December 12, 1997

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Class, be seated! It's time for another session on the knowledge required to be Gilbert and Sullivan's Modern Major General. Our modern model tells us, "I quote in elegiacs all the crimes of Heliogabalus." Helio-who?

Attend. We touched on this august gentleman a while back, in our session on 3rd Century Roman emperors. Let's take a closer look. You may remember (I didn't) that Julia Maesa, maternal aunt of the emperor Caracalla, had her 14-year-old grandson Varius Avitus named emperor in 218 A. D. His mother was apparently no better than she should be, to use a old-fashioned expression, and it was rumored that the boy was named Varius because a number of candidates could be considered as the boy's father. When Caracalla was murdered, Julia and Varius hied themselves off to western Syria, where he was soon appointed high priest of the god Elagabalus, a.k.a. Heliogabalus, the boy's new name. Several weeks after his appointment, Caracalla's killer-successor Macrimus was defeated near Antioch (in today's Turkey) and Julia had her grandson declared emperor.

He returned to Rome, had his Syrian god declared chief deity, and launched his own reign. What of the forementioned "crimes"? The Encyclopedia Britannica of 1911 delicately refers to "horseplay of the wildest description and...childish practical joking." Not to mention, "shameless profligacy...to shock even a Roman public."

We'll maintain some of the encyclopedia's delicacy - this is a family hour - but apart from personal depravity, Varius, now known as Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, had no trouble offending vast numbers of people. He did make an attempt to get women involved in politics, sort of. He allowed a woman on the floor of the Senate for the first time. It was his mother; that may have added to the insult. He established a women's senate, which immediately passed laws governing matrons in such weighty matters of state as who might wear gold or jewels on their shoes. He removed holy shrines, sold political offices, tortured and sacrificed human victims - much the usual catalogue of imperial Roman vices. How much of this is reputable documented fact, and how much is the product of political enemies and those who would write for supermarket tabloids today? It's probably impossible to know. Suffice it to say, Heliogabalus was about as popular as ten plagues.

He eventually made the ultimate mistake; he meddled with the military. They turned on him, murdering him in a latrine where he was hiding, dragging his body around the Forum and throwing the weighted corpse into the Tiber. Sic semper tyrannis.

OUTRO
For Gilbert & Sullivan University and Classical ninety-one five, this is David Minor.

 

© 1997 David Minor / Eagles Byte

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