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Portraits of Elagabalus


The Roman emperor we know as Elagabalus was born Varius Avitus Bassianus at Emessa (Syria), sometime between AD 203 (Chronicles of the Roman Emperors by Chris Scarre) and AD 205 (Roman Coins and their values by David Sear). He became known as Elagablus because as the son of Varius Marcellus and Julia Soaemias, he was a hereditary high priest of the Phoenician sun god, Elagabal. His grandmother was Julia Maesa, sister of Julia Domna, making him the nephew of Caracalla.

He came to power by over throwing Macrinus on the 8th of June, AD 218, in part because a rumor was spread that Caracalla was is real father (probably not true) making him the legitimate heir of the Severan Dynasty. At that point he was somewhere between 13 and 15 years old and while it was possible to get the army to support what they felt was the legitimate heir to the throne, how do you get them to follow a child.

elagabalus as his probably appeared.

We can see the problem when we look at this portrait as it appeared on a coin struck almost immediately upon his accession to the throne. It was struck in the east (either Emessa or Antioch) by engravers that may have actually seen him, and was probably intended for payment of his first donative designed to buy the loyalty of the army. He looks like the 13 to 15 years old child that he was, hardly instilling a sense of confidence in a strong, firm ruler who could lead the Empire out of the chaos of the previous year.

I believe it is safe to assume that the vast majority of Romans, and more importantly the soldiers in the Roman army, would never actually meet their Emperor in person, and most people would only know what the Emperor actually looked like from the many coins that would soon circulate spreading his portrait throughout the Empire.

elagabalus on a coin of AD 219

It appears that the power behind Elagabalus realized they could influence people by placing a portrait on the coins the depicted him not as he really was, but as they thought people would want him to be. This portrait was taken from an Antoninianus of Elagabalus struck in AD 219, probably less than a year after that above, and associated with his second donative paid to the army just after his first entry into the city of Rome as Emperor.

Even though he is still no more than 16 years old (and possibly as young as 14), he has been given the appearance of a mature man, probably in the early 20's, full of confidence and strength. Unfortunately, nothing could have been further from the truth, but what is important here is only what the Roman state wanted the people to believe.

In the case of Elagabalus, this attempt at deception did not save him. He was an unsavory character that did everything possible to alienate himself from the Roman people, and on March 11 of AD 222, he and his mother (probably the real power behind the throne) were murdered by his personal guard. Actually murder is a rather mild for what they did to him.

One does not have to look far to see this same principle of artifically aged portraits being used elsewhere on Roman coins. Augustus, the first Roman emperor, never appeared older than his 30's on the coins but was 77 years old when his last coins were struck (using the principle in reverse). When you look at a coin of Gordian III, keep in mind he became emperor at 13 and died at 19. And for an even more extreme case examine the portraits of Philip II who became Caesar at 7 and was only 11 at the time of his death, yet has the appearance of a 40 year old on some issues.


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