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Syrian Emperors of Rome

 

Towards the end of Rome's first millennium, a.u.c. 971-988  (A.D. 218-235), two Syrian youths reigned in succession as Roman emperors:

 

Varius Avitus Bassianus,

born ca. 957 (204), reigned 971-975 (218-222) as Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, better known to posterity as Elagabalus, or 

Heliogabalus

pictures

Alexianus Bassianus

born ca. 961 (208), 

reigned 975-988 (222-235) 

as 

Alexander Severus

pictures

 

These two youths were first cousins of each other, members of a family related by marriage to the Severan dynasty. Both came to the throne as adolescents, in coups d'état plotted by the women in their family, who sought to dominate them, and to use them as pawns in their rivalries with each other. Varius was a rebel, and refused to be dominated. Alexianus was a good boy, and did as he was told. Although in childhood they had been quite close, their mothers managed to turn them into mortal enemies.
Both died young, murdered by their own soldiers, Varius at 17, Alexianus at 26.
Each of their mothers perished with them.

They were members of a prominent family from Emesa (modern Homs), in the Roman province of Syria. Emesa, together with the rest of Syria, had been brought into the Roman empire by Pompey the Great, in a.u.c. 690 (64 B.C.). Before that, in the Hellenistic period, Syria had been a part of the Seleucid empire, ruled by the successors of Alexander the Great's general, Seleucus Nicator. The Seleucid capital, Antioch  (modern Antakya, in Turkey), with its nearby port on the Mediterranean, at the mouth of the river Orontes, became the capital of Roman Syria, and even, on occasion, when the emperor chose to reside there, of the Roman empire as such.

Emesa, in the highlands further up the Orontes, close to the edge of the desert, was an important commercial city on the trade route between Antioch and Palmyra, whence the Silk Road continued on to Persia, India, and China. The population of the countryside around Emesa was probably mostly Arab in ethnicity and language, but, as in the rest of Syria, the town dwellers, and in particular the imperial administrators, local aristocracy and merchant and artesan classes, though they may have been Romans, Greeks, Arabs, Phoenecians, or Jews, and spoken their respective languages at home, were predominantly Greek in their common language and culture, to judge by the inscriptions they left.
 

Emesa was also, and especially, famous as a religious centre. Its temple of the sun god, Elaiagabal, was one of the biggest and most magnificent in Syria, together with those of Heliopolis (modern Baalbek) and Hierapolis (modern Membij). It attracted many pilgrims, for sun worship was widespread in the ancient world, and was therefore very rich, by virtue of their offerings. After Emesa's absorption into the Roman empire, its ruling family, the Samsigeramids, kept their wealth and prestige, though political power was in the hands of the Romans. Like many of the ancient ruling families of the Near East, their original function may always have been as much religious as political, if not more so, and, given the Roman monopoly of power, it was likely now to be almost exclusively so. Thus the Samsigeramids may have constituted what has been called, by some historians, a dynastic priesthood, a succession of hereditary high priests, though this has been doubted by others. Whatever the case, Emesa continued to be identified with the cult of the sun god long after the reign of Elagabalus. Its temple and priests are mentioned in his Descriptio Orbis Terrarum (Description of the Earth) by Avienus, writing in the twelfth century of Rome (fourth or fifth of the Christian era).

The high priest of Emesa at the time of the emperor Commodus, 933-945 (180-192) was one Iulius Bassianus, who may have descended from the Samsigeramids, though this too is in doubt. What is certain is that he had two daughters: Domna and Maesa. Domna married the Libyan commander of a Roman legion quartered near Emesa, Lucius Septimius Severus, who later became emperor, 946-964 (193-211). They had two sons, the ill-fated joint emperors Caracalla, 964-970 (211-217) and Geta, 964-965 (211-212). Caracalla murdered Geta, and was himself murdered by his Praetorian Prefect, Macrinus, who ruled as emperor for just over one year: 970-971 (217-218). Domna's sister Maesa, married to a Syrian imperial magistrate called Iulius Avitus Alexianus, had two daughters, Soaemias and Mamaea, the mothers, respectively, of Varius and Alexianus. Their respective husbands were Sextus Varius Marcellus, and Gessius Marcianus, both Syrian officials of the Roman empire, but these two men were, as we presently shall see, quite beside the point. It was Maesa who masterminded the coup d'état against the usurper Macrinus, that succeeded, in May of 971 (218) in placing Varius, the first Syrian emperor, on the Roman imperial throne.
 
The coup, like many of the events leading up to it, took place in Syria. After succeeding to the throne, following the death of Severus, and murdering his brother and co-emperor Geta, Caracalla left Rome, where Geta had been popular, and established his capital at Antioch. Leaving the administration of the empire to his mother, the dowager empress Domna, who went with him to Antioch, he was on campaign against the Parthians in the Syrian hinterland, when his Praetorian Prefect, Macrinus, arranged for his murder. Macrinus' brief reign was spent entirely in Syria, mainly at Antioch. On learning of her son's death, Domna committed suicide in her palace at Antioch. This left her sister Maesa, by now a widow, banished by Macrinus to Emesa, to preside over her remaining family. Neither Caracalla nor Geta had left any heirs. Caracalla had divorced his wife Plautilla early on, and not remarried. Geta had died a bachelor. Thus the only male members left in the Severan dynasty were Varius and Alexianus. But of course they were not true Severans, since their connection to the throne was only through their great aunt, Domna. Or was it? This was a problem that Maesa could solve. She was determined to return to power and influence in Rome, at any cost.

The coup was based on the rumour, actively spread by Maesa, and seconded by her daughters, that Varius and Alexianus, rather than being legitimate sons of their mothers' husbands -those worthy imperial officials, both conveniently just dead, and thus incapable of contradiction- had instead been fathered by the two sisters' first cousin Caracalla -or even, perhaps, in Mamaea's case, by his brother Geta. It was alleged that the adulteries or fornications leading to the boys' conceptions had taken place while the two pairs of cousins were living in Rome, during the reign of Severus. The fact that this made Soaemias and Mamaea strumpets, and their sons bastards, was seemingly of little matter. Indeed Soaemias' reputation, at least, was apparently already such as to lend credence to the rumour. Certain wags are reported to have joked that the name of Varius reflected the variety of possible choices available for determining his paternity.

Whoever their real fathers may have been, the two boys were now, together with their mothers and grandmother, present in Emesa, due to Macrinus' banishment of Maesa: There, on home soil, surrounded by loyal retainers, she enjoyed full access to the treasury of the temple, doubtless much engrossed by long years of her family's close association with the treasury of Rome. It did not hurt her cause that Macrinus was perceived by the soldiers as stingy, since, like any sensible accountant -which is what he had been before- he was obsessed with cutting costs. His parsimony was to prove penny wise but pound foolish, as Maesa spent liberally on bonuses and bribes to the soldiers, in the names of her two grandsons. Varius was now fourteen, and Alexianus ten. They were taking advantage of their sojourn in Emesa to receive instruction in the performance of the rituals of the cult of Elaiagabal, since Varius, at least, was intended to succeed to the high priesthood left vacant by his great-grandfather Bassianus, the father of Domna and  Maesa, long since dead.
 
We do not know very much directly about the rituals of the cult of Elaiagabal, except from ancient historical sources, Cassius Dio, Herodian, and the author known as 'Lampridius', all of them hostile to the emperor Elagabalus -as Varius would come to be known by posterity- and to his attempt to introduce the cult of his god into Rome. What they and other later writers say -citing practices such as human sacrifice, castration and prostitution- may or may not be true. Such practices are, however, described as occuring in ancient Syrian religion by other, earlier sources (therefore neutral as far as Elagabalus is concerned) such as Lucian; but this in connection with the temple of Atargatis -the Dea Syria or Syrian godess- at Hierapolis: a different deity in a different city. The satyrist Juvenal, a century before Elagabalus, had already complained of the (to his ear) cacophonous chanting of the eunuch priests of Atargatis and their acolytes, dancing through the streets of Rome to the sound of flutes, cymbals, and drums. A similar escort is also attributed to Varius, who is described by the ancient historians as excelling in the ritual dances of the cult of Elaiagabal, in his capacity as high priest. They even go so far as to attribute his initial popularity with the soldiers -who acclaimed him emperor at their camp near Emesa on the 16th of May, 971 (218)- partly to their admiration for his prowess as a dancer, as well as of his alleged good looks.
 

even allowing for the somewhat- though in the case of classical antiquity not entirely- subjective nature of anybody's characterisation as beautiful. The sculpture labelled 'Elagabalus' in the Capitoline Museum, reproduced at the beginning of this webpage, comes closer than do the profiles on the early coins, to embodying the canons of male beauty objectively established in the classical world; but its authenticity as a portrait of Varius is a matter of unresolved debate among historians.

Though posterity has chosen to call him by a name derived from that of the sun god, Elaiagabal, Latinised as Elagabalus, or Hellenised -in Roman form- as Heliogabalus (this last a pun on helios, the Greek name for the sun), Varius' official style as emperor was Marcus Aurelius Antoninus. This was, of course, the name of the famous philosophical emperor four decades before him, the author of the Meditations, and the father of Commodus. The original Marcus Aurelius' long, peaceful, prosperous reign was remembered as a golden age. Severus had been born under Marcus Aurelius, and served as an official under his vastly inferior son, the grotesque and tyrannical Commodus. In a desire to legitimate his rule, acquired by force in a civil war following  the murder -by others- of Commodus, Severus had posthumously (!) adopted Marcus Aurelius as his own father, and thus Commodus as his brother. Severus had given his elder son, Bassianus, better known by his nickname, Caracalla, the official name of Marcus Aurelius Antoninus. Thus, when Varius, the son of Soaemias, was elevated to the purple by the soldiers, on the strength of his alleged descent from Caracalla, it was logical that he should assume the regnal style of his putative father. Such a desperate pursuit of legitimacy, via the adoption of a doubly fraudulent nomenclature, was obviously Maesa's choice, and doubtless wise under the circumstances. But her prudence was destined to be thwarted, by the nature of the boy that she had chosen as the vehicle for her return to power and influence in Rome.

Far from being a docile pawn, easily manipulated by his grandmother, Varius was a rebel, to the very core of his being. The first recorded instances of his willfulness took place in Nicomedia, (modern Izmit, on the Sea of Marmara) where the imperial family wintered on the overland journey from Syria to Rome, in the first year of his reign. He refused to wear a Roman toga -the wool was too itchy- or armour -far too heavy and constraining- and would have nothing but silk next to his skin. He planned to enter Rome in the flowing robes and jewelled tiara and slippers he wore to dance for Elaiagabal. In order to prepare the Romans for the sight, he had a scroll painted and sent ahead, to be hung in the senate chamber. At the same time, perhaps as a result of staying in the palace where Nicomedes, the King of Bithynia, had so enjoyed the youthful Juius Caesar, Varius developed a penchant for the intimate company of soldiers. He made no attempt to hide his proclivities, rather flaunting them instead. When reproved for this by his mother's current lover, Gannys, who had, following his proclamation, led Varius' troops in the successful battle against Macrinus, and had been appointed tutor to the boy emperor, Varius was so incensed (perhaps at his hypocrisy, for Gannys was hardly a model of chastity) that he slapped him in the face. Gannys instinctively reached for his sword. Varius screamed. His bodyguards rushed in, and suddenly Gannys was dead. From that moment on, the emperor did as he pleased, and none dared try to stop him. Not, at least, till he himself was killed.

The emperor's pleasure, as emerges from the ancient historians' accounts of his reign, seems mainly to have been deliberately to scandalise and provoke the Roman establishment, exposing its manifold hypocrisies, and holding up to ridicule its hollow pretensions, its petty meannesses, and its unacknowledged vices. With all the energy and zeal of his youth, and the devastating sharpness of his wit, together with an unfailing instinct for theatre, derived perhaps from his training as a dancer, Varius, in less than three years' residence in Rome, managed to shock and alienate the military, political, and religious authorities, while winning the enthusiastic acclamation of the multitude, whose response to his extravagance, outrageousness, and eccentricity was similar to that of modern teenage fans to the rambunctiousness of a charismatic rock star. A dangerous popularity indeed, and one that would inevitably lead to his downfall. Probably he sensed this, but went on all the same, driven by a personal ethic or aesthetic, or by plain pride. He was an enfant terrible: a talented, sensitive, headstrong adolescent, with a dreadful family, suddenly handed supreme power over the whole Roman world. No wonder it went to his head. But he carried it off with style; so much so that his legend, however distorted by the fanciful exaggeration of some, and the prurient obloquy of others, lived on in the popular imagination; which granted him, in calling him by a version of the name of Elaiagabal, that apotheosis denied him by the senate, who sought rather to obliterate his memory altogether. Numerous works of  literature, music, dance, and visual art, based on his legend, attest to its continuing appeal to the imagination.
 

The catalogue of his outrages and eccentricities is long and full of obvious inventions, mutual and internal contradictions, and possibly some grain of truth (for perhaps there is, after all, no smoke without a fire). A few of the highlights include his serial marriages to both men and women, their consummations, including the deflowering of a Vestal Virgin, celebrated before audiences; banquets marked by a surreal attention to elements like colour: all white, black, or purple menus; or rarity: sea fish only in the mountains, ices only in summer; or to special guest lists: bald men, hernia victims, one-eyed prostitutes. Also included are delicious instances of calculated malice: forcing generals of the armies and aged magistrates and senators to dress up in drag and hairnets, and dance with him and his ululating chorus of acolytes. He loved practical jokes, such as providing air-cushions for banquets that suddenly deflated with embarassing noises, or letting his guests fall asleep with their wine, and setting loose tame lions among them; whom they would find, on awakening, curled up beside them. The most famous of these occasions was the banquet, depicted in the painting by Alma Tadema, reproduced here,
 

 
at which, when he got bored with his guests (which must have often happened) he opened a false ceiling above them, and buried them in tons of roses. But of all his peculiarities, the most offensive, to official Roman eyes, was his obsession with introducing the cult of Elaiagabal to Rome, and instituting the sun god of Emesa as supreme deity of the Roman pantheon, ranking above even Jupiter and Neptune. Of course as Pontifex Maximus, or Supreme Pontiff of the official Roman cult, he was well placed to effect this revolution from within.
   
The principal idol of his cult was a large black stone, a meteorite, that some describe, from its image on coins and in sculpture, as shaped like a bee-hive; others as phallic. This stone first appears in history, atop its altar in the temple of Emesa, on coins minted in the reign of Caracalla. It was taken, by Varius, during his own reign, to Rome, and placed in a huge temple dedicated to it on the Palatine hill. Each summer, of the three he spent there, he led the stone in ceremonial procession, attended by musicians and dancers, to another palace in a garden at the outer edge of Rome. At the end of summer he would take it back to the Palatine. This is recorded in his coinage, as well as in the written sources. After his murder, his successor, Alexianus, renamed Alexander Severus, sent the sacred stone back home to Emesa, probably at Maesa's behest. There it reappears in the coinage of Uranius Antoninus, possibly a descendant of the same family as the Syrian emperors, who led an insurrection, and briefly ruled in Emesa, about twelve years after the death of Alexander Severus, at the turn of the Roman millennium (a.u.c. 1000 = A.D. 247). After this, the stone disappears from the historical record -at least from that known to the present author. One of the great mysteries worth investigating, would be: What happened to the stone of Elaiagabal during the Christian period of the late Roman and early Byzantine empires, or after the advent of Islam in Syria? It must be somewhere in the world today, for black meteorites are very hard, heavy, durable objects, not at all easy to destroy or dispose of, especially with the tools and technologies of ancient times. But where? Any serious clues would be welcome.
   
The reign of Alexander Severus is not so amusing to study as that of Elagabalus, though it was three times longer, and has more obviously 'historical' events, such as inconclusive wars against the Persians and Germans, to recount. This may reflect the difference in personality between the first and the second Syrian emperor. Whatever one may think of them historically, morally, politically, or otherwise, there can be no doubt that Elagabalus would have been more interesting to dine with than Alexander Severus.

It seems that Maesa  had a hand in planning, or at least turned a blind eye, to the coup'd'état that overthrew Varius, killing his mother, Soaemias together with him, and placing Alexianus on the throne. Maesa died a few years into the new reign, having set its tone; which was continued by Mamaea, who dominated Alexander utterly. (He had a wife, Orbiana, whom Mamaea quickly drove away.) Elagabalus' extravagances were repudiated, his memory officially damned. The attempt to impose the cult of the sun god was halted, and its temple was rededicated to Iuppiter Ultor (Jupiter the Avenger!). Sage jurists were appointed as councillors, and 'sensible' policies were instituted, such as lowering taxes, raising the standard of the coinage, making loans available at moderate interest,  and improving the conditions of service in the armies. But the soldiers, with the bit between their teeth, would never be satisfied; and  it was they who eventually, while Alexander was on campaign in Germany, with his mother at his side, overthrew him and Mamaea, and inaugurated half a century of constant military upheaval, with frequent coups and counter-coups leaving a balance of almost one ruler per year. That this period of anarchy did not immediately succeed in destroying the Roman empire -which was brought back under control by Aurelian, Diocletian, and Constantine, and survived another century or so in the West (and a full millennium in Byzantium)- is a tribute either to its remarkable inner strength, or to the force of  inertia in history, or perhaps to both. Thus the reigns of the Syrian emperors can be seen, in context, as the last examples of the relatively stable, orderly, and above all resilient imperial system instituted by Augustus, which had survived far worse emperors than Elagabalus, and better ones than Alexander Severus.

Except for its brief moment of revived notoriety under Uranius Antoninus, one of many pretenders to power during the period of anarchy, Emesa relapsed into relative obscurity (despite Avienus). At the division of the empire, in the eleventh century of Rome (fourth of the Christian era) Syria fell, by the logic of geography, to the Eastern half. During the late Roman and the early Byzantine empires, Syria witnessed a flowering of Christian literature and art, and Syriac developed as a cultural and literary language capable of competing with Greek. After the Islamic conquest, Syria, with its rich and diverse cultural heritage, as well as its commercial expertise and strategic importance, became the centre of the Caliphate, with its capital at Damascus, and greatly influenced the development of the new Islamic culture. But that is another story.

 

 

 

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