How A Roman Emperor's Enemies Accidentally Turned Them Into A Trans Icon
Like we've painstakingly documented before, finding trans heroes throughout history is as difficult as finding a needle in a haystack. That's on fire. Because the nazis are burning it. One of the least chronicled minorities in history, sometimes, you have to take what representation you can get -- even if it was written in bad faith.
Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (204-222 CE), commonly referred to as Elagabalus, lived a more extraordinary before they reached driving age than most historical figures in their whole lifetime. A tween head priest of the Syrian sun god Elagabalus (hence the nickname), at the age of 14 they were made Roman emperor thanks to a plot orchestrated by their devious grandmother, Julia Maesa. With grandma as the real power behind the throne, Emperor Elagabalus seemingly had little else to do than use their executive power to experiment and live their truth.
According to the few contemporary sources on the emperor, despite being married to five women in as many years, Elagabalus, like their many pets, was a maneater. During their marriages, Elagabalus also had several male lovers, including a hotshot chariot driver named Hierocles whom the emperor called their husband and "delighted in being called Hierocles' mistress, wife, and queen."
As an outsider in almost every sense of the word, Elagabalus refused to acknowledge any of the Augustine Roman sexual taboos. They would relish in working as a prostitute, plucking and preening their body into a more feminine form and "out earn" all of the other working girls. The contemporary historian Cassius Dio (who often referred to Elagabalus as a "she," but, since we can't ask, let's not assume their pronouns) also claimed that the imperator was constantly on the lookout for a classicist vaginoplasty and "asked the physicians to contrive a woman's vagina in his body by means of an incision" 1800 years before it was thing.
But more modern historians have questioned if the trans stories of Elagabalus are true. Because they defied the Roman religion, the young emperor was universally despised. After being assassinated, which was also plotted by their gram gram, Elagabalus' name and deeds were stricken from all records, in which case their legacy could've been tarnished to make successor-cousin Severus look like the better option. And since Romans were equally into kink-shaming and religion shaming, some now question if these outlandish claims of femininization and sex work could be a macho smear campaign against Elagabalus.
Then, the joke's on them as Elagabalus has much more power as a trans historical figure than yet another homicidal kid emperor out of their depth. As a trans ruler, Elagabalus advanced women's rights in Rome in several ways, from defying the patriarchal sexual mores, subverting religious practices (they married a vestal virgin just to prove a point), to establishing the first and only admission of women into the senate -- giving Roman women direct power for the first time in the nation's history. So, despite possible transphobic attempts to erase Elagabalus from proper history, now, Elagabalus' legacy is forever enshrined in the writings of trans historians, putting them head, shoulder, and heels above the other late, not-so-great Roman emperors.
For more late, not-so-great tangents, do follow Cedric on Twitter.
Top Image: Wikimedia Commons