Elagabalus the terrible


Upon receiving an invitation to dine with the Roman emperor Elagabalus, no one dared to refuse. An extremely unpleasant evening experience was in store for them, and that was if they were fortunate. If not, they would suffer a nasty gruesome death.

For young Elagabalus devoted his short reign by playing elaborate practical jokes on some of his unsuspecting guests and subjects.

One of his greatest pleasures was to invite the seven fattest men in all of Rome to dinner. They were seated on air cushions which would then be punctured by the slaves upon the emperor’s command, sending the seated men sprawling on the floor. Others would be served with artificial food made of glass, marble or ivory. They had to consume it. Etiquette compelled them to do so.

If and when real food was served, it wouldn’t come as a surprise for visitors to find spiders in the aspic or lions’ dung in the pastries. Anyone who dined too well and fell asleep would wake up and find themselves alone in dungeons full of lions, leopards and bears. If they survived the shock, they would discover the wild animals were tame.

Elagabalus reigned from AD218 to 222 and was extremely fond of animals. Dogs, stags, lions and tigers pulled his chariot, but he was equally likely to arrive at a state function in a wheel-barrow pulled by naked women.

He would command his slaves to collect spiders’ webs, frogs, scorpions or venomous snakes which he would send to his courtiers as gifts.

On one occasion, he seemed to like the prospect of showering his dinner guests with rose petals. When his idea came to fruition, many of the guests ended up suffocating because of the amount of rose petals used.

The state coffers were emptied by extravagances. He would order a magnificent bath to be built, only for it to be used once and then demolished!

But Rome did not approve of his lavish lifestyle-nor did it share his crass sense of humor. When Elagabalus’ grandmother Julia Maesa perceived the decline in support for the emperor, she decided that both Elagabalus and his mother, who had been encouraging his eccentric zealous practices, must be replaced. As alternatives, she turned her to Julia Avita Mamaea, and her daughter’s son, thirteen-year-old Severus Alexander.

Julia Maesa arranged for Alexander to be appointed as heir by Elagabalus himself. But the latter had suspicions that the Praetorian Guard preferred his young cousin over himself. So, Elagabalus stripped Alexander of all his titles, and spread rumors that his cousin was nearing death, in order to see how the guard reacted. A riot ensued, and the guard demanded to see both Elagabalus and Alexander in the Praetorian camp.

On their arrival, the guards began to cheer Alexander, whilst ignoring Elagabalus. The emperor, furious at this display of insubordination, ordered the arrest and execution of all those involved. In response, the members of his own Praetorian guard attacked him and his mother.

In a plot formulated by his own grandmother, Elagabalus was assassinated. At the time of his death, his mother, who embraced and clung tightly to him, perished with him; their heads were chopped, and their bodies, after being stripped naked, were paraded around the city for public humiliation. Then, the deceased emperor’s body was bundled into the Tiber. He was just 18.


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