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The Crimes of Elagabalus: The Life and Legacy of Rome's Decadent Boy Emperor Hardcover – February 29, 2012
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This is not a routine imperial biography, but a much wider study of the nature of religious belief, culture, and ethnicity in the Roman Empire, on the staging of the emperor's image and the subsequent response throughout the Empire. In this accessible and lively study, Icks sheds new light on the dissemination of classical culture and the reception of Rome in later periods by following the evolving figure of Elagabalus in opera, drama and fiction through the centuries. (Brian Campbell, Queen's University, Belfast)
Icks' book [is] an excellent overview, worth adding to the Roman history shelves of anybody's library. But it's the second half of The Crimes of Elagabalus that makes the book truly remarkable. In those later chapters, Icks completes his careful, detailed narrative of the boy-emperor's brief reign and turns to the surprisingly vast literary legacy that reign generated. Play by play, pamphlet by pamphlet, novel by novel, Icks painstakingly traces how centuries of non-historians have characterized Elagabalus… This will be the standard account in English for the foreseeable future. (Steve Donoghue Open Letters Monthly 2012-03-01)
Icks not only reconstructs the events of Elagabalus's short reign, but looks at how artists and writers have perceived him. Elagabalus has been seen as an archetype of decadence and Orientalism and, in recent years, as a member of the gay community. The fictional Elagabalus has strayed far from the historical evidence. This ambitious book is the result of earnest research, and it will challenge readers. (J. A. S. Evans Choice 2012-08-01)
About the Author
Martijn Icks is Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Heidelberg.
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Reviewing almost two centuries' worth of images and narratives about the emperor known as Elagabalus, Icks first gives us a reconstructed biography that attempts to cut through much of the obvious (and unreliable) invective in the ancient sources (often repeated without question by modern historians who should know better). He then proceeds to show us how Elagabalus has been portrayed in art, plays, novels, etc., most often as an "Oriental" outsider, a cruel tyrant, or a sex "pervert." If you like that sort of thing, Elagabalus is a tragic hero; if you don't, he's a moral object lesson of everything not to do if you are emperor.
Icks has done a tremendous amount of original research, but because he is (perhaps overly) selective in his examples, there is something of a preliminary feeling about this work; I wish it had been twice as long and included many more details. But the interested reader will be put on the track of many works about Elagabalus, not least Artaud's "Crowned Anarchist," from which derives the anachronistic idea (never found in the ancient sources, as Icks points out) that androgyny played a role in the religion of the god Elagabal.
We are fortunate to have another recent work on this emperor, "Elagabalus: Fact or Fiction" by Leonardo de Arrizabalaga y Prado, which goes far beyond this book in stripping away the myths and delivering a convincing portrait of such a controversial figure. Whereas Icks' book is in many ways a fun read, de Arrizabalaga y Prado's book is quite challenging, but ultimately very rewarding and also highly recommended. Together, these two historians compel us to completely re-think what we "know" about the "crimes" of the "decadent" boy-emperor.
Nevertheless, Icks makes a gallant effort at sifting through what we do know. He is unsensational and careful.
The boy who became emperor at the young age of 14 had not been raised in Rome. The Roman population, and, more importantly, "the praetorian soldiers could no longer identify with an emperor who seemed to focus entirely on a strange, exotic cult and acted in such an 'unRoman' fanatical fashion" (p 37).
During the four short years of his reign, Elagabaus became so reviled he was forced to adopt a successor; naturally, he tried to kill his adopted son in the months before he himself was murdered.
He appears to have worshiped a nature god, a mountain god, something like Zeus. However, the cult is not well understood by historians. Shockingly, "Both Cassius Dio and the Historia Augusta claim that the emperor sacrificed not only animals, but children as well" (p 51).
Although Icks rejects the idea, I can see no real argument against it. Historians said the Carthaginians didn't burn their children to death for their god, right up until the archaeologists found those piles of burned bones. And historians were sure, sure, the Druids weren't cannibals...right up until the second the archaeologists discovered the huge number of sacrificed people, some of whom had been eaten.
There were also accusations that Elagabalus wanted to cut off his own genitals. More whispers: that he threw human genitals to animals in his temple.
Clearly, the boy was too young and never properly schooled in living like a Roman. Nor did he have a clue about governing. He became emperor by sheer chance based on the rumor he was Commodus' bastard.
Worst of all, according the later Romans who wrote about him, was "Elagabalus' disrespect for the senate" (p 97). He also appears to have been detested because he dressed like a woman "and set up his own brothel in the palace and stood in the doorway, naked, waiting for customers" (p 101).
'Coming to the imperium at 14, Elagabalus (r. A.D. 218-222) is perhaps less well-known that Rome's other depraved youthful emperors, Caligula, Nero, and Commodus. But he was certainly quite a character in his own right. Varying attempts to explain his character and reign- depraved hedonistic deviant, puppet of manipulative women, misunderstood advocate of monotheism, proto-gay rights crusader - have sparked a good deal of attention in literature, music, and art over the ages. Ichs adapted this work from his longer doctoral thesis, and it attempts to sort through what is real and what is fabricated in what is known about Elagabalus, which he does quite well. He includes what is probably the most carefully researched account of the brief civil war that installed Elagabalus on the throne. Ichs also provides valuable insights into the nature of Rome's governing, religious, and social institutions, the complexities of imperial politics and the role of the army in making or breaking emperors.'
For the full review, see StrategyPage.Com.