Eccentricities of the Emperor Elagabalus

December 31 2006

Adrian Murdoch points to the oddity of Elagabalus seeming to have a moustache in the busts I showed of him. “If my eyesight is not failing me, then that is significant – certainly there is no Latin word for moustache.”

Adrian said in an earlier post:

“There is only one confirmed representation of Theoderic the Goth which has survived, a medallion called the Senigallia medal, found at the end of the nineteenth century and now in the National Museum in Rome. It probably dates to his visit to the city of Rome in 500 AD.

“The image of Theoderic himself on the medal is fascinating because it is so explicitly Roman. But there is one note that jars.

“He is wearing a moustache.

“There is no image in the whole history of the empire showing a Roman [my italics] wearing a moustache on its own. Indeed as Bryan Ward-Perkins points out, there is not even a Latin word for ‘moustache’.”

As in so many other things, Elagabalus may be the exception.

I’m not sure whether the images I showed are of two different portraits or the same one. The second, at least, is from a bust at the Musei Capitolini. The soup-strainer is very evident in that – but you can see it in the first image as well if you look closely. I haven’t been able to find out anything more about these images, but they are certainly Roman.

It may just be a sign of Elagabalian eccentricity.

On the other hand, Aelius Lampridius writes that “he had his whole body depilated, deeming it to be the chief enjoyment of life to appear fit and worthy to arouse the lusts of the greatest number. […]

“In the public baths he always bathed with the women, and he even treated them himself with a depilatory ointment, which he applied also to his own beard, and shameful though it be to say it, in the same place where the women were treated and at the same hour. He shaved his minions’ groins, using the razor with his own hand – with which he would then shave his own beard.”

On the other hand again, capricious changes of mind were normal with Elagabalus, so there is no reason to suppose that at the next moment he would not have decided to grow a moustache. And if that was unknown in the Roman world, all the more reason to have done it.

The bizarreness of Elagabalus is reflected in a site called The Electronic Library of the Bath House. Its parent is HelioGabby’s Home Page. You can play music – the Goldberg Variations, for example (which Pasolini could have used in Salò) – while you read. The Electronic Library contains the main contemporary texts about Elagabalus: Dio Cassius, Herodian, Aelius Lampridius. And some secondary ones, including Gibbon, and parts of a study by an Oxford don called John Stuart Hay, published in 1911, called The Amazing Emperor Heliogabalus.

Aelius Lampridius’s account must be the most colourful of all texts on Roman decadence, or decadent behaviour bordering on insanity. I assume that it was quoted in Adrian’s published opus 1, The Dedalus Book of Roman Decadence, Emperors of Debauchery. Ronald Syme called it “a farrago of cheap pornography”. How did Loeb get away with publishing it in 1924? It makes one wonder why there has never been an Elagabalus film or opera. Richard Strauss would have out-Salomed Salome with it.

There has been an orchestral piece, Hans Werner Henze’s allegoria per musica, Heliogabalus Imperator (1972). The “allegory” was of the breakdown of religious and sexual taboos in Henze’s time, and an excuse for some extravagant orchestration.

Wikipedia gives other cultural references, including Alma-Tadema’s not very decadent painting The Roses of Heliogabalus.

But neither Dio Cassius, nor Herodian, nor Aelius Lampridius, nor Gibbon, nor John Stuart Hay, from the evidence in The Electronic Library of the Bath House, explains the problem of the moustache.

5 Responses to “Eccentricities of the Emperor Elagabalus”

  1. davidderrick Says:

    See comment on the moustache question by David Meadows.

  2. […] Natalis Solis Invicti Roman portraits Eccentricities of the Emperor Elagabalus Elagabalus again Naked Gauls Effeminate natives of Asia Homo […]

  3. Heliogabby Says:

    I be Heliogabby. Some questions are destined to remain unanswered. BTW the Bath House went under when I left AOL (though I still have their free e-mail account), but the bulk of it is archived in the Wayback Machine (accessed via

  4. davidderrick Says:

    There has been an Elagabalus opera, apparently: Héliogabale, tragédie lyrique in three acts (1910) by Déodat de Séverac.

  5. davidderrick Says:

    Alan Rich, New York magazine, December 10 1973:

    “Solti’s first programme here consisted of two extremely progressive works, Weber’s Oberon Overture and Beethoven’s Eroica, and one that was oppressively old-fashioned, Hans Werner Henze’s Heliogabalus Imperator, a 30-minute piece commissioned by the [Chicago Symphony] orchestra. The playing throughout the program was spectacular; the Chicago responds to Solti with that whiplash precision and resplendent tonal clarity that Szell used to get in Cleveland. […]

    “Henze’s work depressed me, as most of his recent scores do, by a total lack of coordination between what it contains and what it projects. It uses nearly every trick in the book: a bristling atonality combined with an aleatory, in the sense that a rigid outline is given for certain passages while minor details in that outline are only approximated on the page; tricky rhythms; just enough repetition of key ideas so that the listener can pridefully imagine that he has cracked the music’s craggy outline. But it is all manipulation, surface stuff designed, and not very successfully, to affect profundity. For all its intricacy, and its demands on its players, its atmosphere is prevailingly leaden, gray, irritatingly pretentious. This sort of stuff, which was being composed by American academicians by the yard in the sixties, strikes me more as play-acting than composition; this is a pose that Henze has struck too often in recent years to draw me very strongly to his work.”

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