Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, better known as Elagabalus or Heliogabalus, (born around 203, died March 11, 222) was a Roman emperor of the Severan dynasty who reigned from 218-222. Heliogabalus was the son of Sextus Varius Marcellus and Julia Soaemias Bassiana, niece of Julia Domna (the wife of Septimius Severus). His mother claimed that his actual father was her cousin Caracalla (Marcus Aurelius Antoninus), and he adopted Caracalla's name during his short reign. The name by which he was popularly known to the Romans, Heliogabalus, was the name of the presiding deity of the Syrian city of Emesa (modern Homs or Hims). Heliogabalus was serving as hereditary high priest of the deity when his mother and grandmother used him as a figurehead against Macrinus, who had succeeded Caracalla. In 220, having settled in Rome, Heliogabalus attempted to make this deity the supreme god of the Empire under the name Deus Sol Invictus ("God the Invincible Sun").

Heliogabalus is best known for the acts of debauchery that were supposed to have characterised his regime. After his death many stories circulated about his sexual perversities - including the claim that he had an artificial vagina cut into his body. He was also supposed to have smothered to death guests at a dinner with a mass of sweet-smelling rose petals dropped from above (see The Roses of Heliogabalus).

For these reasons Heliogabalus became something of a hero to the Decadent movement in the late nineteenth century. He appears in many paintings and poems as the epitome of an amoral aesthete. Various famous works were inspired by the life and character of Heliogabalus and they include:

  • The painting The Roses of Heliogabalus (1888), by the Anglo-Dutch academician Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema.

  • A collection of poems by the German poet Stefan George which he entitled Algabal (1892-1919).

  • The painting Heliogabalus, High Priest of the Sun (1886), by the English decadent Simeon Solomon, once a close friend of Algernon Charles Swinburne.

  • The novel L'Agonie (Agony) (1889), by the French writer Jean Lombard.

  • The novel De Berg van Licht (The Mountain of Light) (1905), by the Dutch writer Louis Couperus.

  • The novel The Sun God (1904), by the English writer Arthur Westcott.

  • A biography, The Amazing Emperor Heliogabalus (1911), by the Oxford don John Stuart Hay.

  • The play Héliogabale ou l'Anarchiste couronné (Heliogabalus, or the Crowned Anarchist) (1934), by the French surrealist Antonin Artaud.

  • The novel Family Favourites (1960), by the Anglo-Argentine writer Alfred Duggan.

  • The novel Child of the Sun (1966), by Lance Horner and Kyle Onstott, who were more famous for writing the novel behind the blaxploitation film Mandigo.

  • An opera, Heliogabalus imperator (Emperor Heliogabalus) (1972), by the modernist German composer Hans Werner Henze (1926- ).

  • There is also a French experimental rock band called Héliogabale.

  • The band Devil Doll made a CD called Eliogabalus, which refers to Heliogabalus.

See also Severan dynasty family tree

Preceded by:
Macrinus (217 - 218)
Roman emperors
Followed by:
Alexander Severus (222 - 235)