A Trans Woman Might Have Become Emperor of Rome On This Day in The Ancient World


In the long list of Western Roman emperors, Elagabalus is the homey. The historical record shows that he was possibly transgender, married a couple dudes, and generally lived like such a libertine that even the Ancient Romans thought he was too sexually liberated. (Side Note: I’m going to use masculine pronouns for emperor Elagabalus because the record is very unreliable. You’ll see.)

Marcus Opellius Severus Macrinus Augustus (Macrinus) came to power because he served closely under the previous emperor, Caracalla. Romans didn’t do job applications, though; they threw hands. So, Macrinus had Caracalla killed and became Emperor himself. Caracalla’s aunt was obviously super pissed about this, so she started a rebellion in order to crown Caracalla’s teenage grandson, Elagabalus. On this day in 218, Elagabalus’s forces defeated Macrinus and the guy with the biggest army got to be emperor; so, Elagabalus became Emperor of Rome. That’s when the real problems started. 

As Emperor, Elagabalus had a convoluted imperial name. Historians call him Elagabalus because he worshipped a Syrian/Roman sun god named Elegabalus. The cult of Elegabalus believed a meteorite to be a sacred stone, and the emperor would force senators to watch him dance around it. He even tried to place his god above Jupiter in the Roman pantheon. The Romans were pretty cool with adding new gods, but they didn’t play about Jupiter. It’s likely the senators were already plotting to murder Elagabalus by this point. 

The emperor married at least three different women during his lifetime; divorce and remarriage was pretty common in Rome, especially among the wealthy patricians. Each marriage was incredibly short, though. He became Emperor at 14 and was dead by 18, so they had to be pretty brief. He also considered himself married to his chariot driver, a man from modern-day Turkey named Hierocles. He called this man his husband and considered himself to be Hierocles’s wife. Elagabalus also married a Greek athlete in a public ceremony. They had a wedding and everything, which seriously pissed off conservative senators.  

He would also shave or pluck all of his body hair and wear feminine makeup. He appeared at official state functions, parties, and the like in a wig, makeup, and feminine clothes. He supposedly made the people around him refer to him as a woman. Elagabalus was also said to get dressed as a woman and prostitute himself at brothels. He even went as far as to set up a brothel in the imperial palace where he would stand naked in the doorway and seduce men. Lastly, he supposedly offered an obnoxious amount of money to any doctor who could give him a vagina. A historian at the time, Cassius Dio, summarizes all of this supposed free love by saying, “He used his body both for doing and allowing many strange things[…]”

All of that sounds pretty transgender to me but Ancient Rome was just as susceptible to propaganda and smear campaigns as any other place. So, it’s not clear how much of that is actually true. There’s some public record of some of it, but most of it comes from Cassius Dio. It’s possible Dio just didn’t like Elagabalus for one reason or another and spread nasty lies about him. It’s also possible Elagabalus was a trans woman, though Romans didn’t really have the verbiage for that sort of thing. 

Eventually, the Praetorian Guard provoked a mob and used the chaos to assassinate Elagabalus. They then proceeded to erase his memory by destroying monuments, re-carving statues to have the faces of other emperors, and altering the public record. They also killed his closest associates, including his husband Hierocles. So, we’ll never know the whole truth about Elagabalus but we do know the emperor married a man. The emperor and that man were both killed for it. And that’s something that’s true. That’s true for LGBT folks from Ancient Rome to Anywhere Right Now. So, I think the powers-that-be probably lied about Elagabalus the same way they’ve been lying about LGBT folks ever since. No matter the republic or empire, the power structure defends itself. It’ll even commit murder and then dirty up the memory.