJA 96 1992, 350 


[1] Dio LXXIX.36.1 

[2] Dio LXXIX.38.1; J. Stuart Hay, The Amazing Emperor Heliogabalus, (London, 1911), 81 

[3] Herodian, V.5.2; Dio LXXIX.41.4 – Dio, a senator himself, reproaches his lowly social condition to Macrinus (who was only an equestrian), probably reflecting the true feelings of the rest of the Senate 

[4] Dio LXXX.3.2 – and apparently he kept his promise, although he killed some governors and some of Macrinus’s equestrian followers (Dio LXXX3.4) 

[5] SHA Heliog. 3; Dio LXXX.3; Hay, 83 

[6] SHA Heliog. 3 

[7] Herodian V.5.2 

[8] Herodian V.5.6 

[9] Hay, 108 

[10] Hay 108 

[11] Also named Ammudates (Youssef Hajjar, “Divinités oraculaires en Syrie et en Phénicie”, ANRW II.18.4 1990, 2257) 

[12] Herodian V.5.7; G.H. Halsberghe, “Le culte de Deus Sol Invictus”, ANRW II.17.4 1984, 2185; Dio LXXX.11 

[13] Dio LXXX.9.3-4; Herodian V.6.1-2 

[14] Dio LXXX.12.22 

[15] Robert Turcan, “Les Dieux de l’Orient dans l’Histoire Auguste”, JS 1993, 27 

[16] Herodian V.6.4; Elagabalus may have also forced the Senate to collect a “wedding tax” on each of those occasions (John Rea, “A letter of the emperor Elagabalus”, ZPE 96 1993, 132) 

[17] Some of these were reputed to be human sacrifices (Dio LXXX.11) 

[18] Robert Turcan, Les cultes orientaux dans le monde romain, (Paris, 1989), 176 

[19] SHA Heliog. 6 

[20] Dio LXXX.15.1-4 

[21] Dio LXXX.21.1-2; Herodian V.8.8 

[22] Benet Salway, “A Fragment of Severan History: The Unusual Career of …atus, Praetorian Prefect of Elagabalus”, Chiron 27, 1997, 127-153 

[23] SHA Heliog. 14 

[24] Dio LXXX.4.1-2 

[25] SHA Heliog. 14 

[26] Dio LXXX.16.6; This actually saved Zoticus’s life because he was exiled from Italy, far away from the events that led to Elagabalus’s death and that of his close associates 

[27] Herodian V.7.7 

[28] Dio LXXX.8.1-2 

[29] SHA, Heliog. 5.2 and 15.6; Dio LXXX.17.2 

[30] André Chastagnol, “Les femmes dans l’ordre sénatorial : titulature et rang social à Rome”, RH 262 1979, 3 ff. 

[31] Chastagnol, 9 

[32] Hay, 121 

[33] Chastagnol, 4 

[34] Hay, 123 

[35] Hay, 121 

[36] SHA, Heliog. 5.2 

[37] Hay, 138 ff. 

[38] Herodian V.7.1-2 

[39] Herodian V.7.4; Dio LXXX.17.2 

[40] Herodian V.8.2-4 

[41] SHA Heliog. 14 

[42] SHA Heliog. 13.1 

[43] SHA Heliog. 15 

[44] Dio LXXX.18.4 

[45] SHA Heliog. 16 

[46] Dio LXXX.20-21; SHA Heliog. 18; Herodian V.8.8-9 

[47] Dio LXXX.21.3 

[48] SHA Heliog. 18 

[49] Dio LXXX.21.2 

[50] SHA Heliog. 18 

[51] Eric R. Varner, “Condemnation in Crisis: Three Portraits of Severus Alexander and Damnatio Memoriae in the Late Severan Period”, AJA 96 1992, 350 

[52] Hay, 172


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