The Roman Empire provides an endless array of stories of decadence and hedonism, and each tale is more shocking than the previous one. Our modern society looks with wonder, disgust, and slight hypocrisy at the practices of the ancient world.
Usually when it comes to the madness and lechery of Rome's last emperors, we think of Caligula or Nero. Their sexual perversions were so extreme that even the population of the empire thought they were barbaric. However, when we exalt the Latin rulers, who also went down a decadent spiral of their time, there is no figure as representative yet mysterious as that of Heliogabalus.
The Syrian emperor’s first great feat, after achieving power at the age of fifteen, was to include the god Sol Invictus, Elagabal, as the main deity in the Roman Pantheon. During the ritual, Heliogabalus would dance in provocative outfits and worship a rock, while also forcing his subjects to do the same.
One of his most scandalous acts happened when he married a vestal virgin, a woman from an order of priestesses whose virginity was crucial for the belief systems of Ancient Rome. He then proceeded to marry four other women in less than two years.
It was amidst this flagrant violence of the social order that the emperor began to reveal his most secret sexual preferences while imposing his will on the Senate. Ruling over different legions, he sent hundreds of soldiers to look for the man with the largest phallus, and so satisfy his darkest fantasies.
After searching through Rome’s public baths, his subjects presented two men to Heliogabalus: a Turkish slave named Hierocles and afterwards a Greek athlete called Aurelius Zoticus. According to historians of the time, the emperor then celebrated betrothal ceremonies with each. In the case of Hierocles, Heliogabalus' obsession with him was such that he attempted to turn him into an emperor so that he could enjoy being his empress and lover.
Heliogabalus reached an intolerable extreme for the empire when the Roman populous discovered their ruler would wear wigs, shave his entire body, and go to the Palace brothels, posing as one of the women working there.
According to the accounts of Dio Cassius, there came a point when the young emperor ordered his subjects to find the best surgeons, so that he could undergo a procedure that would provide him with an artificial vagina next to his male genitals. He promised fortune and imperial titles to whoever was able to grant this wish.
At the age of eighteen, Heliogabalus suffered an attack that ended his life. The Pretorian guards, tasked with keeping him safe, drowned him. Then they placed him in his mother’s arms and decapitated both of them. They threw the body into the Tiber and officiated the damnatio memoriae order to disappear any historical trace of his reign or person.
In the history of Rome, religious ceremonies became a cultural heritage passed on through all the territories ruled by the empire. These traditions were then modified into other celebrations of different religions and people. One of them is the holiday we now refer to as Christmas.
As for the citizens of the empire, they had their own views and practices of personal care that you might find gross.
Translated by María Suárez