One of the U.K.’s most insignificant institutions of public learning, North Hertfordshire Museum, has just gained some easy free publicity for itself by arbitrarily relabelling a display about the Roman Emperor Elagabalus with female pronouns, as he was supposedly now suddenly a “trans woman”.
Despite actually being called Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, certain classical texts claim Elagabalus once said “call me not Lord, for I am a Lady” (shades of Little Britannia) and that he was ‘married’ to a male former chariot driver named Hiercoles, towards whom Elagabalus “was termed wife, mistress and queen” – actually a probable euphemism meaning he felt it was better to receive than to give in certain private conjugal matters, a matter of shame in ancient Roman society.
Stories about Elagabalus’s ostensible gender dysphoria and cross-dressing, drawn from contemporary sources like the hostile Roman historian Dio Cassius, do seem on the surface rather suggestive. One time he is said to have offered half the Empire to any surgeon who could successfully chop off his manhood and replace it with its female equivalent instead; gladiators desperate to escape from the Circus Maximus must have begun sharpening their swords with glee.
Accordingly, after consulting with those noted classical historians at Stonewall to ensure its displays were “as up-to-date and inclusive as possible”, North Herts Museum decided to update its labels with the pronouns she/her when referring to Elagabalus, before placing a silver coin bearing his image into its “LGBTQ collection” alongside all the Renaissance rainbow flags and Stone-Age dildos.
The Glory-Hole That Was Rome
Surprisingly, the usually transphilic BBC bothered to ask a Cambridge University Classics professor, Dr. Shushma Malik, about this, who told it the whole idea was very probably just a piece of ancient propaganda:
The historians we use to try and understand the life of Elagabalus are extremely hostile towards him, and therefore cannot be taken at face value… There are many examples in Roman literature of times where effeminate language and words were used as a way of criticising or weakening a political figure. References to Elagabalus wearing make-up, wigs and removing body hair may have been written in order to undermine the unpopular emperor.
According to this interpretation, angered by his injudicious attempts to import worship of a foreign Sun-god into the Roman pantheon, enemies of Elagabalus’s day probably wished to make the boy-Emperor (he was assassinated aged only 18) look like a mentally ill degenerate, and so perhaps chose to falsely depict him as a transvestite to discredit his memory forever. Indeed, the only thing the average person today ‘knows’ about Elagabalus is that he supposedly had his guests at a banquet pointlessly killed by slowly suffocating them all with a never-ending rain of rose-petals, as famously depicted in an 1888 painting by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (see above).
This being clearly the campest atrocity ever committed, surely Elagabalus – let’s just call him ‘Ellie’, it’s what she would have wanted – was indeed highly SPQueeR? Apparently not. According to most historians, the rose-petal story was every bit as false as the idea he was a kind of classical Dylan Mulvaney.
However, councillor Keith Hoskins, an arts official on North Herts Council, clearly felt he knew better than the experts, something politicians these days generally decry amongst the general electorate, but very rarely amongst themselves. Said Keith: “We know that Elagabalus identified as a woman and was explicit about which pronouns to use, which shows that pronouns are not a new thing.” Right. So what’s the Latin for ‘xe’, ‘zin’ or ‘zir’, then?
Fiddling With Themselves While Rome Burns
Might depictions of Ellie in ancient statuary or on old Roman coins help settle the issue? Perhaps the coin containing an image of Elagabalus in North Hertfordshire Museum’s LGBTQ wing shows him/her wearing a polka-dot dress with a bow in his hair like Minnie Mouse (or ‘Minimus’, maybe)? No.
Regrettably, all known such depictions show a young man wearing male clothing, with a male hairstyle (here’s a very telling modern-day CGI facial reconstruction performed using just such a source – do note his sideburns and wispy teen ‘tache). Admittedly, they don’t specifically depict his male genitalia too, but then neither do our own Royal Mint’s new pound coins of King Charles.
Yet, to many a queer solipsist today, absence of evidence does not necessarily mean evidence of absence, as I have shown previously elsewhere (see here, here and here). Elagabalus has long been a trans icon for the terminally deluded, leading to bizarre conclusions about the Emperor/Empress’s iconography such as the following, taken from U.S. gay pseudo-history website OutHistory:
The statuary… shows a young man with hair cut in classic Roman style and thus seems designed to placate those of traditional feelings as it showed the young ruler as being similar in appearance to… other Roman emperors. Some historians use this lack of archaeological evidence to claim that Elagabalus’s cross-gender behaviour was greatly exaggerated or even simply made up to smear her (sic). I think it is just as plausible that the fact that only gender-normative visual records of Elagabalus survive shows that her sexual and gender variance was disapproved of and often hidden and can lead one to suppose that only images more respectable to Ancient Roman values were preserved, while evidence of cross-gender behaviour was effaced.