1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Heliogabalus
HELIOGABALUS (ELAGABALUS), Roman emperor (A.D. 218–222), was born at Emesa about 205. His real name was Varius Avitus. On the murder of Caracalla (217), Julia Maesa, Varius’s grandmother and Caracalla’s aunt, left Rome and retired to Emesa, accompanied by her grandsons (Varius and Alexander Severus). Varius, though still only a boy, was appointed high priest of the Syrian sun-god Elagabalus, one of the chief seats of whose worship was Emesa (Homs). His beauty, and the splendid ceremonials at which he presided, made him a great favourite with the troops stationed in that part of Syria, and Maesa increased his popularity by spreading reports that he was in reality the illegitimate son of Caracalla. Macrinus, the successor and instigator of the murder of Caracalla, was very unpopular with the army; an insurrection was easily set on foot, and on the 16th of May 218 Varius was proclaimed emperor as Marcus Aurelius Antoninus. The troops sent to quell the revolt went over to him, and Macrinus was defeated near Antioch on the 8th of June. Heliogabalus was at once recognized by the senate as emperor. After spending the winter in Nicomedia, he proceeded in 219 to Rome, where he made it his business to exalt the deity whose priest he was and whose name he assumed. The Syrian god was proclaimed the chief deity in Rome, and all other gods his servants; splendid ceremonies in his honour were celebrated, at which Heliogabalus danced in public, and it was believed that secret rites accompanied by human sacrifice were performed in his honour. In addition to these affronts upon the state religion, he insulted the intelligence of the community by horseplay of the wildest description and by childish practical joking. The shameless profligacy of the emperor’s life was such as to shock even a Roman public. His popularity with the army declined, and Maesa, perceiving that the soldiers were in favour of Alexander Severus, persuaded Heliogabalus to raise his cousin to the dignity of Caesar (221), a step of which he soon repented. An attempt to murder Alexander was frustrated by the watchful Maesa. Another attempt in 222 produced a mutiny among the praetorians, in which Heliogabalus and his mother Soemias (Soaemias) were slain (probably in the first half of March).
Authorities.—Life by Aelius Lampridius in Scriptores historiae Augustae; Herodian v. 3-8; Dio Cassius lxxviii. 30 sqq., lxxix. 1-21; monograph by G. Duviquet, Héliogabale (1903), containing a translation of the various accounts of Heliogabalus in Greek and Latin authors, notes, bibliography and illustrations; O. F. Butler, Studies in the Life of Heliogabalus (New York, 1908); Gibbon, Decline and Fall, ch. 6; H. Schiller, Geschichte der römischen Kaiserzeit, i. pt. ii. (1883), p. 759 ff. On the Syrian god see F. Cumont in Pauly-Wissowa’s Realencyclopädie, v. pt. ii. (1905).