Oriental Rome PDF Print E-mail
Written by Peter J. Leithart   
Thursday, 04 February 2010 21:40

Largely because of the divisions among disciplines in our universities, I suppose, we tend to think of Bible and Classical world in different categories.  Of course, we know that Alexander swept through, that Rome took over Palestine, and Pilate the Roman governor put Jesus on a cross.  Yet we often miss the depth and extent of contact between East and West.

A series of events from the early third century illustrates how deep the contacts of East and West were, and how long they persisted.

One spring evening in the year 218 A.D., the emperor Macrinus was enjoying dinner at Apamea.  News of a coup led by Antoninus was disturbing, but Macrinus had confidence that his commander, Ulpius Julianus, would be able to handle it.  Meanwhile, Macrinus could sit to enjoy his dinner.  But the banquet turned macabre when a messenger was brought in and presented the emperor with the Ulpius’ head.

Soon enough, Macrinus too was dead, and a new emperor had been proclaimed by the army.

Marcus Aurelius Antoninus was proclaimed emperor on May 16, 218.  He was a man of many names.  Originally known as Avitus, he is better known by the name of the Phoenician mountain god, Elagabalus, who showed himself on earth as a meteorite and whom Avitus served as priest.  Once established as emperor, he clothed himself in “purple robes embroidered in gold; to his necklaces and bracelets he added a crown, a tiara glittering with gold and jewels,” an outfit that “showed the influence of the sacred robe of the Phoenicians and the luxurious garb of the Medes.”  “Accompanied by flutes and drums,” Herodian wrote, “he went about performing, as it appeared, orgiastic service to his god” (Herodian, Roman History, 5.5).

Elagabalus arrived in Rome as emperor in the fall of 219, and quickly installed his patron deity in the temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill.  Early the next year, he proclaimed Elagabalus as the head of the Roman pantheon, and he began to issue coins bearing images of the emperor identified as “priest of the sun god Elagabalus.”

Dio Cassius found the whole thing appalling.  Passing over “the barbaric chants which Sardanapalus, together with his mother and grandmother, chanted to Elagabalus, or the secret sacrifices that he offered to him, slaying boys and using charms” and “shutting up alive in the god's temple a lion, a monkey, and a snake, and throwing in among them human genitals,” he reserved his most severe criticism for “the extreme absurdity of courting a wife for Elagabalus — as if the god had any need of marriage and children!” (Dio Cassius, Roman History, 80.11-12).

To traditional Romans, Elagabalus’ religious life was just another expression of his utter, and utterly oriental, debauchery.  Donning a wig, he frequented taverns at night, playing the prostitute, and would stand at the door of his room naked soliciting sexual favors from members of his court who passed by (Dio Cassius, Roman History, 80.13).

Sometime in 221, he staged a triumphal procession for his god through the streets of Rome, leading the god to his residence in the magnificent temple he had built.  He placed the god in a chariot drawn by six huge white horses, held the reins, and ran backward in front of the chariot down a pavement covered with gold dust.  People lined the streets holding torches and tossing wreaths and flowers at the passing god and his imperial guide.  Once he arrived at the temple, he climbed a tower and threw gold, silver, and expensive cloth to the people below.  Many, Herodian claims, “lost their lives in the ensuing scramble, impaled on the soldiers’ spears or trampled to death” (Herodian, Roman History, 5.6).

It was not long before the Romans had had enough.  On March 11, 221, the guards revolted and put Elagabalus under house arrest.  He tried to hide in a trunk, but was found out and decapitated.

When he died, Elagabalus was eighteen.

We tend to think of the influence as one-directional, from the classical world to the East rather than the opposite.  A moment’s reflection will expose the implausibility of that assumption, and scholars have recently been highlighting the fact that the “Hellenization of Judaism” involved not a little “Judaizing of Hellenism.”

Next time you’re tempted to think of the East and West, ancient or modern, as closed and mutually impenetrable systems, tell yourself the story of Elagabalus.  Tell yourself, “Then there was the time when the Roman emperor thought he should worship a Phoenician god. . . .”

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