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From A Gallery of Eccentrics, by Morris Bishop, New York: Minton, Balch & Company, 1928; pp. 3-28.


Morris Bishop




WE find few practical jokers among the ancients. The humors of classical men were spent in wise saws and pithy apophthegms, and their jests were rather shrewd casts at truth than befuddlements of their neighbors. Perhaps the Lysistrata treats of a vast practical joke played on men by women; perhaps the magickings of Circe were humorously bizarre; perhaps Mars and Venus were merely making game of Vulcan, as he did then in reply. But no, these are not jokes in any modern sense; Eugene Field, E. A. Sothern, Brian G. Hughes, looking upon such monstrous horseplays, would have curled the wry lip of scorn. In the Emperor Elagabalus, almost alone, would they had found a crony with a sympathetic sense of humor.

In the conduct of his banquets was his frolic whim most manifest. Let us take an example. In one of the foul dark chasms of old Rome sits a great hogshead of a man, a wheezing bellying monster such as only the South produces, the admiration of his quarter, one of the dozen weightiest men of the capital. The agents of the imperial diversions have marked him down on their tablets. And one day Elagabalus speaks an order, and a messenger of the household flies to this fleshly tun, bearing an invitation from the God-Emperor to dine at His board that afternoon. The messenger does not 4 wait for an answer, for no engagement is previous to an engagement from the God-Emperor.

The bidden guest is not struck chill with terror, for Elagabalus does not serve his convives with death for dessert; he is no Caligula, no Nero. But all his flesh crawls with apprehensions; he has heard of the novelties and originalities of his Lord at table. He presents at the palace gate his invitation, and is admitted and led to a swimming-pool flavored with essence of spices, roses, and wormwood. He is brought to the banqueting-hall; and there he finds that his fellow-guests are the seven fattest men that the Lord Chamberlain could scour up in all Rome. Elagabalus the Emperor, the Boy-God, points them to their places, a couch for eight. And there the eight of them attempt to put themselves, and two are pushed off upon the floor, and they scratch and scramble and tumble their great bellies about, for they know how the dinner-guests of the God should behave, and the God is amused and screams with delight. He relents and has the couch removed, and seats his companions in a circle upon air-pillows. And when they are well composed and deep in compliments slaves suddenly release the air from the pillows, and down again upon the floor they wallow.

At last, they murmur happily, the follies are at an end. Couches of solid silver are brought in; the guests are crowned with amaranth, to open the pores and neutralize the fumes of wine. Now the gustatio, a fine lot of hors d’œuvres, appears: sausages, pea-hens’ eggs, olives, and dormice with honey and poppy-seeds. The boon-fellows attempt great delightful bites, to find that their food is made of glass, of ivory, of marble. Elagabalus is munching his dormice with gusto; he looks up, 5 notices his guests at pause, and inquires touchily if one has any fault to find with the Emperor’s food. “Ambrosia!” one cries, and pops an earthenware olive in his mouth with an air of bliss. And so through all the banquet: His Divinity swallows camels’ heels and cocks’ combs torn from living birds, the tongues of peacocks and nightingales, “huge platters heaped up with the viscera of mullets, and flamingo-brains, partridge-eggs, thrush-brains, and the heads of parrots, pheasants, and peacocks,” while his companions dally with their stone presentments. Only at the end does he surrender, with laughter. They dine largely on wild sows’ udders, fish cooked in bluish water to preserve their natural color, and besprinkled with pearls, on fillet of ostrich. Yet even in these sweet moments, they must beware, lest they bit too deep into a dish of spiders preserved in jelly, or of lions’ dung in smoking pastry.

And while dinner was in its long progress, Elagabalus would hold a lottery for his guests. Says Lampridius: “He would distribute chances inscribed on spoons, the chance of one person reading ‘ten camels,’ of another, ‘ten flies,’ of another, ‘ten pounds of gold,’ of another, ‘ten pounds of lead,’ of another, ‘ten ostriches,’ of another, ‘ten hens’ eggs,’ so that they were chances indeed and men tried their luck. These he also gave at his games, distributing chances for ten bears or ten dormice, ten lettuces or ten pounds of gold. Indeed he was the first to introduce this practice of giving chances, which we still maintain. And the performers too he invited to what were really chances, giving as prizes a dead dog or a pound of beef, or else a hundred aurei, or a hundred pieces of silver, or a hundred coppers, and so on. All this so pleased the populace 6 that after each occasion they rejoiced that he was emperor.”

Now the Emperor’s pot-companions have drunk well of priceless old Falernian of the year 642 A. U. C., and of strange wines flavored with pennyroyal and mastic. One has drunk too well; the palace swoops and dances before his eyes. He is conscious that slaves are bearing him to a bedchamber. There he lies in slumber until the fumes of those weird wines are something dissipated; he wakes, stirred by some dreadful apprehension; and by his bed he perceives the curious snouts of a lion, a leopard, and a bear. They thrust forward at his face . . . they wish only to play with him; they are the Emperor’s tamed and harmless pets. Some of his guests, says the historian, died of this joke.

He was a great joker, a whimsical and high-humored lad, a lover of laughter in which we still may join. Yet now the mention of the name of Elagabalus, or Heliogabalus1, suffices to bring the blush of shame to virgin cheeks. He is a byword for unnatural indulgences, and that is a pity, for he merits attention on many another count than scatology. If the honest citizen to whom this book is addressed will but over look the painful lack of moral rigor in Elagabalus, he will find that emperor an interesting, nay, a winning figure.

We must now look into his ancestry, dubious though it be. The Emperor Septimius Severus had to wife the learned and gracious Julia, who bore him that son who was to be the Emperor Caracalla. Julia was descended from the line of High Priests of the Sun-God, Elah-Gebal, at His temple in Emesa in Syria. 7 From Emesa came Julia’s sister, Maesa, to make the most of the family’s elevation. Maesa’s daughter, Soaemias, was reputed to temper her Syrian ardor with the casual latitudinarianism of Rome. Her affection for her cousin Caracalla was literally shouted in public. Caracalla once sought to ravish a vestal virgin, and, failing, had her burned alive. But even as she roasted she cried aloud her innocence, asserting that Soaemias had put the deed beyond the power of Caracalla.

The Emperor Caracalla was stabbed in 217 A.D. Macrinus, who had arranged the stabbing, succeeded to the imperial throne, as was then customary. Maesa and Soaemias, at the suggestion of Macrinus, forthwith retied to the old family home in Emesa, and there lived, wealthy and highly considered, the great folk of all that country.

Soaemias, now a widow, had a son, named Varius Avitus Bassianus. For this son the name and glory of Elagabalus was destined. Who was his father? Lampridius, a malevolent historian, sets down that the name Varius was given him by his schoolfellows because his father was “various.” Whether he was in fact the son of Caracalla was a secret to which, it appears, not even his mother was privy. The popularity of Caracalla among the soldiery might, in the event of any calamity to Macrinus, fall as a legacy to Caracalla’s son. The promptings of advantage made conviction of surmise. Ere long it was accepted, in the family and through Emesa, that young Bassianus, now dubbed Bassianus Antoninus, was the son of Caracalla.

He was fourteen years old in that year of 218. “Pulchritudine 8 conspicuus erat,” he was conspicuous for his beauty, said Lampridius, grudgingly. As the scion of the family of Priests of the Sun, he was inducted into the hereditary office. In the golden temple of the Sun, before the lewd black stone which was the symbol of Oriental Deity, he led the voluptuous songs and dances of the worshipers. He wore a tunic interwoven with gold, says Herodian, with wide sleeves falling to his feet, and he was wound about from waist to feet in gold and purple, and had upon his head a crown flowering with precious stones; ah, he was “cunctorum adolescentium formosissimus!” The Roman soldiers there in winter quarters flocked to his temple to see him celebrate his happy religion, with his “chorus winding barbarian strains before his altars, with flutes and pipes and all manner of organ-music.” Soon the sedulous rumor spread among the soldiery that his dancing priest was none other than the son of Caracalla, and that his grandmother’s wealth was matched only by her liberality; and all of that darling General’s men were quick to see the likeness of feature. In 218 the rebellion broke forth in Emesa. Macrinus sent his troops to besiege the city, under the command of his prefect Julian; but young Bassianus or Elagabalus, as we shall henceforth term him, stood forth upon the battlements with a cluster of money-bags about him, and cried; “’Tis the son of the Antonine! Why do you thus fight against your benefactor’s son?” The expeditionary troops were stirred so deeply that they joined forces with the rebels, and sent the head of their own general, Julian, back to Macrinus, marking the package, “Head of Elagabalus.”2 In a later battle near Antioch the 9 boy gave proof of stoutness, charging the enemy with drawn sword on horseback, while his mother and grandmother, leaping from their vehicles, restrained some fainthearts by their lamentations. Macrinus escaped nearly to Byzantium by traveling in the public stage-coaches as a private citizen, until some incautious words resulted in his execution by a local centurion. His removal received common applause, as the Roman constitution made no provision for ex-Emperors.

Now see this boy of fourteen proclaimed Emperor of Rome by his army, upon the 8th of June, 218. Hear him announce to the Senate of the populus Romanus that the Antonines are restored; and observe the alacrity with which that august body, which had decreed death and obloquy upon him just six weeks before, welcomed him with delighted professions of fealty. He wintered in Nicomedia, and entered Rome triumphally in the summer of 219. He was to reign as Emperor of Rome and God of Earth for less than three years; in March, 222, the divine body was to be tossed in to the latrinae at the behest of God’s grandmother and aunt.

Of the laws of his reign, of his policies internal and external, of his relations with Senate, ministers, and popolo, I shall not speak. The inquisitive are recommended to the chroniclers, or to that racy history of his reign by J. Stuart Hay, Esq.3 Further I shall not speak of the monstrosities of perversion with which the historians have sullied his fame for all posterity. Such records shall continue to be veiled in the decent obscurity of a learned language (to adopt the golden phrase 10 of Gibbon). If he is pictured to us as “a stampeding unicorn with a taste for marrons glacés”4 the prudent researcher must subtract from the infamy of the portrait the servility of the artist. Lampridius, our most ample informant, wrote a hundred years after Elagabalus’s time to the direction, and to the constant praise, of Christian Constantine. Lampridius shared his master’s scorn for the House of Antonine, and most of all he raged against this dubious Syrian who had brought to Rome the worship of Baal. Dissenters in religion have been always evil livers and depraved; and therefore “instead of the generous, fearless, affectionate boy whom the populace had known, there emerged the sceptered butcher ill with satyriasis; the taciturn tyrant, hideous and debauched, the unclean priest, devising in the crypts of a palace infamies so monstrous that to describe them new words has to be coined.”5

We shall best understand Elagabalus if we think of him always as a boy. Make any boy of fourteen Emperor, Ruler of all the World, High Priest, and God, and he will use his power to act in life his dreams of glory, magnificence, and schoolboy wit. Take this strange, precocious Syrian, inhabited by early and unnatural sensualities, educated only to be the agent of his female relatives’ lust for power,6 and one will still find that his fantasticalities are those of a boyish, though warped imagination. “He gave a naval spectacle, it is said, on the Circus-canals, which had been filled with wine . . . also he drove a chariot drawn by 11 four elephants on the Vatican Hill, destroying the tombs that obstructed the way, and he harnessed four camels to a chariot at a private spectacle in the Circus. . . . He often brought four-horse chariots from the Circus into his banqueting-rooms or porticoes while he lunched or dined, compelling his guests to drive, even though they were old men and some of them had held public office.”7 He loved strange equipages. He would appear in public driving a chariot drawn by four huge dogs, or four stags, four lions, four tigers, or in a wheelbarrow drawn by four naked women of the greatest beauty. He loved also, boy-like, to make a mock of respectable elders. The Senators he called slaves in togas. “On one occasion he invited the nobles of the court to a vintage-festival, and when he had seated himself by the baskets of grapes, he began to ask the most dignified of them once by one whether he were responsive to Venus, and when the old men would blush he would cry out, ‘He is blushing, it’s all right,’ regarding their silence and blushes as a confession.”

Youthful, too, was his delight in mere extravagance and in frantic excess of luxury. “He loved to hear the prices of the food served at his table exaggerated, asserting it was an appetizer for the banquet.” He loved folly not for folly’s sake alone but for the pleasure of provoking the reprobation of his austere elders. “He could not rest easily on cushions that were not stuffed with rabbit-fur or feathers from under the wings of partridges, and he used, moreover, to change the pillows frequently. . . . He fed his dogs on goose-livers. . . . He sent grapes from Apamea to his stables for his 12 horses,8 and he fed parrots and pheasants to his lions. . . . In a banqueting-room with a reversible ceiling he once overwhelmed his parasites with violets and other flowers, so that some of them were actually smothered to death.9 Once he invited the common mob to a drinking-bout, and himself drank with the populace, taking so much that on seeing what he alone consumed, people supposed he had been drinking from one of his swimming-pools.10 One summer he made a mountain of snow in the pleasure-garden attached to his house. . . . When adultery was represented on the stage, he would order what was usually done in pretense to be carried out in fact. . . . He was he first of the Romans who wore clothing entirely of silk.11 . . . He ordered his slaves to bring him a thousand pounds of spider’s webs and offered them a prize; and he collected, it is said, ten thousand pounds, and then remarked that one could realize from that how great a city was Rome. He used also to send his parasites jars of frogs, scorpions, snakes, and other such reptiles, as their yearly allowance of provisions, and he would shut up a vast number of flies in jars of this sort and call them tamed bees.12 . . . His chariots were made of jewels and gold, for he scorned those that were merely of silver or ivory or bronze. . . . He would propose to his guests by way of a feat, that they should invent new sauces for giving flavor to the food, and he would offer a very large prize for the man whose invention should please him. If the 13 sauce did not please him, the inventor was ordered to continue eating it until he invented a better one. . . . He constructed baths in many places, bathed in them once, and immediately demolished them. . . . He purchased a very famous and very beautiful harlot for one hundred thousand sesterces, and then kept her untouched, as though she were a virgin. . . . He never put on the same shoes twice and never, it is said, wore the same ring a second time. . . . He sank some heavily laden ships in the harbor and then said it was a sign of greatness of soul. . . . He had prepared cords entwined with purple and scarlet silk, in order that, if need arose, he could put an end to his life by the noose. He had gold swords, too, in readiness, with which to stab himself, should any violence impend. He also had poisons ready, in ceraunites and sapphires and emeralds.”13

For extravagance young Elagabalus had the best of precedent, imperial and private. Rome, in the young days of the Empire, had learned from the East to be lavish with grace and to hold riches cheap. Cleopatra, having met Mark Antony in Cilicia, prepared him an entertainment in which every dish was golden and inlaid with precious stones, wonderfully chased and embossed.14 Antony being amazed at such magnificence, the Queen made him a present of all that he saw, and invited him to sup again with her on the following day, bringing all his captains. “And then she prepared a banquet by far more splendid than the former one, so as to make that first one appear contemptible”; and again she presented to him and his friends the table 14 ware, couches, palanquins and palanquin bearers, horses trapped with gold, and Ethiopian slaves. And this she did for four days; and on the fourth day the floor of the chamber of the men was strewn a cubit deep with roses, nets being spread over the blooms.15

Nero was the model and the despair of all those later emperors who would hush the world in wonder of their luxury. Nero, who wore a diadem which cost four million sesterces,16 who never put on twice the same garment, who cast dice at four hundred thousand sesterces the point, who fished with a golden net, who shod his mules with silver, who built a palace with a dome of sapphire, a floor of malachite, crystal columns and golden walls! In him, as in Elagabalus, lived a delight in mere spending and wasting, in the degradation of what men held precious.17

As Caligula would feed his horse on gilded oats, Elagabalus “would mix jewels with apples and flowers, and he would throw out of the window quite as much food as he served to his friends.” In later times this same impulse of poor humanity has not seldom been manifested.18 From such examples one will conclude 15 that the ostentatious consumption of Elagabalus is to be measured rather by his opportunity than by the unique depravity of his spirit.

We may well concern ourselves for a time with the famous banquets of our subject, for a Caesar seated at meat puts off something of his strangeness, and even the thought of these foods so long since consumed may be proved by physiology to stimulate secretions in our own salivary glands. The feasts of old times have occupied the attention of many a modern scholar, and indeed this is no trivial subject, as every reader of the “Banquets” of Plato, Lucian, and Xenophon will attest. The ancients made of their meals an art and a rite. In Sicily the goddess of good food, Adephagia, had her special altars, where the more serious cooks came to pray for inspiration. Great eaters were men of renown, acclaimed for valor. Athenaeus tells us of Milo of Crotona, who carried a four-year-old bull on his shoulders around the course at Olympia, and afterward killed it, cut it up, and ate it. “Cantibaris the Persian, whenever his jaws were wary with eating, had his slaves to pour food into his mouth, which he kept open as if they were pouring it into an empty vessel.” Also there was Cambles, king of the Lydians, who one night, in a ravening fit, ate his wife; “and then, in the morning, 16 finding the hand of his wife still sticking in his mouth, he slew himself, as his act began to get notorious.” Philoxenus the Leucadian trained himself, by keeping his hand in the hottest water, and by scalding his mouth often, to be able to seize the best bits in hot stews and to despatch them before his fellow-guests. He was outdone by Pithyllus, called Tenthes, who had a covering to his tongue made of skin, and who wore finger-stalls, thus to anticipate Philoxenus before the still-bubbling messes.

The Romans outdid the Greeks in the honor they accorded to victuals supreme in excellence. Vedius Pollio fed his eels on live slaves, thus obtaining a rare piquancy. Mark Antony’s daughter, says Dr. Doran in his erudite volume,19 adorned a favorite lamprey with ear-rings, and exhibited him at table. Crassus, so Cicero tells us, wailed the death of a favorite eel of the muraena sort, and performed the rites of mourning as for a daughter. When rebuked in the Senate, he lauded his own grief as an exquisite proof of sensibility.

But this is leading us away from our subject, which is, for the nonce, the splendors of Roman feasts. The name of Lucullus is still our byword for all that is frantically lavish.20 Our Elagabalus however took, not Lucullus, but Apicius for his model. There was a high heart for you, a creature purified by the intensity of his passion, though the object of his passion was, perhaps, a low one. “He spent myriads of drachms on his belly,” says Athenaeus. He lived in Minturnae, in 17 Campania, on account of the crawfish. Hearing talk of the great crabs of Africa, “he sailed thither, without waiting a single day, and suffered exceedingly on his voyage.” The fishermen, at news of his arrival, brought the finest crabs of Africa to his boatside; but as they were smaller than those of Minturnae, he had the boat’s head turned back toward Italy, and sailed homeward without going upon the African shore. He it was who sent, by a clever contrivance, fresh oysters to the Emperor Trajan, when he was in Parthia, many days’ journey from the sea. A kind of cheese-cake was called Apician after him; a cook-book of his dainties has come down to us, and you may still consult it. Having spent a hundred million sesterces on refined luxuries, he found at the end that but ten million21 remained to him. He then opened his veins, death being preferable to starvation.22


Elagabalus, then, declared that his models in extravagance were, among commoners, Apicius, and among emperors, Otho and Vitellius. Yet this last was a gross feeder, not very like to our hero. Walking through the market-place, he would snatch at the meat roasting before the cooks’ stalls, and eagerly devour it. Even in the temples, he would sweep the consecrated barley from the altars and swallow it down. He was given a banquet by his brother in which two thousand fish and seven thousand birds were served. He himself invented a dish, called the Shield of Minerva. It was a vast platter, heaped with the livers of pike, brains of pheasants and peacocks, tongues of flamingoes, and milt of lampreys, brought by his captains from the whole empire, from Parthia to the Spanish strait. Elagabalus might justly have added to his imperial precedents the Emperor Geta, who would serve banquets at which the name of every dish began with the same letter of the alphabet.23 It will be observed that Elagabalus made no mention of Domitian, whose prandial comedy was distinctly macabre. He had a black basalt supper hall, where the guests lay on black couches, before broken black columns, and ate of black meats served by Ethiops. A meal in this cave was held to be of such ill omen that guests would commonly fall on their swords upon taking leave of their host. Such a savage humor was ill consonant with the sunny mind of Elagabalus.

For the most detailed and amusing description of a Roman banquet, one would of course turn to the Cena Trimalchionis of Petronius. But every one has read Petronius nowadays, and I shall not reproduce his 19 somewhat extravagant burlesque.24 Let me only recall, as pertinent to our study, those dishes designed to arouse the guests’ merriment while appeasing heir bodily needs. Such were the pea-hens’ eggs brought in under a brooding fowl of wood. These the guests cracked open, finding, to their displeasure, small birds within; but the shells were paste and the fledglings savory reed-birds. Later a whole boar was served up with sucking pigs of pastry. A slave ripped open the side of the boar, and out there flew live thrushes, which were taken captive by bird-catchers with long rods. After a whole roast pig and other entrées had been dispatched, a boiled calf made its entry with a helmet on its head. An actor dressed as Ajax then fell upon the beast, hacking it to bits with a sword, and presenting the morsels to the guests. Perfumes were let down from the ceiling, with, by way of dessert, candied images of Priapus, clasping apples and cakes. These sweetmeats, when eagerly seized, squirted forth saffron water on the clutcher.25 20

I am afraid that all this may sound coarse to you; it reminds you of Burton’s phrase, in his Anatomy of Melancholy: “If we be witty in anything, it is ad gulam : if we study at all, it is eruditu luxu, to please the palate, and to satisfy the gut.” It should not be overlooked that in the Roman banquets the tickling of the palate with novelties was supplemented by the delights of other senses. Music filled the intervals of the feast; Elagabalus himself was no mean performer on the pipes, the horn, the pandura, and the hydraulic organ. Dancers beguiled the recumbent diners; and of our hero’s guests it is said that between the courses they bathed and dallied with (“uterentur”) women. Elagabalus, no lover of blood, would not have tolerated the Roman custom of which Athenaeus tells us: “People often invited their friends to an entertainment, promising them that they should see two or three pairs of single combatants. And when they had had enough of meat and drink they then called in the combatants; and as soon as one of them was killed, the guests clapped, being delighted at the exhibition. And in one instance a man left it in this will that some beautiful women, whom he had purchased as slaves, should engage in single combat; and in another case a man desired 21 that some youthful boys whom he had loved should do so; but the people would not tolerate such notorious proceedings, and declared the will invalid.” The Roman pleasure in death, whether in the giving or accepting of it, would meet with only the sternest reprehension among the gentility of our own day. Athenaeus quotes from Euphorion the Chalcidian: “Among the Romans it is common for five minae to be offered to anyone who chooses to take it, to allow his head to be cut off with an ax, so that his heirs may receive the reward.” Even were one to grant that a refined sensuality may find satisfactions in torture, one would say that the mere beheading at table of a bought victim could please only the most coarse-grained of sadists. The Thracian game would present more attraction to our sport-loving times. Says Seleucus:26 “Some of the Thracians at their drinking parties play the game of hanging. The fix a noose to some high place, exactly beneath which they place a stone which is easily turned round when any one stands upon it; and then they cast lots, and he who draws the lot, holding a sickle in his hand, stands upon the stone, and puts his neck into the halter; and then another person comes and raises the stone, and the man who is suspended, when the stone moves from under him, if he is not quick enough in cutting the rope with his sickle, is killed; and the rest laugh, thinking his death good sport.”27


Good sport, perhaps, but cruel sport indeed it would seem to us, and so it would have to Elagabalus. It may be counted to him as a virtue, according to modern reckoning, that he found nothing ludicrous in suffering. The names of his witty predecessors, Nero, Domitian, Commodus, have still about them a stale reek of blood. Caligula one evening burst suddenly into laughter. When his guests inquired for the joke, he explained through bubbling mirth that he was reflecting how easily he could have all of them killed. “Dear heart,” he murmured to his mistress Pryallis (I am quoting from Edgar Saltus’s purple volume),28 “I think I will have you tortured that you may tell me why I love you so.” Perhaps Elagabalus, that Syrian, lacked the steadfast Roman virtues, including the stern Stoic composure in the midst of others’ pain. The cruelty chiefly alleged against him is that he would sacrifice children according to the rites of his Eastern religion, torturing them, and examining their vitals for his magical purposes.29 One must, however, make a sharp distinction between the pains inflicted for religion’s sake and those done out of wantonness.

His religion was, indeed, the greatest occupation of his reign. He sought, it appears, to establish in Rome his worship of Baal, the Sun, the One God. All the gods of Rome, of Africa and the East were to be the chamberlains and handmaidens of the Sun. To this end he propitiated these lesser deities, showering them with honors, having himself consecrated in a dozen 23 priesthoods. He entered the sanctuary of Vesta and attempted to carry off the sacred shrine, but the Senior Vestal foiled this subjection of her goddess to Baal. He adopted the worship of the Great Mother, standing in the pit to receive the drippings of the slaughtered bull. “He would toss his head to and from among the castrated devotees of the goddess, and he infibulated himself, and did all that the eunuch-priests are wont to do,” says Lampridius. “He also celebrated the rite of Salambo with all the wailing and the frenzy of the Syrian cult.” He announced that Baal, his God, was in the mood for marriage, that he might beget celestial sons. What more fitting than the wedding of the Sun and Moon? Logically enough, he brought from Carthage the image of Caelestis, or Urania, the Moon, gathered wedding gifts and a dowry for her from all his subjects, and established her by the Sun’s side in the temple. (He himself, only a little less a god than his master, espoused a vestal virgin, to the horror and dismay of Rome). The divine nuptials were celebrated by a procession that was the wonder of his times. The God’s chariot was studded with gold and jewels; great umbrellas were fixed at each corner. “It was drawn by six white horses, and the reins were so arranged as to make it appear that the God himself was driving, while the horses were actually guided by the Emperor, running backwards . . . The streets were strewn thick with yellow sand powdered with gold dust, and the whole route was lined by the populace, carrying torches and strewing flowers in the path of the God.”30

In his wildest humors and most immoderate caprices, Elagabalus was ever at pains to make no mock of 24 religion. Though he would sometimes resort to violence to obtain the homage of priests of reluctant deities, he would attempt none of the insolences of Caligula, who threatened the statue of Jupiter with mechanical lightning. Caligula’s presumption was carried so far, indeed, that he said to Jupiter: “One of us two must disappear!” Then, whispering for a moment in the deity’s ear, his countenance cleared. “Jupiter has asked my pardon!” he announced to the awe-struck courtiers. Nor would Elagabalus have insulted the beliefs of others as did Hadrian, setting over the gates of rebuilt Jerusalem images of sneering swine. Nor, finally, would he have been capable of the blasphemies of Michael the Drunkard, Emperor of Byzantium, who would sally forth with his satellites dressed in the robes of the patriarch and the metropolitans, and would administer by force to passers-by the Holy Sacrament in the form of vinegar and mustard.

Elagabalus failed in his purpose to unite the worship of the Romans in that of his Master. A hundred years were to pass ere Constantine should succeed in a similar end, bringing Jehovah to sit on the throne of Baal, to be victor in the long struggle which had begun many centuries before in distant Canaan. We may speculate, if we will, on the turns this world would have taken had Elagabalus been strong enough to bring to pass his design. But he was too ready to waste his days and nights in folly, and, disastrously, he would not heed the admonitions of his grandmother, Maesa, and his aunt, Mammaea.

These vigorous women had set him on the throne; they felt that respect was due to their opinions. They argued with him that his devotion to the family deity 25 was harming him in the eyes of Rome; unpopularity in Rome might well lead to the taking-off off himself and the retirement of his kin to the provincial obscurity of Emesa. Elagabalus took a high tone with them, and the ladies, bridling, vowed his death and replacement by Mammaea’s son, Alexander. After various turns of chance the business was arranged.

Elagabalus, I have noticed, had prepared cords of silk and swords of gold and poisons set in jewels for the time of his suicide. “He also built a very high tower from which to throw himself down, constructed of boards gilded and jeweled in his own presence, for even his death, he declared, should be costly and marked by luxury, in order that it might be said that no one had ever died in this fashion.”31 Alas, what a lesson to human vanity is contained in the manner of his death! According to Lampridius, when his grandmother gave the word he was attacked and slain in the latrinae; his body was then dragged through the streets and thrust into a sewer. The aperture proving too exiguous, the corpse was weighted and tossed into the Tiber from the Aemilian bridge.32

Thus perished Elagabalus, early in the year 222, at the age of seventeen. He was a precocious child, to have become the byword for sin to all succeeding times. Let us forget those old iniquities; whether real or imagined, they are in no wise novel or interesting.33 Let us remember rather the gay and laughter-loving boy, playing his tremendous jokes, dancing through the Imperial 26 palace, dancing through the little life he had.33 And if you are of a mind for more serious reflection, you may think of him as one who failed by a little of making us all today sectaries of Baal, devotees of that happy deity, the Sun, of whom the first Prophet was to be the great, the good, the sainted Elagabalus.


 1  The name is that of his Syrian god, Elah-Gebal, in which one recognizes the Hebrew stems of “El” and “Baal.” It was later Hellenized, by false etymology, to incorporate the Greek “Helio,” or Sun.

 2  The bundle, says Dio Cassius, was wrapped in many linen cloths and tied up very strongly indeed with ropes. The packing was done at the instance of the bold messenger who delivered it into Macrinus’s hands but waited for no receipt.

 3  The Amazing Emperor Heliogabalus. London, 1911.

 4  Hay, 201.

 5  Hay, 172.

 6  His home life was most unwholesome. His tutor, Gannys, was publicly the lover of his mother and grandmother, and in this triple employ found little time for the sedulous and severe moral training necessary for the formation of real character.

 7  Lampridius, trad. David Magie, in the Loeb series.

 8  Most horses do not care for grapes.

 9  Mr. Hay considers this unlikely.

10  Mr. Hay considers this libellous.

11  Mr. Hay points out that children do not like the feeling of woolen underclothing.

12  Domitian occupied his leisure in the killing of flies. Elagabalus had rather the instincts of the collector.

13  Lampridius, trad. Magie.

14  Athenaeus, Deipnosophists, IV, 29.

15  This Antony, says Athenaeus, who quotes from Socrates the Rhodian, later turned his lessons in luxury to an ill account. In Athens he prepared a scaffold to be spread over the theater, representing a cave sacred to Bacchus. “He sat there with his friends, getting drunk from daybreak, — a band of musicians playing to him all the time, and all the Greeks around being collected to see the sight. And presently he crossed over to the Acropolis, the whole city of Athens being illuminated with lamps suspended from the roofs; and after that he ordered himself to be proclaimed as Bacchus throughout all the cities in that district.”

16  Somewhere about $200,000.

17  Nero, for all his dourness, had something of Elagabalus’s love of fun. He found sport in sitting in an upper gallery in the theater, and flinging nuts down upon the bald head of the prætor below.

18  Friedländer (Roman Life and Manners, trad. Freese and Magnus, II, 140 et passim) has found us some quaint examples out of his memory of all times and places. “In 1174 Henry II of England summoned to Beaucaire an assembly of squires and knights, and Bertram Rambaut had a piece of land ploughed and sown with 30,000 sols in pennies. . . . In 1500 Joachim I of Brandenburg came to Frankfurt to receive the allegiance of the city, and Herr von Belkow walked beside his horse in the mud in velvet boots set with pearls. He also used to ride into the pottery market with his brothers, let their horses smash all the articles, and then pay double the price; they then led their horses back into the Rathskeller and washed them in malmsey wine.” Charles of Würtemberg had fountains of wine for the multitude with fireworks that cost half a ton of gold, and gave sleighing parties on snow brought from far away. In the loose and abandoned court of Charles VI of France the Duke of Orléans bought a gown on the sleeves of which the music of a popular song, “Ma dame, je suis plus joyeulz” was embroidered in pearls.

19  Table Traits; New York, 1865.

20  Let us do our weak little to keep in the mind of this unlearned generation Lucullus’s great mot. Lucullus supping alone, his cook scanted a trifle his care. Lucullus summoned the cook, and with cruel chill: “Slave, did you not know that Lucullus supped tonight in the house of Lucullus?”

21  Perhaps $500,000.

22  A curious modern parallel to the life of Apicius is that of a certain Mr. Rogerson of Gloucestershire. (The Percy Anecdotes, X. part 2, p. 16). After receiving an excellent education, he was sent abroad to make the grand tour. In this journey he attended to nothing but the various modes of cookery, and the methods of eating and drinking luxuriously. His father dying, he came into the possession of a large fortune. He had no other servants in his house but men cooks, including three from Italy: one from Florence, another from Siena, and another from Viterbo, who was employed for the special purpose of dressing one particular dish only, the dolce piccante of Florence. He had also a German cook for dressing the livers of turkeys, and the rest were French. He had a messenger constantly traveling between Brittany and London, to bring him the eggs of a certain plover near St. Malo. “Thus in the course of nine years, he found his table dreadfully abridged by the ruin of his fortune, and he was verging fast to poverty. When he had spent a fortune of a hundred and fifty thousand pounds, and was totally ruined, a friend gave him a guinea to keep from starving; but a short time after, he was found dressing an ortolan for himself. A few days afterwards he died by his own hands.” Of similar delicacy was that Samuel Boyse the versifier, to whom a friend gave half-a-guinea when he lay in bed starving and naked. Boyse laid out the gift in truffles and mushrooms, which he ate, shivering, between the sheets. Again some compassionate soul sent him a slice of roast beef, but Boyse returned the gift, as no catchup had accompanied it. (Mrs. Piozzi, Anecdotes, 120.)

23  I am told that the same procedure is today considered amusing by the editors of women’s magazines. I do not see that the influence of the Emperor Geta can be proved.

24  We have all read Petronius; but does every one know that twice in modern times enthusiasts have reproduced that orgulous feast? The Abbé Margon, a poetaster of the Regency, received in 1717 (I think) a legacy of thirty thousand livres. The whole of this was necessary for his representation of Trimalchio’s banquet. The Regent attended and was much edified, though not so far as to save the amphitryon when, shortly after, he was committed to the Bastille for a too exuberant satire. The illustrious philosopher Leibnitz describes a feast of Trimalchio given in the Court of Hanover in 1702. The Raugraf took the part of Trimalchio; the Queen, the Elector, and Duke Ernest August were among the banqueters. An idea of the humors may be derived from Leibnitz’s report: “Se trouvant pressé il sortit et rentra en cérémonie. D’ailleurs un pot de chambre d’une grandeur énorme, où il aurait pu se noyer la nuit, le suivoit partout.”

25  The student of comparative culinary extravagances will remember that at the Circumcision feast of the son of the Khalif Motawakkil each guest had heaps of gold and silver poured out before him as a dining-favor. At a banquet given in Florence to the sons of King Ferrante of Naples, in 1476, “the principal guest received a dish with a fountain in the middle, spraying forth a shower of orange-flower water.” The banquet was in three parts; the first consisted of twelve courses of meats; “at the end, a huge silver dish was set before the Duke, who took off the cover and released a number of birds. On two magnificent salvers there were two peacocks, apparently alive, with their tails spread, burning essence in their beaks, and the Duke’s arms attached to a silk ribbon on their breasts.” The second part was made of nine courses of sweetmeats and pastry, and the third part was dessert. By the eighteenth century this barbarity of profusion was tempered by all the elegance of a polite age. “A certain Carade invented a hoar-frost which melted in the heated room, and made the river thaw, the trees turn green, the flowers bloom, and spring follow on winter. Under Louis XVI ‘sableurs’ used colored sand or marble dust, powdered glass and sugar, and fashioned Persian carpet patterns with marvellous rapidity before the guests came in, to vanish at a breath or a drop of water.” (Friedländer, Roman Life and Manners, II. 157 et passim.)

26  Apud Athenaeum.

27  I have spoken at so great length of these vast and extravagant banquets that I may well supply here as a corrective counterweight, some reports of saintly austerity in the matter of food. St. Genevieve ate only twice in the week, on Sundays and Thursdays, and then only beans and bread. Nothing passed the lips of St. Simeon Stylites during an entire Lent. St. Germanus filled his mouth with ashes before every meal. St. Walthen put spiders in his wine, if it was over-palatable. St. Frances, Widow, would drink nothing but dirty water from a human skull. These examples may induce the philosophical temper to many a profitable reflection upon the diversities of the human sprit and the variety of God’s handiwork.

28  Imperial Purple. New York, 1925.

29  Mr. Hay dismisses this charge as a calumny.

30  Hay: Heliogabalus, 176.

31  Lampridius.

32  Dio Cassius says that he took refuge in a chest. Being dragged therefrom, he flung his arms about his mother, Soaemias, and the two were beheaded together.

33  Sin is so restricted, as the Empress Theodora said.

34  He used to dance not only in the orchestra but more or less also while walking, performing sacrifice, greeting friends or making speeches.” — Dio Cassius.



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