Was Emperor Elagabalus a Transgender?

Apr 2012
1,040
The Netherlands
#12
He could have been the first known transgender....to the likely horror of transgenders everywhere as soon as they find out who Elagabalus was. It was written that he desired female genitalia after all.

However just because its written doesn't mean its true. Slandering and demonizing deposed emperors seems to have been a common hobby for Roman historians.

So Elagabalus being a transgender would depends on those report about him being true and how serious he would have been about such a plan. Elagabalus seems the kind of guy to really want something and then completely forgets about the next day to focus on some other obsession.

So who knows.
 
Sep 2012
1,110
Taiwan
#13
Another issue btw is how should we label Elagabalus? If the reports are true that Elagabalus wanted a sex change and was uncomfortable with his sex at birth, well then he should be a she. And based on the following site Im going to consider identifying Elagabalus as Empress not Emperor.
Is that not an anachronism? Surely the construction and negotiation of identity is a two way street; one identifies as much as they are identified. Did Elagabalus' contemporaries consider him to be female, refer to him as Empress or in any way ascribe to this supposed identity of his? Just because someone says or believes that they are something does not necessarily mean that they are, nor that we should wilfully misinterpret or misrepresent history in such a fashion. Uncovering the truth about past figures and unravelling layers of bias, prejudice and opinion surrounding them is an important part of the historical method, but by painting them in our terms and according to our values, are we not culpable of the same crime as those historians who came before us? To be so quick to call him queer, transgender or transsexual is merely our own bias, prejudice and opinion, and whatever truth there is remains somewhere lost in the middle. It strikes me that any discussion of whether or not he may have been transgender must start with what transgenderism meant in Roman times and in Roman terms.
 
Dec 2015
3,743
USA
#14
Is that not an anachronism? Surely the construction and negotiation of identity is a two way street; one identifies as much as they are identified. Did Elagabalus' contemporaries consider him to be female, refer to him as Empress or in any way ascribe to this supposed identity of his? Just because someone says or believes that they are something does not necessarily mean that they are, nor that we should wilfully misinterpret or misrepresent history in such a fashion. Uncovering the truth about past figures and unravelling layers of bias, prejudice and opinion surrounding them is an important part of the historical method, but by painting them in our terms and according to our values, are we not culpable of the same crime as those historians who came before us? To be so quick to call him queer, transgender or transsexual is merely our own bias, prejudice and opinion, and whatever truth there is remains somewhere lost in the middle. It strikes me that any discussion of whether or not he may have been transgender must start with what transgenderism meant in Roman times and in Roman terms.
You bring up fair points.

In terms of transgender people btw there is a very long history,

Trans History 101: Transgender Expression in Ancient Times

The question perhaps is was Elagabalus transgender? Did Elagabalus openly have relations with those of the same sex and did Elagabalus dress as a woman and seek out a sex change. It has been suggested Elagabalus sought a sex change and offered riches to any doctor that could perform such an operation. That is from wiki but we can certainly ask do any other sources say the same?
 
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#15
That’s very interesting and a worthy post

Do you know of any scholars that have provided a positive description of the life of Elagabalus. And how the Roman people viewed the sexual lifestyle and just lifestyle in general of this emperor who is said to have been a transgender person.
I think there are scholars who have attempted to uncover positive aspects of his reign, in the same way that Caligula, Nero and Domitian have had aspects of their reign defended, but I don't remember who. Unfortunately, the sources are not very detailed for Elagabalus, and so I suspect that scholars don't have a lot to work with. The most detailed source is the Life of Elagabalus within the Historia Augusta, but much that is produced within the Historia Augusta is unreliable, and it has been argued that this particular biography is actually a parody of the reign of Constantine, whereby the cult of Elagabal parodies Christianity. Additionally, four years isn't a long time to rule anyway.

Regardless, Dio, Herodian and parts of the Historia Augusta provide a window into how senators viewed Elagabalus, and their views weren't favourable. Dio found his bi-gender stuff to have been strange and unfitting for a Roman emperor. They found his sexual activities with boys to be lacking in the moderation that an emperor should exercise. They found his attempted introduction of the Syrian god Elagabal as the chief state deity (with himself as the chief priest - emperors were the chief priest of the state religion) to be foreign/un-Roman. They found his ritual marrying of the stone of Elagabal to a cult image of Juno Calestis/Tanit and a cult image of Athena (the famous Palladium, which has supposedly been brought across to Italy from Troy by Aeneus and which was never meant to leave the House of Vesta), to have been disrespectful and impious (David Potter has argued that Elagabalus sought to replicate the Syrian trinity of Elagabal, Tanit and Astarte, having been a Syrian priest himself). His numerous short-lived marriages made him appear fickle and tempestuous, and his marriage to a Vestal Virgin was supremely impious (although he apparently saw it as a sacred marriage between a priest and priestess - I think it may have been argued that this again is the result of Syrian cultural context clashing with Rome, but I may be wrong). Lastly, his supposed attempt to kill his cousin/adopted son Severus Alexander was regarded as impious, and was one of the reasons why the Praetorians killed him - indeed the Praetorian action shows that the senators weren't the only ones with concerns, and the ancient authors claim that they were indeed as insulted by the emperor's various actions as the senators.

So, overall, he was not a popular emperor, but he also didn't rule long enough to show his worth in, say, a military context (which Romans respected).
 
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Likes: JoanOfArc007
#17
On the poor historical record for Elagabalus' reign, we shouldn't regard this as a cover-up by hostile historians. Historians covered 'good' and 'bad' emperors alike. They loved to lavish praise on the worthy and pass judgement on the unworthy. It is an accident of history that we have few reliable sources on Elagabalus' reign, just as it is an accident that we have few reliable sources on the reigns of Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius, usually considered to be 'good' emperors. The brevity of his reign also meant that there were fewer events for historians to cover.

On the matter of whether we should treat him as transgender, only one ancient author mentions this 'of two nature' surgery: the contemporary historian Cassius Dio. I'll quote both passages, for one of which I provided the Greek above:

80.16.7: 'He carried his lewdness to such a point that he asked the physicians to contrive a woman's vagina in his body by means of an incision, promising them large sums for doing so.'

80.17.1, fragment of Dio in the Epitome of Xiphilinus: 'Avitus (Elagabalus), according to Dio, besought his physician to employ his skill to make him of two natures by means of an anterior incision.'

I'm not particularly inclined to dismiss these notices as slander pulled out of thin air since they would be unique slanders to make. They certainly aren't from the cookbook of character flaws that are usually applied to 'bad' emperors by Greek and Roman writers. Dio, a consular senator at this time, is also generally considered a decent historian on contemporary affairs, albeit one with a pro-senatorial bias. However, the two notices are so brief because this part of Dio's history is fragmentary. Details that used to be there are now missing. So there is uncertainty about what Elagabalus actually wanted. There is also the possibility that Dio is merely reporting rumours - very unusual and thus noteworthy rumours to be sure, but we need not assume that Dio, albeit a senator of consular status, was deeply involved in palace affairs. This possibility again undermines the likelihood that we are being told Elagabalus' desires with accuracy. But additionally, 80.17.1 does not appear to be describing a sex change, but rather the addition of a vagina in order to allow him to be of two sexes. So, as far as I'm concerned, there are too many uncertainties and complications to allow one to securely say that Elagabalus constituted an ancient Roman equivalent of what we would today call transgender. Maybe he was, but maybe he wasn't.
 

Futurist

Ad Honoris
May 2014
21,131
SoCal
#18
Is that not an anachronism? Surely the construction and negotiation of identity is a two way street; one identifies as much as they are identified. Did Elagabalus' contemporaries consider him to be female, refer to him as Empress or in any way ascribe to this supposed identity of his? Just because someone says or believes that they are something does not necessarily mean that they are, nor that we should wilfully misinterpret or misrepresent history in such a fashion. Uncovering the truth about past figures and unravelling layers of bias, prejudice and opinion surrounding them is an important part of the historical method, but by painting them in our terms and according to our values, are we not culpable of the same crime as those historians who came before us? To be so quick to call him queer, transgender or transsexual is merely our own bias, prejudice and opinion, and whatever truth there is remains somewhere lost in the middle. It strikes me that any discussion of whether or not he may have been transgender must start with what transgenderism meant in Roman times and in Roman terms.
Yeah, I mean--to use a much later example--Pauli Murray might have very well been a transgender man by contemporary standards, but she never actually identified as such.
 
Nov 2016
970
Germany
#19
Was Emperor Elagabalus a Transgender perhaps making him the first and only such Emperor of Rome?
It's "transgender", not "a transgender". "Transgender" is an adjective, not a noun.
"Transgender" can also be used as a noun, which is common in both English and German. The same is true for "homosexual", which is originally only an adjective, but is also used as a term for homosexual people ("homosexuals"). Not to forget "black" and "white", which are adjectives that also refer to people from the point of view of skin color (quite questionable, by the way, because neither most blacks are really "black" - Will Smith and Whitney Houston, for example - nor most whites are "white", apart from albinos).
 
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Feb 2019
788
Pennsylvania, US
#20
Was Elagabalus truly transgender (gender not aligned with birth sex) - or bigender / genderqueer (encompassing qualities of both genders)? I guess both fall under the umbrella term "transgender" that is used to cover anything other than cisgender... and sometimes even anything other than heterosexual... but they are rather different.
 
Likes: JoanOfArc007